The significance of political pluralism: Can diversity be a force for unity?

Different notions of diversity talk about dissimilarity, disagreement, or inclusion at best. But a closer look at the political sense of diversity shows a way for joint action between the different.

Constantin Starhemberg

When considering the title of the following article, “The significance of political pluralism: Can diversity be a force for unity?”, it is not immediately clear what is meant. The lack of clarity culminates in the relationship between diversity and unity. For how might it be possible that the condition of us all being distinct from one another has the capacity of unifying us, nonetheless? Furthermore, what does political pluralism mean and what role does it play in this relationship?

We live in uncertain and dangerous times, in which we seem to be surrounded by the potentiality of huge challenges, threats or even catastrophes coming along. Ulrich Beck, in 1986 already characterised our modern societies as “risk societies, in which manufactured hazards seem to be omnipresent and on the edge of exploding, and Daniel Innerarity calls our contemporary times the “the era of uncertainty.

Diversity has potential for unity when it's understood in its political sense

These risks and uncertainties are not only related to international instability due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. There are other challenges that especially the western world is facing in its own political panorama. We are witnessing the appearance and persistence of phenomena such as populism, political discontent, and post-democratic polarization, not least caused by technological developments in AI and Big Data. Moreover, notable especially in the current pre- municipal elections phase in Barcelona, political partisanship appears to be as high as ever, and our representatives that should in principle act as examples for a strong political community, are occupied with following party-interests and with their respective campaign activities.

In this context, it seems that rather than having the potential of unifying us, diversity is separating and tearing us apart, undermining any sense of community along its way. It appears, therefore, as though we have become so diverse from one another that there is no possibility any more to reconcile our differences. But are we missing something? What do we mean by diversity and how can it, through the phenomenon of political pluralism, become a force for unity?  

Can diversity be unifying?

Diversity, depending on the context, can be understood in several ways. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word itself refers to the meaning of "variety” or “diverseness" as the “quality of being diverse”, but it can also signify “dissimilarity” or the “fact of difference between two or more things or kinds”. Moreover, it can even imply a type of “separateness; that in which two or more things differ", or a "contrariety, contradiction”, and “disagreement."

The contemporary understanding is again another one, namely the “inclusion and visibility of persons of previously under-represented minority identities with a “specific focus (in a positive sense) on race, gender”, and probably also ethnicity and religion. There are, therefore, a variety of meanings attached to the notion of diversity, but apparently not even one that would clearly indicate its potential to entail a sense of unity

The only understanding that at least vaguely points towards the unifying capacity of diversity might be the contemporary understanding with its connotation on inclusion. However, it goes only halfway and does not explain in how far the inclusion of “under-represented minority identities” would lead to a greater sense of community among all. The fruitful relationship between diversity and unity, therefore, can only be found when all previous meanings of the notion are transcended, and diversity is understood in its political sense.

The political sense of diversity

What is the political sense of diversity? Human diversity — the fact that each man/woman is distinct from one another because of each one’s singular and unique character — is the occurrence at the heart of the phenomenon of pluralism. As stated by Hanna Arendt, this plurality of diverse souls, moreover, can become political (in the original meaning of the word), whenever people — irrespective of their differences — are “acting and speaking together” and thus form a community, nonetheless. It is in this political kind of pluralism in which the most fruitful encounter between a multiplicity of irreplicable human beings can occur and in which political unity can arise. This unity that is at the base of any real sense of community, therefore, emerges whenever people are “acting and speaking in concert” in a situation of true political pluralism.

These human beings thus come together each in his/her respective uniqueness, but no hierarchy is established between them; they are “among their peers” and each one is in principle capable to participate equally in their common life. Therefore, as Arendt so accurately says, a situation of an “equality of unequals” is actualized and the main political challenge of promoting unity without undermining individuality is resolved. This ideal situation is contrary both to the uniformity present in sheer collectivism, in which plurality is forsaken and everyone becomes the same, and to the individualism present in liberal democracies, in which no political equality and thus no actual sense of community can arise.

True political pluralism produces 'public happiness', the sentiment of shaping together one's community

Furthermore, this kind of plurality or true political pluralism — something entirely different from the apparently similar phenomenon of modern democratic pluralism that makes unity impossible — is, as Adriana Cavarero so beautifully says, able to produce “public happiness”. This kind of happiness consists in the sentiment of participating together to shape one’s community, which might be testified by people who experienced exceptional historical situations such as moments of rebuilding a country after a mayor crisis. Colin Crouch, when describing his concept of a “democratic moment”, formulates it in this way: “Democracy thrives when there are major opportunities for the mass of ordinary people to participate, through discussion and autonomous organizations, in shaping the agenda of public life, and when they are actively using these opportunities.”

The sentiment produced in this popular participation, is, however and to be sure, the complete opposite of so-called “mass sentiments” that arise when the masses come together as though they were one and cheer to their populist leader, for instance. In these situations, a herd-like mass of people acts in unisono and is held together not by something that lies in-between them, but merely by the existence of an external leader. There is no unity among them, but uniformity; there is no public happiness, but mass sentiment.

Moreover, equally opposed as to “mass sentiments”, the happiness of common participation is something entirely different from sentiments produced in interest groups. These groups that are so common in liberal democratic states, collectivize individual interests and represent them towards the government. Thus, they are merely held together by the common denominator of each member’s self-interest that is directed towards an external body; there is no unity among them, but an association; there is no public happiness, but the sentiment of collective self-interest.

A path towards a better democracy

The acting together of human beings in a situation of political pluralism, therefore, unifies the actors in a way that preserves their individuality while at the same time creating a sense of community that goes beyond the mere association of individual subjects. In this way, this kind of plurality evokes the most profound sense of unity because it brings together different people with diverse characters that nevertheless hold together and take equally part in shaping their community.

A political form of organization resulting from this activity could then truly be called democratic. Without having to aim directly for this ideal, however, let us just imagine how much more democratic — in our sense — our societies might be, were they to allow for just a fraction of the above phenomenon. In this admittedly ideal imagination, diversity could truly become a force for unity in the world.

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