Revisiting the Management of Pluralism

| January 2016
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Fifteen years ago, I penned an essay for World Policy Journal that argued that the twentieth-century battle between pluralism and totalitarianism would shift in the coming years to debates over the limits and extents of pluralism within societies. Where should the borders be drawn, who should police them, and what deviations would be seen as permissible? What is striking about 2015 is the extent to which those concerns manifested themselves in the political dialogues in the advanced industrial democracies of the West, with the rise of political forces on both the Right and the Left arguing for the establishment of boundaries and limits.

The migration surge into Europe and the United States raised the questions of demographic and cultural pluralism: the extent to which a society can absorb newcomers of different ethnicities and religions, and the extent to which the host society can require of new arrivals conformity to and assimilation within the dominant linguistic and cultural norms of the host society (which also begs a related question as to whether the national conception allows for assimilation of outsiders in the first place, or sees identity as transmitted through blood and lineage only). All European governments, for instance, allow for freedom of religion, but most also have clauses that limit how that freedom may be exercised—if there is a threat to good order, public safety, or the moral order. Of course, the principal question is who and under what conditions those determinations can be made.

Similarly, a trend most visible on U.S. university campuses deals with the extent ideological pluralism is permissible if the ideas espoused would either be offensive or hurtful to some, or would impact the ability of different groups to obtain public goods and services (for example, recognition of marriage rights).

I (and other observers of contemporary Eurasia and Iran) developed the term “managed pluralism” to describe developments whether a powerful state (or religious establishment) sets clear limits or red lines in terms of people’s choices (while leaving relatively undisturbed their right to choose from an approved menu). The question is now to what extent managing pluralism may become more attractive in the West.

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