In this lesson, we will learn about pluralism and how this concept helps us understand society. We will define the concept and then explore some examples.

E Pluribus Unum

Do you belong to any clubs or groups? Have you ever joined a local soccer team, participated in a Model UN program, or helped fundraise for your child’s school? These are all ways that we are a part of a pluralistic society.

In the United States, our motto is e pluribus unum, which is Latin for ”out of many, one.” We are a nation built on many different groups, people, and interests. We fundamentally disagree on the role government should play in our personal lives, whether it involves regulating businesses, our bodies, our children, or our deaths. We organize ourselves into groups that help us make sense of our political beliefs. As an outsider, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed American democracy and remarked that ”Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations.” This preference for group activity is uniquely central to American culture. We like to organize ourselves into social groups, sports teams, book clubs, churches and so on.

Alexis de Tocqueville
Tocqueville

American society is a modern-day example of pluralism. In a pluralistic society, power is held by multiple groups who compete for control of decision-making organizations. Next, we’ll compare the two main types of these powerful groups in the United States: political parties and interest groups.

Political Parties

In the earliest days of the United States, Federalists and Anti-Federalists were the first major political groups to arise. Federalists supported the newly-written Constitution and tried to get it ratified, writing about it in a well-known series of essays coined The Federalist Papers. Anti-Federalists opposed it, because it did not protect individuals against the abuse of power by the government. They wanted to add a Bill of Rights. This disagreement led to the creation of the first ten Amendments to the Constitution. Even in this disagreement, the most famous Federalist, James Madison, cautioned against creating factions, or divisions between groups of Americans. He worried that by fighting against each other, these groups would hurt the new nation’s success and security.

An ad for the Federalist
Ad for Federalist

Madison would be disappointed to learn that group identity has flourished in this country. His Federalists would become one of the first two political parties, or formal organizations that work to nominate candidates to elect and gain control of political offices. Today, there are two major American political parties: Democrats and Republicans. Democrats prefer a larger government, which is more involved in regulating the economy and protects the interests of the minority against the majority will. Republicans prefer a smaller government, with less intervention in the economy and protection for traditional family values. Other countries have their own party systems, such as the Labour and Conservative Parties in the United Kingdom, and the Australian Labor and Liberal Parties. Some countries have two parties, as in the U.S., and others have three or more.

Interest Groups

In addition to two parties, the United States is full of interest groups. An interest group is an organization that works on issues, but does not focus on winning elections. There are economic interest groups (like a chamber of commerce or trade union) and non-economic interest groups (like ones for the environment, children’s welfare, or voting rights). In pluralist societies, interest groups are very powerful, because they present voters with more opportunities to effect political change than just through political parties

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, we learned about the concept of pluralism as well as the development of political groups in the United States. We are a nation of people who like to join and work in groups. We compared political parties (Democrats and Republicans, in the U.S.) to interest groups, and then identified some of the main types of both. Recall that pluralism is a power structure where many groups compete for control of resources and law-making institutions. The earliest factions, which become political parties, were the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Now, we are a nation of not only political parties, but also many interest groups who compete for power.