Who Killed Pluralism?

by George Hatjoullis

In The Death of Pluralism I attribute the decline of pluralism to the rise of populism. This of course does not explain the resurgence of populism. In Post-Truth Society I imply that the rise of populism is rooted in the transition of the philosophical basis of social science from realism to relativism. It was a view that I developed whilst studying psychology as a mature student ( I have two degrees in psychology as well as my original degrees in economics and econometrics), and arose from an experience that caused me personal distress as well general concern at the time. The view is a repeating theme in my blogs but one that I have deliberately avoided making explicit. In colloquial language ‘it was political correctness gone mad’ that led to the rise of populism.

It is very difficult to broach this subject without sounding as if I disapprove of many new norms. I do not disapprove or approve. I am merely making an observation. Pluralism requires that ‘representative government’ represents all the people once elected. This can be quite tricky when different social groups have incompatible views. Abortion, gay marriage, immigration, women’s rights and many other subjects have generated views that are hard to reconcile. Governments have pushed on with new rights and society has been very intolerant of those unwilling to embrace the implied new norms. The EU, the ultimate representative pluralist democracy, has been unrelenting in its push to establish new rights and norms and litigious American society has not been far behind. Let us take the matter of gay marriage as an illustration.

I grew up in a generation that conflated (male) homosexuality and pedophilia. Fortunately we have moved on from this. Many seemed to struggle with the notion of female homosexuality. Homosexuality was widely seen as a perversion or at best a curable mental illness. Homosexuality was still a crime in the UK until 1967. We have quickly moved to a state in which gay marriage is legal and gay couples are adopting or conceiving children. This would have been quite an achievement if society had carried everybody along with the change. Unfortunately, it did not. The pace of change was too much for some and the views of those that disagreed were not given much weight. It is now evident that a large minority acquiesced rather than embraced these changes. The ‘political correctness movement’ acted much a like a populist political force in speeding these changes through. It left a legacy of deep resentment in a significant minority of the population.

If the only issue was gay marriage I suspect that the change could have been accelerated without too much difficulty. However, many such profound changes in norm were instituted over the same period. I am conscious of having lived through a profound cultural revolution that has gone at an unprecedented pace. Those sociologists and social psychologists that actively pushed the change have overestimated the cultural plasticity of my generation. Acquiescence was not acceptance. A reaction was inevitable. Moreover, the reactionaries had been provided with a template for political resistance to these changes; populism.

The essence of pluralism is that society moves at a pace that allows all groups time to adjust. Deep rooted cultural norms are hard to shed. The reign of Queen Elizabeth II has seen profound and rapid cultural change, and not just in the UK. This is not say that any of the changes are undesirable. This is not the issue. The problem is a significant minority feel that the changes have been imposed and that in this imposition pluralism has already been compromised. A populist reaction that attempts to reimpose some or all of the previous social norms is thus unsurprising. An attack on those entities, e.g. the EU, associated with this imposition is also inevitable.

When the Brexit campaign spoke of ‘taking back control’ it meant more than simply the borders, though this is clearly a central pillar. It meant taking back the power to object to many things that the supporters had felt that they could not object to any more. It is a movement that goes beyond the borders of the UK, though it might be ambitious to describe it as global. Many of the changes achieved since I was born and Queen Elizabeth II was crowned are now at risk. There is far more at stake than simply free trade. The end never justifies the means. The means must be compatible with the ends or at least the spirit of the ends. This was my message to the largely, young, female, and/or gay students that I met whilst studying psychology. It fell universally on deaf ears and earned me some harsh words. Sadly, I was right.