Never in history has a democracy succeeded in being both diverse and equal. Instead, such policies have failed in treating members of many different ethnic or religious groups fairly. And yet achieving that goal continues to be central to the democratic project in the US, and in countries around the world. It is, argues our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Yascha Mounk, the greatest experiment of our time.
Mounk is one of the world’s leading experts on the crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism. An associate professor at Johns Hopkins University and a contributing editor at The Atlantic, he is the author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.
In our conversation he details how, at the end of the 19th century, the influx of immigrants to America from Europe gave rise to the mythology of the United States as a melting pot. The promise that all immigrants could be transformed into “Americans” was taken as a historical given.
Yet, as Mounk explains, this ran counter to the history of democracies, which had always relied on a certain homogeneity to hold them together. Mounk talks about the failure of the founders to come to terms with what he sees as the fundamental tribalism inherent in human nature.
He takes us through democracy’s many failures to sustain diversity, while pointing out that monarchies and authoritarian governments have actually done better in dealing with diverse populations.
Although the US has made progress in bridging divides with respect to race and religion, that progress has been jeopardized today by the contrary pull of ethnicity coupled with identity politics. Yet Mounk also sees reason for optimism. Since ethnic divisions exist globally, the problem clearly transcends US politics, and his analysis points toward ways to repair our perilously fraying communal order.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, as immigrants streamed into America from Europe, it gave rise to the mythology of America as a melting pot. The promise that all immigrants could be transformed into Americans. It was based on the idea that such a transformation could enhance and support America as a crucible of democracy, freedom, and civic responsibility. Yet this ran counter to the history of democracies, which have relied on a certain homogeneity to hold them together. Add to this, that fear of strangers is nothing new in American history.
The last great immigration wave produced a bitter backlash, epitomized by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the return in the 1920s of the Klan, which not only targeted Backs, but Catholics, and Jews, and immigrants as well. And here we are in the midst of another wave of immigration, coupled with the reawakening of the cultural and ethnic roots of many of those that have been here. Combine this with social media, the 24/7 news cycle, the rapid spread of misinformation, and the electoral advantage of politicians that find division to be a political asset, and the picture for democracy is not so bright.
In spite of this, my guest, Yascha Mounk, somehow manages to find an almost optimistic view of where we are and how we might move forward. Yascha Mounk is one of the world’s leading experts on the crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism. He’s an associate professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University. He’s a contributing editor at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, the founder of the Persuasion Newsletter, and host of The Good Fight Podcast. He’s a frequent keynote speaker at high-profile events around the world, and is the author of three previous books.
His latest is The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. It is my pleasure to welcome Yascha Mounk here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Yascha, thanks so much for joining us.
Yascha Mounk: Really looking forward to this conversation, Jeff.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. I want to talk about this idea first of an experiment that what we’re going through in this country now in particular, and also historically, is a bit of an experiment. It’s the use of that word that actually gets this story started, as you tell it from an appearance you did on German television.
Yascha: That’s right. My last book, The People vs. Democracy, was about the threat that for a time populism posed on democracy. I was in Germany promoting the book on one of the big news shows there, and I was asked what the causes for the rise of populism were. I said it’s to do with the stagnation of living standards for ordinary citizens and it’s to do with the rise of the internet and social media and the way that makes it easier for extremists to play a role in our politics. And it’s also to do, I said, with the great experiment that’s now happening in countries around the world, that of turning historically monoethnic or monocultural democracies into multiethnic ones.And that’s going to create lots of problems, but I think it can succeed.
And so I finished the interview. My mom, who normally criticizes all of my interviews, rang me to say that it was pretty good. I went to sleep and took a plane back to the States and was not concerned about it. And I landed and had all of these denunciations; and I was written up on far-right websites in Germany. I was written up on The Daily Stormer in United States, the neo-Nazi website. The reason for that is that they were saying I had admitted to some grand conspiracy that Angela Merkel and I were experimenting on the German people; that perhaps we want to replace the German population.
Those, of course, were misunderstandings of what I meant by experiment. I didn’t mean an experiment like your chemistry teacher who comes in in 9th grade and pours one liquid into the other until there’s a big explosion, and knows exactly what he’s doing and is going to use it to illustrate some principle. I meant a great experiment in the way in which our founders were talking about a great experiment at the end of the 18th century, when they tried to build a self-governing republic at a time when most attempted that in history and failed. So what I meant is that we haven’t, in history, had democracies that are deeply ethnically diverse, and that actually treated the members as true equals; there’s no precedent for that.
So that’s what we’re trying to do now, and we’d better succeed.
Jeff: And in fact, the founders really looked at it from a pretty homogeneous point of view. I mean, slavery itself being the penultimate example of how they got it wrong; but the idea that they didn’t see diversity as something that would have to be incorporated into their design.
Yascha: So that’s what makes this moment unique. So some societies like Germany, where I grew up, were very homogeneous in the founding of our democracies. And that’s what allowed them not to deal with this problem before. They’ve now become very heterogeneous because of immigration and so on. Other societies, like the United States, have always been heterogeneous. They’ve always had these different groups in the mix. But of course, in the founding of the United States, “the solution” to the challenge of diversity was simply to exclude a lot of groups and in particular, to subjugate African Americans in the most extreme way through types of slavery.
And so that’s what makes… What we’re trying to do now is to sustain this diversity, but in a way that treats people fairly; a new starting point.
Jeff: When we look at the history of democracies, it’s hard to find one that has been able to incorporate this diversity and survive.
Yascha: Yes. So one of my thoughts when I started researching this book was: I’ll find a place where everything’s working pretty great, I’ll go there, I’ll spend time there. That sounds like it would be fun. And then I’ll come back and say, “Here’s what we should do.”
But there is no such place. There is no country that gets it right very easily. And there’s lots of places where it has gone wrong historically. And so the first thing I do in the book is actually to explain why the challenge of building these diverse democracies is really, really hard. One reason for that has to do with human psychology.
It turns out that we’re really groupish, that it’s natural and easy for us to form groups across all kinds of criteria. And the moment we’ve done that, we tend to then discriminate in favor of the members of a group who are often willing to be very altruistic towards members of our own group, but also discriminate terribly against people who are not part of the group. We’re often willing to treat those in horrific ways. And of course, the second reason is history, which is that, often, this groupishness has been used in human history to motivate, justify, and fuel the worst crimes that humanity has committed; the worst wars, and civil wars, and genocides, and forms of ethnic cleansing. And so that gives us a realistic starting point of just how difficult this endeavor is going to be.
Jeff: It does seem that the two unique tensions in this are: one, exactly what you’re saying in terms of the tribal aspect of human nature, number one — and two, that when you introduce politics into a democracy, which is an inherent part of it, that it doesn’t take very long for politicians to realize that by dividing people and pitting one tribe against another, essentially, it works to their advantage. And as long as those two things exist in tension with each other, the more diverse it gets, the harder it is for survival it seems.
Yascha: Yes, that’s right. So one of the thoughts I had is look, perhaps democracy — I’m a great believer in democracy — is part of the solution here. And that turns out not to be right straightforwardly because actually, when you think of some celebrated democracies in the history of Athens, and the Roman Republic, and the city-states of medieval Italy, for example, many of them pride themselves in the supposed ethnic purity of their citizens. And when you think of some of the most celebrated examples of societies that did manage to sustain some real diversity, they were often empires or monarchies from Baghdad in the 9th century to Vienna in the 19th century.
And that’s not a coincidence because in a monarchy, you don’t have any power, I don’t have any power. As long as we both trust the monarch, it doesn’t really matter if the size of our relative groups change. In a democracy, we are always searching for a majority. And if I’m in a majority right now, and now suddenly you have more kids than I do, or there’s more members of your group who come in than members of my group, I might start to have this fear of, “Oh, my God, I might suddenly lose my majority.” Everything might suddenly change. And that is one of the motivators of this extreme form of panic about demographic change. Though we see it especially on the far right today.
Jeff: One of the things that’s different though, and I would argue makes it worse today, is that traditionally, when these problems have arisen in the past in other democratic frameworks, that there have been battles, tribal battles, about religion, about ethnicity, sometimes even about ideology, but that there was a certain respect that went on on a certain level, even among people that disagreed. But today, politics itself is what’s become so toxic. It’s as if the process itself has been destroyed. Talk about that.
Yascha: Yes. So, one of the changes we’ve seen in the United States is that the society is actually much more racially tolerant than it was. And it’s sometimes hard to see that progress because of course, there are real injustices that remain. But when you rewind the clock, 25 or 50 years, that becomes absolutely clear. Thirty years ago, a majority of Americans still believed that interracial marriage was immoral. That it was immoral for white and Black Americans, for example, to marry each other. Today, the number of people who believe that is down to the single digits, and we’re seeing a real change in behavior.
It used to be that about one in 33 newborns was mixed race, now that’s up to one in seven, or one in six. So we’re really seeing that. And so, as a result, most Americans no longer care, for example, if their child marries somebody of a different ethnicity. On the other hand, we’ve seen that the country is much more polarized between Democrats and Republicans than it was a few decades ago. So, in the 1960s, most Americans said, “If I’m a Democrat, I don’t care if my child marries a Republican,” or “If I’m a Republican, I don’t care if a child marries a Democrat.”
Today, the number of people who say, “Oh, God, that would be terrible. I don’t want my kid to do that,” has really gone up. So, I agree with you that what we’re seeing at the moment is this deep political polarization, and that becomes particularly dangerous, if it also doubles up with other kinds of conflicts. If your feeling is not just, “Hey, my political party lost,” but, “My political party also represents people who have the same religion as me, people who have the same ethnicity as me. And so, when my party lost, my entire group lost,” that makes it really, really dangerous.
Jeff: Politics has become the new religion. And as you say, we’ve improved and we continue to improve on the racial front, religious differences continue to evaporate, but it’s the system itself, the political system itself, which has become so divisive and essentially corrupted. It’s as if malware has gotten into the system.
Yascha: Yes, I think that’s right. There is a little bit of hope. I worry about our politics. I worry about the 2024 election deeply. I worry about the lasting and staying power that populists like Donald Trump seem to have. So, I really am not pollyannaish about any of this. But I think one thing that makes our politics particularly toxic at the moment is the perception which oddly, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives, and liberals often share. But one thing that we can all seemingly agree on, that demography is destiny. That white voters mostly vote for Republican Party, and non-white voters mostly vote for the Democratic Party.
And as the share of non-white voters increases, as America becomes supposedly majority-minority, Democrats are going to gain this inevitable demographic majority. That drives a lot of the panic about demographic change on the right, and it drives some triumphalism on the left. But it actually turns out to be wrong.
We’re seeing in the 2020 election, for example, that Donald Trump was only competitive because he significantly increased the share of vote among every non-white voter demographic, among African Americans, among Asian Americans, and especially among Latinos. And Joe Biden became the legitimately elected 46th President of the United States only because he significantly boosted his share of the vote among whites relative to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
And so, I think one of the things that might make our partisan division a little bit less toxic, is if people recognize that it doesn’t map neatly onto these demographic categories. And political parties can help that. I’m not in the business of giving Republicans electoral advice, but I really hope they try to build a cross-ethnic working-class coalition. And I really hope that Democrats are not going to give up on some of the predominantly white states that Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012.
Jeff: Of course, underlying this, coming back to the human nature aspect we talked about at the outset, is that diversity by its very nature yields conflict.
Yascha: Yes, so, it depends on the context of the extent to which it causes conflict. But it is the psychological mechanism that I talked about, of saying, “Hey, you’re a member of my group, and I’m going to treat you really well, and that guy over there is a member of a different group, and so I’m going to be in conflict with them.” But the extent to which that happens really depends on context. So here’s a great story about the town in the book that really blew my mind. Somebody went to study these two tribes in Southeastern Africa that have historically been hostile to each other, the Chewas and the Tumbukas. And so he went to Malawi to interview Chewas, and he asked them about Tumbukas.
“But the Tumbukas, their cultural customs are all wrong and all weird. They dance in the wrong way at the weddings, and then the newlyweds go and live with the bride’s family. That’s obviously strange. There’s something wrong with them.” He said, “Well, would you ever vote for one of their political candidates, or would you ever marry a Tumbuka?” And the Chewa responded and said, “No, no, I wouldn’t do that.” So, he went to the Tumbuka village, and he got exactly the same in reverse. “No, no our answers are right, their answers are wrong.” And, “No, obviously, newly weds would go and live with the groom’s family, not with the bride’s family. What are they thinking? And I would never vote for one of their political candidates, I would never marry one of them.” So, you might think… This is what journalists used to call, an ancient… the primordial hatred. These tribes have always hated each other, they’re always going to hate each other, nothing to be done.
But then this researcher traveled from Malawi across the arbitrary colonial border, to Zambia, just a few miles, and spoke to Chewas there. The Chewas in Zambia knew about the same cultural differences. They could name them. But the attitude was much more positive. They said, “Yes, I don’t mind the Tumbukas. I’d happily vote for one of their political candidates, and I would be happy to marry one of them if I met the right person.” And Tumbukas in Zambia were similarly tolerant towards Chewas.
So, what’s going on here? What can explain this difference? And it turns out to be politics. In Malawi, these two groups are both very large, relative to the size of the population. So they compete against each other in politics, they mobilize against each other until they come to hate each other. Zambia is a much bigger country, in which the Chewas and Tumbukas are a much smaller share of the population, so they’re political allies. And as a result, they have much more positive views about each other.
So what this shows is that we’re always going to be groupish. We’re always going to have our belonging to our religious groups, to some extent to our ethnic groups, perhaps, certainly to our cultural heritage. And that’s fine. There’s no problem with that. But whether or not that puts us into conflict with each other, whether or not it makes us hate each other, depends on whether we’re able to build a politics in which we actually cooperate.
And one of the most important things in that is that on top of the subnational identities, we also need a shared national identity. We also need a shared sense of being Americans who actually share a set of common interests, who share real solidarity with each other, at the same time as having our differences.
Jeff: One of the things that does that oftentimes is institutions. And in a period of time like we’re in now, where the distrust of institutions, that faith in institutions is declining — in many cases because they’re seen as elitist — that those institutions which fostered a certain community are decaying, and that’s adding to the problem.
Yascha: Yes, absolutely. At the moment, I really worry about our politics. I worry terribly about the 2024 election, I worry about the state of Congress, I worry when I watch cable news. So, I think we’re in the middle of a cultural civil war — the elites. But when I look out into the country, when I look at the actual changes in terms of the socioeconomic progress that many minority and immigrant groups are making, which is much bigger than pessimists tend to assume, when I look at the growing integration of American life, the much greater number of people who have friendships and relationships and business partnerships across the lines of these various groups.
When I look at the growing tolerance of Americans and also of people of diverse democracies, I become much more optimistic. And so, for me, one of the questions is whether the elite is going to manage to impose its cold cultural civil war on the rest of society, or whether we’re actually going to be able to resist that imposition and continue to recognize… So we have a lot of important things in common and that’s an open question. The ability of our politicians to divide us, the ability to point fingers and say, “That guy over there, these people over there, they’re the cause of your problems,” is tremendous. A smart politician can incite that conflict very easily. But it depends on our actions and depends on whether we are going to let them do that.
Jeff: What do we take away from the fact though that this is a global phenomenon? We see it happening in Europe. We see it happening in other parts of the world. This isn’t limited. No matter how toxic our politics is here, it’s not limited just to the US.
Yascha: But one of the things that I actually take from this is optimism. So in general, my sense is that when you start to think about this topic with naivety, when you start to think about this whole topic saying, “How difficult can it be to get along, how difficult can it be to like your neighbor?,” then you look at reality today and say, we still have deep discrimination and injustice and racism, and inequality. So there must be something uniquely bad about us. We must be failing so badly that there’s no real reason for hope.
When you look at how hard an undertaking this is and how deeply other societies are failing, how much more extremely we, ourselves, have failed in our past, then I think you can start to appreciate the progress that we’ve also made. Then you can start to appreciate some of the ways in which our society really has improved. And that can give you the confidence to do what I try to do in the great experiment in this book, which is to build a vision of the kind of society in which most of us would actually want to live because I think we’re only going to succeed with the great experiment, if we are optimistic about the future, if we’re saying what kind of society we want to build, and if we aim high.
Jeff: What do you see as the role of globalization in all of this, and particularly economics because both of those things seem to have played a role in getting us, both in the US and the world, to where we are today?
Yascha: Mixed view of globalization and economic changes over the last decades. I think it’s important to remember that actually, for many people around the world, from many of the poorest people around the world, the last decades have been very, very good. We’ve lifted about 2 billion people out of poverty in the last 30 years. That means people who didn’t use to have running water or electricity or decent education are now being able to access all of those basic necessities for a decent life.
So there’s great progress that we’ve made but at the same time especially in the [unintelligible 00:22:49] countries like the United States, a lot of people have gotten short drift and have the impression that their lives are not getting better. And that makes it harder for diverse democracies to succeed. Because if I feel like my life is pretty good, I’m doing better than my parents, where I feel like I’m being treated fairly, I have an opportunity. And, hey, there’s this new neighbor who comes from a different country perhaps and looks different from me, has different religious beliefs. But they’re doing great and I can be happy for them because there’s a lot of pie to go around.
If I have the sense that I’m stuck and I’m not doing better than my parents, I’m really worried about my kids, and I feel unfairly treated and hard done by the world and suddenly the same neighbor moves in, it’s much easier. It’s much more tempting to say, “Why does he have a nicer car than I do? Why is his house bigger than mine? What’s going on here?” So I think sustaining real economic prosperity for average citizens is one of the preconditions for making these ethnically and religiously diverse democracies work.
Jeff: Does democracy have to change? Do we need to make fundamental shifts in the software of democracy in order to accommodate this diversity?
Yascha: I think there’s all kinds of big social and cultural changes that we have to make and those we’ve started to make. Becoming more inclusive, having more contact with each other, venturing outside of our groups. Our own groups will always exist but we also need to make sure there’s connective tissue with each other. Giving people opportunity. All of those are difficult transformations that aren’t processed that need to go further. When it comes to the fundamental principles of our democracy, I think that they actually work.
But, for example, the basic rights that we have as individual citizens are precisely what we need to sustain a double freedom, to sustain the freedom of ethnic and religious minorities to worship as they please, to criticize the government, to stay amongst themselves as they want without having to worry about the oppression of a state, of a tyranny of the majority. But also the freedom of members of groups to determine their own life which, historically, a lot of the ways in which people have been oppressed is by their own parents, and aunties, and uncles, and priests, and imams, and rabbis… by their own neighbors who are telling them, “This is how you have to live. And if you don’t, then we’re going to punish you. We beat you up or perhaps we even kill you.”
And the state has an obligation to step in in those situations and make sure that everybody is truly free to choose how they want to live.
And so I think the basic principles of liberal democracy allow us to have respect for groups that don’t oppress their members, respect for groups whose members are voluntarily part of them, and also respect for those individuals who choose to leave their groups. That is the fundamental set of principles which combine democratic self-government with individual freedom, which I think can sustain our diversity.
Jeff: How important is leadership in that equation?
Yascha: Well, I think it’s tremendously important because we’re seeing that when you have a beforetime populist who wants to exploit the deeply ingrained pessimism we now have about the state of our democracies, in the state of our diversity — they can do a tremendous amount of damage. We got lucky with the first Trump presidency because he was not used to political power. He didn’t have many loyalists, and he didn’t quite know what he wanted to do. If he comes back in 2024, I don’t think we’re going to be so lucky.
And to make sure that the people who want to divide us and gain political power and are able to perpetuate themselves in power, we need leaders who are able to articulate an optimistic vision of the future that most people are actually excited by, and to ensure that the bad guys don’t get in power.
Jeff: Does your optimism at all get tempered by the fact though that this has not worked before, that there aren’t real examples?
Yascha: Well, I think I have a hard one, a realistic optimism, which is to say that I’m absolutely aware of the possibility and the prospect of failure. There’s many societies in the past which managed to sustain some amount of peace and cooperation for decades, sometimes for centuries, and then deteriorated into horrible forms of oppression or civil war. And that is a possibility for the future of the United States as well, but it’s a possibility that we should fear rather than hope for.
And I do think that particularly in comparison to the worst moments of history, the progress we’ve made in recent decades is tremendous. And that if we are determined to keep building on that, if we are determined to build on the basic principles of liberal democracy to treat each other fairly, we can succeed.
Jeff: Yascha Mounk. The book is The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. Yascha, I thank you so much for spending time with us. Really appreciate it.
Yascha: Thank you so much.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others to find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.