Yascha Mounk is a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and the founder of Persuasion. His new book, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, was published this week.
In this week’s conversation, Ravi Gupta and Yascha Mounk discuss why it is so hard to build diverse democracies, how we can overcome the deeply human instinct to discriminate against those unlike ourselves, and why he remains optimistic about the prospects of the “great experiment.”
This interview first appeared on The Lost Debate, a platform and podcast founded by Ravi Gupta. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Ravi Gupta: You start The Great Experiment with this anecdote of going on German television. You got yourself into a little bit of a social media backlash. What happened?
Yascha Mounk: I started the book with being misunderstood because, of course, my experience of writing a book has always been that I'm going to be misunderstood. I was talking about my last book, The People vs. Democracy, which was about the rise of populism and the threat it poses to democracy. I went on the biggest television news show in Germany and gave an interview about it. I was a little bit nervous. The first question was, “What explains the rise of populist candidates like Donald Trump?” And I said, “Look, it's got to do with the rise of the internet, it's got to do with economic stagnation. But it's also to do with this great experiment that we're in today; that, for the first time, we're trying to build these diverse democracies, and that causes some problems. It causes some genuine issues, but I think we're going to make it work.”
That word “experiment” really triggered a lot of people on the far right, because when they heard that word they pictured a chemistry teacher in high school who does an experiment where he knows exactly what the outcome is. They felt like I was admitting that I and Angela Merkel were experimenting with the German people or something like that. What I meant, of course, is an experiment in the way it’s familiar in American political language, from the founders. When democracy was founded, in the late 18th century, most attempts at self-government in the history of the world had gone really badly wrong. They did not know how or whether it would work. But they realized that they needed to attempt this given their circumstances. It was an experiment in the sense that we didn't know what the outcome would be. Today is the first time in the history of the world that we have a large number of ethnically and religiously diverse democracies that are trying to treat all of their citizens as genuine equals. We don't know whether it's going to work. We don't exactly know how to make it work, though we've ended up in this situation. But we better make it work. That's the meaning of “The Great Experiment.”
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Gupta: You give a definition of “experiment” that you use for the purposes of the book: a course of action tentatively adopted without being sure of the outcome. To your point, we don't have a lot of experience with diverse democracies working. You point out that a lot of the democracies that we hold up as having been successful are homogenous. And whenever there is a diverse society, it's either an empire or an autocracy or a monarchy. Is there an example of a diverse democracy that has been working?
Mounk: I don’t think that there’s an example of a diverse democracy that works perfectly. Clearly there are serious problems and injustices in the United States today, but by comparison to most societies in the history of the world, I actually think that we're doing pretty well. A lot of people I speak to about this topic are very aware of our own shortcomings. And that's a good thing. But perhaps they haven't studied other countries enough to realize how much worse most of the societies in the history of the world have ended up. So I want to do two things with this book. The first is to warn people that this is a really difficult thing to get right, that there's many pitfalls of which we should be aware; that the stakes are really, really high. But I also want to make people a little bit more optimistic, because I think when you look at the injustices today, and you don't have that perspective, you might think, “What's wrong with us? Why are we so terrible?” But then when you compare it to other times and other places, you realize this is just a really, really hard thing we're trying to do. Yes, we're failing in certain respects, but we’re succeeding in other respects. We're doing much better today than we did fifty years ago. We're doing vastly better today than we did a hundred years ago. That, I think, can give you the hope to build a vision for the kind of society you want to live in, and to make sure that our society doesn't fall apart, but actually thrives and succeeds.
Gupta: Well, let's start with the bad news. You point out that diversity increases the risk of violence in certain circumstances. Can you explain how diversity has been, for certain societies and countries, a catalyst for violence?
Mounk: When you look at some of the greatest injustice in the history of the world, some of the darkest moments of humanity, they often involved conflict between different ethnic, religious or other kinds of identity groups. This is true from ancient times when the Assyrians were expelled, when you saw Jews and Muslims being expelled from medieval Spain after the Reconquista; in the 20th century, the Holocaust, genocide in Rwanda. We see again and again that the most extreme forms of human violence are often violence between these different identity groups.
We pride ourselves in being a democracy. I'm somebody who thinks of my role as being a defender and explainer of democracy, and you might think democracy is going to solve this. But it's not at all clear that that's the case. Most democracies in history have defined themselves by their ethnic purity. That was true from the ancient Athenians to the ancient Romans to the celebrated city states of medieval Italy, all the way down to newly liberated countries in Africa and in Asia after colonialism. Some of the celebrated examples of diverse societies working relatively well were actually empires: Baghdad in the Middle Ages; Vienna in the 19th century. I don't think that's a coincidence. If I see that “your group” is growing more quickly than mine, it doesn't frighten me so immediately, because you and I both rely on the goodwill of the emperor; I don't have any power and you don't have any power. There being more people in your group doesn't really change that. But democracy is inherently a political system in which you're trying to build majorities. This feeling that my group is in the majority, but “Oh, my God, these immigrants are coming in, there’s a demographic change happening, and suddenly that group might be in the majority,” is a lot more threatening because of the nature of the political system. Not only is it hard to build diverse societies, but in some ways, it’s especially hard to build diverse democracies.
Gupta: Group identity—and the in-group, out-group mentality and dynamic—is relatively easy to construct, almost frighteningly so. You cite Henri Tajfel, for example. What were his insights?
Mounk: Tajfel is somebody who was deeply marked by the Holocaust, lost a lot of family and was taken as a prisoner of war early on. He watched the development of psychology after World War II, which was all about groups—how powerful groups are, how easily people can come to discriminate against the out-group. He asked himself why that was. What is it about groups that makes us so willing to do terrible things to members of other groups, as we’d just seen in World War II? And so he thought: Let me construct groups that are so silly, so devoid of meaning, that the members are not going to discriminate in favor of in-group. Then I can sort of add characteristics to it bit by bit, and see when people start discriminating.” And that will help explain what makes groups tick, and what makes them so dangerous.
He got a bunch of teenagers from a school in Bristol into the lab. They are very similar to each other: middle class white English boys. He showed them a sheet of paper with a lot of dots on it. And he said, “How many dots do you estimate are on this sheet of paper?” Some said 100 and some said 150. So Tajfel said, “All right. Well, some of you underestimated and some of you overestimated. So we're going to split you into two groups: underestimators and overestimators.” And then he had them play a bunch of games where you have to give people points that can be redeemed for money later on. And it turns out that the underestimators discriminated against the overestimators and the overestimators discriminated against the underestimators, which surprised Tajfel, because he wasn't trying to get them to discriminate against each other. He was trying to produce a group that was so silly that people wouldn't do that. But it turns out that the moment you put people in groups, they discriminate against each other.
I have my undergraduate students debate whether a hotdog is a sandwich. And it turns out that even undergrads who are enlightened people, progressive, who think they are the most tolerant people in the world, start discriminating against each other on the basis of whether they think that a hotdog is a sandwich. Now, there’s something really worrying about this. It shows that there's something deep in human nature that makes us groupish.
But there’s another, positive side to this. In Ukraine, people are making incredible sacrifices, risking their lives for a combination of a political ideal and for the hope of not being dominated by Vladimir Putin. That is also a kind of groupishness. For me, what it is to be groupish is, one: that we have an instinct to favor the in-group and discriminate against the out-group; but two: that what we regard as the in-group really depends. We sometimes think that the fundamental division of American society is whites versus people of color, or it's people who are black on one side and other people on the other, however you want to split it; that it's natural that our ethnic identity is the most fundamental thing that determines who you are. That's not true in history. What your most fundamental identity is really depends on the context. Somebody, for example, with one white and one black parent would be considered black in the United States, but they would be considered white or certainly not fully black in most parts of Africa. Where the boundaries lie really depends on our agency. And that, for me, is an important starting point when we think about how to build diverse democracies, diverse societies, because we want to make sure that we encourage people to be true to their religious beliefs, too. It's perfectly fine to have some strong ethnic identity. But you also want them to think that we have something we share that goes beyond that. Because otherwise, they will always end up discriminating against each other in these ways.
Gupta: It's a paradox, because you don't want the world to be this homogenous gray goo where there aren't such things as groups and cultures and identities. It's fun to pick a sports team, for example. I am, like most Americans, starting to get into Formula One. And I just picked one team last year, and I have no skin in the game. And it was amazing how quickly I was arguing with Max Verstappen fans, even though I have no idea what I'm talking about. And like if you're not careful, you can get heated really fast.
So, what is the hope? You give a couple of examples. One is two tribes that have wildly different dynamics on two different sides of a border in Africa. Explain that story and what you and others have learned from it.
Mounk: That’s one of the really striking real-world examples of how the way we emphasize particular identities and draw particular boundaries can end up really mattering. So, there are two tribes in southeastern Africa called the Chewa and the Tumbuka. And they live on both sides of a typical colonial border, which today separates Malawi and Zambia. This researcher went to Malawi and started asking Chewas what they think about Tumbukas, and they had very negative opinions. They said, “Look, these people dance the wrong way, their wedding rituals are off. They live with their bride's family. That's really weird. You should obviously live with the groom's family after you get married.” And they said, “Oh, I would never marry somebody from that group, I would not vote for one of them as a political candidate.”
And he thought it was sad to see that Chewas had this prejudice against Tumbukas, but what about Tumbukas? Well, it turned out that Tumbukas felt exactly the same thing in reverse, so it would have been very easy to conclude that this is what journalists like to call “primordial hatred”: these people have hated each other forever; they will hate each other forever; there's nothing we can do about it. But then this researcher says, “Well, hang on a second, let me go across the border to Zambia, and see how people feel about each other there.” Malawi and Zambia are very similar. Again, this is an arbitrary border. But when he went to the first Chewa village [in Zambia] and asked about Tumbukas, they said, “Yeah, they’re different from us, they have some different customs, but I like them. They’re good people. I'd be happy to marry one of them, in principle. I would vote for one of their candidates for president.” He went to the Tumbuka in Zambia, and they were really positive about Chewas. What explains this? He goes through a number of different explanations. Different levels of economic development, or education—they didn’t explain it. What it is, is politics.
Malawi is a pretty small country, and Chewas and Tumbukas together are a large share of the population. They compete with each other for power, and they each have a chance of winning the presidency. They think, “This is my team,” and get invested in disliking the other. But Zambia is a bigger country with a greater ethnic variety and number of tribes. And so actually, the Chewas and Tumbukas are political allies who fight together against the tribes in western Zambia, who are even more different from them, and so they see each other as similar. Chewas and Tumbukas are different from each other on both sides of the border. But on one side, they’re able to cooperate, and on the other side, they’re not able to cooperate. For me, the big question about how we sustain our democracy is, “How do we get people to conceive of identities in ways where they can be true to it, but they’re able to work with each other, to cooperate, rather than to see each other as enemies?”
Gupta: In a way, then, the real enemy of our longevity as a democracy is zero-sum language and zero-sum politics, framing the choice as “We win, you lose.”
Mounk: Absolutely. And this is perhaps where some of our listeners will start to disagree with me, but it's an important thing to think through: I'm worried about the way we habitually talk about whites and people of color in the United States.
One of the most dangerous ideas, perhaps the most dangerous idea today that both parts of the left and right agree on, is this idea that America is about to become “majority minority” by 2045 or so; meaning that whites will be in the minority; and that because whites tend to vote for Republicans in greater numbers, and nonwhite groups tend to vote for Democrats in greater numbers, that will give Democrats a sort of natural advantage. I much prefer the current Democratic Party to the current Republican Party, so this should be something that's enticing to me . But it's not, because I don't like the idea of walking down the street twenty years from now and being able to tell with a high degree of likelihood who somebody is voting for by looking at the color of their skin. I know the ways in which this fear of demographic change fuels some dangerous triumphalism on the left, but also a lot of panic and resentment on the right about the so-called “Great Replacement Theory,” which is what people misheard my interview as saying.
Gupta: Parts of the left and right both seem to buy into this premise, per your point, which is that this is inevitable.
Mounk: The left is saying “Hooray, in 20 years, finally, these rising groups will be in the majority and they'll dominate politics and culture and all of the problems of America will be solved.” On the right, they’re thinking, “Well, this group is coming, and it's going to eclipse us. And we're never going to win.” There was a really interesting essay written in 2016 by Michael Anton, who was making the case for why conservatives should vote for Trump, and he ended up being a senior adviser in the Trump White House. He's saying the 2016 election is like Flight 93, the flight on 9/11 which took off a little bit late, so passengers knew what had happened to the other flights, and they knew that they were doomed, so they stormed the cockpit in an attempt to wrest control of the plane and in the ensuing scuffle the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Anton said: 2016 is the Flight 93 election. We know that if we don't do anything we’re doomed. Why? We're doomed by the “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners” who hate the republic and who hate Republicans. And so we put Trump in charge—perhaps he’ll know how to fly the plane, perhaps not and we'll all crash—but it's better than the alternative, which is certain doom. This is the kind of panic and fear which this idea of demography being destiny is fueling.
Now, an idea can have dangerous consequences in the world and still be true. Nothing I've said is an empirical argument against this belief. But there's really good empirical arguments against thinking of America in this kind of way. When you're talking about the majority-minority America, a lot of this is going to be mixed race Americans; or Hispanics, many of whom actually in key ways think of themselves as white; or people who are going to have spouses or other close relatives who are white. And so this idea that you can understand American society as these two monolithic blocks of whites and people of color—and that is the fundamental dividing line in America—thankfully, is not true. Real life is just more complicated.
We’ve seen that in the 2020 election, right? The only reason why Donald Trump was competitive in the 2020 election is that he made real advances in his share of the vote among basically every non-white group, including African Americans, Muslim Americans (who are majority non-white), and especially Latinos. The only reason why Biden is president is that [compared to Hillary Clinton in 2016] he really improved his share of the white vote since 2016.
Gupta: Before we get to solutions, let's talk about the international context a little bit. So we've talked about the history internationally of different types of regimes. We have now Modi in India, we have Bolsonaro, we have Orbán, Le Pen, Trump—what unites all these figures and what similar tactics and language are they using to build their coalitions?
Mounk: In a way it's tempting to say they don't have anything in common. Donald Trump, as you may have noted, is not particularly fond of Muslims. Recep Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, does not appear to be overly fond of anybody who's not a Muslim. They don't have that in common. Narendra Modi is a Hindu nationalist. They like different groups. Even economically, they don't necessarily have things in common. Some of these populists are sort of pro-big business; some Republicans are now trying, or pretending, to be for the native working class. Someone like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, socialist or perhaps even communist, hating big corporations and standing up for minority groups. So they don't have that in common necessarily, either.
What unites them all is a way of talking about politics which is based on two basic concepts. The first is anti-elitism, which is common in democracy. Barack Obama was anti-elitist in many ways in his first campaign. That’s a legitimate form of politics. The thing that does worry me is the second strand, which is anti-pluralism, and what that means is that they say, “I, and I alone, truly represent the people. Anybody who disagrees with me is by nature of that fact illegitimate. They are an enemy of the people, a traitor.” In 2008, a few days before the election there was a town hall in which somebody told John McCain that Obama is a Muslim, and that he's not a true patriot and that he's a terrible man—“if he wins, I'm afraid for my country.” And McCain, to his great credit, answered saying: Look, obviously, I want you to vote for me. Obviously, I think I would be the better president—that's why I'm running—but Obama is a decent man. And if he wins the election, you don't have to be afraid for your country. He's legitimate. I want you to vote for me, but the people I have deep disagreements with are legitimate too. If they win, they rule, that’s fine. Denial of that is what defines these dangerous authoritarian populists. You can't imagine Trump saying that.
Gupta: You talk about this interesting case in India in 1992—Uttar Pradesh, which is where my father's from, the most Hindu area of India. There was a mosque that was destroyed by the precursors to the BJP, which led to a wave of violence where many Muslims were killed. What can explain why certain parts of India erupted in violence and others didn't?
Mounk: There were these moments when ethnic tensions—or intercommunal tensions, as they tend to be called in Indian political discourse—were particularly high. And the destruction of this mosque by a mob—led by many of the people who are now in power in India—was the most extreme example. It led to terrible riots around much of the country, including in the state that Narendra Modi ruled. Some cities experienced a lot of people dying and other cities remained relatively peaceful at that moment as well as at other moments of high tension. So, what explains the difference?
It turns out that it is a particular set of connections that people had. In a comparison of two of these cities—one that experienced a lot of riots and another that didn't—the one that experienced riots had a lot of what social scientists call social capital; lots of people having associations and clubs and talking to each other and hanging out together in trade unions and literature clubs and whatever else. That tends to be a good thing, but they were separated between Muslims and Hindus. Even though there was a relatively lively set of associations, none of them helped to bridge the divide between these different groups. When there was a moment of crisis, rumors, bad information, and hate could spread very strongly within those associations, and there was no counterbalance.
Now, in the city that remained peaceful, they also had all kinds of associations and so on. But in those associations, they tend to be more mixed. There were Hindus and Muslims in each of them. In the moment of crisis, people knew somebody they could trust. If they said, “Look, this is not true, we don't believe this, we didn't do this,” they could actually give credence to that; there was a much better mechanism for showing that the rumors which were going around of somebody being lynched or something like that, weren’t in fact true.
So people can be true to who they are. There is nothing wrong at all with saying, “it's important to me to be a member of this or that cultural or ethnic community.” That's fine. But we also need institutions in society that emphasize what we have in common, that try to create commonality and spaces where people come to trust each other, because that's the kind of thing that makes us resilient against the violence that diverse societies have fallen into so often—including, tragically, in India.
Gupta: We're now even creating social media specific to either right-wing people or left-wing people. Does it concern you that so much of American society is becoming more polarized?
Mounk: It depends on the kind of division we're talking about. When we're talking about political divisions, we're clearly getting worse. There’s a great question where people are asked, “Would you mind if your child marries a member of a different political party?” In the 1960s, very few people minded it, because the political parties weren’t very different.
Gupta: We were looking at data from 1972, which basically showed that the parties were evenly split on the issue of abortion. Actually, more Republicans were pro-choice than Democrats. Ford’s vice president was pro-choice, and his wife was pro-choice; Joe Biden had voted the other way at that time.
Mounk: They weren’t that different. Today, a lot of Americans say, “I don't want my child to marry one of them. They’re bad people!” On the other hand, of course, the divisions between different ethnic and religious groups have actually gotten better. 50 years ago—this is hard to fathom, but now seems sort of silly—it was a huge deal for somebody who's Irish to marry somebody who's Italian, right? It was a huge deal for somebody who's Catholic to marry somebody who's Protestant, or for members of different Protestant denominations to marry each other. A huge majority of the United States population was opposed to interracial marriage. Today, the number of people who oppose interracial marriage is down into the single digits. You might say that's all social desirability bias: this is all people being secret racists. That they know not to tell a pollster that they don't like interracial marriage, but actually, they’re just as racist as they always were. Well, thankfully, the numbers show that this is not the case. The number of interracial marriages has gone up very rapidly in the country. It used to be about 1-in-33 marriages that were interracial. Now we're up to one-in-six or one-in-seven.
Gupta: Let's discuss the ideal scenario. We talked a little bit about it in terms of the group dynamics we want to encourage. What changes would you make to American society and politics to make that a reality?
Mounk: I actually think the most important reason why I'm optimistic about the future is not that I've come up with a great solution, and I'm going to tell you what that solution is, and then if only you will listen to me, we can right the ship—I think a lot of books have that kind of structure and it's never very convincing. The reason why I'm optimistic is that when I look at Twitter, I despair. When I look at a lot of newspapers, I despair. When I look at the cable news shows, I definitely despair. But when I look at what's actually going on in society, I don't despair. America has become much more tolerant in the last decades. We have really rapid socioeconomic progress of minority and immigrant groups, in a way that's rarely appreciated by either the left or the right. The best study suggests that immigrants from Central or South America, for example, are rising up the socio-economic ranks as rapidly as Irish and Italian Americans did a century ago. This shows that the far-right is wrong in believing that there’s something somehow inferior about them. But it also shows that parts of the left are wrong in thinking that our countries are so racist and so discriminatory that nonwhite people don't have opportunity. Thankfully, actually, people have opportunity. We see that in the way in which their children or grandchildren in particular are rising up very rapidly. Now, there are also all kinds of sensible things we can do in terms of how we think about our country, the education we engage in, the kind of patriotism we embrace, the kinds of policies and acts of Congress that we should pass—and that's important, too. But fundamentally, my optimism comes from the developments that I already see happening in society.
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