Democracies and Diversity

Yascha Mounk, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, New York: Penguin Press, 2022, 356pp., $28.00.

With its first two decades behind us, the 21st century is proving to be the age of identity politics. Around the globe, from America and the United Kingdom to France and Hungary, from Brazil and Turkey to Syria and India, struggles over identity have come to dominate political debate. In the United States, many factors have contributed to this: mass migration, economic inequality, stagnant middle-class incomes, a sea-change in sexual ethics, political polarization, renewed concern over racial justice, and the rise of populism. Democrats are in thrall to “woke” activists, while the post-Trump GOP responds with its own brand of working-class identity politics. Average citizens, meanwhile, find themselves suddenly wondering: Can we all just get along?

In The Great Experiment, Yascha Mounk, founder of the online newsletter Persuasion, sets out to answer that question. He is cautiously optimistic. The innate human tendency to divide into competing groups poses a stark challenge to left-liberal dreams of easy cosmopolitan harmony among diverse races, religions, and cultures (dreams that match Mounk’s own instinctive preferences, as he admits). But this same groupishness can be a source of social solidarity, binding people together rather than pitting them against one another. Furthermore, the significant gains made by underprivileged or oppressed minorities over the past 75 years demonstrate that our decisions, both political and personal, can mitigate the forces dividing us.

Mounk’s argument proceeds in three stages. In the first, after summarizing the psychological evidence for human “groupishness,” he analyzes the different problems from which diverse societies often suffer: anarchy, when conflict erupts among 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 schemes reinforce ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines. Institutions that foster interaction among groups can guard against these dangers but only when the groups meet as true equals, pursuing common goals with incentives for cooperation.

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