Skip to content

Pluralist Democracy Essay

Pluralism

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.

The Pluralist View of Power

Everyone recognizes political power when they see it: Congress raises taxes; the president sends troops to Bosnia; the Supreme Court declares the death penalty constitutional; a police officer tells a motorist to pull off the road. In each instance a group or person makes others do something they would not otherwise do. Seen from this perspective, the definition of power seems simple enough. Yet the term is loaded with implications that must be fully grasped if one is to understand pluralism.

Resources. In the first place, power is not an identifiable property that humans possess in fixed amounts. Rather, people are powerful because they control various resources. Resources are assets that can be used to force others to do what one wants. Politicians become powerful because they command resources that people want or fear or respect. The list of possibilities is virtually endless: legal authority, money, prestige, skill, knowledge, charisma, legitimacy, free time, experience, celebrity, and public support. Civil rights activists in the 1960s relied mainly on their numbers and the legitimacy of their cause to get their way whereas corporations frequently depend on their access to officeholders, control of information, and campaign contributions. Whatever the case, pluralists emphasize that power is not a physical entity that individuals either have or do not have, but flows from a variety of different sources.

Potential versus Actual Power. Pluralists also stress the differences between potential and actual power. Actual power means the ability to compel someone to do something; potential power refers to the possibility of turning resources into actual power. Cash, one of many resources, is only a stack of bills until it is put to work. A millionaire may or may not be politically influential; it all depends on what the wealth is spent for--trips to the Bahamas or trips to Washington. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was certainly not a rich person. But by using resources such as his forceful personality, organizational skills, and especially the legitimacy of his cause, he had a greater impact on American politics than most wealthy people. A particular resource like money cannot automatically be equated with power because the resource can be used skillfully or clumsily, fully or partially, or not at all.

Three of the major tenets of the pluralist school are (1)resources and hence potential power are widely scattered throughout society; (2) at least some resources are available to nearly everyone; and (3) at any time the amount of potential power exceeds the amount of actual power.

Scope of Power. Finally, and perhaps most important, no one is all-powerful. An individual or group that is influential in one realm may be weak in another. Large military contractors certainly throw their weight around on defense matters, but how much sway do they have on agricultural or health policies? A measure of power, therefore, is its scope, or the range of areas where it is successfully applied. Pluralists believe that with few exceptions power holders in America usually have a relatively limited scope of influence.

For all these reasons power cannot be taken for granted. One has observe it empirically in order to know who really governs. The best way to do this, pluralists believe, is to examine a wide range of specific decisions, noting who took which side and who ultimately won and lost. Only by keeping score on a variety of controversies can one begin to identify actual power holders.

The pluralists' view of power underlies their interpretation of how the American political system operates, a topic to which we now turn.

The Characteristics of Pluralism

Perhaps the key characteristic of American government, according to pluralists, is that it is dominated not by a single elite but rather by a multiplicity of relatively small groups, some of which are well organized and funded, some of which are not. Although a few are larger and more influential than the others, the scope of their power, far from being universal, is restricted to relatively narrow areas such as defense, agriculture, or banking.

A second characteristic is that the groups are politically autonomous, or independent. They have the right and freedom to do business in the political marketplace. How well they fare depends not on the indulgence of a higher authority but on their own skill in rallying political resources. Because a diverse society like ours contains so many potential factions, political autonomy guarantees constant, widespread, and spirited competition among these organizations.

Third, intergroup competition leads to countervailing influence: The power of one group tends to cancel that of another so that a rough equilibrium results. Group memberships overlap as well. Members of one association, in other words, might belong to another, even competing, group. Overlapping memberships reduce the intensity of conflicts because loyalties are often spread among many organizations.

A fourth characteristic is the openness of the system. It is open in two senses. First, most organizations are seldom if ever completely shut off from the outside. They continuously recruit new members from all walks of life. Second, the availability of unused resources constantly encourages the formation of new groups. Stimulated by threats to their interests or sensitized to injustices, or for whatever reason, individuals frequently unite for political action. In the process groups mine untapped resources. This happened in 1989 when a Supreme Court decision gave states greater latitude in restricting abortions. The Court's action so scared and angered pro-choice groups that they accelerated their organizing efforts to prevent states from enacting stiffer antiabortion laws.

Pluralists judge society not by its actual equality but by its equality of political opportunity. Americans, they contend, have a comparatively equal chance to participate in government. By mobilizing resources (collecting signatures on a petition, for example) they can make existing groups share their influence, or they can create new organizations that will compete with established ones.

The fifth characteristic of the system is the endless quest by groups and office seekers for public support. Even though the masses do not govern directly, their opinions are a resource that can be used by one organization against another. In a country where the belief in popular control of government is so deeply ingrained, people feel compelled to sell their causes to the public, and are frequently judged winners or losers by their standings in the polls. What else explains the millions of dollars spent on advertising? What else accounts for the demand for public relations consultants? Why else is so much attention lavished on public opinion surveys? The answers lie in the widely shared belief that a group with popular backing has an important advantage over one that lacks it, even if the masses do not actually take part in decision making.

The public also exerts influence by choosing leaders, most of whom back and are backed by organized groups. So important is this responsibility that one scholar defined democracy as "an institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which [groups] acquire power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote."

The final characteristic of pluralism is consensus on the "rules of the game." Consensus, or widespread agreement, among political activists and leaders on democratic principles and values holds the system together. These people accept regular and open elections, the right to vote, majority rule, political equality, free speech, the right to assemble, and the other rules that make peaceful and orderly politics possible. They tolerate differences of opinion. And, of utmost significance, they abide by the outcomes of elections.

Some pluralists contend that, since this acceptance of democratic norms is higher among leaders than the general public, political disagreements are best settled at the top, where they can be dealt with fairly and dispassionately. Keeping the intolerant and shortsighted masses at bay helps ensure the system's safety and stability. The theory, in short, argues that American government stays free because its main participants, the individuals who actually make policy, agree on a code of conduct that is not always shared by the public at large.

Since it is fair to say that pluralism is the most widely accepted interpretation of American government, it might be useful to consider a concrete example to clarify the theory's main points. See the document,"The B-1 Bomber: A Case Study." Return to American Political System page

Return to H. T. Reynolds page

The democracies of today can remain democracies only if they are able to negotiate pluralism and communality, conflict and justice, rationality and identity. What must we do to meet this challenge, asks Göran Rosenberg and presents a possible answer: federation. But where are the political thinkers and leaders who could formulate and win popular support for a power-sharing treaty in Europe?

1. Two traditions of thought

Along the European movements of Reformation and Enlightenment, sometimes invisibly entangled in them, evolves the idea of the “naturally” governed society. As the notion of divine rule weakens, and it weakens early on, a vacuum in the social order is created. Who rules society, and how, and by right of what? It is in this vacuum that Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) elaborates the Laws of Nature on which to base a peaceful commonwealth, John Locke (1632-1704) proposes a State of Nature from which a social contract may be derived, David Hume (1711-1776) ponders that common sense and morality are natural properties of man, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1724-1804) formulates his credo of natural society, Adam Smith (1723-1790) develops a theory for a natural economy (“the invisible hand”) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) a treatise on the nature of rational man. These men were all looking for new principles on which to found human society and they all believed that these principles must be derived from Nature in general and the Nature of Man in particular.

Not surprisingly, they all have their definite opinions of what the Nature of Man is. Hobbes devotes the first sixteen chapters of his Leviathan to that topic, and the remaining ones to the all-powerful State that must follow from his findings. By nature, every man is incessantly at war with every man, and by nature he must therefore subject himself to a powerful peace-keeper. While creatures like bees and ants can live in peace without a self-imposed superior power, man cannot. That power which men need to be ruled by, is named Leviathan after the awesome sea monster in the Book of Job,1 and is in his turn bound by those Laws of Nature, which Hobbes painstakingly lists and describes.

John Locke has greater faith in the capacity of man to rule himself, but only if and when certain faculties of human nature have developed: “To turn [man] loose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him, is not the allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free; but to thrust him out amongst brutes.”2
Adam Smith, for similar reasons, assumes the existence of a “natural sense” of justice in the human heart: without it social structure would simply “crumble into atoms” and man encounter his neighbour “as if entering a lion’s den’.”3 Today’s advocates of Smith’s theory of the invisible hand have largely overlooked his assumption about the moral nature of man, as well as his implicit belief that man is continuously developing from lower to higher reason, and consequently from a lower to a higher moral sensibility. The invisible hand can operate only if and when man has reached a certain level of reason and morality.

Not even John Stuart Mill, the most well-argued champion of individual freedom, could envisage full freedom for the not-yet developed man. In On Liberty (1859) he insists that despotism is a legitimate form of government “over barbarians”, given that “the goal is their development, and that the means can be justified by the attainment of that goal”. The principle of liberty is meaningful only when man has reached the stage where he is “capable of being improved by free and equal discussion”.

The laws of Nature will guide man to Liberty, and Liberty to Truth, Mill believes. Liberty serves to establish a more truthful relationship between man and God, facilitates the search for the true laws of nature, gives room to the true Nature of man, and strengthens the capacity of human reason to distinguish between truth and untruth. Thus, liberty is the fundamental means for attaining not just any order but a more truthful order, an order that best corresponds to the Laws of Nature and to the Nature of Man.

Early liberalism, let alone socialism, cannot be understood without taking into consideration the expressed conviction that humanity was developing towards a universal order based on truth. Logically, as truth is gradually revealed, conflicts about what order to achieve will be resolved. The advance of freedom might thus make the use of that freedom ever less necessary. Or as John Stuart Mill himself puts it in On Liberty: “As mankind improves, the number of doctrines that are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase: the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of truths, which have reached the point of being uncontested”. He was actually a bit worried that the free discussion that he deemed necessary for the pursuit of truth might fade and die when everybody would agree, which he thought everybody eventually might have to: “The loss of so important an aid to intelligent and living apprehension of a truth, as is afforded by the necessity of explaining it to, or defending it against, opponents, though not sufficient to outweigh, is no trifling drawback from the benefit of its universal recognition.” How to keep the questions alive, when the arguments have been settled once and for all? This is the challenge for which Mill finds no response.

In the writings of Mill is clearly visible the split that from the very start marks both liberalism and socialism, and by consequence the democracies which to a large degree are formed in their images. Is democracy an order for achieving harmony or an order for accommodating diversity? The inner conflict is more visible in liberalism than in socialism. Socialism (not to mention communism and nationalism) never equivocated about its ideal of social harmonisation, while liberalism from time to time agonised over the inherent conflicts in its ideal of liberty.

In his book The Two Faces of Liberalism, John Gray distinguishes between two traditions of liberal thought.4 One tradition, with its roots in Locke, Smith, Kant and half of Mill, is a project of fulfilment aiming at developing an ever-more perfect social order. The other tradition, with its roots in Hobbes, is a project of coexistence aiming at maintaining a social order with the ability to accommodate ever-present human conflicts.

Gray argues that the “tradition of truth”, dominant for so long, has come to road’s end. The concept of a social order in which universally true goals and values can be made to converge and harmonise is both logically and empirically unsustainable. It is a shared characteristic of the “truest” of goals and values, as well as the most precious of rights, that when driven beyond a certain point they become incompatible and must be weighed against each other. There is, it seems, no value that “Nature” itself has singled out as capable of overriding the rest, nor is there any “natural” way of weighing one value against the other. Instead there are many equally “true” ways of weighing many equally “true” values, and therefore as many “true” social orders. Conflicts between clashing notions of right and justice, as well as between incompatible views of what makes a good life and a good society, are inherent in human societies. Such conflicts originate in human nature and cannot be deconstructed and eliminated, however strenuously common sense is applied within however rational a social order.

From a similar perspective, Stuart Hampshire argues that “justice is conflict”.5 At the core of justice lie culturally and historically deep-rooted procedures for dealing with unavoidable conflicts between diverse ideas of good and right. No justice can exist above and beyond such conflicts. Sooner or later, every concept of the “naturally” good and right will be questioned and challenged. “It is not only possible but, on present evidence, probable that most conceptions of the good and most ways of life which are typical of commercial, liberal, industrialised societies, will often seem altogether hateful to substantial minorities within these societies.”6

Both Hampshire and Gray contend that we are presently in an era when “irresolvable” conflicts between distinct values and lifestyles can no longer be subordinated to illusory concepts of historical fate, natural law or rational order. “Fairness and justice in procedures are the only virtues that can reasonably be considered as setting norms to be universally respected,” writes Hampshire.7 Permanent conflicts of values are the rule, not the exception, says Gray. The task of the social order is not to still these conflicts. “It is to reconcile individuals and ways of life honouring conflicting values to a life in common. We do not need common values to live in peace. We need common institutions in which many forms of life can coexist.”8

2. The logic of “the warm circle”

Obviously, achieving peaceful co-existence is more easily said than done. Uniformity and community seem to be more natural fundaments for democracy than do pluralism and conflict. It is easier to arrive at democratically agreed decisions when the is small and the degree of consensus high. Democracy became possible as a contemporary system of governance, when the could be delineated in territorial and cultural terms, and when existing conflicts of values could be reigned in by the overriding community of a common national destiny. A “warm circle” of historical loyalties and bonds could thus be extended to include millions of people.9 A community was created where none had existed before.

This underlying sense of belonging, this enlarged circle of loyalty and justice, has not only made possible democracy and the rule of law, but also the public institutions of social welfare, which we have come to regard as a part of democratic rule. The sense of belonging has in fact been the prerequisite for the will to justice. Hence, the will to justice has incessantly been put at the test on the border between those who belong and those who don’t. The methods for strengthening the sense of belonging have also been methods for exclusion and suppression.

Nation-state democracy is thereby inherently split, between the warm circle of belonging, identity and emotional loyalties on one hand, and the cold sphere of citizenship, political institutions and constitutional loyalties (justice) on the other. For a long time, Swedish democracy was based on a far-reaching fusion between the two spheres, to the extent that in everyday talk state and society became synonymous, and the civil structures of democracy became intimately linked to the institutions of the state. This worked well for as long as the divide between the two concepts of democracy remained invisible. It works less well when the two spheres of democracy no longer overlap – when the loyalties of the warm circle no longer extend to the sphere of the State.

Some argue that the warm circle should be regarded as an obsolete stage in the history of democracy, that modern man is enlightened and broadminded enough to connect his sense of belonging to purely civil principles of justice, without the presumption of emotional loyalties based on origin, culture or language. As Jürgen Habermas writes: “Hidden behind any fade of cultural homogeneity lurks, at best, the oppressive maintenance of a hegemonic majority culture.”10 When many different cultural, ethnic and religious subcultures have to coexist and collaborate within the same social framework, the politically defined community must be uncoupled from the warm circle of the majority culture, and made to function without recourse to its codes and networks. “The majority culture must give up its historical prerogative to define the official terms of the generalized political culture that is to be shared by all citizens regardless of whence they come and how they live.”11

How to accomplish this? What kind of statecraft is able to unite pluralism with communality, diversity with equality, conflict with peaceful co-existence? Indeed, the Swedish government has recently declared that Sweden is a “social community based on social diversity” and that “general policy in a wholly new way must originate in and reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Swedish society.”12

The question that remains to be answered is: how can a general policy based on uniformity and communality, i.e. a policy based on preferences that can be largely generalized, be changed towards a general policy based on diversity and value conflicts, i.e. based on preferences which cannot as easily be generalised?

We must become loyal to constitutions rather than to emotions, says Habermas. But what human values can be uncoupled from emotion, experience, passion and tradition? And what kind of constitutions will be able to accommodate emotionally charged conflicts between value-systems and, at the same time, encourage value-transcending loyalties? How to link the loyalties of a warm circle to the justice of a constitutional democracy?

Both Gray and Hampshire seek the answer in the constitutionally regulated conflict between ever-shifting views of the good life and the good society, in historically and culturally distinctive institutions for the fair handling conflicts, in functioning political arenas for debate and compromise. What is required, they argue, is a radical break – a “moral conversion,” says Hampshire – with the deeply rooted notion that politics should and must aim at consensus and social harmony.

3. Politics made unnecessary

The apparent inability or unwillingness to make precisely this break is one possible explanation for the steady decline of confidence in political institutions seen right across the Western world. The options and solutions of politics seem to converge, leaving little political room for moral or value-based conflicts. “The Only Way” (Carl Bildt) or “The Golden Straightjacket” (Thomas Friedman) seem both ever more inescapable.13 The resolutions of genuine conflicts of value seem increasingly to be moving into the hands of “value-neutral” courts, civil servants, scientists, central banks, EU-bureaucrats and market operators. Professional elites are increasingly expected to make the “truly” sensible decisions (thus paving the way for a “truly” sensible social order). Meanwhile, increasingly marginalised politicians are reduced to the task of managing those growing segments of their electorates that stubbornly hold on to their diverging, insensible and openly value-based opinions. Politicians will thus be seen as either lacking legitimacy or efficiency. Citizens, whose value-based opinions are constantly ignored or frustrated, will regard political action as without legitimacy, while the value-neutral elite, intent on getting on with sensible decision-making, will regard political action as inefficient. The frustrated minorities will increasingly take the view that democracy is impossible. The “value-neutral” elite will increasingly take the view that democracy (and politics in general) is unnecessary. If democracy cannot deliver rational decisions, then these will be delivered by other means. The march towards a universal, rational social order will continue – outside of democracy.

Democratic procedures will thus be perceived as increasingly superfluous, their functions taken over mainly by the market and the judiciary. The market, freed from its historical constraints, will “naturally” regulate conflicts about resources and power. The judiciary, similarly untrammeled by obsolete emotions, will provide “value-neutral” resolutions of conflicts about rights and justice. Laws and institutions that will remain essential – for no-one is proposing that either the marketplace or the courts should exist in a legal or institutional vacuum – are described by the “rational” elite as “natural” (earlier “divine”) constituents of society, ever more distanced from the historical and cultural value-conflicts that once shaped and distinguished them. The only task left for democracy will be to legitimize a social order that in every notable respect is being formed outside of democratic institutions. It will have to keep disseminating “information” until the necessary popular support is at hand, and to keep running referendums until the necessary decisions are made. Society’s conflicts will thus be framed as conflicts between knowledge and ignorance, between the enlightened and those who are not yet informed.

One symptom of this dilution of democratic values is the transformation of political disputes into legal cases and of value-based opinions into rights-based demands (a shift of emphasis from “this is my opinion” to “this is my right”). Disputes between opposing views of good and right (best resolved by a time – and context-bound compromise) are transformed into conflicts between opposing claims of “rights” (best resolved by a precedent-setting court order). This “judicialization” of politics is not likely to dampen genuine conflicts of value, let alone resolve them. When opinions based on values turn into right-based claims, the outcomes are more likely to lead to heightened feelings of frustration among individuals and groups whose values are not politically correct and whose rights are not upheld by the courts. Gray writes: “When society contains sharply divergent ethical beliefs, an appeal to basic rights will not produce a settlement that is accepted as legitimate. If we seek a settlement of divisive issues that is legitimate and stable, we have no alternative to the long haul of politics.”14

This statement by Gray is not intended as an argument against universal theories of justice or universally accepted human rights, but as a refutation of those who believe it possible to replace political compromises with legal rights. No rights are stronger than the will to respect them. The will to respect rights is created by politics, not by courts.

“If it is to be democratic, a political system must recognise the existence of insurmountable conflicts over values,” writes the French sociologist Alain Touraine. A society that in the today’s world wishes to remain culturally homogenous is “by definition anti-democratic.”15 Democracy is presently the only political system with the potential to both acknowledge the conflicts and to handle them. Only in a democratic system, Touraine argues, can the necessary links be forged between our contradictory values and our common world. Why democracy only? Because only democracy allocates to the individual the role of political subject or actor, and “only the actor – individual or collective – can reconcile the universal with the particular, and instrumentality with conviction.”16

4. From object to subject

Only as political subjects, says Touraine, will we be able to adjust our values to the values of others, our ideas of what is good to our judgment of what is possible and reasonable. Only as political subjects can we forge the necessary links between our separate ideas of the rightful and our common institutions for justice. “Democracy can be defined primarily as an institutional space that protects the effort of the individual or group to emerge and be recognised as a subject,” writes Touraine.17

The notion that rights can be formulated and guaranteed outside of politics or that rights can exist without corresponding duties is at any rate an illusion. As is the assumption that our “true” needs can be gauged on a scale of utilitarian value. Genuine conflicts of value may in fact be discovered behind most rational schemes for the satisfaction of allegedly “true” needs. What is a rational transport system? A rational healthcare system? A rational school? Rational childcare? In every area of society we will find that different views of the good lead to different views of the needs to be met. The enhanced role of privatisation and competition as means to resolve these kinds of conflicts (increasing the freedom of choice on an expanding market for public goods and services) presupposes that we all accept the market as the dominant rationale (if you’re unhappy with life, choose another). It is a rationality that diminishes the importance of political debate and compromise, and hence weakens our capacity for maintaining, renewing and adapting those public institutions and common rules that are at the core of any democratic society. Touraine writes: “Wherever conflicts exist over interests and values, a space must be organised for political debates and deliberations.”18 Where the rationality of the market place becomes dominant, the political space is evacuated and the conflicts of value become homeless.

Tourraine fears that such homelessness will rip the social fabric to pieces and lead to even deeper divisions than in the old class society. The conflict between the instrumental rationality of the market and the value-based identity of man is irreducible. It cannot be undone by rational reasoning or increased information, but must be either suppressed or negotiated. In a democracy, negotiation remains the only option. A democracy that is unable to negotiate conflicts of value cannot remain a democracy. The democracies of today can remain democracies only if they are able to negotiate pluralism and communality, conflict and justice, rationality and identity.

What must democracies do to meet this challenge?

5. A pluralist democracy

A still untested answer in most European countries is a constitution that links different political spaces at different levels in society within the framework of an over-arching political community. This way of organising democracy is called a federation. In a federation the spaces may vary, as well as the levels, as well as the links between them, as well as the nature of the over-arching community. Depending on the degree of independence between higher levels and lower we may distinguish between a federation and a confederation, but in both cases we are dealing with systems for the accommodation of diverse interests and values. In both systems lower levels cede power to higher levels by means of a treaty (L. , derived from L. “to trust”, means “treaty” or “union”). In a federation, self-rule at lower levels is combined with increasing degrees of common rule at higher ones. The constitutional core of any federal system is the separation of power between levels, i.e. a treaty defining who has the power to decide what on which level. The levels are linked but also clearly separated. The higher level cannot invade the lower level at will, nor can the lower level capriciously ignore decisions at the higher level.

Without elaborating on the origins and structures of different federations, it is obvious that each federation has its own unique history and its own unique structure. A European federation of the 21 century will be shaped by other forces and other circumstances than the North American federation at its inception in the late 18. The central task of a federation in Europe of today must be to accommodate democracy with pluralism, not only with the historically established plurality of nation states, but also with the growing plurality of cultures, values and identities within each nation state. Federalism is thus not only a potential solution to the democratic problems of the European Union, but to those of its member states as well. The unitary models of democracy, suited to more or less homogeneous nation states, will not do much longer.

The central feature of a federation is its ability within a shared political system, to combine levels of power where individuals and groups can act as value-driven subjects and decide for themselves, and levels of power where they will accept being the objects of ever-more distant decisions and conditions. There will be levels where it will matter who you are, what you think and what you do, and levels where it will matter less. Given that the levels are linked and their respective power explicitly sanctioned by treaty, the conditions will be in place, at least on paper, for a pre-existing diversity of values at lower levels to co-exist and interact with a narrowing range of values at higher levels.

In order for a federation to be democratic, all its levels must have constitutionally defined spaces for political debate and compromise. At all levels must be established procedures and institutions for the accommodation of conflicting views of right and wrong in ways that are compatible with the common political order.

It goes without saying that federations are neither easy to construct nor easy to govern, more so if they are to be created by democratic procedure. Apart from persuading established elites to rescind their inherited powers, there is the task of gaining popular acceptance for an order based on diversity and conflict. The logic of the warm circle is hard to break. Homogeneity is a more instinctive basis for community than diversity. To the success of the nation state contributed visions of uniformity and harmony, not visions of pluralism and discord.

Our choice however, is not between pluralism and homogeneity, but between pluralism with democracy and pluralism without. Pluralism is henceforth the point of departure for any society that aspires to be democratic. Uniformity can be achieved by non-democratic means only. The extended warm circle once invoked by national myths of blood and fate is no longer feasible – other as nostalgic fantasy or armed monster. The conditions for creating democracies based on uniformity and consensus were unique and contingent, and do no longer exist. Dreams of a new homogeneity have lead to Balkan wars – and to political leaders like Jšrg Haider in Austria, Carl Hagen in Norway, Umberto Bossi in Italy and Pia Kjaersgaard in Denmark. Extend their political programs to political action and the result will be regimes based on oppression and exclusion. A kind of pluralism, indeed, but with discrimination, ethnic cleansing and violence as methods for conflict handling. The only societies that so far have been able to accommodate pluralism with a certain level of tolerance have been colonial empires encompassing many nations, where the condition for pluralism has been the uniform veneration of one central authority. What finally ended the era of colonial empires was the ascendance of nation state democracy, i.e. the democracy of uniformity. The task of shifting the basis for democracy from uniformity to diversity is thus new and politically untested.

What in the end will prompt us to base democracy on diversity rather than uniformity is our need for peace and order. Uniformity cannot peacefully coexist with democracy and a peaceful pluralistic order cannot be established and maintained without democracy. This does not imply that democracy is a given, no more so than is peace. Social orders do not emerge “naturally” (neither do markets). Social orders are more or less sophisticated human constructs formed and reformed in culturally specific interactions between right and might, force and freedom, order and conflict, reality and vision, utility and value. Basing such an order on heterogeneity is undoubtedly a more difficult task than basing it on homogeneity. The tribe or the clan is a more simple order than is the nation state, and the nation state a more simple order than is the federation. The route to the North American federation of states, from the constitutional convention in Philadelphia (1787) to the enforcement of the new constitution (1791), was lined with disputes, drafts, pamphlets, debates, meetings and ballots. There were federalists and anti-federalists, those who insisted on a federal level of power and those who feared this would pave the way to a “super-state” (autocratic monarchy). The outcome of this process was unpredictable to the last, but in the end led to the creation of the United States of America, because there existed a carefully designed, comprehensible proposal backed by a skilful “marketing” campaign. During the autumn of 1787 alone, there were eighty-five (!) articles presenting the key arguments in favour of a federal constitution, published in four main New York newspapers (New York state was potentially a weak link in the ratification process). This output represented the effort of three “Fathers of the Constitution”, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, all writing under the shared pseudonym Publius. Madison and Hamilton would soon profoundly disagree about the policies of the newly-formed federation, but when it came to defending the federation as a political construction, it is difficult see who wrote what.19

“Where are our Madisons?” the English social critic Larry Siedentop rightly asks in his lucid book on the future of democracy in Europe.20 Why has Europe failed to generate a constitutional debate of a depth and breadth even remotely comparable to America’s? Where are the political thinkers and leaders who could formulate and win popular support for a power-sharing treaty in Europe? Who could make it clear to the citizens of the present nation states that they must choose, not between continued national self-rule and a new European Superstate, but between a democracy that is untenable and a democracy that is still possible? Who could convince European voters that federalism is a potential construction for democratic pluralism, not a given recipe for bureaucratic rule from Brussels? Who could inject political passion into a debate on a constitution for Europe?

So far, the constitutional debate in Europe has been soaked in an opaque, technical jargon, used by political scientists who, as Siedentop writes, “by and large [have] ceased to operate with any conception of human well-being or flourishing […] The sources and goals of political activity are neglected in favour of analysing observable trends. It is a bit like studying the sexual act without any reference to sex or desire!”21

As a consequence, it has become a debate almost forcibly dominated by result at the expense of form, by the language of economics at the expense of the language of politics, by short-term manifestations and poorly thought-out agreements reached at stressed summit conferences attended by irresolute European heads of state and government.

Nevertheless, our focus must now shift from result to form. The democracies of Europe need to be constructed anew if they are not to wither away and the peaceful handling of conflicts turn into “a war of every man against every man.”

In that sense, Hobbes formulated the proper problem, how to make people with conflicting values and interests coexist in a peaceful commonwealth, but proposed a solution that since long has lost its relevance. For a peaceful order to be maintained in the modern world of today, pluralism and democracy must combine. The point of departure for any such order must be that genuine value conflicts are unavoidable and a part of human existence, and that it is upon man himself to construct the all but “natural” political institutions that are required to accommodate them.