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‘Great Experiment’ Author Yascha Mounk Interview on Democracy in Decline, Populism, and Diversity

Yascha Mounk is a premier commentator on the crises faced by liberal democracy and the threats posed by far-right populism. Born in Germany and now a dual-U.S. citizen, he’s a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, an associate professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, and founded the heterodox commentary website Persuasion.

He’s also the author of four books, the latest of which, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, is released this week.

Mounk spoke by phone with The Daily Beast’s senior opinion editor, Anthony Fisher, about the steady backsliding of democratic states in Central and Eastern Europe, the conundrum posed by racial categorization in multiethnic democracies, and why despite all the bad news, he remains optimistic about global democracy’s future.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.)

The past few weeks haven’t been great for liberal democracy. Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban won re-election, as did Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. In France, the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is neck and neck with Emmanuel Macron in the presidential runoff.

This is all disturbing, but it seems like pretty auspicious timing for a book like yours to come out! What do you make of the immediate state of democracy?

The fight against far right-populism and the fight against dictatorship is going [to] be a marathon. We scored a big win pushing Donald Trump out of office. But it’s become pretty clear over the course of the last 18 months that that’s not the end of him. And we’re being reminded of how potent outright dictators, Vladimir Putin, remain on the world stage and how able they are to impose tremendous suffering.

And we’re seeing the internal threat for democracy from people like Viktor Orban, who use fears about demographic changes as one of their core arguments to remain in power. And [the threat] from people like Marine Le Pen, who focus very heavily on immigration in order to arouse opposition to the basic structures of our political systems remains incredibly important.

A torn poster in support of Marine Le Pen, leader of French far-right National Rally party and candidate for the 2022 French presidential election, is pictured on a billboard in Cambrai, France, April 15, 2022.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

Can you just explain what “the great experiment” is in a couple of sentences?

Yeah. Most democracies in the history of the world have been very homogenous and have prided themselves on their ethnic purity. Those democracies that have been highly diverse since they were founded, like the United States, have often been based on very cruel and extreme forms of exclusion and domination—most notably in the form of chattel slavery in America. So what we’re trying to do now in the U.S. but also in many other democracies around the world, is to build multiethnic, multireligious democracies that truly treat their members as equals.

And there’s no precedent for that. There isn’t any great example we can point to and say, “They made it work, let’s copy their rules and habits, and that will tell us what to do.” We are now embarking on a great experiment in the same sort of sense in which the U.S. founders embarked on a great experiment in the late 18th century, when they tried to build a large self-governing republic at a time when similar attempts throughout history had failed.

In your book, you cited George Orwell and the idea of “cultural patriotism,” A lot of left-of-center readers might think of the words like “patriotism” and “nationalism” in terms of exclusionary ideas or otherizing, people that are not in the “in group.”

Can you expand a little bit about cultural patriotism and why that can be a good thing for democracies?

Yeah, I’m a German Jew, so patriotism does not come easily or naturally to me. But over the last decades, I’ve become convinced that it’s very important for us to try and claim an inclusive form of patriotism. Because, otherwise, the worst kinds of people—people like Orban and Trump—are going to use [patriotism’s] enormous emotional residue for their own purposes.

We’re seeing today in Ukraine that patriotism—for all its dangers—can also be a force which inspires millions of people to risk their lives to resist a dictator and fight for their independence, fight for their ability to self-govern.

The question then obviously becomes, what kind of form should that positive, inclusive patriotism take? In many countries, the historically most powerful [form] is an ethnic one, one which tries to define the true people by racial criteria, by criteria of descent, saying that immigrants and minority groups don’t fully belong. That clearly is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable normatively because it excludes people who have a right to be full members. And it falls empirically, because it doesn’t reflect how most people now think about membership in those countries.

When philosophers are pushed to embrace some form of patriotism, they usually resort to a second kind of notion—that of civic patriotism. And I am very sympathetic to elements of that.

If I’ve chosen to take up American citizenship five years ago, it is in good part because of my love of the Constitution and the basic political values that it represents. And we should certainly encourage people to identify with those ideas more strongly. [But] even so, civic patriotism fails to capture what most people actually think and feel when they think about their own country. And, in particular, it puts political ideals and values at the center of a sentiment which, for most people who are not all that interested in politics, is much more about everyday things. So I think we should add a third kind of component to civic patriotism, which is “cultural patriotism.”

When people say that they love the country, they say that they love its cities and landscapes. It sounds and smells. Its everyday customs—and even its TikTok stars. There will always be a traditional element in that culture. There will always be some traditional costumes or some grand moments of a country’s past that people may make reference to—but what people mostly have in mind is the ever-changing, dynamic, and already incredibly diverse present.

So I think that this kind of cultural patriotism can actually reflect the diversity of our society and look towards a better future, rather than exclusively being rooted in some idealized past.

Related to cultural patriotism is what’s commonly known as “cultural appropriation.” In the chapter, “Can We Build a Meaningfully Shared Life,” you kind of flipped the script on this and described it as “the virtue of mutual influence.” Explain why you think people who consider cultural appropriation a form of “colonization” might stand to look at it through a different prism.

There’s a very long tradition of people worrying that some form of cultural purity might be endangered by cultural change. Traditionally, it’s arrived from the far right, which [for example, in France] worried about the influence over French language. Or [the far right in Germany] worrying about the purity of the German language. Today, those fears persist on the far right, but a version of them is also increasingly, put forward by parts of the left. [Some] people have generalized the principle that any form of mutual cultural influence—especially when it is minority groups or less-powerful groups influencing the majority of society—should be inherently seen as suspect.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

This, to me, misses [the fact] that all the great achievements of human history have always had multiple cultural influences. That it is actually the norm rather than the exception for the things that we prize in any culture in the world to be a result of what today might be called “appropriation.”

The apparent plausibility of this term stems from the fact that it sometimes applied to situations [which] really are unjust. That it is applied, for example, to certain white musicians in the 1950s and 1960s in the U.S. who stole the songs of Black musicians and were able to profit from them—while the Black musicians barely were able to have a career because of racist structures in [American] society. But, to me, nearly every plausible instance of when cultural appropriation really is bad can much more easily be explained in different language.

So in this case, it is obviously extremely unjust that the intellectual property of these Black singers was violated. It is obviously extremely unjust that because of how racist America was at the time, many Black singers never had the opportunities and the record deals that they deserved. But none of this would be solved by some blanket suspicion of any instance when cultures influence each other.

You wrote about a woman in Brazil, who identifies as a “Pardo”—which basically means she’s somewhere between “white” and “Black” in Brazilian culture. And you describe a situation where she’s applying for a job or a scholarship (I forget which), and she’s basically made to sit in a bureaucratic office and, in her words, be examined like “a zoo animal” to determine whether or not she’s committed “racial fraud” on her application.

I think a lot of Americans would be surprised that this is such an issue in Brazil, or anywhere in Latin America. But a lot of democracies are putting a premium on categorizing people by race to right past wrongs. What kind of challenges does this strategy to achieve racial justice pose for diverse democracies?

What we’re dealing with in a country like the U.S. are the after-effects of centuries of discrimination, which obviously continue to structure society in significant ways. That makes it very tempting to reserve certain opportunities for members of a historically oppressed group, or even for public authorities to use, racial categorizations as a decision-making lens.

At the same time, this obviously comes with a number of significant dangers. There’s the danger that a politics in which different groups are explicitly allotted certain sets of opportunities will ultimately favor the majority group, or the most powerful group, rather than the minority groups that the system is originally set up to serve.

There’s the danger that the constant use of those kinds of racial classifications actually makes them deeper, more inflexible, and perhaps more conflictual, than they otherwise might have been. And there is, of course, the danger that it does violence to the way that a large number of individuals—and our society has a rapidly growing number of mixed race people—sort of feel like they have to fit themselves into some box that doesn’t actually adequately describe who they are.

I’m generally skeptical of a way in which every difficult moral question in America is framed around how something relates to some key phrase in the Constitution. I don’t, for example, think that the morality of capital punishment turns on whether or not it’s sensible to describe it as cruel and unusual punishment. But in this particular case, I actually think the Constitution gives us a very helpful framework for how to think through this question. And that is that we should start from the equal protection clause and the idea that the government, in general, should not take race into account when it determines how it should treat particular individuals.

But, like all other rights, there can be exceptions to that under two conditions—the first being that there needs to be a really compelling state interest for why it might become necessary to deviate from that general principle. And the second being that any use of such criteria has to be very narrowly tailored to serve that compelling state interest. That if there are acceptable alternatives which could also accomplish the same goal, which do not violate the fundamental principle of equal protection the same way, then that must always be chosen. This a basic framework on which everybody from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Antonin Scalia agrees. I think it’s one that we should continue to embrace.

But, of course, the question of whether or not particular affirmative action policies would pass master under this—or whether or not particular so-called “race-conscious” policies pass master under this—becomes a separate controversy.

Near the end of the book, you talk about how Democrats—and the pundit class—just completely got it wrong when it came to the “demography is destiny” thesis, which held that the demographic shifts in the U.S. would lead to a permanent Democratic majority. Obviously, that’s been disproven in many ways, not just with Trump’s win, but how even in defeat, his numbers with Latinos rose.

But you described this as a “dangerous” idea. Can you expand on that?

There’s virtually nothing that Democrats and Republicans now agree on in American politics. Depressingly, the one large, ambitious theory about the social world which they do seem to agree is empirically wrong and normatively dangerous. And that is the idea of a rising demographic majority, in which the white groups that are currently voting for Republicans in greater numbers are shrinking, [while] the non-white groups which have historically verted for Democrats in greater numbers are rapidly rising.

So you can fast-forward the situation in the U.S. about two or three decades and know that so-called people of color will be the majority, and therefore Democrats and perhaps progressives are going to find it much easier to win elections.

President Donald Trump speaks during the annual Latino Coalition Legislative Summit on March 4, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This is dangerous because it drives a form of demographic panic on the right, in which [people] like Michael Anton [later, a Trump White House adviser], who wrote an influential essay in 2016, arguing for conservatives to embrace [Trump’s] candidacy because America is doomed because of—and I quote—“the ceaseless importation of third world foreigners.”

But it’s also dangerous because it can lead to a form of naive triumphalism among Democrats—particularly among progressives—in which they say we don’t need to convince people of our arguments, and we don’t need to recalibrate when we see that a lot of voters don’t like us. We simply have to mobilize our core electorate and await for victory to fall into our lap. As we saw in 2020, as a matter of political strategy, this is naive. The only reason Donald Trump was competitive in 2020 was that he significantly improved his share of the vote among basically every single group of non-white voters—including African Americans and Asian Americans, and especially including Latinos. Conversely the only reason why Joe Biden is the 46th President of the United States is that he did much better among white voters than Hillary Clinton had done four years earlier.

But the most important point here is actually normative, rather than empirical. What many of my friends and colleagues seem to think of as some kind of utopia actually sounds deeply dystopian to me. I do not want to live in a world in which I can walk down the street—and predict with a high degree of accuracy by looking at some of the color of somebody’s skin—who they just voted for. And I don’t think that America is going to be a particularly pleasant society to live in for anybody, whatever the ethnicity, if a newly ascendant coalition of demographic groups ekes out a bare majority at every election—while a little less than half of the population with a lot of resources, a lot of wealth, and by the way, a lot of guns feels deeply excluded.

We need to build a political system that is less polarized along racial lines. That must be the goal for what our politics looks like in a few decades, even if it seems sort of aspirational now.

What are you optimistic about, when it comes to diverse democracies surviving and thriving in the future?

Well, I’m pessimistic about the politics. I’m pessimistic about the cultural, civil war elite that we’re seeing. I’m pessimistic every time I switch on cable news.

But I’m actually quite optimistic about developments in society, more broadly. I’m quite optimistic about what our society looks like on questions of diversity on the ground. Thirty or 40 years ago, a majority of Americans still thought that the idea of interracial marriage was morally bad. That number is thankfully down to the single digits. We know that this isn’t just people telling pollsters what they want to hear, because there’s been a huge increase in the number of interracial marriages and in the number of mixed race children. Thirty or 40 years ago, the top echelons of society were nearly exclusively white. Whether you’re looking at Hollywood, politics, business, or the nonprofit sector—that simply is no longer the case today.

The strange thing about this moment is that two different kinds of pessimisms overlap. There’s the pessimism of the ultranationalist far right which says that immigrants or minority groups are somehow inferior, that they don’t really want to integrate, and that they are therefore doing terribly. Donald Trump infamously said in 2016 that African Americans should vote for him because they had nothing to lose.

At the same time, many of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances on the left tend to fear that many of the immigrants that are coming to the United States now—who aren’t white—simply will not get a chance to integrate and to succeed in our society because of the extent of racism discrimination.

People from a total of 27 nations participate in a Naturalization Ceremony in Brooklyn on June 14, 2019 in New York City.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Now there are of course real problems, and there is of course, real racism and real discrimination in our society, and it’s very important to emphasize and acknowledge that. But, thankfully, that pessimism is just as wrong. The best studies indicate that immigrants who come to today from El Salvador and Mexico and Zimbabwe are rising on the educational and economic ladders just as quickly as Italian Americans and Irish Americans did a hundred years ago.

It’s also true that modern immigrants to the U.S. learn English at roughly the same levels as they have in the past—both in the first generation and subsequent generations.

Absolutely. With language, there’s a very clear model. Obviously, a lot of people who come to the country—especially from places where they haven’t had as good an education, or if they come to [the U.S.] when they’re already a little bit older—struggle to learn English, and often live in the U.S. for decades without learning very good English. But the children, in the great majority of cases, speak the language of their parents but prefer to speak English with their friends, siblings, and others. And the grandchildren barely speak the “language of origin” at all anymore—which is a shame in certain ways, by the way.

What all of this shows is that these two pessimisms are, thankfully, wrong.

These immigrants are not somehow inferior to “native” Americans or to previous generations of Americans. But also, despite the discrimination and racism which truly does exist, they are capable of succeeding. Our society is not as impermeable. It’s worth noting, by the way, that [polls show] Latinos and African Americans are actually more optimistic about America’s future, than the average white person is today.