The term “pluralism” connotes both a description of our deep differences and a political response to those differences.
Let’s start with pluralism as a description of our cultural reality. Our society is incredibly diverse when it comes to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, and sexuality. We have different life experiences, we live in different communities, and we are engaged in different conversations.
These differences also pervade our goals and values. We lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, the meaning of human flourishing. Our differences affect our preferences and allegiances.
They affect not only what we think, but also how we think—and how we see the world.
Differences That Enrich Our Existence
Not all of our differences are problematic. Most of us think some difference is good, that different perspectives make life more interesting. March Madness is more enjoyable because I pull for the Duke Blue Devils and others cheer for lesser teams. Many of our differences enrich our lives—they can also lead to sharper thinking and greater creativity. We have better food, better art, and better solutions to many problems because of our differences.
But we do not think that all difference is good. We can all name beliefs and actions we think the world would be better off without. This is especially true when it comes to our moral beliefs. These and other differences matter. They create the practical problem of how we live together in spite of and across our disagreement.
When Our Differences Get Political
This problem of our deep and intractable moral differences invites the possibility of pluralism as a political response, which allows us to pursue our own understandings of important issues and beliefs.
The American democratic experiment has always presupposed that we could flourish in the midst of diversity. But not everyone agrees. In the past, political arguments sought to enforce consensus norms like those arising out of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition. Today, other voices seek to suppress or eliminate difference in the name of a vaguely defined set of “national” values like stability, equality, and liberalism.
The political possibility of pluralism responds to these challenges legally and culturally.
The Legal Response
The legal response focuses on judicial and legislative efforts to secure meaningful protections for pluralism.
Current law insufficiently protects our pluralistic society in two important ways. First, the right of association (a judicially recognized right that does not appear in the text of the Constitution) fails to offer meaningful protections to the private groups of civil society. The Supreme Court awkwardly classifies groups as either “expressive” or “intimate.” But in the real world, groups can be both intimate and expressive, and it is difficult to draw lines between a non-intimate group and an intimate one, or a non-expressive group and an expressive one. We need the law to recognize that the private groups of civil society manifest varying degrees of expressiveness, intimacy, and solidarity, and that these groups provide the spaces for citizens to develop ideas, friendships, and ways of thinking apart from the control of government orthodoxy.
The Cultural Response
The cultural response to the reality of pluralism encourages us to recognize the actual differences in our midst. It reminds citizens that contemporary claims to orthodoxy are in tension with—if not antithetical to—the diversity that has long sustained the American ethos. It draws upon common language like democracy, dissent, and disagreement. Critically, it encompasses a range of speakers and actors that are themselves diverse along various metrics.
The cultural dimension also draws upon historical antecedents that have benefited from the claims of pluralism. It asserts that we can, in fact, pursue a common existence amid our deeply held differences.
Instead of the elusive goal of unity, pluralism suggests a more modest possibility—that we can live together in our “many-ness.”
The political possibility of pluralism depends on shared aspirations to live peaceably with one another. That goal is both urgent and difficult, and we will not reach it without intentional efforts.