Is American Democracy Built to Last?
When Yascha Mounk went on a German television program to talk about the rise of authoritarianism in Western democracies, he never expected a seemingly innocuous remark to cause such a stir.
“We are embarking on a historically unique experiment — that of turning a monoethnic and monocultural democracy into a multiethnic one,” Mounk said.
“I think it will work,” he continued, betraying some doubt in his mind. “But of course it also causes all kinds of disruptions.”
The observation made Mounk an instant target of extremists on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. “Who agreed to this experiment?” one far-right German website raged. The Daily Stormer, an American neo-Nazi website, attacked Mounk’s Jewish heritage with an allusion to Auschwitz.
That experience inspired Mounk’s new book, “The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure,” which warns that countries like the United States are not as stable or immune to violent conflict as they appear.
“The history of diverse societies is grim,” Mounk writes. Surveying the turbulent history of the world’s democracies, he frets that they have “worryingly little experience” with being truly inclusive. Politicians like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban, he says, might be only the vanguard of a backlash against ethnic and religious diversity that could end democracy as we know it.
This is a book that Mounk, a public intellectual and political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, is uniquely suited to write. Born in Munich to the descendants of Polish Holocaust survivors, educated at the University of Cambridge and Harvard, naturalized as an American citizen, he describes himself as a “Jew with an unplaceable accent” — a self-deprecating nod to his lifelong experience of feeling like a cultural outsider wherever he goes.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
It’s in the title of your book. So tell us, why do diverse democracies fall apart?
It’s tempting to think that it shouldn’t be hard to build a diverse democracy. You know, how hard is it to be tolerant? How hard is it not to hate your neighbor for irrational reasons? But the more I thought about and researched the topic, the more I realized that this is really something very difficult.
Part of the reason for that is human psychology. We have a deeply ingrained instinct to form groups and then discriminate against anybody who does not belong.
We know from history that many of the most brutal crimes and conflicts that humanity has endured were motivated in good part by ethnic, religious, racial and sometimes national distinctions. From the Holocaust to Rwanda, you can find examples from virtually any century of recorded history.
As a small-D democrat, I would love to think that democratic institutions can help to resolve those conflicts, and in certain ways, they can. But in one important respect, democracy actually makes managing diversity harder.
Democracy is always a search for majorities. And so, if I am used to being in the majority, but now you have more kids than I do, or if there are more immigrants coming in that look like you rather than me, there’s this natural fear that I might suddenly lose some of my power. And we can see this in the form of the demographic panic that is motivating so many on the far right in the United States and many other democracies today.
And why do you call it a “great experiment”?
Because there is no precedent for highly ethnically and religiously diverse democracies that actually treat all of their members as equals.
There are many examples of stable, relatively homogeneous democracies, like West Germany after World War II. There are many examples of democracies that have been diverse from their founding, like the United States, which used to give special status to one group and oppress the other — at times horrifically.
As a student of the rise of populism and the crisis of democracy, I’ve been struck over the last couple of decades by the way in which people from Donald Trump to Viktor Orban to Narendra Modi to Marine Le Pen exploit the fears that the great experiment has inspired.
One reason for their success is not only that they have a powerful narrative, but also that the mainstream and the left have failed to counter that pessimism and have instead responded with pessimism of their own, which I think is deeply counterproductive.
Can you expand on that a little?
Let’s take the condition of immigrants in Western Europe and North America.
The majority still come from countries that are much poorer and have much lower educational opportunities. This allows the far right to spin a narrative that immigrants don’t learn the language, aren’t interested in integrating into the host society and won’t ever be economically productive.
The left usually rejects that attribution of blame. But it then goes on to echo many of its main findings, saying that immigrants are excluded from the mainstream of society, that they really are much poorer, that they don’t experience socioeconomic mobility. The only difference is that the left blames those troubles on discrimination or racism and other forms of structural injustice.
Undoubtedly, immigrants — and especially nonwhite immigrants — experience serious forms of discrimination and racism. But when I started writing the book, I looked at the best empirical evidence we have on how immigrants are faring. It turns out that the first generation often does struggle to some extent, but their children and grandchildren rise in the socioeconomic ranks very quickly.
You’re worried about American democracy falling apart. Tell us why.
I sometimes joke that I’m a democracy hipster: I started arguing that democracy was in danger in 2014 and 2015, before it was cool. I was seeing the rise of authoritarian populist candidates and parties in many countries around the world. If they were not in power yet, they were within arm’s reach of it.
The most dangerous thing about them is the anti-pluralism, the claim that they alone represent the people. That drives them to concentrate power in their own hands and refuse to accept electoral defeats.
So in that sense, there’s nothing especially surprising about the way that Trump conducted himself in office, or for that matter, how he has refused to accept his defeat as legitimate. For him, it’s a conceptual impossibility that the majority of his compatriots might actually have chosen President Biden.
When Trump first won election in 2016, I don’t think he recognized the extent to which various institutions reined in his power. If he’s re-elected in 2024, he would be much more determined to concentrate power in his own hands from Day 1. A second Trump presidency would be much more dangerous than the first one was.
What about the second part of the book title, which is how democracies endure? How does the United States transcend the historical pattern that you worry about?
That is a very difficult task. Our country today remains deeply shaped by the extreme forms of injustice that have warped it for centuries. It would be naïve to think we can fully overcome that legacy in a matter of years.
But people sometimes forget that, as recently as 1980, a clear majority of Americans thought that interracial marriage of any kind was immoral. Today, that number is down to the single digits.
More broadly, one of the most dangerous ideas in American politics is the idea that demography is destiny. It’s deeply pernicious. It fuels right-wing extremism and left-wing identity politics, despite the fact that simple demographic categories — white people versus people of color — no longer represent the complex reality of the country.
So, one of the most important tasks of both political parties is to advance the racial depolarization of the American electorate. The country would be much better off if Republicans truly tried to build a multiracial, working-class coalition and if the Democrats didn’t give up on many of the predominantly white states.
I don’t want to live in a country in which I can walk down the street, look at the color of somebody’s skin and know with a high degree of certainty whom they’re voting for.
What to read tonight
My colleague Maya King reports from Georgia on two predominantly Black cities that embody the state’s increasing diversity and leftward shift — and that may soon be represented in Congress by Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Republican candidates in several states are trying to oust conservative governors by harnessing the anti-establishment energy of the Trump base. But in races for governor, Reid Epstein reports, it’s hard to beat the establishment.
Anxious about American politics? You can blame Tiktaalik, a 375-million-year-old fish that has become the subject of memes asking why — just why — it had to flop its four whispery limbs onto land and send humanity down its current path.
A farewell to a secretary of state
On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Kenny Holston told us about capturing the image above:
Since December, I’ve covered three funeral services for The Times: for former Senator Bob Dole, former Senator Harry Reid and, this week, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Covering a funeral service can often be challenging. My goal during Albright’s service was to capture scenes that would depict the depth of what those in attendance might be feeling while providing clear news coverage for Times readers.
Among the family, friends and former colleagues at Albright’s service were three presidents — Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — as well as Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. It’s rare to have the opportunity to capture images like this. I did my best to compose an image that I felt spoke to the importance of the life Albright lived.
Thanks for reading. We’ll see you on Monday.
Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].