Westmont Magazine Hyperpluralism in Politics and Society
An American ritual repeats itself this year: the election of a president. As few voters actually meet the candidates in person, the information they get generally comes through two filters: the media and campaign rhetoric and advertising. Confidence in both these sources continues to erode, creating increasing frustration and apathy among the electorate. How can thoughtful people make informed decisions and cast their ballots with integrity?
Part of Westmont’s mission is preparing Christians to grapple with the challenges facing society, seek the truth, and reach carefully considered conclusions. In this article, three professors share their thinking about politics and two issues in the current campaign: illegal immigration and affirmative action. While they focus on teaching and working with students, all three have published significant scholarly research. They also speak from their own experiences as active participants in the subjects they study.
Every election season—and particularly during a presidential campaign— Dave Lawerence’s phone rings more than usual. Churches and civic organizations ask him to present voter seminars. Journalists seek his perspective on issues and candidates. Students want to know how to volunteer for local campaigns. As a political science professor at Westmont, Dave follows presidential politics more closely than most. With his students in “Presidential Election Politics,” a course offered only once every four years, he explores the process of choosing a chief executive.
“Americans vote with their heads, their hearts, and their pocketbooks,” Dave observes. “This year, their heads and their pocketbooks tell them the economy is on an upswing. That makes an incumbent like Clinton very difficult to defeat. It’s just a political fact of life. And it helps to explain why voters are willing to ignore their hearts and overlook criticism of Clinton’s character—especially his reputation as a womanizer.” Bob Dole’s nomination as the Republican candidate didn’t surprise Dave. “The GOP likes to reward service, experience, and seasoned leadership,” he explains. “No one else in the primary race could match Dole’s qualifications.”
Any discussion of the presidential election must address growing voter dissatisfaction. On this subject, Dave speaks from personal experience. After serving on the Carpinteria City Council for 13 years (and as mayor pro tem for six), the voters “fired” him and his fellow council members by electing an entirely new slate of officials in 1990.
His “retirement” from public office prompted Dave to reflect on the current state of politics in California and the country. He shares his conclusions in “California: The Politics of Diversity,” a textbook that “covers the basics of California politics in the context of two broad themes: diversity and ‘hyperpluralism.’” He is also working on a volume that examines national politics similarly.
In the preface, Dave defines hyperpluralism as “a proliferation of groups and pressures which affect politics and policy in the Golden State. This emerging theory contends that so many groups now compete and the political system is so complex, governing of any sort is most difficult.” As he applies this theme to the mechanics of government, Dave also explores its impact on policies such as social programs, education, and illegal immigration.
While immigration is a federal issue, Dave notes that a few states, such as California, suffer the most from illegal immigration. “California’s anti-immigration efforts suggest a hyperpluralistic political culture at war with itself,” Dave writes. Older, white residents claim that illegals create a drain on the state’s economy by using social services. The newcomers counter that they take jobs no one else wants and contribute more in taxes than they cost the state. “Which view is right?” he asks. “Scholarly research is mixed and inconclusive; research findings touted by opposing groups tend to verify their own policy preferences.”
Proposition 209, known as the California Civil Rights Initiative, represents another expression of hyperpluralism. It prohibits discrimination against or preferential treatment for individuals and groups on the basis of “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”
Proponents argue that ending government-mandated racial preferences will create greater opportunity and decrease divisiveness along racial and gender lines. Opponents claim it will legalize discrimination against women and effectively end all affirmative action programs. Again, who is right?
Given the complexity of these issues, Dave encourages students to examine them carefully. “We need a better understanding than campaign literature generally provides,” he notes. “What is the political feasibility of efforts to stem illegal immigration or end racial preferences? How will the government implement these measures? Are we asking and answering the right questions?”
As a Christian, Dave is also interested in seeking Biblical perspectives. “Some issues, such as abortion and other aspects of social policy, lend themselves to biblical analysis. But what about trade policy or bilingualism? How does Scripture address these matters?”
Over the years, Dave has seen a tremendous shift in Christians’ attitudes about politics. Pastors once preached against legislating morality and shunned political action as worldly. But groups like the Christian Coalition have successfully encouraged believers to get involved, a trend Dave considers positive. “However,” he adds, “anyone who claims there is only one ‘Christian’ position on every issue does believers a great disservice. Such a stance ignores the disagreement and diversity that exist within the body of Christ.”
Rather than accept a packaged agenda from any group, Christian or otherwise, Dave encourages his students to reach their own conclusions after researching the issues. At the same time, he cautions them about unrealistic expectations. “There’s no escaping the cold reality that the political process is limited in its ability to bring about significant change,” he remarks. “As Christians, we know that takes a complete change of heart.”
When Thomas Jayawardene writes about the international “crisis of ethnic identity,” he is exploring a theme similar to hyperpluralism. A professor of sociology at Westmont, he has participated in ongoing negotiations between warring factions in his native Sri Lanka. The Tamils, a minority in the nation, are rebelling against the government, led by the majority Buddhist Sinhalese. Thomas, who is an ordained Episcopalian priest, assists the state and church as a go-between in the conflict.
Noting that ethnic strife is destroying nation-states around the world, Thomas has undertaken a comparative study of these crises and the various attempts to forge a new multi-ethnic, nation-state consensus. He is currently writing a book exploring these issues.
As a new American citizen, Thomas also participates in the national political dialogue on issues such as affirmative action and illegal immigration. His contrasting experiences as a member of the majority in Sri Lanka and an immigrant minority in the United States color his perspective.
Noting that affirmative action works against high-achieving Asian-Americans, Thomas nevertheless believes society must make a place for all ethnic groups. “If we find that some of our citizens are not doing well, for whatever reason, then we must take care of the problem to keep the national community together,” he contends. “Sri Lanka had been a stable society for 2,000 years, and I never thought it would come apart so quickly. But the majority community did not look at the minority as Sri Lankans, and this exclusion has sparked a separatist movement. On the other hand, India, which developed a form of affirmative action for the lower castes after gaining independence in 1948, experiences greater political stability and strength today.”
While he thinks minorities should hold positions at all levels of power, wealth, and prestige in United States society, some forms of affirmative action concern him. “Ethnic minorities who meet all qualifications should receive special consideration to the extent their ethnicity creates a diverse cultural heritage in the mainstream. This approach corrects longstanding inequities that occur along ethnic lines—an entrenched legacy from a culture of discrimination. But it is never right to recruit individuals to skill-based jobs simply to fulfill an ethnic ‘quota.’ Doing so upsets other important principles of social equality. Undermining selection by merit, which is part of equal opportunity, will dilute the standards necessary to win in a very competitive world.
“In Sri Lanka, I grew up a member of the majority, lived in the best neighborhoods, attended the most prestigious schools, and succeeded in a system that offered more opportunities to me as a member of the majority,” Thomas continues. “This has taught me that majorities in most places find it natural to serve themselves with the best opportunities, or at least with more opportunities. Racism is not simply a white, American problem, it is a worldwide, majority-group problem.”
Thomas believes the answer lies in developing a twofold public consensus and commitment to both a multi-ethnic pluralistic society and a ‘common good’ that extends beyond the interests of individual groups. “The great Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas advanced the concept of a ‘common good’ as the cement binding nation-states,” Thomas notes. “But he also argued that the ‘common good’ should not undermine individual (ethnic) groups. Only by upholding both the ‘particular good’ of these groups and the ‘common good’ can nation-states flourish. Otherwise, we will see more nations come apart in the next century.”
Thomas expresses concern about groups who identify themselves solely by their ethnicity. “This results in a widening distance among people and creates a hardening of minority hyperpluralism in opposition to dominance by the monocultural majority,” he explains.
“Christians have the opportunity to build bridges and break walls that separate people in our country by using the tools of dialogue and understanding,” Thomas says. “We are attempting to do this in Sri Lanka by focusing on areas of agreement and establishing a discourse that rises above polemics.”
As the daughter of missionaries serving in Brazil, Joan Meznar confronted race- and gender-related issues at an early age. Now an associate professor of history at Westmont, she focuses her scholarly work on Brazilian peasant communities and their political and cultural involvement. Her research reveals that during the 19th century when political life centered on the church, even poor women who attended worship services had an opportunity to influence political decisions. But the eventual separation of church and state ended that access to power and led to a more conservative, less inclusive tradition.
Reflecting on the place of peasants in South American society has convinced Joan that affirmative action issues are complex and easily misunderstood. “Situations arising from differences in race or gender are perplexing, and people will reach opposing conclusions. We have to expect that and agree on both the complexity and the need for serious thought.
“For example, the whole question of immigration is complicated,” she continues. “We Americans hold tightly to the belief that immigrants contributed to the greatness of our nation, but we are also painfully aware of how easily existing groups can be dispossessed by newcomers. While many of us know that an openness to immigrants benefited our forebears, we are also concerned that unrestricted (or illegal) immigration may curtail opportunities for our children. As Christians we need to be thoughtful and not easily swayed to simple solutions on either side.”
Joan is particularly concerned that competing groups—including some Christians— view each other as adversaries. “It seems to me that we believers must remind ourselves that, in God’s eyes, we are all tainted by sin, but all precious enough to warrant redemption,” she reflects. “An ‘us-against-them’ mentality is particularly dangerous for the Christian community because it fails to take into account the inherent dignity of those on both sides and the complexity of the issues.”
Since Christians understand human nature and people’s fear of difference and change, Joan thinks they should take the lead in issues related to ethnicity and gender. “But believers so often move into ‘safe’ areas and create communities of comfort,” she observes. “We’re scared of the world, forgetting that he who knew no sin became sin and entered the world.” Joan sees differences of opinions and the resulting tensions as opportunities for resolution and reconciliation. “As we discuss and examine opposing views, we can discover together the best way to move forward.”
—Nancy Favor Phinney ’74