In practice, the political variation on pluralist thought has attempted to disperse political power and authority in modern societies, with varying degrees of success. English political pluralists, for example, grappled with the problem of maintaining political diversity and liberty in the face of the growing power of the modern state in the early twentieth century. Influenced by the Whig tradition, which sought to safeguard the achievements of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 by limiting state power through a system of checks and balances, J. N. Figgis (1866–1919) and Harold J. Laski (1893–1950) feared this centralization of power and sought to disperse it among the various groups and associations within society. They thus opposed the idealist view of the state, typical of T. H. Green (1836–1882) and F. H. Bradley (1846–1924), as the highest expression of social unity. Contrarily, pluralists regarded the state as one group among many, the function of which consisted of maintaining individual liberty and the social order necessary to the pursuit of substantive goods by groups within a flourishing civil society. In their insistence that state power be limited, pluralists therefore followed the lead of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) and F. W. Maitland (1850–1906), both of whom sought to strengthen those intermediate groups between the individual and the state as the most effective bulwark against tyranny. The works of Laski and Figgis influenced English guild socialists, such as G. D. H. Cole, S. G. Hobson, and A. R. Orage, who hoped to use the state to establish guilds that would abolish capitalism and reinstitute worker control of industry. That tradition, however, lost influence from 1920 to 1960 to the state socialism of the Labour Party.
Whereas their English counterparts were preoccupied with limiting state power, American pluralists, such as Arthur F. Bentley, Walter Lippmann, David Truman, and Robert Dahl, stressed a notion of pluralism as a system of indirect democracy characterized by interest-group competition and a balance of power. Purportedly open to all citizens and overseen by enlightened elites, these groups engaged in bargaining and compromise over rational, limited ends. With its roots in the works of Roberto Michels, Gaetano Mosca, and Vilfredo Pareto, American political pluralism, especially after World War II, emphasized the necessity of political and economic elites in maintaining democracy. As interpreted by liberal intellectuals during the Cold War, the masses could not be trusted to act rationally out of reasonable self-interest. Instead, they were seen as authoritarian, prone to conspiracy theories, and uncommitted to the values of liberal democracy. Only a system of interest-group competition within a stable, corporate capitalist system overseen by enlightened elites could prevent the mass activism that had led in Europe to the totalitarian regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, it was believed. Thus democracy was redefined to mean not rule by the people but rather rule of the people by elites. Ethnic and racial groups were consequently redefined as organized interest groups vying with each other for a fair share of economic and political power within a responsive, expanding system of corporate capitalism and interest-group pluralism. Rule by the professional managerial class, experts, and intellectuals was therefore both rationalized and justified, a view for which pluralism has often been criticized. Nevertheless, Robert Dahl has called for the establishment of self-governing worker cooperatives in industry as a democratic antidote to the concentration of political power by America's corporate oligarchy. Likewise some neopluralist thinkers seek to revise conceptions of political power and better account for the political voice and engagement of the diverse groups pluralism aims to protect.