Diversity Is Not What Ails Democracies: A Review of Yascha Mounk’s New Book
Liberalism helps to cope with diversity, and diversity strengthens liberalism
If liberal democracies and liberal values—freedom, pluralism, toleration, openness, and cosmopolitanism—were not threatened by the rise of populist strongmen, this publication might not exist. The UnPopulist was founded to fight this threat, which, in a sense, is more serious than communism ever was because its causes are homegrown—not external—and bespeak a dangerous loss of confidence in liberalism itself. Given this backdrop, Johns Hopkins University’s Yascha Mounk’s new book, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, is a most welcome—and important—contribution to our understanding of the causes of democratic decline and how we might reverse it.
It’s an ambitious undertaking that draws from multiple disciplines—history, comparative politics, social psychology. The book’s thesis goes something like this: Human beings are inherently tribal or “groupish.” They tend to form in-groups and out-groups and have a propensity to favor those who are part of their group—and discriminate against the others, which leads to conflict.
Historically, democracies that have survived have been either fairly homogeneous lacking obvious sources of “groupishness” such as religious or ethnic differences—or have allowed one side to impose its will, to dominate, the other into submission. “Never in history has a democracy succeeded in being both diverse and equal, treating members of many different ethnic or religious groups equally,” he maintains. However, due to demographic changes driven primarily by immigration, Western democracies have rapidly diversified without first putting in place coherent coping strategies. In fact, some of the things they have done may have deepened the hold of “ascribed identities”—identities that we are born into rather than those we opt for or achieve—and made the problem worse. Building institutions that mute the salience of these identities and yet also redress past injustices while avoiding new ones is the key to restoring the declining health of diverse democracies.
The book offers many insights in prose refreshingly free of academic jargon. One of my favorite sections is Mounk’s discussion of the social science literature showing that diverse societies that have managed to avoid conflict are ones that afford many natural opportunities for “intergroup contact” where members of different groups can cooperate as equals and accomplish common goals without interference from divisive politicians. Think multihued choral societies or multireligious bowling leagues. This allows the society to build two crucial forms of social capital: “bonding” and “bridging.” The former “bonds” members within a group, making the task of institution-building easier because the basic level of trust in society is high. The latter allows groups to bridge their divides so that they don’t fear each other or feel animosity while sharing public goods.
A society with both forms of capital, Mounk maintains, won’t be a melting pot or a multicultural salad bowl—currently the two competing models for accommodating diversity. It would be a public park like New York’s Prospect Park.
In a fascinating historical account, Mounk notes that the melting pot model may now be in bad odor because it has became a cudgel for browbeating new immigrants to jettison their cultural heritage and “melt” into the dominant culture. But it came into vogue for very different reasons after it was popularized by Israel Zangwill’s 1909 play, The Melting Pot.
It depicts the wrenching internal struggle of a Jewish immigrant to America who chooses to remain with the woman he falls in love with after his arrival even after discovering that her father was the Russian officer who butchered his entire family in the Kishinev pogrom. The play displays a “keen sense of history’s tragedies” and “a deep awareness of the injustices from which people have suffered on account of their religion or race,” Mounk notes. And yet it counsels that new arrivals have much to gain if they let their Old World hurt and hate “melt” away in the crucible of the Great American experiment to which the protagonist was deeply committed. It was an idealistic and noble vision whose point was not to mainstream or homogenize immigrants but to “exhort them to transcend” their divides and begin life afresh in a new land.
But if the melting pot model soured because its advocates started demanding that immigrants give up too much of themselves, the salad bowl model has opposite flaws, observes Mounk. Like the ingredients of a salad, it seeks to keep discrete groups separate from each other or the dominant culture lest they dilute their customs and heritage. In Great Britain, for example, the Labour government backed state-funded faith-based schools for Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim children presumably so that they wouldn’t be Anglicized in regular government schools. The upshot was not just balkanization and alienation of these groups from the broader culture—but also an inability to develop the habits of getting along with people from diverse backgrounds. Moreover, given the salad bowl model’s emphasis on cultural preservation, it empowers group elders, the guardians of this culture, over individual members—which means that liberal polities end up turning a blind eye to oppressive practices such as forced arranged marriages.
Mounk’s bottom line, with which I heartily agree, is that a liberal society should neither force integration nor subsidize separatism. The better model is the public park, he posits, because it strikes the proper balance between protecting the ways of communities in a multiethnic, multiracial society while at the same time encouraging intermixing. Properly maintained public parks are, he explains, “bustling yet peaceful, and heterogeneous without being fragmented.” That’s because they are open to everyone equally, allow for a very great variety of uses so long as they don’t impinge on other people’s rights and enjoyment, and create a vibrant space for natural encounters and interactions. These interactions help break down barriers and create crucial “bridge capital” but without violating the wishes of those who’d rather hang out with their own. Park visitors can bicker over the rules of use for the park, so long as they don’t try to privilege any side on account of its race, religion etc.
It is an appealing vision that has always been the stuff of classical liberal dreams. My fear, however, is that, contrary to his intention, it might actually point some following his journey in an illiberal direction given the path he takes to get to his park.
Coping With Diversity
Mounk claims that “democracies” stumbled into diversity without a plan to deal with it. But that’s a problematic claim as becomes clear if one restores the dropped qualifier “liberal” before “democracy.” The whole liberal democratic project emerged precisely to deal with diversity. As Stanford University’s Frank Fukuyama notes in his latest book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, classical liberalism arose in 17th and 18th Century Europe as a sort of détente to 150 years of religious warfare after the Protestant Reformation challenged the dominance of the Catholic church. All sides agreed that they would not impose their particular doctrinal interpretations on the whole population when they were in power, basically removing religion from the purview of politics. To be sure, it took a while for this principle to be absorbed and applied more uniformly. John Locke, who made the seminal case for religious toleration in his 1689 A Letter Concerning Toleration, did not countenance extending such toleration to Roman Catholics and atheists (Jews, Buddhists and other religious minorities were too small to even bother worrying about). But by 1846, England had passed the Religious Disabilities Act that handed freedom of worship to not just Catholics and all Protestant dissenters but also Jews and others. This new liberal openness to diversity was embraced with the intention—and manifest consequence—of making England less—not more—fractious.
Indeed, prior to this embrace of diversity, Puritans, for example, were so persecuted by other Protestants that they fled in large numbers to America’s shores, the first wave arriving in the Mayflower in 1620. Of course, England at the time was not democratic but the crucial factor determining whether peaceful co-existence is possible in a society is less whether it is democratic or undemocratic or even whether it is homogeneous or heterogeneous but whether it is liberal or illiberal.
Liberalism was and remains the great coping mechanism for the challenges of diversity. The intra-Protestant persecution also points to the danger of assuming that homogeneity and heterogeneity describe some fixed, natural, objective reality. Mounk is certainly aware of this point, but the trouble is that it does not fully inform his analysis. Societies slouching into illiberalism and intolerance quickly invent divisions. Take India, my native country. India’s demographic and religious mix has been remarkably stable during the seven decades since Independence from the British. The first six of those decades were the heyday of liberalism. During that time, India managed to maintain relative harmony among its myriad linguistic, ethnic and religious groups (the operative word is “relative”!). But with the rise of a charismatic and illiberal Hindu nationalist figure like Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the last decade, violence against Muslims and other minorities has escalated. The situation is so volatile that many fear that the country might be on the cusp of some serious bloodletting.
None of this is the result of mass immigration or any sudden demographic changes. Hindus were about 80 percent of the population after partition and remain so now. They are in no danger of becoming a plurality—let alone a minority—anytime soon. Nothing is threatening the Hindu way of life. Hindus’ “ascribed identities”—of geography, religion and ethnicity that give groups meaning, as Mounk observes—remain intact. And yet a good portion of even the urbane, Hindu intelligentsia has decided that until the share of Muslim and Christian minorities (whose sacred sites reside outside the Indian subcontinent) is drastically reduced, its enjoyment of “its” land will remain unfulfilled. It is a change in values and perceptions and not in levels of heterogeneity that is producing this marked rise in conflict.
And if this illiberal mentality is not cured, then when Muslims and Christian numbers are sufficiently reduced, it will find other targets—Sikhs, lower castes—just as Protestants in early 17th Century England went after the Puritans after Catholics had been suitably (if temporarily) marginalized.
The point is that identities are not truly ascribed—they are prescribed or assigned, often to assert dominion over others. The primary motivating force here is not “groupishness” as such but the drive to control or dominate—what Greeks called thymos combined with a need to exploit. Groupishness is merely one way to satisfy that urge. In other words, tribalism doesn’t lead to authoritarianism or domination—authoritarianism leads to tribalism although it can find other ways to assert itself too. Indeed, it would be weird to try and understand America’s history of slavery—a fundamental violation of its liberal commitment—through the lens of groupishness or tribalism rather than domination and exploitation.
If there is no such thing as a fixed and objectively homogeneous society, then Mounk’s argument that diverse democracies are somehow inherently more conflict prone than homogeneous ones is problematic. That is also the reason why his suggestion that Western countries get a grip on their existing diversity and cut back on immigration rather than add to it is a bit simplistic.
The Triumph of the Restrictionist Narrative
This is the kind of thing that nativist outfits have been pushing for decades. It is a measure of their success that someone of Mounk’s intellect and convictions has accepted some version of their story even though he doesn’t go as far as them and call for a complete moratorium on immigration.
One of the admirable qualities of the book—and Mounk’s Substack, Persuasion, of which I’m a huge fan, and especially his podcast, The Good Fight—is that even though he’s himself a progressive, he listens to all sides with an open mind and engages in good faith. But in this case, this openness has led him to accept a demonstrably flawed anti-immigration argument.
To his credit, he devotes a considerable amount of space pointing out that contrary to ethno-nationalist gloom and doom, immigrants quickly embrace the values and customs of their adopted countries, make rapid socio-economic strides, and tend to be, at least in America, less crime prone than the native-born. Most importantly, they are not politically monolithic and their “ascriptive identities” don’t necessarily dictate their voting behavior. One of the book’s most powerful chapters is “Demography Isn’t Destiny,” in which Mounk demonstrates that contrary to Democratic hopes and Republican fears, immigrant voting behavior is incredibly complex and neither side, not even Democrats, can expect to have a lock on the votes of any immigrant group.
But if immigrants’ voting habits are not pre-determined by their “ascriptive identities,” then what’s the problem in admitting more of them? According to Mounk, it is that the demographic change in Western countries has been far more rapid than natives are willing to accept. Indeed, one reason for the rise of populist politics in Western democracies is that politicians have ignored the will of their citizens, 50% of whom want to control the borders and reduce immigration levels. In America, he claims, the “demographic transformation is more advanced” than in “most other diverse democracies.” So unless advocates of diverse democracies defer to the “persistent and resounding views of the majority,” he notes, voters will react in ways that pose even a more fundamental challenge to liberalism. That is a valid concern, but there is no direct relationship between the level of immigration and the strength of the backlash.
In America, about 14% of the population is foreign born. Its share of the foreign born ranks 34th among the 50 wealthy countries with a per capita gross domestic product of over $20,000. By contrast, the foreign born are 20% of Canada’s population and nearly 30% of Australia’s and their nativist backlash is weaker than ours.
“There is nothing inherently illegitimate about limiting access to membership in a country for those who already don’t live there,” Mounk insists. But if his concern is protecting liberalism, then this might not be the best way to think about the issue. At any given time there is a natural rate of immigration based on push factors in the immigrants’ home country, pull factors in their destination country and the difficulty of moving. Mounk is right that immigration levels that exceed the majority’s endurance risk generating an illiberal backlash. But restrictive policies that are vastly out of sync with natural flows also undermine liberalism because they require a great deal of state violence to enforce. Thanks to America’s restrictionist regime, 100 miles of the interior adjacent to the border is now effectively a constitution-free zone where immigration authorities can stop and demand to see anyone’s papers as if they were at a border checkpoint. This is no victory for liberalism.
It is pretty clear that Mounk endorses immigration restrictions and border controls with a heavy heart. After all, he himself immigrated to the United States from Germany. There are two main reasons why he reluctantly embraces them:
First, as mentioned before, out of political necessity. He believes that defying the democratic will of voters for immigration controls would be bad for liberalism. But even if that were the case, it matters whether one succumbs to such problematic majoritarian demands while challenging the narrative on which they are based or accepting it. Failure to set the record straight on alleged mass immigration risks emboldening—and entrenching—restrictionist demands rather than deflating them. So on that score, the book misses an opportunity.
Second, Mounk harbors a fundamental fear that more groups means more diversity and more diversity means more fault lines and social frictions. So even though he personally likes the idea of a diverse society, he fears that liberalism can’t handle too much diversity. But that too is not so clear. Liberalism first emerged to cope with diversity. However, America’s Founders also emphasized that diversity helped liberalism.
Diversity, at least for James Madison, wasn’t a source of conflict, it was a cure for it. Under his factions scheme in Federalist 10 and 51, he argued that a diverse citizenry would be much more able to hold tyranny at bay because there would be less possibility of a permanent majority that could oppress a minority. He wanted to “extend the sphere,” to increase the number of factions and interest groups so that no one group would have a clear and permanent majority. Various groups would be forced to collaborate based precisely not on their ascribed identity but mutual interests (Think Prospect Park on steroids!). He wanted a majority of minorities with no single one being too dominant. (If Tucker Carlson were around during the founding, he might have attacked James Madison as the great replacer!)
It is hard to see in these polarized times when the left is pushing Critical Race Theory to redress injustices against minorities and the right is snarling to defend the honor and interest of historically dominant groups that Madison’s scheme has worked. But imagine America’s conversation about race right now if it had not become a “nation of nations” and admitted immigrants of various races and religions. All we would have then would be a stark, undivided confrontation between the white race, and black and American Indians, with no mediating groups with any historical experience other than the oppressor and oppressed.
Would such an America have been more harmonious? Or more deeply divided? If the answer is the latter, then diversity is not America’s problem. We have to look elsewhere for the causes of its declining liberalism.
Bonus Material: This is a video of the panel that I moderated for Michigan State University’s LeFrak Forum conference on liberalism in April. The panel, Liberalism’s Uncertain Future, featured Matthew B. Crawford, an American writer and research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia; the Brookings Institution’s Bill Galston; and The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Their remarks were followed by a robust audience discussion that is also worth watching.
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