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  • Understanding Pluralism
  • Giovanni Sartori (bio)

Pluralism is a very fashionable word. This is good, for words in fashion are endlessly repeated, and we go by names. Nomina numina, names are gods. Unfortunately, however, fashionable words tend to be abused, distorted, and trivialized. Hobbes asserted that the “power of naming” was the first and foremost power of the ruler. Yes, but the “power of interpreting” (of deciding what a name means) is just as important. Naming is the glove, interpreting is the hand; Leviathan needs Humpty Dumpty, who told Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.”

Pluralism is often predicated of something: we speak of democratic pluralism, cultural pluralism, social pluralism, and so forth. Yet before considering the particular varieties and specimens of pluralism, we should understand the concept of pluralism as such.

Historically, pluralism pure and simple (the idea, not the word, which is of recent vintage) came into being with the gradual acceptance of toleration in the aftermath of the wars of religion that ravaged Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 1 Toleration and pluralism are different concepts, to be sure, but they are strongly related. Pluralism presupposes toleration, which is to say that an intolerant pluralism is a false pluralism. The difference is this: tolerance respects values, whereas pluralism posits values. For pluralism affirms the belief that diversity and dissent are values that enrich individuals as well as their polities and societies.

Surely this is a radical change of perspectives. How did it come [End Page 58] about? A frequently heard answer cites the Reformation—and specifically the Puritan experience—as the key to the rise of the pluralistic understanding of the good life. Is this answer correct? Yes and no. The Puritan experience is certainly relevant, but not for the reasons that are often given, such as that the Puritans championed freedom of conscience and opinion. In fact, Puritan sects championed the freedom of their own conscience and were, in all other matters, no more tolerant than their foes. There is nothing inherently pluralistic in the rejection of religious uniformity and in defying authority in the name of one’s conscience. For what we demand for ourselves we may nonetheless deny to others.

The importance of the Puritan experience resided in the encouragement that it gave to the depoliticization of society by breaking the tie between the spheres of God and Caesar, thereby shifting the center of gravity of human life to voluntary associations independent of the state, meaning that the internal bond among the associates became stronger than that which linked them to the body politic as a whole. Having granted this, I insist that it does not follow that Puritanism was the decisive and primary agent in the process of creating the pluralistic worldview.

What is most important, however, is not to discover who was the originator (assuming that there was one), but rather to understand the significance and novelty of the event. By and large, until the seventeenth century diversity was considered a source of discord and disorder that caused the downfall of states, and unanimity was regarded as the necessary foundation of any polity. From then on, the opposite attitude gradually took hold, and it was unanimity that came to be viewed with suspicion. It is through this revolutionary reversal of perspective that a liberal civilization has been built piecemeal, and it is by this route that we reach present-day democracy. Ancient empires, autocracies, despotisms, old and new tyrannies—all are monochromatic worlds, while democracy is multicolored. But it is liberal democracy, not ancient democracy, that is based on dissent and diversity. It is we, not the Greeks, who have discovered how to build a political system on a concordia discors, a dissenting consensus.

Party Pluralism

How did pluralistic ideas and ideals shape and permeate a pluralistic reality? The best answer is to show how parties became parties.

Parties are obviously “parts” of something, parts of a whole. When we hold that dissent and diversity are good for the social order and for the well-being of the body politic, we are implying that the body politic not only happens to consist of...