Yascha Mounk on What Democracy Needs to Survive

This article is from a special report on the Athens Democracy Forum, which concluded last week in the Greek capital.

Yascha Mounk is a widely recognized expert on the crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism. He is the author of four books that have been translated into more than 10 languages. He is an associate professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University; a contributing editor at The Atlantic; a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; the founder of Persuasion, a publication and intellectual community; and the host of the podcast The Good Fight. His latest book is “The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.” He was a speaker at the Athens Democracy Forum last week in association with The New York Times.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

What has happened to make democracies particularly fragile?

What the United States and many other democracies are experiencing is unprecedented. Most democracies have historically been relatively monoethnic and monocultural, with most of their citizens sharing common cultural origins. Others have always had clear ethnic or religious hierarchies, which allowed one group to dominate the others. There is not much precedent for highly diverse democracies that treat everyone equally.

Why do you think diversity can be dangerous for democracies?

There are three basic reasons why making diverse democracies work is a difficult thing to do. Humans are “groupish.” They are quick to form groups and even quicker to favor members of their own group. When I ask my students whether a hot dog is a sandwich, for example, those who think that it is quickly start to discriminate against those who think that it isn’t.

Second, we know from the history of humanity that certain distinctions between groups contain an especially high potential for conflict. Some of the most violent and terrible conflicts in history have pitted different ethnic, religious, racial or national groups against each other; that’s probably no coincidence.

The third difficulty has to do with the basic mechanisms of democracy. In monarchies, the size of your group doesn’t matter. Neither of us has any power, so long as we both trust the monarch; it doesn’t matter if you have more kids than me. In a democracy, there is always a need to search for a majority. And if I am a member of an ethnic and religious group that used to be in the majority, and now your group is growing more quickly than mine, I can start to fear that I’ll lose power and other forms of advantage. As we can see in the politics of many democracies today, that fear is a big motivating factor for a lot of people.

You argue that many developed societies — particularly in Europe — stumbled into this experiment when they began to invite and attract foreign workers and refugees. So this was not a planned experiment, but do you think these countries could have or should have been quicker to understand the consequences of diversification?

When I first used the word “experiment” in a live television interview in Germany, parts of the far right claimed I had admitted to a conspiracy. They said: This is proof that this academic at Harvard (I was teaching there at the time) and Angela Merkel (who was the German chancellor) are experimenting on the German people. They saw this as proof for their conspiracy theory of a “great replacement.”

But the truth is that most countries did not become diverse as the result of the conscious choices and preferences of policymakers. In Germany, the great increase in immigration was the result of the economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s, and the perceived need to increase the number of factory workers. In the U.S., it is connected to reforms of immigration rules in the 1960s, reforms that, according to President [Lyndon B.] Johnson, weren’t going to change the ethnic composition of the country.

But that there was a lack of foresight and planning meant that many of these societies were for a long time in denial. Politicians in Germany would repeat that “we are not a country of immigration” long after that ceased to be true. And the descendants of Turkish “guest workers” were denied any access to citizenship for many decades. All of that made it harder to build the sense of common belonging that we need to make diverse democracies succeed.

One of the consequences of immigration is the rise of a virulent nationalist far right, including in Sweden, France and the United States. Do you think these right-wing forces would have had the same success without the issue of immigration?

We actually see the far-right being very successful in some countries in which immigration is far lower, such as Brazil and Hungary. So the answer is not obvious. But rapid demographic change does seem to elicit deep fears that are easily exploited by far-right populists. So I do think that, in Europe and the United States, the demographic changes of the last decades have made it easier for populists to win power.

Do you think mainstream parties or liberal left parties understood the political consequences of immigration policies? Was there some way they could have blunted the attraction of the right-wing forces?

It is difficult to generalize because the situation does vary significantly from place to place. But there are three things that center-left and center-right politicians could probably have done better in most countries. The first would have been to prepare the population for the rapid changes that awaited them — and proactively to make the argument that diverse democracies can, despite the real difficulties they face, succeed.

Second, I think there is a crucial difference between how people think about control over immigration and how they think about the extent of immigration. People want to know that their government can control who can get into the country. But once they know that, many of them recognize the contributions that immigrants are making to their communities and become more open to the case for relatively high levels of immigration.

Third, politicians, especially on the center left, should have realized the need for a form of inclusive patriotism. Diverse democracies can only work when their citizens share a sense of solidarity and mutual good will.

You talk about the promise of cultural and civic patriotism as a unifying force. Where has that worked? Is the national mourning over the death of Queen Elizabeth an example, for instance?

I don’t want to single out one country; no country has a perfect solution. But there are a number of countries that have come quite far in developing a healthy sense of civic and cultural patriotism.

I would say Britain, Canada and the United States recognize that people with different origins and religions can all be proud of the national culture they share. Studies in the United States, for example, suggest that immigrants are, on average, more patriotic and more optimistic about the future than native-born citizens.

You offer different metaphors for how diverse societies try to reconcile their many parts to form a collective whole. You talk about the melting pot, the salad bowl and the public park. Can you describe these briefly, and say why you prefer the public park?

With the melting pot, everyone will eventually come to resemble each other; it asks people to give up too much of their cultural origin. The salad bowl, envisages a society in which different groups live next to each other, rarely intersecting but appreciating each other from a distance. But this is dangerous because it doesn’t allow for enough of a sense of solidarity between citizens from different groups.

That’s why I prefer the public park. In a park, people can stay among themselves without being open to engage with strangers. But they can also come to know and engage with new people. A park in which everyone is shut off from each other is very sad. For diverse democracies to work, we also need a lot of people who go out and build bridges between members of different groups.

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