Pluralism is the theory that a multitude of groups, not the people as a whole, govern the
United States. These organizations, which include among others unions, trade and
professional associations, environmentalists, civil rights activists, business and financial
lobbies, and formal and informal coalitions of like-minded citizens, influence the making and
administration of laws and policy. Since the participants in this process constitute only a tiny
fraction of the populace, the public acts mainly as bystanders.
Indeed, some pluralists believe that direct democracy is not only unworkable; it is not even
necessarily desirable. Besides the logistical problems of having every citizen meet at one
time to decide policies, political issues require continuous and expert attention, which the
average citizen does not have. Robert Dahl, a noted pluralist, suggested in one of his early
writings that in societies like ours "politics is a sideshow in the great circus of life." Most
people, he explained, concentrate their time and energies on activities involving work, family,
health, friendship, recreation, and the like. Other pluralists go further. They worry that the
common person lacks the virtues--reason, intelligence, patience--for self-government and
that direct democracy leads to anarchy and the loss of freedom.
Nor do pluralists think that representative democracy works as well in practice as in theory.
Voting is important, to be sure. But Americans vote for representatives, not for specific policy
alternatives. A candidate's election cannot always be interpreted as an endorsement of a
particular course of action.
Politicians frequently win office with only a "plurality" of the votes--that is, they receive more
votes than their opponents--but not with a majority of the total eligible electorate. President
Reagan, for example, received approximately 51 percent of the ballots cast in 1980, but his
total constituted only about a quarter of the votes of all potential voters, since only 55 percent
of those eligible to participate actually went to the polls. Furthermore, a first choice among
candidates is not necessarily the same as a first choice among policies. The people who
elected President Clinton, for example, did not all agree with his positions on health care,
taxes, national defense, Bosnia, and the environment. Many of them, in fact, were probably
voting against his opponent, George Bush, rather than for Clinton himself.
If Americans do not decide major controversies themselves or indirectly through elections,
how are such matters resolved? Pluralists are convinced that public policy emerges from
competition among groups. Since relatively few people participate actively in this process,
power, it might seem, would be concentrated in few hands. Before drawing any dire
conclusions about the possible undemocratic nature of this form of government, however, it is
necessary to look at political power as pluralists see it.