When Yascha Mounk went on a German TV show to talk about the rise of authoritarianism in Western democracies, he never expected such a seemingly innocuous remark to cause such a stir.
“We are embarking on a historically unique experiment – that of transforming a mono-ethnic, mono-cultural democracy into a multi-ethnic democracy,” Mounk said.
“I think it will work,” he continued, leaving doubt in his mind. “But of course it also causes all sorts of disruption.”
The sighting made Mounk an instant target of extremists on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. “Who accepted this experience? a far-right German website raged. The Daily Stormer, an American neo-Nazi website, attacked Mounk’s Jewish heritage with an allusion to Auschwitz.
This experience inspired Mounk’s new book, “The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure”, which warns that countries like the United States are not as stable or immune to violent conflict as they don’t seem so.
“The history of diverse societies is dark,” writes Mounk. Reviewing the checkered history of the world‘s democracies, he worries that they have “a disturbing track record” of being truly inclusive. Politicians like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban, he says, could be just the vanguard of a backlash against ethnic and religious diversity that could end democracy as we know it .
It’s a book that Mounk, a public intellectual and political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, is uniquely positioned to write. Born in Munich to descendants of Polish Holocaust survivors, educated at Cambridge University and Harvard, naturalized American, he describes himself as a “Jew with an unclassifiable accent” – a self-deprecating nod to his experience of life as a cultural outsider wherever he goes.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
It’s in the title of your book. So tell us, why are the various democracies collapsing?
It’s tempting to think that building a diverse democracy shouldn’t be difficult. You know how hard it is to be tolerant? How hard is it not to hate your neighbor for irrational reasons? But the more I thought about and researched the subject, the more I realized that it was really something very difficult.
Part of the reason is human psychology. We have a deep-rooted instinct to form groups and then discriminate against anyone who doesn’t belong.
We know from history that many of the most brutal crimes and conflicts that humanity has endured were motivated in large part by ethnic, religious, racial and sometimes national distinctions. From the Holocaust to Rwanda, you can find examples from virtually any century of recorded history.
As a low-D Democrat, I’d like to think that democratic institutions can help resolve these conflicts, and in a way they can. But in one important respect, democracy actually makes managing diversity more difficult.
Democracy is always a search for majorities. And so, if I used to be in the majority, but now you have more kids than me, or if there are more immigrants coming in who look like you rather than me, there is this natural fear that I might suddenly lose some of my power. And we can see it in the form of the demographic panic that drives so many of the far right in the United States and many other democracies today.
And why do you call it a “great experience”?
Because there is no precedent for ethnically and religiously diverse democracies that effectively treat all their members equally.
There are many examples of stable and relatively homogeneous democracies, such as West Germany after World War II. There are many examples of democracies that have diversified since their founding, such as the United States, which accorded special status to one group and oppressed the other, sometimes horribly.
As a student of the rise of populism and the crisis of democracy, I have been struck over the past two decades by how people from Donald Trump and Viktor Orban to Narendra Modi and Marine Le Pen, exploit the fears that the great experience has inspired.
One of the reasons for their success is not only that they have a powerful narrative, but also that the mainstream and the left failed to counter that pessimism and instead responded with their own pessimism, which , in my view, is deeply counterproductive.
Can you tell us a bit more?
Take the condition of immigrants in Western Europe and North America.
The majority still come from countries that are much poorer and have much lower educational opportunities. This allows the far right to tell that immigrants do not learn the language, are not interested in integrating into the host society and will never be economically productive.
The left generally rejects this assignment of blame. But then he goes on to echo many of his key findings, saying that immigrants are excluded from the mainstream of society, that they really are much poorer, that they don’t experience socio-economic mobility. The only difference is that the left attributes these problems to discrimination or racism and other forms of structural injustice.
There is no doubt that immigrants – and especially non-white immigrants – experience serious forms of discrimination and racism. But when I started writing the book, I looked at the best empirical evidence we have on the situation of immigrants. It turns out that the first generation often struggles to some degree, but their children and grandchildren rise very quickly in the socio-economic ranks.
You fear that American democracy is collapsing. Tell us why.
I sometimes joke that I’m a democracy hipster: I started saying democracy was in danger in 2014 and 2015, before it was cool. I saw the rise of authoritarian populist candidates and parties in many countries around the world. If they weren’t in power yet, they were within reach.
The most dangerous thing about them is the anti-pluralism, the claim that they alone represent the people. This pushes them to concentrate power in their own hands and refuse to accept electoral defeats.
So in that sense, there’s nothing particularly surprising about Trump’s conduct in office, or for that matter, the way he refused to accept his defeat as legitimate. For him, it is a conceptual impossibility that the majority of his compatriots actually chose President Biden.
When Trump first won the election in 2016, I don’t think he recognized how various institutions limited his power. If re-elected in 2024, he would be much more determined to concentrate power in his hands from day one. A second Trump presidency would be far more dangerous than the first.
What about the second part of the title of the book, which explains how democracies endure? How does the United States transcend the historical pattern that worries you?
It is a very difficult task. Our country today remains deeply marked by the extreme forms of injustice that have distorted it for centuries. It would be naïve to think that we can entirely overcome this legacy in a few years.
But people sometimes forget that, as recently as 1980, a clear majority of Americans thought interracial marriage of any kind was immoral. Today, that number is down to a single digit.
More broadly, one of the most dangerous ideas in American politics is the idea that demographics are fate. It is deeply pernicious. It fuels right-wing extremism and left-wing identity politics, despite the fact that simple demographic categories – whites versus people of color – no longer represent the complex reality of the country.
Thus, one of the most important tasks of both political parties is to advance the racial depolarization of the American electorate. The country would be much better off if Republicans really tried to build a working-class, multiracial coalition and Democrats didn’t abandon many predominantly white states.
I don’t want to live in a country where I can walk down the street, look at someone’s skin color and know with great certainty who they’re voting for.
What to read tonight
My colleague Maya King reports from Georgia on two predominantly black cities that epitomize the state’s growing diversity and leftward shift — and which may soon be represented in Congress by Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Republican candidates in several states are trying to oust conservative governors by harnessing the anti-establishment energy of the Trump base. But in gubernatorial races, reports Reid Epstein, it’s hard to beat the establishment.
Worried about American politics? You can blame Tiktaalik, a 375 million year old fish that has become the subject of memes asking why – why – it had to drop its four whispering limbs to earth and send humanity on its current path.
Farewell to a Secretary of State
On Politics regularly features work by photographers from The Times. This is what Kenny Holston told us about capturing the image above:
Since December, I’ve covered three funeral services for The Times: for former Senator Bob Dole, former Senator Harry Reid and, this week, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Covering a funeral service can often be difficult. My goal during Albright’s service was to capture scenes that portrayed the depth of what those in attendance might feel while providing clear news coverage for Times readers.
Among family, friends and former colleagues in Albright’s service were three presidents – Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton – as well as Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. It is rare to have the opportunity to capture images like this. I did my best to compose an image that I felt spoke to the importance of life lived by Albright.
Thanks for reading. We’ll see you on Monday.
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