Capitol Riot Disinformation Nation
Violent rioters supporting President Donald Trump, storm the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Thirty years ago—on Christmas Day in the Western calendar—the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin and replaced with the Russian tricolor. The USSR officially ceased to exist the following morning, putting an end to the Cold War struggle between East and West, Communism and capitalism, and—allegedly at least—despotism and freedom. Pundits proclaimed the end of history: The big questions were answered because liberal democracy had triumphed. A globalized world of free markets and ephemeral boundaries would be benevolently presided over by the United States, the sole remaining superpower, in a unipolar world in which the seeds of nationalism and dictatorship would find little purchase.

The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure
by Yascha Mounk
Penguin, 368 pp.

Those bold statements, it turned out, were premature. Now Russia is again a dictatorship, invading its neighbors and threatening the world with its nuclear arsenal. The American Republic narrowly survived a violent coup attempt just one year ago, while liberal democracies remain under siege throughout the world. As it turns out, there are plenty of other forces apart from global Communism that can push nations toward authoritarianism. From the disorienting effects of an increasingly globalized economy, large-scale migration flows, and a financial crisis that nearly brought down the world economy, populism, xenophobia, and nationalism have taken root once again. In Hungary, Brazil, India, the Philippines—the list goes on—autocrats have been on the rise, and Americans have reason to fear that the next presidential election could precipitate the end of the American experiment.

In February, the Economist Intelligence Unit released its 16th annual survey of the state of democracy worldwide. For the second year running, it had hit a record low—a rate of deterioration not seen since the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Only six in 100 of the world’s people now live in what the EIU would categorize as “full democracies,” and the U.S. is not among them, ranking as a “flawed democracy” for the second year due to its dysfunctional political culture and poorly functioning government. 

The world’s ongoing slide into authoritarianism has generated a frantic effort among political scientists, historians, and national security experts to identify the causes and possible solutions. Over the past four years, several books have been published that diagnose a deadly disease but offer only the most rudimentary treatments.

Now Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, has a new book that delves more deeply into solutions than prior scholarship. His ambitious effort will help jump-start serious conversations about how to rescue the long-standing democracies of “the West,” even if some of its central arguments don’t quite hit the bull’s-eye, especially when the target is the U.S. itself.

T

he Great Experiment posits that one of the main reasons so many liberal democracies are in crisis is because they have become far more ethnographically diverse in recent decades, a development that has undone the once-explicit ethno-nationalist self-conception of countries like Sweden or Germany and shattered previously dominant groups’ control over the Netherlands, United Kingdom, United States, and Canada. “Their transformation is owed to the unforeseen and unintended consequences of policies that had objectives unrelated to the ultimate outcome,” Mounk notes. In 1945, fewer than one in 25 U.K. residents were foreign born; now it’s one in seven. Sweden was almost completely homogenous; now one in five residents has non-Swedish roots. In the middle third of the 20th century, the U.S. severely limited immigration from outside northern Europe; today, four-fifths of legal immigrants come from Asia or Latin America. The “Great Experiment” in the book’s title is the effort to sustain liberal democratic societies that are no longer dominated by one ethno-cultural group.

If everyone ascribes to ethno-national groups, says Mounk, and your group is losing its numerical superiority, it’s a threat to your group and evolutionary psychology has you primed to freak out about it.

Mounk, to be clear, supports multiculturalism. His understanding of how it can thrive within various countries is contingent on a shared patriotism that exists above cultural cleavages and serves to hold a diverse democracy together. This is a challenge, he explains, because of the evolutionary psychology of Homo sapiens. Thomas Hobbes’s observation in Leviathan that human life before governments came along was a brutish war of every man against every man formed the building block of a lot of political science and international relations theory, but it’s verifiably false. We’re social creatures who are hardwired to form and join groups—witness middle school, sports fandom, or the Yugoslav civil war—and to think one’s own group is better. In a state of anarchy, human life might be “nasty, brutish, and short,” but it would be because of wars of every band against every band, as most every work of post-apocalyptic sci-fi suggests. 

Mounk’s thesis is that it’s no accident that, until recently, democracies have all been overwhelmingly dominated by one national group, usually defined by race and ethnicity. Most examples of peaceful multiethnic, multicultural societies—the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, for instance—were decidedly undemocratic monarchies. “If you are the subject of a king or emperor, the relative number of people in your own group does not directly impact the laws you have to follow,” he argues. “So long as you trust the monarch to tolerate your community, you can look upon an influx of people from a different ethnic or religious group with relative equanimity. If you are a citizen of a democracy, by contrast, the relative number of people in your own group directly impacts your ability to shape political outcomes.” 

In other words, if everyone ascribes to ethno-national groups and your group is losing its numerical superiority, it’s a threat to your group and evolutionary psychology has you primed to freak out about it.

There’s something to this, at least in European nations that previously thought of themselves as the land of such-and-such people (the Swedes, Germans, Hungarians, Dutch, and so forth). In recent years, European right-wing authoritarian movements have risen on negative public reaction to new waves of immigrants or even potential immigrants, from Germany’s AfD to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. The U.K. left the European Union—risking its own dissolution—partly because a majority of residents of England (but not Scotland or Wales) felt that England’s identity was being washed away by the presence of “Polish plumbers” and other EU nationals. But were these developments really triggered by German or Hungarian or English people’s fears that they’d soon be literally outvoted by “foreigners”? I don’t see a lot of evidence of that. 

Rather, there’s been a reaction to a perceived dilution of the shared norms, values, and folkways that traditionally defined membership in the “national” group, a nativist populism that also sees outsiders as competitors with working-class people for jobs and opportunities. “England is becoming less English,” they say. “Hungary must be for the Hungarians,” the Hungarian right insists, even though migrants have made it clear they’re only passing through the place on their way to western Europe. I’d posit that the reason liberal democracies are experiencing these tensions is because liberal democratic regimes are exactly the places to which people want to emigrate. And humans in undemocratic countries are at least as susceptible to calls to purge the nation of out-groups, from Communist-era Bulgarians expunging their centuries-old Turkish enclaves to German popular participation in the Holocaust.

It’s harder to cleanly track Mounk’s thesis to the U.S., primarily because definitions of who we are, who belongs, and what we stand for have always varied considerably by region. We were colonized by rival Euro-American projects with distinct ethnographic, religious, and political characteristics, each of which spread over its own swath of the continent. What makes someone “American” means one thing in New England, another in the Deep South or the (originally Dutch) area around New York City, and something else entirely in the Spanish-settled Southwest. Mounk correctly points out how much more diverse the U.S. has become since immigration was deracialized by the 1965 Immigration Act and our movement toward becoming “majority-minority” by the 2040s, even as he deftly picks apart the easy assumptions people make about what that will mean for the partisan balance of power. 

But it won’t shock you that I, the author of a book on U.S. regionalism, will counter that the real “group-based” fear driving our country apart is the same one that drove the creation of our federal system in the 1780s and the Civil War of the 1860s. It’s the fear, in a federation of very different regional cultures, that the opposing regional bloc is going to take control of said federation and use the awesome power of the state to force you to live like them. It’s what the conservative legal scholar David French warned about in his Divided We Fall: that “geography plus culture plus fear” is leading us toward constitutional crisis and secession. “At this moment in history, there is not a single important cultural, religious, political, or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart,” French noted, and the differences between rapidly secularizing and deeply religious regions of the country tower over those on immigration.

Setting this premise aside, there is much to value in The Great Experiment, which takes on the difficult task of developing strategies to shore up liberal democracies in a globalized age. Mounk rightly notes how essential it is that we succeed, because the alternatives are horrific. In power, ethno-nationalist regimes often turn to ethnic cleansing, forcing citizens from out-groups from the country (see the Turkish-Greek population exchanges of the early 20th century) or simply killing them (in the Bosnian conflict, for instance). Illiberal democracies might form, denying the individual rights of members of out-groups in an effort to force their assimilation. It’s a short step from there to ending democracy altogether. But how?

People have always borrowed from and been inspired by other cultures, and that sharing helps bind people together in a sense of common humanity and purpose. Thus, governments should recommit to the essential project of classical liberalism—protecting the fundamental rights of the individual.

Mounk surveys the existing options for diverse democracies and finds them lacking. When it comes to immigration, the old “melting pot” model of total assimilation to the norms of the dominant group is illiberal and inappropriate in nations with increasingly mixed cultural origins. The “salad bowl” model of many cultures sitting side by side is an improvement, but as practiced in many countries has fostered fragmentation by discouraging pride in a common whole and, in some cases, tolerance for cultural practices that trample the rights of individuals, like childhood genital mutilation. It can lead, Mounk writes, to a world in which “residential segregation is the norm, friendships between members of different groups are rare, kids who hail from different countries and cultures go to separate schools, communities barely tolerate the idea that their children might marry an outsider, and many of their members are unfree to make their own choices.”

He’s also skeptical of the trend toward focusing on the rights of groups rather than individuals. Lebanon, a country shared by Christians, Sunnis, and Shias, tried this after gaining independence from France in 1943, granting these groups the right to govern their own affairs in everything from marriage and divorce to education and inheritance. It turned out badly for individuals who didn’t want to live by their group’s norms—because they fell in love with a member of another group, for instance—or didn’t belong to any of the three groups in the first place. Lebanon as a whole suffered because it required citizens to think of themselves as different from one another and “put massive obstacles in the way of anybody who seeks to build close ties with members of other groups.” The country eventually fell into a bloody and protracted civil war.

Mounk worries about the efforts of certain culture warriors on the left who also seek to remake society not through the protection of individual rights and equality—the core value of classical liberalism—but, rather, through the protection of the rights of racial and identity groups. He rejects this school’s arguments that presume that members of one group can never understand the experiences of another and therefore must always defer to their demands and point of view; that cross-cultural appropriation is dangerous and undesirable; and that policies should be enacted “that make the receipt of specific forms of aid conditional on membership in a particular ethnic group.” While he sympathizes with their goal of tearing down past hierarchies and modes of oppression, Mounk fears that these policies are counterproductive and nihilistic about the abilities of individuals to empathize with one another across the identity group boundaries. He’s certainly correct in noting that universal and class-based policy interventions are widely popular with the American electorate, but those that privilege one race or ethnic group over the others are not and foment division and distrust. 

He also argues that people have always borrowed from and been inspired by other cultures, and that such sharing helps bind people together in a sense of common humanity and purpose. Thus, governments should recommit to the essential project of classical liberalism—protecting the fundamental rights of the individual. Furthermore, he says democracies “should double down on inspiring empathy” and not give up on mutual understanding. “Men are capable of fighting for a society that treats women fairly because they believe that anything else would violate their own moral standards,” he writes. “Many whites want to make their democracies better for members of ethnic minorities because of their own aspirations for the kind of country in which they seek to live.” 

Mounk’s solution, laid out over the last third of the book, is a modified salad bowl—a tossed one, if you will—where people can retain their group identities and do their own thing, but in an environment that encourages openness, curiosity, interaction, and a sense of shared purpose. His metaphor is a well-functioning public park—Brooklyn’s
Prospect Park, to be precise—open to everyone and home to diverse activities, but also a vibrant space for cross-group and cross-cultural encounters. The state’s role is to “ensure that some citizens don’t start to harm others, to intimidate people they dislike on account of their opinion or identity, or to control those who happen to be born into their own communities.” Individuals are free from both state oppression and coercion by people outside or inside the group they started in. It’s a society, Mounk writes, that’s “bustling yet peaceful and heterogenous without being fragmented.” 

Mounk is concerned about the trajectory of Western democracies generally, and this model might well provide food for thought for Germans, Swedes, or Italians, especially with Putin’s 1930s-style aggression reminding Europeans what authoritarian ethno-nationalism can lead to. It’s a lot less clear how it differs from what we already try to do in the United States. The unstated implication is that we need to do what we’re already doing—but better.

Mounk offers some strategies about how to get there, positing that cultural tensions can be diminished or bolstered by the behavior of the state, institutions, and other groups with which people interact. Encouraging a cooperative environment is key, Mounk persuasively argues, and he puts forward a number of policy prescriptions. 

Universal and class-based policy interventions are widely popular with the American electorate, but those that privilege one race or ethnic group over the others are not and foment division and distrust.

First, secure broad-based prosperity by fighting monopolies, instituting progressive taxation policies, and investing in public education, universal health insurance, and other basic welfare programs. After all, it’s no surprise that these cultural tensions have come to the fore in an era of global financial crisis, austerity, and COVID-19. But when the state can guarantee financial security and more robust opportunities, people are less likely to worry that members of “other groups” are taking too much of a finite pie. Second, have robust laws to stop discrimination based on race and religion and entitlement programs that benefit citizens regardless of their ethnic or racial identity. Third, enact ranked-choice voting and anti-gerrymandering laws that help temper polarization in our legislative bodies while passing automatic voter registration and ensuring widespread voting locations to ensure inclusive elections. Finally, in our own lives, look to build bridges to other groups, to model a more cooperative future. 

Mounk admits that this is a tall order and success is by no means guaranteed, but he also points to reasons for optimism. On the whole, the U.S. and other liberal democracies have become more inclusive, tolerant, and just over time. “Our countries are capable of integrating newcomers, of building a common bond with people who do not share the same race or religion, and of embracing new national narratives,” he concludes. “The future need not consist of a pitched battle between different demographic groups.” 

Amen to that. But getting the United States there is going to require real leadership. One of our major political parties is no longer clearly committed to liberal democratic norms, and its once and possibly future president has been allied with Vladimir Putin, not the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As I argued last year in this magazine, we’ve lost our sense of shared purpose, our national narrative of who we are, who belongs, and where we’re going, which has left an opening for the American ethno-nationalists who have stalked the republic since its formation. President Joe Biden has made some initial steps in his speeches denouncing the January 6 coup and those who continue to support it, but there needs to be a much broader effort, including civil society, educators, and state and local leaders, to stand up for the national mission set forth in our opening statement as a people, the Declaration of Independence, with its commitment to the inherent equality of humans and their right to life, liberty, and representative self-government. Stripped of such a narrative, we’re just a Balkanized federation of mutually suspicious regional cultures who don’t see eye to eye on much of anything. We’re a park in which each section wants a different set of rules.

Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard is the author of six books, including American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America and Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. He is a senior visiting fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University.