Democratic culture leaves behind the old imperial order of everyone needing to be the same to belong. The very meaning of democracy is that “the people” (demos) can freely express themselves and say who they are and what they want (kratia).
The results are unsurprising: (1) lots of groups (demoi) exercise their democratic rights and assert their “identity,” (2) conflicts arise between their competing stories and demands, and (3) the sustainability of democracy itself is tested. Some people want to go back to the older, more stable days of imperial “unity.” Others want to use their democratic rights to create a new future where they themselves are the rulers. Democracy begins to feel anxious and like a dangerous transition to something else rather than a home to live in.
This process shows something extremely important we often overlook: democracy can only survive and thrive when it is combined with pluralism. Advocating democracy without pluralism is like advocating fish without water. The one cannot live without the other.
Pluralism is a two-part idea: (1) decent people will come to different conclusions about important questions, and (2) we can learn from one another and live together precisely in our disagreements. Pluralism is not relativism, which says that truth doesn’t matter. Pluralism affirms that truth matters greatly but that it’s complicated and that none of us has the whole picture, so we need to listen to each other. (Philosophers call this epistemological humility.)
If democracy is a commitment to the free exercise of constitutional rights, pluralism is honesty about human weakness and a commitment to dialogue and peaceful disagreement until a shared way forward is found. Indeed, as my doctoral mentor Professor Jean Elshtain wrote in Democracy on Trial, “principled yet pragmatic” disagreement is one of healthiest signs and honorable badges of genuine democratic culture.
Many today claim democracy as their birthright and destiny. But they see pluralism as their archenemy. But the one cannot survive without the other. In other words, democracy can’t survive within a larger ethos of fundamentalism, where it quickly turns into a Hobbesian war of all against all with endless splintering and conflict.
I think this is what we’re seeing in the world today: the language of democracy is still being used to assert groups’ rights; but it has been divorced from pluralism. Often, this is because fundamentalists see pluralism as a betrayal of their group and its cause. Admitting that “we” have also done wrong and/or that “they” also have important insights is intolerable to their sense of “identity,” which combines two crucial pillars: moral innocence (we are fully good – and often victims) and epistemically certainty (we are always right).
What we need is to recover a morality that can sustain pluralism. The pillars of this morality are simple but challenging:
- All people are valuable and must be respected.
- So a decent life requires neighborliness, a desire to know and help people beyond our groups.
- All people are fallible and make mistakes.
- So a decent life requires rule of law, a legal order where everyone shares the same rights and responsibilities without prejudice or privilege.
We shouldn’t be surprised by tension and turbulence within a democracy. That’s normal, probably even healthy. But when we lose pluralism, “democracy” easily becomes a bloody battleground. Yes, the fish is “free” outside the water, but it will quickly shrivel up and die – a sad, short-lived freedom indeed.
If we advocate democracy, we need to advocate pluralism too. If we can’t advocate pluralism, we’re probably still imperialists who see democracy as a temporary means to our end.
Can you advocate pluralism?