The Program on Culture and Democracy

The Pluralism Project

“I have seen gross intolerance shown in support of tolerance.”

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Without common ideas, there is no common action, and without common action, men may still exist, but they will not constitute a social body.”

—Alexis de Tocqueville

The fundamental puzzle at the heart of any democratic society is how people live together with their various and abiding differences. The challenge is not just about how to live without violence, but how to fashion a world out of those differences that affirms and protects fairness and justice for all. This puzzle finds expression in the American national motto: e pluribus unum. Currently our social and cultural order is undergoing change and transformation the likes of which we have never seen. New groups, new factions, and new interests are emerging that are creating new lines of difference and new terms by which peace and unity are maintained. New majorities are being formed; new minorities are emerging.

In a democracy, conflict inevitably arises when differences are not acknowledged or addressed fairly—when the rights, interests, and claims of some accrue greater power and privilege, while those of others are marginalized, ignored, or silenced altogether. Bigotry, scapegoating, social marginalization, status degradation, litigation, and violence are often the means by which new lines are drawn. The puzzle of difference and democracy becomes critical and even dangerous when the differences are those of belief and moral commitment, rooted in competing conceptions of truth, goodness, and beauty. These are the deepest differences, and they are always the most socially and politically combustible—indeed, they can have life and death consequences. Who is a member of the political community and therefore able to enjoy its protections and who is not? Who or what groups have the right to exist, assemble, speak, and practice without fear of reprisal?

The goal of The Pluralism Project is to understand the changing boundaries of pluralism in America in the twenty-first century and the changing terms by which social cohesion is negotiated. How are the boundaries of pluralism changing? Where are lines of inclusion and exclusion taking form and what are the social and political consequences of these changes? These questions are central to the future of the American democratic experiment.

View a list of select publications >>


Hunter, James Davison. Is There a Culture War? A Dialogue on Values and American Public Life. Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2006.

Johnson, Kristen Deede. Theology, Political Theory, and Pluralism: Beyond Tolerance and Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Owen, John. The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510–2010. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

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Who We Are

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture is an interdisciplinary research center and intellectual community at the University of Virginia committed to understanding contemporary cultural change and its individual and social consequences, training young scholars, and providing intellectual leadership in service to the public good.

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