plural élitism

plural élitism

the doctrine that power in modern liberal democratic states is shared between a multiplicity of competing ÉLITES (e.g. Dahl, 1967). Plural élite theorists acknowledge that in complex modern industrial societies élites will inevitably dominate. In this they are at one with classical ÉLITE THEORY. Modern plural élite theory differs from classical élite theory, however, in two key respects:
  1. in accepting that élite in modern liberal democratic societies are representative élites – thus while the people may not rule, the people's élite do;
  2. in asserting that in modern liberal democracies, power is either shared between multiple élites or these élites compete openly and continuously for political power without any one group achieving a lasting dominance over the others. It is in these terms that modern élite theory distinguishes between democracies and non-democracies. See also POLITICAL CLEAVAGE, STABLE DEMOCRACY.

Critics of plural élitist theory (e.g. The Theory of Democratic Élitism, Bachrach, 1967) object, first, to what they see as its tendency to understate systematic biases in the actual distribution of power in modern societies (see also NONDECISIONS, MOBILIZATION OF BIAS) and, secondly, to the restricted conception of political participation and individual development with which a ‘democratic élitism’ is associated. In responding to these criticisms, plural élite theorists point to the greater realism of their own view of DEMOCRACY compared with traditional models, further insisting that the distinctions between democracies and non-democracies captured by their models reflect key differences between actual political systems.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000