The Validity of Pluralism in the American Political Arena
An Analysis of the Historical and Current LGBT Rights Movement and the College Debt Debate
Research Paper (postgraduate) 2012 13 Pages
Pluralism and Democracy: A Marriage Made in Heaven?
Democracy, particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR, has been posited as the answer to government. The United States, as the only remaining superpower, has taken on in the past two decades the self-appointed job of bringing democracy to the world: two-time president George Bush claimed, in 1999, that “this time of American influence [on the world]” should become “generations of democratic peace,” (Bush). Underlying this movement to bring democracy to the world is an implied belief in the superiority of this system of government in exercising the will of the people; this, in stark opposition to the “repressive” regimes of other countries. The extent to which this is tenant is valid is questionable.
Representative democracy is based on the notion that the will of the people will be exerted through elected representatives. Political scientists belonging to the pluralist school of thought argue that every relevant player—for instance, interest groups—have an opportunity to voice their opinion at some point in the policy-setting and policy-developing process. Dahl, a prominent pluralist academic, argues that “no group is without power to influence decision making” nor is any group dominant in democracies. He further argues that “any group can ensure that its political preferences and wishes are adopted if sufficiently determined.” (Hill 32). Tullock and Brittan, among other political scientists, argue even further that pluralism creates a marketplace of the political arena: in this economically-minded analysis of politics, politicians (and, by extension, parties) “compete to win power by responding to the demands of groups” (Hill 34). Termed public choice theory, it argues that representatives essentially consider all relevant groups when choosing how to behave when legislating; public choice theory bases this argument on the assumption that politicians’ power is constantly contested and that politicians must seek the approval of the public they represent in order to continue to be in power (Hill 34-35).
Notwithstanding, pluralism has often been criticized by other academics by pointing out the wide gap between actors’ political power, and the role that non-decision making plays against raising the issues the public would like to see addressed. Mills, for instance, points to the chief role elites play in shaping and carrying out the development of policy (Hills 37); power concentration among a tight-knit group of elites, according to Mills, prevents the inclusion of the interests of other actors from being heard. Closely related to this analysis of the role of power and policy-making is the analysis of the role of elites (and other power holders) in preventing the discussion of harmful or otherwise unfavorable policy issues. Bachrach and Baratz, in particular, would content on this matter that “a more complete analysis” would need to be completed “to unravel the means by which mobilization of bias operates to limit the scope of debate.” (Hill 38) These two criticisms of pluralism as a decision-making theory put into question the extent to which all relevant actors have a say at any point in the policy-making process.
This essay will explore the extent to which pluralism accurately describes and predicts the policy-making process in the United States, taking into consideration the already-presented theoretical framework. It will do so by considering two different policy issues: gay marriage, on the one hand, and college debt, on the other. Gay marriage will be considered in the context of the recent declarations of President Obama in favor of it. A historical landmark, the support of gay marriage by an American president has done much to move public debate towards its acceptance (Nagourney). College debt, on the other hand, has become an increasingly important political matter in the last years, as its aggregate amount has surpassed the historically-important household credit debt (Steinhauer and Lowrey). Within college debt, the debate on the raise of subsidized interest rates will be closely analyzed. Both cases will consider to what extent each relevant actor has had a say in the policy-making process, and the relative weight of their input in shaping final policy outcomes.
Gay Marriage in the United States: past and present
Same-sex marriage has recently hit the headlines of the American media, after current-President and presidential-candidate Barack Obama declared his support for the LGBT cause. As the first American president in-office to declare his support for this cause, he marked a landmark in what is often termed “the last civil rights movement.” The issue, however, has had a long trajectory, dating to the first civil rights movements of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (Nagourney). The lengthy and arduous process the movement has had to endure to reach this pivotal moment signals the complexities of the policy-making process; further, it signals, to a certain extent, the discord between pluralism theory and practice.
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- validity pluralism american political arena analysis historical current lgbt rights movement college debt debate