Pluralism in Democracy
Robert Dahl saw pluralism as a foundation of democracy and a challenge to democracy. The presence of independent organizations represent the freedom of association. They also provide opportunities to decentralize power throughout society. However, the growth of organizations also creates new centers of power that impose their influence on others. Moreover, overly powerful organizations can undermine the most basic notion of democracy: political equality.
Pluralism refers to the presence of organizations that are independent of the state. Businesses, nonprofits, labor unions, and even political parties all exist with interests independent of the government. They offer opportunities for people to engage in society independent of the government. Moreover, they provide space for opposition or dissent for minority voices and ideas. Yet at the same time it’s a space outside the realm of democratic accountability. This does not mean they operate outside the law, however they have the freedom to operate contrary to the opinions of political majorities.
Large organizations particularly multinational corporations also have vast resources to influence public policy. In 2010 the United States Supreme Court overturned important campaign finance restrictions in the landmark case Citizens United. The Court extended first amendment rights to corporations and other organizations. Moreover, the precedent caused many state governments to rewrite statutes designed to limit corporate influence. Dahl did not live to comment on Citizens United, however he foresaw the dangers from unregulated corporate influence in politics.
The book Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy vs Control touches on issues we continue to struggle with. It’s not one of Dahl’s more recognizable works, but it exposes some of the contradictions in contemporary democratic thought. Dahl recognized representative is flawed. Democracy is still not democratic enough. His work on pluralism remains important as we continue to manage growing conflicts between the rights of individuals and groups.