Democracy: Pluralist Theory and Elite Theory


Social scientists offer various theories for understanding political power in the United States. However, the pluralist and elite theories are the most popular (Dahl, Shapiro, and Cheibub 381). There are obvious advantages and disadvantages of each theory, but the pluralist theory is the most preferred. Whereas the affairs of the government under the pluralist view are run by the minority, influential individuals are expected to take charge under the elite theory (Paolino and Meernik 71). Arguably, this is meant to stop dictatorship or mistreatment and to ensure that the rights of all individuals regardless of their status in the society are protected.

To a large extent, the elite group has the ability to mobilize voters, coordinate projects, and setting up public education systems. Among other things, elites are known for dominating the policymaking process in order to fulfill their selfish ambitions. This paper looks at the differences between the two theories of democracy and endeavors to demonstrate that the pluralist theory is favored over the elite theory.

Differences between the Pluralist and Elite Views of Democracy

By and large, the elite view of democracy is consumed with the critical role that elites apparently play in any democratic society. Although the two groups have similar views on democratic principles, there are clear variations regarding the application of the principles (Paolino and Meernik 72). However, there are some principles that are considered to be abstract and include the rights of the minority groups, majority rule, and the strong belief that democracy is the most excellent way of governing.

As pointed out earlier, power under the elite theory is concentrated in the hands of a few influential individuals. Allegedly, elites have the intelligence and skills that are necessary to run the affairs of the state effectively. Consequently, other members of society are expected to follow the directives of the elite group since they are considered to be inferior to others. On the contrary, pluralists believe that power must be shared since no single group in the society has the mandate to rule over others. As a result, the various groups that are involved in leadership are expected to compromise for the good of the entire society. Despite the differences, both views are in agreement that leadership activities must be funded by influential individuals in society. While pluralists regard the structure of power to be split into different parts, elites argue that power is concerted.

According to Garner, Ferdinand, and Lawson (36), there are two main differences between the pluralist and elitist view of democracy. Under the elitist approach to governance, leadership is dominated by those individuals who possess the means of production, distribution, and exchange. Where the pluralist approach is force, the power structure is varied, and leadership is spread across many different groups.

Theoretical Form of Democracy that Better Explains Role of Interest Groups

An interest group is generally regarded as a group of individuals who share common interests. Ordinarily, the power of any interest group originates from a number of things, including size, ability to influence decision-makers, wealth, and unity. Based on the definition of what an interest group is, it is obvious that the elite view of democracy is the one that better explains the role of interest groups in the United States. Unlike the pluralist view of democracy, the elite view believes that wealthy individuals are the ones who run the affairs of the government. According to the elite theory of democracy, power is generally reserved for wealthy individuals in society.

Arguably, it is the economic elites and organized interest groups that have a huge impact on business operations in the United States (Gilens and Page 4). In addition, policymaking in America is largely controlled by individuals with a substantial amount of wealth and resources. Ostensibly, interest groups work closely with public officials in order to promote their business ideas. It is thus clear that the elite theory of democracy provides a better explanation of the roles of interest groups.

Is the Pluralist Framework Normatively Appealing, Why Or Why Not?

The pluralist framework is appealing for a number of reasons. First, the pluralist view of democracy recognizes human values and promotes equality in society. There is respect for human rights, and every individual has an equal chance of participating in national development (Thorsen 5). By and large, the elite view of democracy disregards fundamental human values and creates inequality among the citizens. Secondly, fundamental human rights are given equal treatment under the pluralist approach to government. Without a doubt, this helps to eliminate inequality further and promote respect for humanity at different levels in society. Third, the pluralist approach to governing considers different concerns raised by members of the society as genuine problems that require immediate solutions.

According to Krisch (103), pluralism is also closer to foundational ideals of the political order in the United States. Pluralism is also not similar to the laissez-faire approach, as argued by some scholars. The respect accorded to the pluralist view of democracy has to do with the fact that the approach encourages individuals to be concerned about others in society. Drawing for a study by Hoppe (203), the pluralist view of democracy is currently the most dominant approach in the present-day society among politicians and policymakers. For most public servants, the pluralist view of democracy has become the dominant stereotype for citizen behavior, informing their way of interacting with citizens in hearings as well as in interactive policymaking. Despite the existence of a number of studies in support of the elite theory of democracy, the pluralist approach is the most favored.

To some extent, political equality is undermined by the existence of economic inequality in society (Dahl, Shapiro, and Cheibub 385). As a result, advocates of the pluralist approach keep pushing for a redistribution of resources in order to deal with the inequality problem.

Potential Problems and/or Implications of Pluralist Views of Democracy

As explained by Held (169), most problems associated with the pluralist view of democracy stem from an inadequate grasp of the nature and distribution of power. Another drawback of the pluralist approach has to do with the fact that it leads to the creation of many centers of power. Arguably, the existence of many centers of power does not necessarily guarantee that the government will give equal consideration to each of them or do anything other than communicating with the leaders of such centers. Having many centers of power does not also imply that they will not be susceptible to the influence of powerful individuals. Despite the fact that proponents of the pluralist approach recognized some of these issues, they did not take time to understand the distribution of power as well as that of political accountability.

Despite being popular, there are serious doubts about the ability of the pluralist theory to explain the American political system. Various scholars are concerned about the relationship that exists between pluralism and important democratic issues such as equality, distributive justice, and peaceful social change. Debatably, pluralism’s discussion of equality is generally indeterminate, considering that the pluralist view of democracy lacks a clear principle or theory for assessing just and unjust distribution of wealth, income, and property (Dahl, Shapiro and Cheibub 385). In other words, the pluralist approach does not have a theory of value. As pointed out earlier, political equality is undermined to some degree by economic inequality. For this reason, the call by pluralists for redistribution of resources makes good logical sense. However, the pluralist theory lacked equality as one of its goals. In the absence of a theory of value, it is practically impossible to assess why a particular distribution is just or unjust clearly.


Although there are a number of shortcomings associated with the pluralist view of democracy as discussed in this paper, it is the most preferred approach in the present-day society. As explained in this paper, the pluralist theory promotes respect for humanity and helps to alleviate the level of inequality in society. Despite the fact that a number of scholars have written to support the elite theory, it has been faulted several for concentrating power in the hands of a few individuals and subjecting many people to unfair treatment. Consequently, the pluralist theory remains the most popular. Under the elite theory, it is the influential people who control power as well as the decision-making process, and this only favors a small number of individuals.

Works Cited

Dahl, Robert, Ian Shapiro, José A. Cheibub. The Democracy Sourcebook. MIT Press, 2003. Print.

Garner, Robert, Peter Ferdinand and Stephanie Lawson. Introduction to Politics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Gilens, Martin and Benjamin Page. 2014. Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. Web.

Held, David. Models of Democracy. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. Print.

Hoppe, Robert. The Governance of Problems: Puzzling, Powering and Participation. Portland, OR: Policy Press, 2011. Print.

Krisch, Nico. Beyond Constitutionalism: The Pluralist Structure of Postnational Law. Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

Paolino, Philip and James Meernik. Democratization in Taiwan: Challenges in Transformation. Ashgate Publishing, 2008. Print.

Thorsen, Dag. 2004. Value Pluralism and Normative Reasoning. Web.