Liberal Democracy: Pluralist and Elitist Views

Definition and Nature:

The students of political science very often come across such terms as liberal democracy, socialist democracy, plebiscitary democracy, etc. There are also many other terms. Perhaps looking at these terms the well-known political scientist Bernard Crick once said that it was the most promiscuous term. It is because a military dictator sometimes claims that his country is democratic.

The leaders of the former Soviet Union very often boasted of a perfect democracy though the basic element of democracy—multiplicity of party—was absent there. The rulers of all bourgeois states demand that theirs is the real democracy.

If we bring them into our consideration we shall find that it will be a herculean task to arrive at an agreed view of democracy. Here we are thinking of liberal democracy which means that in such a democracy people are allowed to enjoy maximum amount of freedom and the state intervention in the affairs of individuals is at a minimum level.

The liberal democracy possesses few features:

(1) It is indirect and representative.

(2) It is based on competition.

(3) Electoral choice enjoys great importance.

(4) In liberal democracy state is distinguished from civil society.

(5) If institutions and organisations do not jeopardies the normal functioning of state and its interests, they are allowed to enjoy autonomy.

(6) In liberal democracy disagreement is allowed to persist and it is believed that disagreement is healthy.

(7) In liberal democracy there is multiplicity of ideas and all of them exist side by side.

(8) In true liberal democracy the intervention of state is minimum.

(9) It is characterised by free market economy.

Explanation of Features:

The most important feature of liberal democracy is the competition of ideas and competition of views. Once Ernest Barker said democracy is never a one-idea state. There are multiple ideas and all of them always compete or contest among themselves.

Because of the multiplicity of ideas there always occurs competition among persons and institutions or organisations. Competition can easily be called life-blood of democracy and liberal democracy is the most secure abode of all sorts of competition.

Only in liberal democracy the distinction between state and society is maintained and nurtured. It is believed that individuals can develop their qualities only through strong and autonomous institutions. The distinction also emphasises the decentralisation of power.

The famous Marxist Gramsci held the view that in liberal democracy civil society is placed at a very high position and it is the civil society’s autonomy and gradual rise of power that have caused the survival and the increasing strength of capitalist state. Liberal democracy is indirect and representative democracy. It works through the representatives elected by the people and elections are periodically held.

The periodical elections are indication of accountability. Representatives are to give explanations of their activities to the persons who have elected them. A liberal democracy is another name of limited state and its chief progenitors are Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and J. S. Mill.

Pluralist View of Liberal Democracy:

Definition of Pluralism:

Liberal democracy has been viewed from different angles. One such angle is pluralist interpretation of liberal democracy. Pluralism is opposite to monism. The primary perspective of pluralism of pluralist view is in a democracy there are is no single centre of power, rather multiple centres. Not only this there are a number .of social and political centres. Each idea is centred around a particular centre. It also denotes that power is exercised by many centres.

It may be that all the centres are not equally powerful. Some exercise more and others less. In spite of this the multiplicity of centres is the basic characteristic of pluralist democracy. John Schwarz mantel in his Structure of Power: An Introduction (1987) defines liberal interpretation of democracy in the following words: A system-where there are competing parties, a network of pressure groups and associations, a separation of powers in some form or other in the constitutional field, is one where, in the pluralist view, the concentration of power would be avoided”.

We thus see that political parties, pressure groups, multiplicity of organisation and association are the hallmarks of liberal democracy. The basic tenet of liberal democracy is competition and the competition is always among all the groups and ideas. If the possibility of competition is removed or blocked the concept of liberal democracy will meet-an untimely death. In this background we can note certain basic features.


The main feature of liberal democracy is that there is hardly any scope of the abuse of power because there are many groups and organisations and they are so much vigilant about their power and autonomy that any move by the state to intervene unnecessarily will be resisted by the groups and men. In autocratic political system this is not to be found. The decision of the state is final.

Robert Dahl is a great exponent of liberal democracy and he carried out investigation in American liberal democracy. What he found was that though in such a democracy some elite groups are powerful than others, these, under no circumstances, dominate the entire political scene of liberal democracy.

Liberal democracy is also called pluralist democracy. In such a democratic structure the important thing is the institutional arrangements for sharing, implemen­tation and distribution of political power and in this system no agency or individual has overriding power over the other. An important aspect of institutional arrange­ment is the separation of power which acts as a mechanism of checks and balance. Another institutional arrangement is the supremacy of constitution.

There is another feature of pluralist democracy which may be stated in this way. Liberal pluralist democracy is regarded by many (for example H.S. Kariel) as a historical phenomenon, a normative doctrine and mode of analysis.

In British political system there is neither a written constitution nor a clear separation of powers. In spite of this British democracy is of liberal plural type. Why? British liberal democracy, to use H.S. Kariel’s phrase, is an historical phenomenon.

Behind the present system of British liberal democracy there is the history of hundreds of years and it is mixed with the British political culture and tradition. Ultimately it has become a part of normative doctrine.

Liberal plural democracy strongly emphasises the civil society, people’s rights and liberties. Particularly in all liberal democracies economic rights and liberties are always given maximum priority and laissez-faire is its consequence.

Heywood points out that the democratic element of pluralist democracy is that the ruler’s decision is based on the consent of the ruled and it is called popular consent. The consent is expressed through many avenues and a very important avenue is periodical elections.

In all liberal democracies elections are periodically held which enable individuals to ventilate their views. For this reason such a democracy is also called electoral democracy.

Liberal democracy blends elite rule with a significant measure of popular participation. Professionals administer the state. But at the head of the administration there are political executives who are accountable to the electorate. The importance of the professionals in a liberal democracy is chiefly due to the fact that all categories of people have not the ability to shoulder the onerous responsibility of administration. Only the elites possess the ability.

Elitist View of Liberal Democracy:

Sources of Elitism in Democracy:

We have, in the last section, analysed the pluralist interpretation of liberal democracy whose core idea is competition among parties, groups, organisations, ideas, principles etc. A democratic state takes a liberal attitude to all of the above- noted elements and imposes generally no restrictions on them. On the contrary, an elitist approach to liberal democracy pays less stress on competition among parties, groups and ideas and more importance on elite and mass.

The original ancestor of elitism is Plato. In The Republic he gave excessive stress on elite rule. Elitism is represented by two Italian sociologists (they were chiefly known so) Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941) and Vilfredo (1848-1923) and Swiss sociologist Robert Michels (1876- 1936). The political analysis of Max Weber, the famous German sociologist, also contains huge amount of elitism.

It has been observed that there is a subtle difference between elitism in general and the elitist approach to liberal democracy. There are also other scholars who have strongly advocated the elitist view of democracy.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century Max Weber, after studying the democracies of several matured industrialised countries of Western Europe, observed that though in all these countries the structure and functioning of democracy were strictly maintained ultimately a very handful of persons were at the helm of power.

Central Idea:

The Swiss sociologist discovered that in every society there was an “iron law of oligarchy”. By this term Michels meant that apparently the democratic states were administered by popularly elected persons/representatives, but the real administration was run by very few persons who belonged to the upper strata of society.

Explaining Michels’s stand on elilist interpretation of liberal democracy a recent critic (Schwarz- mantel) gives the following opinion: “Democracy in its core meaning of the exercise of popular power and of popular participation in the running of society’s affairs can never in actual fact be realised. In all political systems power is and remains the privilege of a dominating minority………. minority tries to veil effective power to hide it under some formula which makes its domination”.

The fact is that though in such system the elite rules, it shows or tries to show to the general public that it rules on behalf of the mass and runs the administration for the general welfare of the society. Elitist view asserts that democracy does not mean that all will participate in the governance of the state because it is not possible.

The minority will rule but popular sovereignty prevails. The aim of the administration is to ensure the general welfare of the body politic. The stability in governance is achieved through the minority rule.

How Democracy Works?

According to elitism, in all democracies, there are primarily two classes—one class rules and the other class is ruled. The elections are held and a new class may come to the power and the former ruling class sits in opposition. In this way the cycle moves.

But it would be wrong to assume that in this process common people get any opportunity to govern. The constitutional, structural and other arrangements are so made that there is hardly any scope for the general mass to be a part of state administration. An in-depth analysis of elite rule will be found in C. Wright Mills’s influential book The Power Elites.

He has portrayed a fine picture of how elites or elite groups capture and hold power. He has said that there is a nexus among different elite groups and in overt and covert ways they share, power and wealth of the state among themselves. Ralph Miliband, a well-known Marxist, offers us the same picture about liberal democracy.

He in his The State in Capitalist Society has said that in the USA the top businessmen, the bureaucrats, military men and leaders of the upper class rule. Mills also notes about the rule of the triumvirate consisting of big business (particularly in the defence-related industries), the US military and political cliques surrounding the president. According to C.W. Mills these three groups practically constitute the power elite.


Many political scientists and. scholars (apart from Marx and his followers) do not intend to call liberal democracy ruled by elites a real democracy. Rather it is a state ruled and controlled by a very powerful pressure group or class. As C.W. Mills correctly observes there is an unholy alliance among all the elite groups and when one elite group seizes power another group or all other groups prefer to stay in opposition. Any opposition to the governing class or group is nothing but mockery.

It is frequently observed by all the elite groups that there is widespread mass support behind the elite group. But this is not correct. General masses of men do not get any opportunity to raise their voice. C.W. Mills also said that in elite dominated states the means of power are parochially exercised.

Since the concentration of power is the chief feature of elite rule there is no place of equality, competition among parties and associations. Such a democracy (if it is to be called democracy at all) has not been able to receive widespread support from all sections of society. But we are to admit that elite-dominated government is the on-going feature of all liberal democracies. There may be variations in the character and extent of elite rule but the concept of elite rule cannot be ruled out.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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