Pluralism and Democracy

There are two critically important American ideas: first, that men and women of different religions, ethnicities, and races can live together in a single commonwealth; and second, that they can govern themselves democratically, arguing and deciding as free and equal citizens.

Return to:

The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

The combination of the two is perhaps what’s special to America—for it was once widely believed that self-government required a homogeneous group of citizens. By contrast, most Americans believed, almost from the beginning, that pluralism and democracy were compatible, even mutually enhancing. At first, to be sure, it was only religious pluralism that was valued; ethnicity and race came later (and not easily), but religion is the crucial issue today. The greatest threat to pluralism and democracy in the contemporary world is the belief that virtuous government requires religious homogeneity and clerical dominance: a single faith and a single version of God’s law.

Religious fundamentalists hold that believers, heretics, and infidels cannot govern themselves as equals, and that state policy cannot be the result of an open competition and a freewheeling debate in which everyone participates. Fundamentalists here at home are relative moderates on these questions; most important, they do not claim that it is right to terrorize and kill nonbelievers who don’t accept the rule of the faithful. But that’s precisely the claim made today by (some) Islamic radicals—and by radical members of other faiths too—and a lot of killing has followed from it. We resist with a “war on terror,” and that is sometimes—but only sometimes—a necessary war.

The larger struggle, however, has to do with ideas—American ideas, though they are no longer only ours. So we have to remember our original enthusiasm for both pluralism and democracy, and mount a passionate intellectual defense of the two together. And if we are to defend them persuasively, we had better make sure that these American ideas are more fully realized here in America than they currently are.

Michael Walzer, a political philosopher, is a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, and the co-editor of Dissent.
Presented by

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In