The founding of America was an ambitious experiment in pluralism to create a nation with people from varied backgrounds, statuses, beliefs and creeds. Even more ambitious was the Founders’ promise of equality, liberty and justice for all—though of course, those principles were only applied to a sliver of the population within the new nation. The country created by this experiment was, and remains, far from perfect. The democratic processes and institutions built and fortified over time have played a critical role in sustaining our republic. However, we are now realizing the importance of not only strong democratic institutions, but also a shared core of liberal values that inform how we engage with each other as fully free and dignified equals.
The imperfect bonds we used to share within community groups, churches, civic associations and neighborhoods made up of people with diverse experiences and backgrounds no longer exist as they did decades ago. Today we live in neighborhoods with people who think and vote like us, participate in epistemic communities on social media platforms with people who believe the same things we do, and shop in places with people who share similar commercial interests.
While we celebrate the freedoms and choices individuals make to associate with whomever they desire, these trends have contributed to limiting opportunities to encounter and communicate with people who have very different experiences and beliefs, exacerbating some of the tensions and polarization we see. Given these challenges, it’s time to put our shoulders to the wheel and renew our efforts to build and sustain this experiment, informed by the pluralistic ideals that have inspired many around the world.
In his book “Confident Pluralism,” John Inazu explains that pluralism has two core features: inclusivity and dissent. Inclusivity helps us reimagine America time and again to include previously marginalized citizens, reconstituting our society along the way. We reconstructed American society in 1865 after the Civil War, leading to the passage of the 13th, 14th and eventually 15th Amendments. The 19th Amendment passed in 1919, further reconstituting our society to include women by extending them the fundamental right to vote and participate in a critical aspect of the democratic process.
Inclusion continued in 1964 when we passed the Civil Rights Act. At each turn, as activists fought, as we became morally enlightened and as we sought to live the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, it became necessary to reimagine the promise of our founding ideals to foster freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness, not just for white, property-owning males, but for all Americans.
Inazu also argues that pluralism requires the toleration of dissent. While this does not mean being passive in the face of discrimination and hate, it does mean accommodating an extremely broad range of opinions, even those one finds personally repugnant. That is why freedom of speech and association are critical to a pluralistic society: Our fellow citizens have the right to dissent and disagree with trends they see, even if the majority believes these trends indicate progress. This tension will always remain, but it creates an opportunity to perfect our ability to live in pluralism.
Unfortunately, fostering pluralism has become challenging in our time as a wave of discontent sweeps across the nation. To be clear, we’re not engaged in a civil war. We’re fortunate to be living off the fruits of the battles fought by pioneers like Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others. We are enjoying the economic prosperity that is only possible in a society that allows individuals to obtain and exchange property, to start entrepreneurial ventures and to innovate.
We face a plethora of challenges today, however, including glacial upward movement in certain income levels, issues in the criminal justice system, lack of robust access to healthcare, difficulty navigating an economy transformed by technology and innovation, and many more. The search for solutions to our many challenges has driven us toward populist sentiments and resurgent ideologies (nationalism, socialism, nativism and the like) that push back the core tenets of a liberal, open and pluralistic society.
Simultaneously, we’re deeply polarized as we continue to sort ourselves into various geographic, virtual and ideological camps. And the more we interact with people like ourselves, the more extreme our views become and the more negative our views of others also become. This increasing extremism limits our ability to engage in civil discourse, peaceful disagreements and debates especially about these emerging ideologies. We’re no longer upset only with our politicians, public officials, media and other institutions (honestly, a normal part of being American). We now distrust and even detest each other, too.
In “Trust in a Polarized Age,” Kevin Vallier writes, “In 2017, around 70 percent of Republicans said they distrusted anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton for president; likewise, around 70 percent of Democrats said they distrusted people who voted for Donald Trump.” Unfortunately, distrust is giving way to hatred. Vallier also finds that “from 1980, when measurement began, some members of each major political party reported that they hated the other one. But they used to be far fewer, numbering between 10 and 20 percent. . . . Now as many as half of the members of each party despise the other party.”
We see each other not as fellow citizens and dignified equals, but as threats to contend with. While a good dose of distrust of politicians is healthy, deep distrust and hatred of each other can erode the effective functioning of our democracy and can diminish our ability to maintain a healthy, pluralistic society. According to Vallier, while social trust is quite stable in most liberal democracies, America “alone has seen a steep decline” in such trust.
The great American experiment was to unite a diverse group of people. Indeed, the e pluribus unum vision was not aiming for perfect unity; that would be an elusive aspiration and impossible to achieve. According to Inazu, we can maintain a modest unity, developing the processes and practices by which we engage with one another as we seek a limited common ground.
At a very practical level, Inazu says:
Most of us live and breathe and work and play with people who hold quite different views than our own. If we got everyone in a room in a typical city block or classroom or workplace and we pushed hard on what our differences are, we would be surprised at how much we disagree over really important things. Yet, we still find very practical ways to get things done, to live life together. We find a shared humanity in the people across the table from us.
In essence, a pluralistic society requires patience and tolerance from all parties so that even those who disagree can still work together to get things done. Last year I spoke with historian Alan Charles Kors, and he noted that at the heart of the liberal tradition “lies the notion of . . . mutual forbearance, in which we allow each other to think, to choose a lifestyle, to seek to satisfy ourselves on the deepest or on the shallowest questions with mutual forbearance.” And mutual forbearance also allows those who disagree or dissent from orthodox narratives and views to contest those narratives, so long as the dissenters don’t threaten or harm the lives of others.
If we care about a pluralistic society that encourages mutual forbearance and fosters a modest unity, we have to work for it. If we care about keeping a republic that celebrates freedom of thought, expression and association, as well as prioritizes equality, liberty and justice for all, then we must continue to build the practices, institutions and platforms for sustaining pluralism. Toward this goal, the Mercatus Center just launched the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange because a society that fosters a robust marketplace of ideas for the free exchange of thought is just as important for human flourishing as the academic research that informs public discourse toward social change.
In reality, there are no 10-point plans or perfect frameworks that can address issues related to illiberal practices and how we engage with one another. However, the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange will seek to model the civic practices—such as toleration, humility, patience and civil discourse—that make pluralism possible as we engage scholars and partner with organizations of various philosophical orientations. And we will collaborate with those committed to pluralism to advance values that allow us to live, work and build together even with our differences.
A free, open, tolerant and pluralistic society is one where we can all contribute, playing small parts in building node by node, community by community, institution by institution, so that our values are crystalized and passed on from generation to generation to help keep this republic a vibrant, open and tolerant one. We hope our readers will join us in this endeavor to build and lead together.