Democratic Pluralism for the 21st Century

Michael Lind

Image for article: Democratic Pluralism for the 21st Century
October 7, 2022
Illustration: Scott Menchin

Legend has it that when the nonaggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was announced in August 1939, a wit in the British Foreign Office exclaimed, “Now all of the Isms are Wasms!” In our own time, the Isms that have structured party politics and political discussion for the last half century or so are rapidly becoming Wasms.

Twenty years ago, Republicans tended to favor free trade and large-scale immigration, while progressives and labor liberals were skeptical; now the positions are reversed. Support for Planned Parenthood and abortion and no-growth Malthusian environmentalism were, in living memory, causes of a certain kind of affluent Republican; now they are litmus tests for membership in the left. For most of my life, liberals and leftists were suspicious of the CIA and FBI, and Republicans were fond of accusing Democrats of being conscious agents or unwitting dupes of Russia. Today it is Democrats who claim that conservatives and populists are traitorous Russian agents of influence, and it is liberals who call for national-security agencies to investigate and censor their political opponents and critics.

Apart from changing party coalitions, the way we talk about political ideologies is confused. In common usage, there are two political spectrums, the left-right spectrum and the past-future spectrum. The left-right spectrum is inherited from the seating arrangements of the National Assembly during the French Revolution, with defenders of monarchy and aristocracy on the right and radicals on the left. The left-right distinction in the 20th century became one in which the right stood for the market and the left for the state. In the 21st century, the right is associated with populism and nationalism—which were considered left-wing ideas in the 19th century—while the 21st-century left, at least the neoliberal left, is associated with a defense of institutional expertise and credentialled authority and economic globalization, attitudes formerly thought of as conservative or establishmentarian.

In addition to the left-right axis, there is the past-future axis. Progressives want to encourage the movement of society toward the future, and radicals want the future to come even more quickly; conservatives want to delay the arrival of the future; and reactionaries want to reverse course and flee from the future into the past. Needless to say, this past-future spectrum is useful only if all parties—progressives, conservatives, and reactionaries—agree on what the future holds.

During the Cold War, many on the left and right alike assumed that modern history was a movement away from markets toward statism. Following the Cold War, it turned out that the answer to the question—Is the future of the economy capitalism or socialism?—is Yes. With the exception perhaps of North Korea, all modern economies, including those governed by Communist parties, such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba, regardless of their political regimes, have mixed economies, with substantial state and market sectors.

The inadequacy of the terms left and right and conservatism and progressivism may tempt us to dispense with labels altogether and call ourselves “pragmatists” or “realists.” But what seems pragmatic and realistic and commonsensical to us itself inevitably is shaped by our moral and political and economic assumptions.

“There are only three basic models of modern, urban, industrial order.”

We can’t do without Isms of some kind as guideposts. While there are as many first principles as there are philosophies and theologies, a case can be made that there are only three basic models of modern, urban, industrial order: liberalism, technocracy, and pluralism.

For liberals, the ideal social order is one that emerges spontaneously from voluntary transactions among free individuals. This vision is usually associated with classical liberalism or libertarianism, but versions of libertarian socialism and anarchism can be assigned to the liberal model as well.

In recent history, Marxist-Leninist state socialism and non-Marxist democratic socialism like that of the British Fabians have been examples of the technocratic model. For technocrats, the ideal social order is one that is planned and directed by experts with specialized knowledge of social and natural science, or perhaps a specific philosophy or theology.

The pluralist model is the least discussed among intellectuals, although I would argue it has had enormous influence in practice. Unlike Lockean liberalism or Marxist socialism, there is no single philosopher or school of thought to define pluralism in the popular imagination. Rather, pluralist ideas in the last century and a half have been promoted by the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Dutch Calvinists, secular French republicans like Emile Durkheim, and English guild socialists. In the United States, Robert Nisbet and Christopher Lasch expressed many pluralist themes in their work.

For pluralists, the ideal society is a community of communities, in which the central government has direct and unmediated authority only in a few spheres like defense and law enforcement and public markets. Outside of the civic realm, the territorial government reigns, but does not rule, over largely self-governing communities of various kinds: familial, religious, ethnic, occupational, and industrial.

This three-way division isn’t new. In one version or another, it has been around for generations, with what I am calling technocracy sometimes equated with socialism or statism or collectivism, and with what I am calling pluralism sometimes described as corporatism, with the term corporation referring to an entire sector of industry or society, rather than a business firm.

Under whatever titles you prefer, the three Isms—liberalism, technocracy, and pluralism—can come in both democratic and nondemocratic forms. Economic liberalism, as well as a degree of social liberalism, has existed under military dictatorships like those of Pinochet in Chile and one-party regimes like that in Singapore, as well as in liberal democracies. The economic corollary of pluralism, corporatism, defined as state-brokered collective bargaining among organized business and organized labor, has existed in authoritarian states in Europe and Latin America, as well as in many modern multiparty democracies like modern Germany, France, and Sweden. And some democracies with powerful centralized bureaucracies like Japan and France approximate the technocratic ideal, even with free and fair multiparty elections.

These three visions of how a modern society should be organized have different views of concentrated power. According to technocrats, concentrated power is a good thing, as long as it is wielded by an enlightened elite, be it Hegel’s Prussian administrators, the Marxist vanguard of the proletariat, or the US civil servants and city managers in whom the American Progressives of a century ago put so much hope. In its democratic version, technocracy stands for government of the experts, by the experts, for the people.

Liberalism, in contrast, favors the dispersion of power. Liberals hope that competition will quickly eliminate any concentrations of power that temporarily appear in the economy, politics, or the culture. In the economy, temporary monopolies and oligopolies will soon be cut down to size by competition with new market entrants. In some cases, the government may need to use antitrust policy to break up sticky concentrations of economic power. In politics, liberals hope that competitive elections will prevent any single party or faction from monopolizing government. And in the culture, competition will provide citizens with many diverse options in journalism, education, and philanthropy.

Pluralists are more concerned with the proper assignment of power than with its concentration or dispersal. Pluralists conceive of society in terms of separate spheres—the family, religion, industry, philanthropy, government—each of which should be largely autonomous within its own realm. To be sure, there is a civic realm in which the territorial state has plenary jurisdiction. And this civic realm may include businesses that are chartered by government and infrastructure agencies that are “common carriers” to use the Anglo-American common-law term. Within the civic realm, the territorial state can legitimately insist on equal and identical treatment of all citizens in the forum and all participants in public markets.

But pluralists believe it is illegitimate for the territorial state to try to impose civic values outside of the civic realm—for example, declaring that female-only sports teams must admit boys or men, or mandating that the Catholic Church and traditional Jewish congregations can’t discriminate against women in choosing priests or rabbis, or that students in schools should have the right to elect their teachers. And pluralists don’t view these controversies as clashes of one individual right against another individual right, as liberals might view them. Rather, these are clashes of institutional authority. In pluralist thought, a legitimate government doesn’t have plenary and exclusive jurisdiction in all areas over the entire population, but must share governance within its territory with communities of different kinds. The first task in politics and public policy is always to identify which authorities have jurisdiction in a particular social sphere.

As schematic as they are, the three categories of liberalism, technocracy, and pluralism are useful in thinking about the politics of the 20th century. At the end of the Cold War, a third of the human race lived under Marxist-Leninist regimes. These can be seen as specimens of technocracy, inasmuch as Communist elites derived their legitimacy from being experts in a science or pseudoscience of history. What we call the fascist regimes of the earlier interwar era and World War II shared little other than their rejection of liberalism and representative democracy. National Socialism in Hitler’s Germany was a kind of eugenic technocracy, given the centrality of racist pseudoscience, while Mussolini’s rather different Fascist Italy was an authoritarian version of corporatism, with its compulsory organization of industries and labor into units which were self-governing in principle but controlled by the dictatorship in practice.

How should the democracies of North America and Western Europe be described, between the end of World War II and the 1980s? According to many liberals, New Deal America and its European equivalents were watered-down socialism, while according to many socialists, they were watered-down liberal regimes.

In my view, Western democracies in the decades after World War II are best described as democratic pluralist regimes. The defining economic institution of pluralism, collective bargaining between business and labor—an economic corporatist institution, despised by economic liberals and considered unnecessary by technocrats—was institutionalized and important in Eisenhower’s America, Adenauer’s Germany, Macmillan’s Britain and de Gaulle’s France. Organized religions, particularly Catholicism and Judaism, obtained the status of members of what in the United States was called by Will Herberg the “triple establishment” of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews after World War II.

This was an age of empowerment for many in the working class majorities in Western democracies. To the disapproval of Western economic elites, their economic interests were represented by labor unions. At the same time, to the disapproval of Western cultural elites, their traditional social values were represented by influential religious institutions like the Catholic Legion of Decency, which pressured Hollywood and comic-book publishers into self-censorship, depriving postwar audiences of the F-bombs, gratuitous nudity, and torture porn that pervade cable television and the movies in our allegedly more enlightened age.

In the United States, the two major groups that were left out of the democratic-pluralist synthesis in the generation after World War II, along with a small subculture of socialists, were free-market liberals and technocratic progressives. One root of progressive technocracy in the United States reached back to New England Puritan society, in which the learned Calvinist clergy had been the leaders of society, a role transferred in later eras to professors and nonprofit activists. Another root stretched across the Atlantic to Wilhelmine Germany, where many turn-of-the-century progressives studied and imbibed the philosophy of Kathedersozialisten, or socialism of the chair, that is, of the endowed academic chair. Progressive philosophy in the Anglophone world has been influenced by Hegel’s view of the bureaucracy as the universal class, that is, as a neutral class dedicated to the public interest.

Woodrow Wilson, first as an academic and then as a politician, was typical of American progressives of a century ago. Distrusting the ignorant masses and greedy business elites, the progressives, whose social base then as now was found in the universities, philanthropies, and upper-middle-class professions, sought to turn the United States into a moderate technocracy in which expert civil servants, insulated from plutocrats and populist politicians, could formulate and enact sound public policy on behalf of the public interest, which experts informed by academic social science were best suited to discern.

"Progressives a century ago were neither on the left or the right."

By modern standards, progressives a century ago were neither on the left or the right. They were often suspicious of small-town populists and the working-class leaders of organized labor, and many agreed with Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins: “I would rather pass a law than organize a union.” While favoring reforms like an eight-hour workday and various welfare benefits, many progressives also favored the prohibition of alcohol and the involuntary eugenic sterilization of the allegedly mentally and physically unfit. In economics, progressives between the world wars tended to favor some vague kind of national planning without outright nationalization of all industries. The progressive belief in top-down social engineering explains why so many of them, then and now, have been drawn to urban planning, in the hope that they can use urban design and architecture to reshape society and individual character.

When Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, many progressive technocrats hoped that the age of expert-led national planning had dawned at last in America. One of them was Stuart Chase, who coined the phrase “new deal.” But the actual New Deal was shaped mostly by urban politicians representing immigrant workers and rural populists, who wanted union rights and support for family farms. Between the 1940s and the 1980s, the progressive technocrats, many of them liberal Northern Republicans, were politically sidelined. Some achieved a marginal existence in nonprofits dedicated to contraception and abortion rights, environmental conservation, and urban planning alternatives to the working-class suburban sprawl that they despised.

Not only the progressive technocrats, with their visions of top-down social engineering, but also free-market liberals or libertarians, were exiled from influence during the New Deal era between FDR and Nixon. While the technocratic progressives in exile plotted to liberalize contraception and abortion laws, outlaw suburbs, mandate mass transit, and expand national parks, the exiled libertarians in their own think tanks and little magazines dreamed of privatizing Social Security, abolishing labor unions, eliminating the minimum wage and the income tax, and adopting an open-borders immigration policy.

Over the last half century, democratic pluralism has been replaced by technocratic neoliberalism, which is a synthesis of progressive social engineering and economic libertarianism. The transition from the democratic pluralist system of the United States between the 1940s and the 1980s, to the post-Reagan technocratic neoliberal system consolidated under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, wasn’t the result of popular demand. On the contrary, the basic elements of the old New Deal pluralist order have never ceased to be popular, and after 50 years, the basic elements of the new technocratic neoliberal order have failed to win widespread public support. Polls show that most Americans, including pluralities of Republicans, are favorable to trade unions. Most Americans favor trade policies that give a leg up to US firms and workers. Most Americans oppose the idea of increasing immigration and favor current or lower levels of immigration. A majority of 58 percent of Americans believes that transgender athletes should compete only on teams that match their biological sex.

The replacement of the democratic pluralism of Roosevelt and Eisenhower by the technocratic neoliberalism of Reagan and Clinton in the United States, in spite of its unpopularity, was possible only because the three mass-membership organizations that had given voice and agency to working class people in the New Deal era were destroyed: the political party, the labor union, and powerful institutions of organized religion. The decline of mass-membership parties, mass-membership unions, and mass-membership churches and other religious institutions by default has shifted political, economic, and cultural power upward to university-credentialled managers and professionals in the United States and Europe, who are much more likely to be technocratic progressives or libertarians than communitarian pluralists.

To be sure, not all of today’s progressives and libertarians are pleased with the newly hegemonic technocratic neoliberal policy paradigm in the West. Some progressives call for warlike mobilization to deal with the so-called climate emergency, but in practice, they must make do with market-friendly subsidies to Prius and Tesla owners, rather than direct government command and control of the energy economy. For their part, right-wing libertarians have achieved many of their cherished goals—the near-destruction of private-economy unionism, the privatization and deregulation of whole sectors of the economy. But the civil libertarians among them criticize the new media censorship imposed by progressives who want government, corporations, and banks to de-platform and de-monetize people who question government agencies or the campus-left orthodoxy of the moment. The least conflicted Americans in the 2020s are consistent technocratic neoliberals who agree with progressives that a man can get pregnant, and at the same time agree with libertarians that national borders are racist. These well-adjusted individuals are in no danger of cancellation.

Politicians of both parties in our technocratic neoliberal era usually ignore the interests and values of the silent majority of mostly less-educated, non-elite Americans of all races who remain unreconciled to the new technocratic neoliberal order that replaced the democratic pluralist order of mid-20th-century America, with its synthesis of economic libertarianism and campus-left culture. On rare occasions, some of these alienated voters find tribunes like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. In spite of their differences, Sanders and Trump both were throwbacks to strains of pre-neoliberal politics. Sanders echoed the Rooseveltian tradition in economics, while Trump echoed Nixon’s Modern Republicanism, which eschewed libertarianism for law-and-order populism and realpolitik in foreign policy. Both Trump and Sanders rejected the idea of an open-borders immigration policy, an idea endorsed by many of today’s progressives along with libertarians and cheap-labor business lobbies.

In the United States and other countries, populist movements led by demagogic outsiders tend to fizzle out. The establishment may close ranks to defeat the populist, as the Democratic establishment defeated the Sanders insurgency, and as the bipartisan establishment violated one norm after another to defeat Trump’s re-election. Often successful demagogues, once in power, abandon their promises and empower and enrich themselves and their families. Often the demagogues engage in unethical or illegal machinations, which they justify as necessary to defeat the establishment. In the end, sometimes after much drama, the entrenched oligarchy usually defeats the populist insurgency.

At the moment, the bipartisan technocratic neoliberal establishment is in full counter-revolution mode, stamping out the smoldering embers of Sandersism and Trumpism. Followers of Bernie Sanders have dispersed in many political directions, and Sanders himself has embraced mass immigration. Many former Trumpists have reverted to primitive culture-war clickbait politics in the service of right liberalism, of the kind familiar from the Bush-Rove era in the GOP.

"Populism is a kind of protest, not a social program."

Populism is a kind of protest, not a social program or a theory of society. For alternatives to the technocratic neoliberal synthesis, we must look to the three basic models of liberalism, technocracy, and pluralism.

There are liberal and libertarian opponents of technocratic neoliberalism who would favor pure and undiluted economic and social liberalism, free of censorious woke progressivism. But the liberal antidote to abuses of power—competition—doesn’t work in our industrialized, managerial society. Because of increasing returns to scale, small numbers of national and global manufacturing firms dominate production, while network effects ensure that infrastructures and social media tend to be monopolies. Promoting competition by means of antitrust isn’t realistic; there won’t be hundreds of car manufacturers and dozens of incompatible social media platforms.

Nor does the liberal panacea of competition work in politics. In every developed country, elected officials are a thin stratum atop a massive permanent government of deep-state bureaucracies which have the power to shape public policy on their own. Nor does liberal competition work in the realm of culture and education, in which a few massive foundations like the Ford Foundation set the agenda for activism, scholarship, and journalism alike.

This isn’t to say that neoliberals will never divorce progressives at some point. But the jettisoning of wokeness wouldn’t revive the liberal order that the managerial revolution of a century ago replaced. As they have done for generations, libertarian propagandists would merely pretend that the private collectivism of oligopolies and monopolies is “the market” and that the private collectivism of large nonprofits is “civil society.”

What about a progressive alternative to the progressive-liberal synthesis? Among technocratic progressives, there are those who approve of the social engineering of the cultural left, but want it to be joined with socialism or central planning, rather than with neoliberal capitalism. Woke statism would be even more oppressive than woke neoliberalism.

Those of us in the democratic pluralist camp reject both unchecked managerial neoliberalism in the economy and progressive social engineering in the culture. We must fight on two fronts. We must defend organized labor against economic liberals, and we must also defend organized religion against the political and legal aggression of cultural progressives.

My defense of both organized labor and organized religion may seem surprising, to those accustomed to conservatives who are pro-church and anti-union, and progressives who are pro-union and anti-church. In modern managerial society, in which politics is dominated by organized money and organized bureaucracies, ordinary people can only check the elite by means of organized numbers. In the words of the great American civil-rights activist A. Philip Randolph, “If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.”

“Labor unions and churches have often been centers of opposition.”

Organized labor and organized religion, if they are genuinely popular institutions that can’t be controlled by outsiders, are disliked and feared by all regimes, democratic and nondemocratic alike, which seek to centralize power and social authority in a single elite. Labor unions and churches have often been centers of opposition to dictatorships of various kinds, and they may be fated to play a similar role in democratic pluralist opposition to the technocratic neoliberal overclass in the 21st-century West.

At around 6 percent, unionization in the private-sector workforce in the United States is lower than it was in 1932. The American system of enterprise-based collective bargaining was flawed from the beginning; if private-sector organized labor is to be rebuilt in this country, it will have to be rebuilt on the basis of sectoral bargaining, of the kind used in many other democracies in which worker power hasn’t been annihilated as it has been in the United States in the last half-century.

Constructing a new system of collective bargaining, in a new American economy in which employers view their workers as partners in socially useful production, not as adversaries to be weakened or as costs to be minimized, will take decades or generations, if it happens at all.

In the meantime, given the disintegration of organized political parties in America and the near-extinction of organized labor in the private economy, organized religion may be the last mass-membership institution in the United States that can put up barricades to the complete consolidation of authority in the economy, government, and culture by the arrogant technocrats of our managerial overclass. As a heathen who is friendly to religion as tradition and religion as institution, I would probably find something to object to in any theology. But whatever may be the case with otherworldly wisdom, I believe there is likely to be more worldly wisdom in traditions of ritual and ethics that have survived over thousands of years than in the latest fads and fashions of universities and nonprofit foundations and government agencies.

Those of us who favor replacing the current technocratic neoliberal regime with a new version of democratic pluralism must be prepared for a long, patient campaign, with many reverses and few near-term victories. We can find inspiration in two quotations relevant to the question of how political and intellectual movements can lay the groundwork for eventual success. The first is from Milton Friedman:

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

The second, more familiar quotation is from John Maynard Keynes: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

There is hope, then, for academic scribblers and soon-to-be defunct economists who find their Ism on the outs at a given moment. Ensuring that stockpiles of their ideas are always lying around increases the chance that in a future crisis those ideas will be invoked and applied by practical men—not, let us hope, by madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air.