For centuries, reveals Yascha Mounk, ethnically and religiously diverse societies were, with few exceptions, monarchies or empires. Ruled by majorities of like-minded voters, democracies tend to be homogeneous.
More recently, democracies have adopted “outsiders” as fellow citizens. Although the United States cannot claim a history of common heritage, by the end of World War II only one in 25 residents was foreign-born. These days it’s one in seven. The same goes for Germany, France and the UK.
The fact that this shift is more the result of unintended consequences than a commitment to diversity, Mounk points out, helps explain why many “natives” in democracies continue to insist that “real” citizens must share dominant culture, race and ethnicity.
In “The Great Experiment,” Mounk (an editor of The Atlantic, professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, and author of “Stranger in My Own Country, The Age of Responsibility, and The People vs. Democracy”) offers an insightful analysis of the challenges facing various democracies. And it recommends policies that can bridge and celebrate differences without “essentializing” them, while increasing equality and justice for all.
Her book is a penetrating and provocative introduction to the past, present and future of identity politics.
Inherent Tribal Instincts
Drawing on studies in social psychology, Mounk demonstrates that tribal instincts are inherent in human beings. The task of diverse democracies, he writes, is to limit their tendencies to discriminate against foreigners, while building on their substantial potential for good. Success depends on the actions of leaders and institutions to contain conflict and provide opportunities to pursue common interests and share common goals.
Aware of the dangers associated with ethnocentric nationalism, Mounk advocates an inclusive civic and cultural patriotism that, in the United States, celebrates the nation’s founding ideals and is imbued with an appreciation for “everyday sights, smells, sounds and tastes”. “.
Mounk thinks that the crucible and the bowl of assimilation approaches do not support diverse democracies. Instead, he supports maintaining “respect for communities that prefer to keep to themselves” while encouraging citizens “to embark on a life that is, in a meaningful sense, shared.”
While he deems the determination “to treat people by their deeds or their character, not the color of their skin” noble, Mounk points out that the aspiration to be race-blind can – and s is – made into “a reality of being blind to racism. Racial injustices, he argues, “must be investigated, recognized and corrected”.
At the same time, Mounk notes that while progressives once favored a universal view of American society, they increasingly favor race-conscious policies conditioned on membership in a historically oppressed group. Instead of helping the “grand experiment” succeed, this approach “risks emboldening and empowering its most dedicated critics.”
Instead, Mounk challenges the conventional wisdom of the left: he recommends trying “to redress historical injustices to such an extent that a racial lens becomes less important — not because people ignore its continued relevance.” , but because it really structures reality to a lesser degree.”
Americans support higher minimum wages, cancellation of student debt, universal preschool, a public health insurance option and more permissive zoning laws, he says, when given neutral justifications racially; when the frame is racial justice, the opposition soars.
Mounk understands that African Americans have suffered – and continue to suffer – from the impact of past discrimination more than any other group. But it also highlights the progress that has been made: today, the typical African American has moved into the middle class; lives in a suburb or small town; has completed high school (and if under 40, has spent some time in college); works in a white-collar job; closed the life expectancy gap; and is more likely than his white counterparts to “believe in the American Dream”.
And the number of Americans who say they oppose interracial marriage is now miniscule.
The project of thriving diverse democracies is more likely to succeed, Mounk concludes, “if we build deeper connections, empathy and solidarity between different groups.”
Who can disagree? But it won’t be easy in a toxic, partisan and polarized “democratic recession” that undermines our ability to contain conflict.
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.