Is American democracy built to last?

When Yascha Mounk went on a German television program to talk about the emergence of authoritarianism in Western democracies, he never expected that a seemingly harmless remark would create such a stir.

“We are embarking on a historically unique experiment – turning a mono-ethnic and monocultural democracy into a multi-ethnic one,” Mounk said.

“I think it will work, ”he continued, revealing some doubt in his mind. “But of course it also causes all kinds of disturbances.”

The observation made Mounk an immediate target for extremists on both sides of the Atlantic. “Who agreed to this experiment?” a German right-wing extremist website raged. The Daily Stormer, an American neo-Nazi website, attacked Munk’s Jewish heritage with a reference 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 conflicts as they appear to be.

“The history of the various societies is gloomy,” Mounk writes. As he reviews the turbulent history of the world democracies, he worries that they have “worryingly little experience” of being truly inclusive. Politicians like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban, he says, may only be the vanguard of a backlash against ethnic and religious diversity that can end democracy as we know it.

This is a book that Mounk, a public intellectual and political scientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, is uniquely suited to write. Born in Munich to descendants of Polish Holocaust survivors, educated at the University of Cambridge and Harvard, naturalized as a US citizen, he describes himself as a “Jew with an unplaceable accent” – a self-ironic 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 different democracies fall apart?

It is tempting to think that it should not be difficult to build a diverse democracy. You know how hard it is 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 really is something very difficult.

Part of the reason for that is human psychology. We have a deep-rooted instinct to form groups and then discriminate against anyone who does not belong.

We know from history that many of the most brutal crimes and conflicts that humanity has endured were largely motivated by ethnic, religious, racial and sometimes national divisions. From the Holocaust to Rwanda, you can find examples from virtually every century’s recorded history.

As a little-D-Democrat, I would love to believe that democratic institutions can help resolve these conflicts, and they can in certain ways. But in an important respect, democracy actually makes managing diversity more difficult.

Democracy is always a search for majority. So if I’m used to being in the majority, but now you have more children than I have, or if more immigrants come in who look like you instead of me, there’s a natural fear that I’d suddenly lose some of my power. And we can see that in the form of the demographic panic that motivates so many on the far right in the United States and many other democracies today.

And why do you call it a “big experiment”?

For there is no precedent for very ethnically and religiously diverse democracies that actually treat all their members as equals.

There are many examples of stable, relatively homogeneous democracies, such as West Germany after World War II. There are many examples of democracies that have been different from their founding, such as the United States, which used to give one group special status and oppress the other – at times horribly.

As a student on the rise of populism and the crisis of democracy, over the last few decades I have been struck by the way people from Donald Trump to Viktor Orban to Narendra Modi to Marine Le Pen exploit the fear that the great experiment has inspired.

One reason for their success is not only that they have a strong narrative, but also that the mainstream and the left have failed to counter that pessimism and instead have responded with their own pessimism, which I think is deeply counterproductive.

Can you elaborate a bit?

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 create a narrative that immigrants do not learn the language, are not interested in integrating into the host community and will never be economically productive.

The left usually rejects that allocation of guilt. But it then goes on to repeat many of its most important achievements, saying that immigrants are excluded from the ordinary stream of society, that they are really much poorer, that they do not experience socio-economic mobility. The only difference is that the left blames these problems for discrimination or racism and other forms of structural injustice.

Undoubtedly, immigrants – and especially non-white 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 doing. It turns out that the first generation often struggles to some degree, but their children and grandchildren rise very rapidly in the socio-economic ranks.

You’re worried that American democracy is falling apart. Tell us why.

I sometimes joke that I’m a democracy hipster: I started arguing that democracy was in jeopardy in 2014 and 2015 before it was fat. I saw the emergence of authoritarian populist candidates and parties in many countries around the world. If they were not in power yet, they were within reach of it.

The most dangerous thing about them is antipluralism, the claim that they alone represent the people. It causes them to concentrate power in their own hands and refuse to accept election defeat.

So in that sense, there is nothing particularly surprising about the way Trump behaved in office, or for that matter, how he has refused to accept his defeat as legitimate. For him, it is a conceptual impossibility that the majority of his countrymen could actually have elected President Biden.

When Trump first won the 2016 election, I do not think he recognized the extent to which various institutions restrained his power. If he is re-elected in 2024, he would be much more determined to concentrate power in his own hands from day 1. Another Trump presidency would be much more dangerous than the first 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 worries you?

It is a very difficult task. Our country today continues to be deeply shaped by the extreme forms of injustice that have distorted it for centuries. It would be naive to think that we can fully overcome this legacy in a few years.

But people sometimes forget that as late as 1980, a clear majority of Americans believed that intermarriage of any kind was immoral. Today, that number is down to single digits.

More generally, one of the most dangerous ideas in American politics is the idea that demographics are destiny. It’s deeply devastating. It feeds 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 country’s complex reality.

So one of the most important tasks for both political parties is to promote the racial depolarization of the American electorate. The country would be much better off if the Republicans really tried to build a multiracial working-class coalition, and if the Democrats did not give up on many of the predominantly white states.

I do not want to live in a country where I can walk down the street, look at someone else’s skin color and know with a high degree of certainty who they are voting for.

  • My colleague Maya King reports from Georgia on two predominantly black cities that embody the state’s increasing diversity and leftist shift – and which 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 the race for governor, reports Reid Epstein, it’s hard to beat the establishment.

  • Worried about American politics? You can blame Tiktaalik, a 375 million-year-old fish that has been the subject of memes, asking why – just why – it had to pat its four whispering limbs ashore and send humanity down its current path.

Searching

On Politics regularly features works by Times photographers. Here’s what Kenny Holston is told us to take the picture above:

Since December, I have 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.

It can often be challenging to cover a funeral. My goal during Albright’s service was to capture scenes that would depict the depth of what those in attendance could feel, while providing clear news coverage for Times readers.

Among the family, friends and former colleagues in Albright’s service were three presidents – Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton – as well as Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. It is rare to have the opportunity to take pictures like this. I did my best to compose a picture that I felt spoke to the importance of the life Albright lived.

Thanks for reading. See you on Monday.

– Blake

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