Swamping the Drain

Michael Walzer’s admiration for American pluralism, always more than a bit romantic, turns out to have a dark side different from the one usually noted. The latter stresses the wages of abstract universalism: marginal groups are compelled to assimilate or face overt or tacit oppression. But there is a risk stemming directly from pluralism itself: resentment. When there is not clear hegemonic group setting the norms under cover of neutral proceduralism, each ethnic, religious, racial, and gender group finds itself in implicit competition with the others. It need not aspire to hegemony to regard the empty place of power as a potential threat, since any sort of alliance between any group and the institutions of the state would place one’s own group at a disadvantage. The result is a political game of Survivor, in which failure to seek advantage is indistinguishable from being suckered. In this scenario, the affinity for negative liberty is inverted, compelling groups to compete even if this would not ordinarily be their preference. Perversely, it follows that pluralism of this sort works only as a myth; it can endure only if there is in fact a hegemonic group that plausibly obeys the same neutral procedural rules as minority groups.

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