Yascha Mounk, The Grand Experiment: Why Various Democracies Collapse and How They Can LastNew York: Penguin Press, 2022, 356 pages, $28.00.
With its first two decades behind us, the 21st century is proving to be the age of identity politics. Around the world, from America and the UK to France and Hungary, from Brazil and Turkey to Syria and India, identity struggles dominate political debate. In the United States, many factors have contributed to this: mass migration, economic inequality, stagnating middle-class incomes, upheaval in sexual ethics, political polarization, renewed concern for racial justice, and the rise of populism. Democrats are in the grip of “woke” activists, while the post-Trump GOP is responding with its own brand of working-class identity politics. Average citizens, meanwhile, are suddenly wondering: Can we all get along?
In The great experienceYascha Mounk, founder of the online newsletter Persuasion, sets out to answer this question. He is cautiously optimistic. The innate human tendency to split into competing groups poses a daunting challenge to left-liberal dreams of easy cosmopolitan harmony among diverse races, religions, and cultures (dreams that match Mounk’s instinctual preferences, as he admits) . But this same grouping can be a source of social solidarity, uniting people rather than pitting them against each other. Moreover, the significant gains made by disadvantaged or oppressed minorities over the past 75 years demonstrate that our decisions, both political and personal, can mitigate the forces that divide us.
Mounk’s argument proceeds in three steps. In the first, after summarizing the psychological evidence of human “groupness”, he analyzes the various problems from which diverse societies often suffer: anarchy, when conflicts break out between groups in the absence of a strong civil authority to keep the peace; domination, when one group oppresses others, either legally, as in slavery, or more subtly, by exercising hegemonic cultural influence; and fragmentation, when power-sharing patterns reinforce ethnic, religious or linguistic divides. Institutions that promote group interaction can guard against these dangers, but only when groups meet as equals, pursuing common goals with incentives for cooperation.
In the second part, Mounk gives us an ideal to reach by articulating his vision of a flourishing and diversified democracy. He defends a classically liberal conception of the relationship between the citizen and the state. The State must be prevented from oppressing citizens or associations, while protecting the right of individuals to leave the different cultural groups to which they belong. Mounk defends a moderate patriotism which unites citizens around the love of their common culture. On the issue of immigrant integration, he adopts a Goldilocks approach: the “melting pot” metaphor is too coercive, the “salad bowl” too fragmented, while his preferred (but underdeveloped) image of the audience” strikes the right balance between respecting the identities of groups and encouraging interaction between them. Finally, he argues that because there is no turning back in our increasingly diverse world, the real challenge is how to deal with it. A majority might try to retain its unofficial dominance; or we could reject this in favor of group particularity and identity politics; or – again Mounk’s preferred approach – we could seek mutual understanding and empathy, foster group interaction, and focus on what we all share.
It’s hard to disagree with all of this, which is perhaps a sign of the book’s persuasiveness. Indeed, Goldilocks’ metaphor is not a bad description of Mounk’s general approach: the Trumpists are too hot, the woke-folk are too cold, but I, here at the center, am fair. Most of the time, I think he is. But the fact that it’s hard to disagree with the book may also indicate that Mounk sometimes avoids highlighting latent difficulties. By defending a right to leave groups, for example, he sidesteps a more difficult question, which is not that of leaving (how many of us really want people trapped in groups they cannot leave?) but rather that of education and the strength with which we encourage young children to join their groups at an age when the question of “going out” does not yet arise. Similarly, after having defended a form of patriotism based not only on shared civic principles but specifically on the love of a common culture, Mounk continues in the following chapter the criticism of the melting pot in favor of its image of “park audience “. But there is surely a tension here. The image of the park implies that what unites us resembles rules of engagement, more civic or constitutional principles than a shared culture. Some of us are walking with the dog, others have gathered for a barbecue, there a group is playing basketball, while teenagers listen to music and dance among the joggers who crowd. It’s not an unpleasant image, but it doesn’t include much in terms of shared culture or group interaction. Certainly, in a book of this kind, an author cannot follow every argument in detail. But sometimes you wonder if all those tough problems can be solved in three or four pages each.
In the third and final part of the book, Mounk responds to those on both right and left who think diverse democracy cannot succeed, then concludes with some practical suggestions. There are reasons, he says, to be optimistic about diversity. Despite persistent and entrenched inequalities, minority groups in America have made great strides in recent decades in social inclusion, income, and education. More importantly, there is little reason to believe that the United States will become a “majority-minority society” in which “whites” constantly oppose “people of color.” Racial self-identification is fluid and not always predictable; Asian Americans and especially Hispanics do not always identify as people of color. Additionally, interracial marriage rates have increased rapidly, as has the number of mixed-race Americans. “At least in their daily lives,” writes Mounk, “most Americans don’t seem to buy into the monolithic opposition between whites and ‘people of color'” — nor should they be encouraged to do it. On the contrary, Mounk underestimates the importance of this. In twenty years, race may no longer be a category of great importance in our political life. If so, that would be cause for celebration.
Mounk’s concluding chapter, which begins with a brief apology for the difficulty of offering political solutions to broad social problems, feels a bit like throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. It offers a range of suggestions for fostering an inclusive and equal society in which citizens and the groups to which they belong thrive and interact. These include promoting economic growth through spending on research and development; ensure that access to the benefits of growth is shared through progressive taxation, a global minimum corporate tax rate and apprenticeship schemes; an expanded social safety net including access to health care, paid family leave and perhaps a basic income; expanded access to education; the end of racially sensitive policies; changes to the rules of the House of Representatives that would allow less partisan bills to be debated; voting in order of priority; and the use of nonpartisan constituency commissions to end gerrymandering. None of these suggestions get much discussion; some are advanced in a single sentence. What Mounk does not mention is also sometimes interesting. For example, his critique of race-conscious politics seems to imply the end of affirmative action; but these two words appear only once in the book, in a very different context and without discussion. Similarly, on the topic of access to education, Mounk mentions the unattractive idea of childcare and (I guess) pre-K schooling, but he says nothing about charter schools. or school choice.
While his final recommendations are somewhat unsatisfactory, Mounk has nonetheless written a valuable book on a pressing issue. He is surely right that advanced democracies today cannot become less diverse, even if they wanted to, without paying an unacceptable moral and political price. And his vision of a world in which belonging to a group matters but is not omnipresent, and in which citizens of different backgrounds and beliefs feel connected and cherish a common public culture, is appealing. His Goldilocks approach to many issues will likely draw criticism from both right and left, but he is moving beyond the polarization that currently divides us and toward a democratic future worth working for.