What Is Hyperpluralism? Definition and Examples

Demonstrators from the Sierra Club, Workers For Progress, Our Revolution, and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network picket in front of the office of US Senator Shelley Moore Capitol.
Demonstrators from the Sierra Club, Workers For Progress, Our Revolution, and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network picket in front of the office of US Senator Shelley Moore Capitol. Jeff Swensen / Getty Images

Hyperpluralism is a theory of government contending that when a large number of different groups or factions become so politically influential, the government is unable to function properly. Hyperpluralism is considered to be an exaggerated or perverted extreme form of pluralism.

Key Takeaways: Hyperpluralism

  • Hyperpluralism is a condition in which multiple groups or factions become so politically strong that the government is unable to function effectively. 
  • Hyperpluralism is considered to be an exaggerated or perverted form of pluralism.\
  • Hyperpluralism tends to result in legislative gridlock, preventing or slowing the implementation of major social policies.


Pluralism vs Hyperpluralism 

Considered an essential element of democracy, pluralism is the political philosophy that a wide variety of individuals and groups can peacefully coexist and are free to and express different points of view independently and effectively to influence public opinion and the decisions of government. Befitting its label as a “melting pot” nation, the United States is considered to be pluralistic because its political and social culture is molded by groups of citizens who come from a variety of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, speak different languages, and practice different religions.

In contrast to pluralism, the still-emerging theory of hyperpluralism contends that when too many groups compete, and some groups come to exert greater power and influence than others, the political system grows so complex that governing of any sort becomes difficult. When one group is favored over others, democracy—rather than being served—is disrupted.

When used in the context of hyperpluralism, the term “group” is not a reference to political parties or racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious minority and majority opinions. Instead, hyperpluralism is a reference to much smaller groups, such as lobbyists who advocate for a single cause, single-issue grassroots movements, or super PACs that represent a small number of people but get a disproportionate amount of attention because they wield considerable political influence.

Examples 

While it is hard to identify concrete examples of present-day hyperpluralism, many political scientists point to the United States Congress as a case of hyperpluralism at work. As each member of Congress tries to satisfy the demands of many different groups such as lobbyists, PACs, and special interest groups, they are pulled in so many different directions that the resulting gridlock prevents action on anything but minor legislation. In focusing exclusively on individual groups, Congress often disregards the interests of the entire population. When the people repeatedly see consideration of major legislation come to a grinding halt, they conclude the entire government is broken.

In 1996, voters in California—one of the nation’s most diverse states—approved Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative, that represented another expression of hyperpluralism. The ballot initiative prohibited discrimination against or preferential treatment for individuals and groups based on “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” Proponents argued that ending government-mandated racial preferences would create greater opportunity and decrease divisiveness along racial and gender lines. Opponents claimed it would legalize discrimination against women and effectively end all of California’s affirmative action programs. 

As a hypothetical example of hyperpluralism at a local scale, consider an urban inner-city high school with high dropout rates competing for new resources against a wealthy private school funded with millions of dollars in private donations. While hyperpluralism theory holds that both schools compete for the same resources, the wealthy school is almost certain to prevail.

Pros and Cons

On the positive side, hyperpluralism offers a greater sense of civic activism, a greater influence on public opinion, and better informed public officials. However, most political scientists argue that these positives are far outweighed by the negative impact that hyperpluralism has on democracy and effective, efficient government.

Both pluralism and hyperpluralism are built on the idea of competition between groups. However, while pluralism promotes compromise and beneficial outcomes for all, hyperpluralism does not, because the different special interest groups do not compete on an even playing field.

Immigration activists with the advocacy group CASA rally at the White House to demand President Biden grant citizenship for immigrants.
Immigration activists with the advocacy group CASA rally at the White House to demand President Biden grant citizenship for immigrants. Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

The primary negative aspect of hyperpluralism is that it exerts political pressure on the government to benefit a specific group or class. In the United States, the effects of hyperpluralism often benefited large corporations and the growth of corporate power. During the 1970s, new forms of pluralism and liberal hyperpluralism developed to counter this government favoritism toward the corporate world and encourage a more widely diversified culture.

Despite this shift in its distribution of power and influence, hyperpluralism continues to have negative social effects when it becomes the primary force in government decision-making and lobbying.

  • It often results in legislative gridlock, preventing or slowing the implementation of major social policies.
  • It can create an uneven distribution of socioeconomic power, resulting in cases of social inequality
  • It allows some groups to enjoy more political power and social choices than other groups while limiting the political power and option for the non-favored groups.
  • It promotes the growing state of economic inequality between groups with wealth and influence and those who have little wealth and influence.

In general, it has been said that there are two groups of people who tend to support the effects of hyperpluralism: those who have power and influence, and those who want it in the future. 

Sources

  • Phinney, Nancy Favor. “Hyperpluralism in Politics and Society.” Westmont Magazine, summer 1996, https://www.westmont.edu/hyperpluralism-politics-and-society.
  • Connolly, William E. “Democracy, pluralism and political theory.” Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2007, ISBN 9780415431224.
  • Connolly, William E. “Pluralism.” Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. ISBN 0822335549.
  • Michael Parenti. “Democracy for the Few.” Wadsworth, 2011, ISBN-10: ‎0495911267. 
  • Chomsky, Noam. “Requiem for the American Dream. The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power.” Seven Stories Press, 2017, ISBN-10: 1609807367.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Hyperpluralism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Oct. 28, 2021, thoughtco.com/hyperpluralism-definition-and-examples-5200855. Longley, Robert. (2021, October 28). What Is Hyperpluralism? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hyperpluralism-definition-and-examples-5200855 Longley, Robert. "What Is Hyperpluralism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/hyperpluralism-definition-and-examples-5200855 (accessed December 7, 2021).