Managed Pluralism

| August 2016
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One of the subtexts of recent and forthcoming elections in Europe and in North America is the extent to which liberal democracies can permit high degrees of diversity—on ethnic, religious, political, linguistic, cultural, “lifestyle” or other grounds—yet retain sufficient cohesion for societal stability and for political institutions based on self-determination to work. Historically, highly diverse societies tended to engender low social trust and required authoritarian regimes to manage intercommunal tensions and keep the peace. In contrast, societies with higher degrees of homogeneity spearheaded the development of the welfare state and social democracy. Going forward, do democracies need to find a solution of “managed pluralism?”

“Managed pluralism” first emerged as a concept in the search for a halfway house to describe post-Soviet regimes, notably in Russia, that had not become fully liberal democratic yet still had some degree of political and social pluralism, as well as semi-competitive elections, and thus could not be characterized as fully authoritarian. It had also been used to describe regimes such as the Islamic Republic in Iran, where the precepts of Islamic law as interpreted by the Shi’a clerical establishment provided outer bounds of acceptability (and where Shi’a clerics could disqualify candidates running for office) but where, within those bounds, there could be electoral choice and some differentiation of options. Generally, however, the term still conveys a sense of authoritarian control that places arbitrary limits on pluralism and freedom of choice based on the dictates and preferences of a ruling body. Thus, the concept seems alien to the needs of the liberal democratic experience.

However, it would be mistaken to accept that liberal states also do not limit pluralism. Generally, pluralist choice, in the language of various human rights accords of the last half-century, can be legitimately limited or abrogated based on appeals to general principles of good order, “morality,” health, or a respect for the rights of others. Yet these earlier understandings, codified in the United States by the 1876 Reynolds decision of the Supreme Court, are now being challenged by new tests that raise the stakes for government action prohibiting behavior and by problems in adjudicating between the claims of competing groups. Whose rights ought to win out? Does a majority get to set basic societal standards? Are the claims of the most marginal more important to defend and protect, even at the cost of some inconvenience to others? Are there such things as community standards that can be enforced?

I raise these questions because this election, along with having clear implications for foreign policy, also touches on very divergent conceptions of human rights, particularly the negative versus positive formulations (“freedom from” versus “having access facilitated”). These issues matter not only to domestic policy but, for a country that sees protection of human rights around the world as one of its foreign policy issues, to how relations with other states will be conducted.

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  1. JC says:

    Interesting that then President Khatami of Iran launched a dialogue of civilizations–celebrating pluralism among civilizations and countries–versus the perspective of U.S. human rights activists who argue for expansive pluralism within societies but who want to see distinctions between societies eroded. 

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