CFR Fellows' Book Launch Series With Yascha Mounk
A democracy has never succeeded in being both diverse and equal. Yet, treating members of many different ethnic or religious groups fairly is central to the democratic project in countries around the world. It is, Yascha Mounk argues, the greatest experiment of our time.
In The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, Mounk examines how diverse societies have long suffered from the ills of domination, fragmentation, or structured anarchy and shows that the past can offer crucial insights for how to do better in the future.
The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows.
This meeting is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.
HAASS: Well, good afternoon—or, depending upon where you are, good morning, good evening. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations.
As you can see behind me, we are going to celebrate, discuss—most important—buy this book by Yascha Mounk entitled The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.
I should probably introduce myself. My name is Richard Haass. Like Yascha, I work here at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has twenty-six other affiliations as well. How he has time to write books is a mystery.
We are going to discuss it for a few minutes, and then we’ll open up to you. We’ve got some people in the room. We’ve got a larger number of people involved virtually in the land of Zoom, so we will also take questions from them.
Your publication date is—
MOUNK: Today. (Laughter.)
HAASS: As we say in the Middle East, mabruk, mazal tov.
And it’s published by Penguin. I should admit in a conflict of interest or something—full transparency department, they also happen to be my publisher, and we share the same editor, who I’m sure prefer—who happens to be sitting there. Mr. Moyers, good to see you.
When we get around to questions from the floor, the first question of the floor will be who is less difficult to work with and—(laughter)—I think I know the answer, so I probably won’t need to ask that question.
Yascha, so let’s talk about this book. What is the great experiment, and just why does that apply?
MOUNK: Uh-huh. So most democracies in the history of the world have actually been by homogeneous—or at the people who really got to make decisions within those democracies were homogeneous. The country where I grew up, West Germany, became a stable democracy after 1945 at the moment when it had become more homogeneous than it had been at any part in its history because of the horrible history of the first half of the 20th century. The United States was a very diverse society at the moment of its founding, but of course it was a society in which one group held the power and other groups were oppressed and dominated in terrible ways.
And so what we are trying today is to build—in the United States and in many other countries around the world—diverse democracies that actually treat all of their members as true equals. And there is no precedent for that. So in the same way in which the Founding Fathers embarked on the great experiment in democracy at the end of the 18th century at a time when most such attempts had actually failed, we are now embarking a great experiment in building diverse democracies that treat their members equitably at a moment when there is no precedent for that either.
HAASS: Just to be clear, is the great experiment—are all democracies come under the chapeau of great experiment, or is there something particularly about diverse democracies that makes them a greater experiment?
MOUNK: So I think at this point we know that the great experiment of the Founding Fathers has sort of worked, but we know that, despite the challenges, we can build democracies that are relatively stable at least for a while.
I don’t think the best great examples of diverse democracies treat their members equally, so there is something more unique about that.
HAASS: OK. So now—I want to return to that—but your subtitle is kind of positive, then your—I mean, your title: The Great Experiment, and then you have Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart—which is something less than positive—and then How They Can Endure, which at least has the suggestion of possibility.
So let’s talk about the challenges. First of all, besides the United States, what falls under the category of diverse democracies?
MOUNK: Yes, so I think it’s most big democracies in the world today. It is obviously countries like Brazil, like India, like Nigeria. It is also most of the countries that used to be relatively homogeneous—when you look at Western Europe, at Australia, at the United Kingdom, and lots of other democracies in the world—
HAASS: Because of immigration?
MOUNK: —because of immigration they’ve become very diverse.
There are few countries where I would say, look, they obviously also have internal divisions. They might contest the idea that they’re not diverse but diverse in their own ways, but they have much less ethnic and religious diversity than is the case in most countries. So Japan or Bulgaria are two examples of relatively more homogeneous societies.
HAASS: Just as a rule, if one were going to have a state of democracy index and you were to have two categories, diverse versus homogeneous, would there be a clear pattern that the homogeneous ones are doing better?
MOUNK: Not necessarily, in part because—but it’s a little bit hard what the causation here is, right, because part of it is of course that the better societies are doing, the more immigration is going to come to those countries, and so that would be a confounding factor.
HAASS: Let’s talk about the United States, about why diverse democracies fall apart—actually, we’ll talk about all of them more broadly. Why is it that they fall apart? When you make a list of the challenges that diverse—any democracies, but particularly diverse democracies are facing, what do you see as the drivers of what you might—what’s traditionally now known as backsliding—whatever phrase one wants—deterioration, deconstruction—what are the drivers that you see that are affecting all democracies; in particular, diverse ones?
MOUNK: Yeah. So I really thought about this very hard in writing this book, and there’s a few different categories of reasons. So the first is just human psychology. So when I was growing up I had this kind of vision of a future in which I hoped that perhaps people would be defined as individuals, or be defined sort of as cosmopolitans who pay equally, but every person in the world, and though we might be able to overcome the huge pull that groups have historically had on us that have often led to these terrible and violent conflicts.
But I think that’s unrealistic, and one of the reasons for that is just how easy we find it as human beings to form groups and then discriminate in favor of the in group against the out group. So something that really influenced me there is a famous study by Henry Tyful (ph), a 20th century social scientist, who wanted to figure out, after the experience of the Holocaust and of World War II, why it is that people are willing to do such terrible things to others once they become members of groups. So he thought, let me create a group that is so silly, that is so devoid of meaning that the members would not be willing to discriminate against outsiders. And so he got a bunch of kids from the suburbs of Bristol into his lab in England, and he showed them a sheet of paper with a lot of dots on it, and he said, have a guess how many dots on this sheet of paper. And some said a hundred and twenty, and some said a hundred and eighty.
He said, great, I’m splitting you into underestimators and overestimators. I’m going to have you play games against each other, and we’ll see, you know, whether you favor the members of your own group, of your underestimators. And to his surprise, they did. They actually started discriminating, even within a group that is as silly as that.
I recreated that with my own undergrads, so I asked my undergrads, who think of themselves the most tolerant people in the world, and in many ways are, but, you know, is a hot dog a sandwich? I’m going to have them play a similar game. And it turns out that the undergrads who think that a hot dog is a sandwich discriminate against the ones who think that a hot dog is not a sandwich.
So this ability to build groups at the drop of a hat is just deeply baked into our human psychology, and we’ve seen that in the real world, particularly across divisions of religion, of race, of ethnicity, of nationality. That has historically been responsible for some of the deepest conflicts, some of the worst civil wars, and genocides, and killings in the history of the world. So that's one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to build diverse societies.
HAASS: Can I ask the question that every person in this room wants answered but is too polite to ask? (Laughter.) Is a hot dog a sandwich? (Laughter.)
MOUNK: Well, I know that whatever answer I give—
HAASS: Admit it, I’m right? OK.
MOUNK: Whatever answer I give I’m going to alienate half the audience, so, you know—
HAASS: Well, come on, take a walk on the wild side.
MOUNK: No, no, no.
MOUNK: But the other thing you see is that in history some of the worst conflicts happen across those lines, and now you might think, well, democracy is the solution to this, right? Our democratic institutions should somehow be able to alleviate those conflicts. And so that was the second interesting discovery I made in researching this book, which was that actually when you think of some of the most famous democracies, they weren’t very heterogeneous, but when you think of the most famous of the societies that worked relatively well, from Baghdad in the 9th century to Vienna in the 19th century, they often weren’t democratic; they were actually monarchies, so they were empires. And I think there is actually a strong reason for that because if we’re both living in some kind of empire, we both don’t have any power. And so if you have more children than I do, or there’s more immigration into your group than into mine, it doesn’t really change anything. As long as we both trust the monarch, that’s fine.
In a democracy, we’re always trying to build majorities, and so, if you have more children than me, then suddenly I might think, hang on a second; you’re going to have more voting power. You’re going to be able to build a majority. You’re going to be able to take over power. And so a lot of demographic panic that we see in our politics today is actually driven in part by the institutions of democracy which can aggravate conflict.
HAASS: So if I were going to look at the trajectory of the United States during its nearly two-and-a-half centuries under the Constitution, we began as a country, you might say, with limited diversion. And certainly after the Civil War—in terms of diversity; not of simply human presence, but of citizenship—American diversity expanded significantly, and then with immigration also over the years. So, if anything, we’ve become a more diverse country, and indeed, you know, we’re all aware of statistics about majorities and minorities, and so forth.
But I don’t—if we become essentially more diverse, has American democracy grown—how would I call it—less successful or less democratic, or have we at times weathered diversity better than we seem to be weathering it now?
MOUNK: Well, I think we’ve been doing better and better, actually. So part of the motivation for the book, and part of why I end up being relatively optimistic is that I think—and each starting point leads you to pessimism, and a starting point which appreciates the difficulty of building a great experiment can actually justify optimism.
So what do I mean by this? What I mean is if you start out by saying, look, diversity is our strength, and it should be really easy to get along. How hard is it to be tolerant? How hard is it not to be bigoted and not to be racist? Then you look at some of the injustices and the problems that we undoubtedly have in our society today, and you say, well, this reflects absolutely terrible on us; there must be just something uniquely bad about what we’re doing. And perhaps we’re to blame; perhaps there is something that makes the United States today worse than other societies, and you can quickly fall into a kind of cynicism. Whereas I think when your starting point is, well, actually, throughout human history you’ve had these terrible—(inaudible)—conflicts, and we certainly have had terrible forms of domination at the origin of our own society.
What we’re trying to do here is really difficult and really hard. But you know what? Actually, right now, we do have a legal system that treats people—
HAASS: You have what?
MOUNK: We do have a legal system that at least formally treats people equally. We have made—we have seen groups of formerly oppressed make real socioeconomic progress, even if they haven’t quite reached equality socioeconomically yet.
We have relative peace in our society compared to so many other places in the world today. We’re much more tolerant than we were fifty or twenty-five years ago. I think from that more realistic starting point of how difficult the great experiment is, you can actually then win some optimism about the state and the trajectory of that aspect of our society today.
HAASS: Well, when you look—when people, for example, do measures of the amount of legislation that emerges from Congress, the amount of—the ability or willingness and ability of people in the two parties to work together and produce legislation—clearly, though the volume of legislation is less than it used to be. And there’s lots of other signs. One could talk about various institutions which don’t seem to be working as designed.
How is it you maintain your optimism when you look at American democracy? In my own research on the subject, you stand out by your optimism. Quite honestly, most of the people working—you know, toiling in these vineyards, and even before January 6 of last year, but certainly subsequently, and they look at some of the efforts now to replace certain officials who behaved—who would have generated a chapter in Profiles in Courage, and a lot of them are being—are paying a price for it—how is it you maintain your optimism in the face of this?
MOUNK: Of course, I’m not optimistic about the high political level, right? So my last book, The People Vs. Democracy was one of the first to warn about the ways in which populists really undermine liberal democracy, and that’s the story we’ve seen in many countries around the world—in Hungary, in India, and of course in the United States under Donald Trump. And we all know, if we look at the approval rates of the current president, it’s perfectly possible that Donald Trump will come back in 2024 legitimately. And we know when we look at some of the things going on in state houses around the country that there may even be an attempt to install him in office by less than legitimate means.
So there’s plenty of reasons to worry about that. And there’s plenty of reason to worry about what I’ve come to think of as a kind of cultural civil war of the elites, about the deep polarization of the upper echelons of American society. When you switch on cable news, there’s every reason to worry.
But on this particular question, which is what is the relationship between different ethnic and religious groups actually looking like? How much toleration are we able to maintain in this county? To what extent do people from different groups actually feel like they’re citizens of the same country? I think the situation is a lot better than people tend to think. And a big question for the future then becomes does the elite manage to impose this kind of cultural civil war of elites on the rest of the society, or can the rest of the society manage in some ways to defend itself against the imposition of this more and more extreme conflict.
HAASS: What I want to do is maybe get you to talk about some of the potential or actual drivers of the challenges to democracies, be they diverse or otherwise—again, focusing more on the United States, but I don’t think it’s unique if we look at the—what’s going on in France, and the strength of the far right and the far left, and so forth.
What of social media? To what extent was democracy designed without—definitely, obviously, it was designed without social media in mind—but to what extent is democracy inadequately prepared to contend successfully with social media; that rather than overcoming diversity, it reinforces diversity in a bad way, in a destructive way because it gets people to define themselves tribally, I think.
MOUNK: Yeah, this is I think the really odd irony of social media; that when it was built, we thought that it would make people connect with each other across the boundaries that have traditionally separated them, right? And when you look at the writings of sort of utopians about the Internet, which were quite mainstream as recently as ten years, they would have said, well, look, the amazing thing now is that, you know, you can be sitting in your bedroom in Wichita, Kansas, and talking to somebody in Egypt, talking to somebody in Vietnam. And it’s going to forge all of those amazing connections.
And it turns out—and this is precisely the tribalism that—or the groupishness that I described in the book—that what people actually tend to want to do is to say, hey, I have to find my identity in some very particular way that might be political—often it’s ethnic, or religious, or cultural, or gender-based, or sexual-preference-based—and I’m going to find this twenty-seven other people in the country or in the world who define themselves in exactly the same way, and we’re going to build this really, really strong tribe.
And so that’s why I think we need to counteract that with a common culture. We need to counteract that with a sense of what does connect us. But I am a little bit more optimistic about that than many, and so this is one of the points where my defense in this book of a kind of form of patriotism comes in. I think we’ve seen the importance of something like patriotism in Ukraine. We’re seeing how millions of people being willing to risk their lives to defend their country shows that, along with the dangers of nationalism, there’s also real positive potential to patriotism.
HAASS: Just to—you mentioned Ukraine, just to interrupt for a second—apologies—it wasn’t obvious that same—anything close to that degree of collective patriotism, or consciousness, or identity, in mid-February. What it basically took, in some ways, was an external actor coming in who—that has done more for a common identity that Ukrainians and seed—you know, because now it’s an existential crisis in Ukraine, for the country itself as well for its democracy, and there wasn’t—there wasn’t a patriotism, if you will, that was anything like what we’re seeing now, until Mr. Putin in some ways generated it.
MOUNK: Well, but I think it also shows how much hidden patriotism there is, right, which is to say that Putin, quite reasonably, looked at Ukraine and thought, you know, this is a pretty divided country, and they have all kind of problems, and all kinds of corruption, and so on. These people are not going to defend themselves, and there’s plenty of intelligence analysts in the West who thought the same thing.
MOUNK: But it turned out that that was a mistake; that actually that sense of national solidarity was, thankfully, stronger than Mr. Putin had calculated it as being. Now, by the way, in the United States, there was all of these shocking polls in the days after the invasion where a lot of Americans said, well, if this country is invaded, I wouldn’t defend it; I would flee immediately. I mean, a majority of Americans said this even, right?
I don’t think, though, it would actually be true because, in the end there is a stronger sense of common belonging than those kinds of statistics might indicate.
HAASS: You talked about the idea of the importance of a common, you know, understanding. One of the issues that’s much in the news these days is civics education, and there’s a lot of talk about it because there is less of it than arguably would be. One of the problems is the, shall we say, reluctance to define what ought to be the content of it, so we’re in this somewhat preposterous situation where we’re talking about civics, yet every state is going to have its own version of it, which I don’t think quite solves the problem.
So again, how is it—I mean, you’ve written about it eloquently, Jill Lepore has. We have a lot of people talking about the need for a common narrative in order to create this sense of American-ness, so we see ourselves first as Americans and only second as something else.
How important is the idea of dealing with civics at the high school, or college, or whatever level?
MOUNK: So I actually—look, I’m completely in favor of it, but I don’t happen to think it’s that important, and here is why. There’s three different kinds of notions of what patriotism or nationalism might look like. I think of patriotism as a kind of half domesticated beast. Its positive and its potentially negative sides are very connected, so if you leave it to the worst kinds of people to exploit and incite, then it can run wild, then it can justify wars of aggression, then it can justify the worst crimes of humanity. But that’s all the more reason to try and use its tremendous symbolic power in the service of good.
But that raises a question of what kind of conception of patriotism we should advocate. Now historically the most powerful answer has been ethnic, right? It has been to say a member of a nation is somebody whose grandparents, and great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents also were already members of a nation—somebody who descends from it in an ethnic kind of way. That, obviously, is normatively wrong. It easily justifies wars of aggression. It puts normative significance on a fact of common descent that I don’t think is that important, and it’s empirically unappealing, actually; which is to say that, not just in the United States, but even in Western Europe now, most people recognize that the half fellow citizens who don’t share common descent, and who count as true and full members of a nation. We know that from polls and the—(inaudible)—survey and so on.
So then the second answer has historically been the civic or the constitutional one, right; that is to say, what defines us as Americans. It is the love of the Constitution, the love of the Declaration of Independence, the love of the Bill of Rights—our political values, our creed that unites us to each other. That has a lot of appeal to—when I became an American citizen five years ago, it was in good part because I was proud to swear to defend the American Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, because I do identify with those values.
But I think we have to be realistic about how many of our fellow citizens feel like that, and most people just don’t care that much about politics. When you ask them why they love America, they don’t say because of the Constitution, and they probably can’t tell you what the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution says, right? And so I think we should add a third kind of understanding of what patriotism consists in, and what makes people say that they are proud to be American. And that’s a cultural patriotism. And what I mean by that is not something that harks back to the Mayflower, or the ancient costumes, or the wonderful figures of the past of America’s history. All of that may play some kind of part as well, but it’s a much more dynamic, every day, future—you know, looking towards the future conception. It’s people loving the cities and landscapes, the sights, and smells, and sounds of a country; the kind of cultural scripts which govern how we talk to each other on stage or later, at reception; you know, even the celebrities, and the TikTok stars, and the sort of silly aspects of culture. And that actually is dynamic, and it already is very diverse. It already reflects all of the diversity of a country in a very natural way.
And so, for me, you know—yes, let’s have civics education. Yes, let’s get people to have—to embrace that civic element of a patriotism, and that’s wonderful, but what ultimately makes or breaks America is with everyday cultural patriotism, but people thankfully, by and large, and including immigrants, and the children, and the grandchildren, to a very large extent.
HAASS: Several of you can put down your phones now and stop Googling what’s the Eighth Amendment. (Laughter.)
Talk about the role of religion, which is to what extent is religion a uniter or a divider in a democracy? Obviously in India right now we see a more pronounced emphasis on a Hindu majority, a two hundred million—plus or minus—Muslim minority is clearly not as confident of its place in what was secular India as it was.
What is your sense when you look around the world—whether it’s the U.S., India, or other countries—about the role of religion?
MOUNK: Well, you know, I think that religion ultimately—this is one of many different identity markers, and we see that, for example, with White Evangelical support for Donald Trump, right? I think if you think of it in theological terms, it’s very, very difficult to explain because the emphasis on living righteously is not always exemplified by Donald Trump.
But when you think of it as, you know, we are part of this tribe—
HAASS: You can be a diplomat in your next life, by the way. (Laughter.)
MOUNK: But when you think of it as, look, you know, we have this identity marker over here, this is our group, and we’re going to, you know, defend our group, and somebody who says they’re going to stand up for this group we’re happy to vote for, then you start to understand how so many White Evangelicals could have voted for Trump, right? So in that sense, primarily I think of it as one kind of tribalism among many others.
But there is a fundamental question it raises about what the relationship should be between the state, the group, and the individual in a contemporary democracy, right? And so there’s one answer which says the state should basically be the enforcer of the majority group and tell everybody else how to live. But it’s—I’m exaggerating slightly—Narendra Modi’s answer for India, right? He is saying India should be a Hindu nation which isn’t just majority Hindu but in which actually Hindus enjoy special privileges, special protections from the state because the state should be in the service of the majority group. That’s one kind of answer which I think, for obvious reasons, is normatively unappealing.
The second kind of answer is that which in philosophy communitarians have pushed for for a long time. And that is essentially to say, look, you know, groups are really the fundamental building block of societies. As the British philosopher, Lord Parekh, has put it, we should think of a country just as an association of associations; just an assemblage of these different kind of groups. And then what rights and duties you have depends on the kind of group of which you are a member. Lebanon, in a way, is a version of that kind of fragmented democracy.
But that I think is also a big mistake because it structures life around groups to such an extent that you no longer have the freedom to make your own choices in life. But if you are born into a particular religious community, you may not be able to marry out, you may not be able to live in a self-determined way if your preferred lifestyle doesn’t accord with the ideas of your parents, the ideas of your priest, or your rabbi, or your imam.
And so for me, the case I make in this book is for the basic precepts of philosophical liberalism which have to give us double freedom. They have to give us the freedom as individuals to be free from the state, tyranny of the majority; that you might be part of an unpopular minority group, you might be worshipping a religion that a lot of your fellow citizens don’t like, and you have to know that you are able to do that without fear. But you also have to have a freedom from the case of norms. You also have to have a freedom from your own group so that the state helps to protect you if it’s your own parents, if it’s your own community members which want to tell you how to live. And that, to me, is the right answer for how we can have real respect for religions in a diverse society while also making sure that we give real autonomy to individuals.
HAASS: I’ve just got two more questions and then we’ll open it up.
We haven’t discussed economic issues. To what—what’s the relationship between economic inequality and economic opportunity, and the robustness of democracy? How much does democracy depend on either economic inequality not getting too great and on economic or social mobility being quite real?
MOUNK: Yeah, so I think economic—not even mobility, which suggests that it is getting ahead of your fellow citizens. Obviously, economic growth of living standards for the average citizen is really, really important.
Let’s put it this way. If we had had, you know, twice as much growth of the living standards of—no, let me put it this way. If the living standard of the average American had doubled over the last twenty-five years, but, you know, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk were four times richer than they are today, would that be—would people be happier or unhappier? I think they’d be happier, right?
But on the other hand, let’s imagine that rather than more or less stagnating, living standards for average citizens would have gone down by 25 percent, but the very richest had lost, you know, two-thirds of their money, would people be happy or unhappy? I think they would be unhappy, and they would be more critical of a democratic system.
HAASS: Just because you are arguing that absolutes matter more than relatives.
MOUNK: Yes. I think what really matters is people’s calculation, am I doing better than my parents, and are my children going to do better than me? And as long as they think, yeah, I’m pretty confident that we’re making economic progress, and I’m pretty confident that my children are going to have a really good life and a better life than me, then they’re ready to be happy.
Now of course in order to achieve that, you need some economic equality, which is to say that if you have economic growth and all the economic growth goes to the very top echelon, and none of it goes to the rest of society—but as a matter of fact, you’re going to have stagnation of living standards for rich people. But I think if you are really trying to isolate the question, what matters is most people have an economic confidence in the future and have a justified sense of economic progress rather that sort of what the Gini coefficient in the society is.
HAASS: Last question for me. So if there were a bipartisan commission, if such things ever exist again, on the question of strengthening American democracy and they called you and they said, you’ve written this book and then the subtitle is how they can endure—diverse democracies—what would be your couple of things that you would say? If you could only do two or three things—this is where you ought to focus your political or economic or whatever educational investment when it comes to making sure that America and democracy celebrates its, you know, three hundred years or four hundred years—what would you focus on?
MOUNK: Well, look, so I make a whole bunch of suggestions in the book about policies we can pass. In order to build diverse democracies we have to have the right background conditions, which means that we have to have economic growth, which means we have to have a welfare state which ensures that people actually get to have a decent life even if they’re not especially professionally successful.
They have to feel that they have inclusive political institutions that actually respond to public opinion in an appropriate way, and there’s all kinds of economic reforms or kind of institutional reforms that we can pass in order to get there.
But, fundamentally, I think that this is not a problem that we’re going to solve by clever ideas in a book. So I described what I call the chapter ten problem in this. So I’m sure, you know, nearly every book presentation you have here somebody has, you know, nine chapters of a really deep analysis of some problem we have in the world and then in the tenth chapter they say, you know, here are the solutions, and the solutions are always going to be so ambitious that you know they’re never going to be adopted or, you know, such that you can—perhaps we can adopt half of them but they’re never going to be enough to actually solve the problem.
So the reason why I end up being an optimist about the future of diversity in the United States is that the actual developments on the ground, I think, are relatively positive, and what we need to do is to protect them and to accelerate them a little bit. But it’s not that I have a magic bullet that’s going to fix things that are going very much in the wrong direction at the moment.
HAASS: If you had a better editor, he would allow you a chapter eleven—(laughs)—in which case you could—you could solve the problem, though. OK. Again, it’s a fascinating book. It’s important. It’s interesting. Yascha writes like a dream. Read it if you haven’t. But here’s your chance to ask him questions.
Let’s start with folks—we’ll go—we’ll ping pong between people in the room.
Leah? You have to wait—I’m sorry. Wait for a microphone, stand up, and let us know who you are.
Q: Hi. I’m Leah Pisar. I’m an old friend of Richard’s.
HAASS: Yeah. Much better—
Q: I’m actually going to invoke an older friend of Richard’s, who was my father, who was an Auschwitz survivor, and despite everything he endured, he, I guess a bit like you, emerged an optimist, and he instilled hope in me and he left me with one very strong principle that has become my professional mantra, which is there’s no such thing as hereditary enemies.
So the question I have for you is are we, as humans, inherently intolerant? And if we are, or if we aren’t, what can we do about that? Having not yet read the last chapter of your book—(laughter)—I might be asking you to repeat yourself. But that is the question. Thank you.
MOUNK: Yeah. No, that’s a really great question. So I think what we can’t escape is our groupishness. What we can’t escape is that we’ll always favor some group over another group. That seems to just be baked into us. But what we can shift is who the members of the in group are and who the members of the out group are, where we draw those kinds of lines.
So there’s a great story or a great study by a political scientist about two tribes in southeastern Africa, the Chewas and the Tumbukas, and he goes and speaks to the Chewas in Malawi and he asks them, how do you feel about Tumbukas, and they have very negative opinions. The Tumbukas, they do all those wrong dances at the weddings and then the newly married—the newlywed couple has to go and live with the family of the bride. That’s, clearly, wrong. They should go live with the family of the groom, you know, and all these other prejudices.
He asked, well, would you ever marry somebody from that tribe or would you ever vote for one who’s a political candidate and the majority of the respondents say no, no, no, of course not.
And he goes to speak to the Tumbukas in the next village along and he asks about the Chewas and they have exactly the mirror image, sort of the same responses. The wedding dances are all wrong and, you know, the newlywed couples go to live with the family of a groom rather than the family of a bride and that’s all wrong, and I would never vote for one of their political candidates. I would never marry one.
So that seems like, you know, hereditary enemies, right. You know, journalists might have said this as—they said this at the time of a war in Yugoslavia, sort of, you know, this is just ancient hatreds, primordial hatreds. They’ve have always hated each other, always going to hate each other. Nothing could be done.
Well, then this journalist went across the sort of arbitrarily drawn colonial border between Malawi and Zambia and he asked Chewas in Zambia what they thought about to Tumbukas, and what did they say? They said, yeah, you know, they have different dances at the weddings and they have different customs about who lives where. But no, I like them. I trust them.
Said, oh, really? So would you vote for one of their political candidates? Would you marry somebody from their tribe? Said, yeah, yeah, why not? And the same among Tumbukas there as well. So what explains this? Why are these two tribes enemies in one country and allies in another country?
Well, part of the reason is about politics. So, in Malawi, the two tribes together are a large portion of the population and they compete against each other for political power, and so they have this really strong out-group mobilization.
In Zambia, it’s a much bigger country and the two groups are a much smaller percentage of the overall population and so they’re allied against other, even more different, even stranger tribes in the other part of the country who they dislike even more, right. And so they’re allies in that kind of context. They’re actually able to cooperate.
Now, all of this is very relevant for the United States. One really common way that we have of talking about America at the moment is as this very fundamental division between Whites on the one side and people of color on the other side, and even—this creeps even into just official, supposedly neutral, descriptions of the country, right.
So the United States Census Bureau says by 2045 the country is going to be majority minority. So these two groups were sort of natural entities, right. Now, that might become the future of the United States and it could be, as many politicians assume, both on the right and on the left, that you can then walk down the street and guess who somebody is voting for by looking at the color of their skin. The assumption of that is what drives the huge demographic panic on the right and also some of the triumphalism on parts of the left.
But that, to me, is a dystopia. I don’t want to live in a country where that’s the case and actually, thankfully, it is a misdescription of reality. Most people’s self-identity is much more complicated. There’s a hugely rapidly growing number of Americans who are mixed race who have a much more complicated identity, who see themselves as being members of both groups.
We saw in the 2020 election that the only reason why Donald Trump was competitive was that he hugely increased his share of the vote among every group of non-White voters from African Americans to Asian Americans to especially Latinos, and the only reason why Joe Biden became the legitimately elected forty-sixth president of United States was that he hugely increased the share of the vote among White voters relative to what Hillary Clinton won four years ago.
So I think, to answer your question, it can seem in certain contexts like there’s mortal enemies and we can never overcome that. But the art of making a diverse democracy work is precisely the art of shifting the group boundaries in ways that are more relevant and less conducive. And that’s one of the reasons why I think that along with respect we have to have for different ethnic and religious and cultural groups, we also have to have a national level of common identification so that even while we might be rivals in certain kind of contexts, we’re going to be friends and compatriots in another kind of context.
HAASS: Get a virtual question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take a virtual question from David Fairman.
Q: Thanks so much, Yascha. Very much looking forward to reading the book.
On the sort of practicalities at the citizen cultural level, what’s your assessment of national service or forms of volunteering that bring people together across lines of difference? It’s being proposed and, to some extent, done both around political differences and around race and class, and there’s some theory to back it—contact theory. Interested to hear your take on it and how significant or not you think it could be as a part of the picture, going forward. Thanks.
MOUNK: Yeah. It’s an idea I like. I mention it in the book. Of course, the problem is that it’s unlikely to ever be compulsory and probably shouldn’t be compulsory for constitutional and moral reasons. And then if it’s not, then there’s always a question of how many people are you actually going to be able to reach with it and are you going to be able to reach the people who actually most need it.
So I think of national service as an important contribution. I think we should have something like a Peace Corps on the domestic front. I don’t think that it’s a silver bullet that some people make it out to be. But you mentioned something really important, which is intergroup contact theory and that’s something I’m going to talk about, intergroup contact theory, and that’s something that I talk about a lot in the book as well.
So there’s this really robust finding in the literature that when people interact with others against whom they might have prejudices that often reduces the prejudices they hold against those groups. There’s classic studies, for example, in Boston in which residents in segregated housing units had very negative opinions about each other across racial lines.
Whites, in particular, had very deep prejudice against African Americans. In very similar housing units that weren’t segregated, once they’d had that contract for a while, once they had neighbors, they had much more positive views towards each other. And so one question is how can we leverage that kind of mechanism in order to build more of a sense of common citizenship and more of a sense of common spirit.
Now, there’s also some limitations of that, though, because this research also showed that intergroup contact only improves our opinions about each other when it’s in a context in which your equality is being emphasized, in which you’re members of the same team, in which it feels like you actually have some shared interests, and in which the sort of authorities that set up the institution or the situation signal an interest in making people get along. And that, I think, is a lesson that’s sometimes being forgotten at the moment.
So I worry, for example, about the ways in which in some elite private schools in the United States now, at Dalton and Horace Mann in New York, at Sidwell Friends in D.C. and other places you have teachers coming in at the age of ten or eight or six and splitting kids into affinity groups on the basis of the color of their skin, saying the most important thing about you is the kind of ethnic group to which you belong.
And the goal here is laudable, right. They’re trying to politicize—we’re trying to teach them about political injustice. We’re trying to teach them about some of the things that they may experience because of their identity in our society, and I completely get where that’s coming from.
But I do worry that it goes against what we know of group psychology, that, in particular, if you’re going to take the White kids and say, hey, we’re going to try and turn you into committed anti-racists but we’re doing it within a context where we’re saying the most salient thing about you is that you’re White and that you’re here separate from other kids as part of this White group, that’s precisely going to trigger this very deep inward favoritism mechanism and the kids are going to say, well, I’m going to fight for the interests of Whites rather than being the anti-racist that my teacher wants me to be.
And it goes precisely against the literature on intergroup contact, which says, let’s do the things that we’ve traditionally done. Let’s put these kids on a common sports team and have them say, we’re going to try and win this match and we have an ethnically diverse path, ideally, a socioeconomically diverse team and we’re fighting this other team, that within us we’re going to forge a common identity. That is a much better way of reducing prejudice than some of the things that I’m now seeing in pedagogy.
HAASS: We’ll bring you a microphone.
Q: In the last decade—
HAASS: You’ll have to get the microphone a little bit closer.
Q: In the last decade, it seems like—
HAASS: Actually, let me get you another microphone. I apologize.
Q: (Comes on mic.) Try again.
HAASS: There we go. Much better.
Q: In the last decade, it seems like some countries that we would have—I would have thought of as being relatively stable democracies have fragmented in unrecognizable ways—Britain, the United States, Brazil, even Israel. What is it that’s happened in the world that has caused places to reach a point where books like this and many more are being written, questioning what is the status of democracy in the future?
MOUNK: Yeah. So, look, I mean, one thing is that stagnation of living standards that we talked about earlier. In the United States, from 1945 to 1960 the living standard of an average American doubled. From 1960 to 1985 it doubled again, and since 1985, it’s been more or less stagnant.
It’s gone up a little bit in the last years. Now it may be sort of bottoming out again because of inflation. The picture is not entirely clear. But it, certainly, hasn’t been the doubling that we’ve had before that. So that’s one important thing.
The second is something that Richard asked about, social media and the internet making it much easier for demagogues to enter the political sphere, making people, in many ways, more tribal because they’re doubling down on their identities on social media and so on.
But then the third is that we’re approaching this moment in which democracies in which one group has always historically been dominant are much more freewheeling and in which we have to figure out what are the terms of engagement of how to make that work.
So I think that that is one of the fundamental drivers and that sort of explains the progression of my last book to this book. So the last book was about the threat that populism poses to democracy and then the next book is, well, this book is precisely about this one element of it, which is how do we deal with diversity in our society.
Now, I’m going to say one more thing here, and I’ve been thinking about that with respect to the election in France. You know, it is now looking relatively likely that Emmanuel Macron will eke out a victory on Sunday and be reelected as president of France. But it is virtually certain that Marine Le Pen will get the largest number of votes that the far right has ever gotten in French history since 1945. She’ll likely be around 45 (percent), 46 (percent), perhaps, 47 (percent) or 48 percent of the vote.
HAASS: Last time, she just got about a third. So the difference is really significant.
MOUNK: Yeah. So her father got 17 percent—17.8 percent in 2002. She got 34 percent, something like that, five years ago. And now she’s going to get at least ten points more than that. So what explains that?
So one is just the demographic transition, which, I think, is activating those fears and that’s something that may not have been avoidable. But another, I think, is the pessimists. So what I see on the question of immigration in France that I see similar things in the United States is that there’s a right which is going to say, look, all of these immigrants are coming in and, you know, they’re somehow inferior than the native population. They’re not really interested in integrating and they’re not capable of integrating and, you know, they have huge unemployment rates and they don’t have any kind of economic success and they hate our values and so this is a huge problem, right. That is the rhetoric of Marine Le Pen. Even more extreme form, that’s the rhetoric of Éric Zemmour.
Now, a lot of the mainstream or left of society doesn’t really contradict that. They say, well, look, this attribution of blame is unfair. There’s nothing wrong with immigrants. But, you know, you’re right, that because of the racism in our society, because of discrimination in our society, because of injustice in our society, these immigrants can’t succeed and they are completely isolated in the banlieues, and they’re not integrated and they have huge unemployment rates. It’s just that it’s our fault, right?
Now, the reality is a little bit more positive than that. It actually turns out that when you look at it, the first generation of people who arrive in the country often do struggle because they come from poorer countries where they have less educational opportunity. They often arrive as adults and they struggle to learn the language fully, as many of us would if we had to go to some random country as adults, right.
But the children and the grandchildren have real socioeconomic mobility. They actually are more likely to rise the ranks in terms of education and income from the children and grandchildren of similarly situated nonimmigrants, and, of course, they acquire the language and, of course, many of them feel very at home in the country.
But because that optimistic narrative is nowhere told in the discourse, voters have this choice between the pessimism of Le Pen and the pessimism of everything’s terrible because of us and so then many people choose to blame the outsider rather than themselves. And that, I think, is one of the reasons why the Le Pens of the world keep getting more popular.
So that’s a lesson for us here in the United States as well because I hear very similar things about immigration here. I see, when I watch Fox News, a similar set of claims that, you know, a hundred years ago Irish and Italian immigrants they succeeded because they are the right kind of immigrants. The people who are coming in here now from Mexico and El Salvador and Vietnam and other places, they supposedly won’t succeed because they’re somehow inferior. That’s the claim.
And then I see a lot of my friends and acquaintances say, well, you know what, that’s racist and terrible to describe it that way. But, actually, it’s true that these immigrants aren’t succeeding because they’re being discriminated against and so on.
Now, there is real discrimination. There’s real injustice. There’s real racism in France and the United States and it’s something we have to deal with. Undoubtedly, it exists. But the best study about the United States shows that the progress of immigrants today from all of those countries is about as rapid as the progress was a hundred years ago of Italian and Irish immigrants.
It takes a while, but it’s at the same speed as it was a hundred years ago and that shows that the claim that somehow these immigrant groups are inferior is, obviously, wrong, but it also shows that the pessimism according to which our societies are so unjust and discriminatory that today’s immigrants won’t stand a chance is also wrong.
HAASS: Get a question from the ether.
OPERATOR: We’ll take a virtual question from Teresita Schaffer.
HAASS: Ambassador Schaffer?
Q: Thank you. This is Teresita Shaffer. I’m with McLarty Associates.
I’m struck by the fact, Yascha, that you didn’t mention some of the things which most Americans, many Americans, would immediately describe as the essence of what they love if they’re patriotic Americans. I didn’t hear you talk about freedom. I didn’t hear you talk about fair elections. I didn’t hear you talk about justice for all. Are you just thinking in different categories, or is the real problem that all the things I’ve just mentioned and a lot of the sort of standard—(inaudible)—of patriotism are, in fact, things about which there are wildly divergent definitions and high emotion?
HAASS: It was a little bit hard to understand. But I think, basically, is the question also that we simply don’t agree on some of the basic principles on what—and how they’re defined about how the society ought to be organized?
MOUNK: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s funny, there’s some really interesting research which looks at the agreement about, you know, should elections be free and fair and things like that, and everybody agrees, actually. The problem is that everybody disagrees about what makes election not free and fair.
MOUNK: Right? So the people who stormed the Capitol, I mean, you know, some of them were just complete, you know—completely kooky, but a lot of them, they genuinely believed that they were defending free elections, right? They didn’t say, we don’t want free elections; we just want Trump to rule even though he lost. They genuinely thought, wrongly—they genuinely thought that he had actually won the election. They were there to stand up for the integrity of the American republic.
So, you know, in an odd way, I would say we agree on the principles of some of those things. But that’s not enough because we don’t agree on the empirical description of who’s attacking those principles and what’s a threat to those principles, and that’s actually a harder problem to solve, right?
If it’s just sort of like, hey, we really should be bound by elections, that’s an argument we might be able to win. But the, no, the conspiracy theory about how these ballots were supposedly harvested in this state is wrong, you know, when there’s a new conspiracy theory coming your way every day according to a famous principle promulgated by Mr. Bannon that you should just flood the zone with shit, you know, that’s actually much harder to win. So—
HAASS: Yascha, this meeting is on the record. (Laughter.) I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cut you off there.
MOUNK: No. No. I think that’s basically the answer. (Laughter.)
HAASS: OK. More than enough.
Q: Thank you.
Yascha, it’s one thing for Viktor Orbán to emerge triumphant in Hungary. It would be quite another dimension if Marine Le Pen won on Sunday in France, and we seem to have so many worst-case scenarios coming to pass these days. Can you, for a couple of minutes, deal with what—how deep a blow that would be to the newly-revived Western democratic solidarity to have France go in that direction and how much cause for triumph would that give Mr. Putin?
MOUNK: Well, thank you, Kati, for teeing up the next stage of the evening, which is the reception in which we’ll all have to drink a lot. (Laughter.) No, look, I mean, you know, Marine Le Pen’s party has for many years been indirectly financed by the Kremlin with loans from Russia and other things. You know, she has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin. There are pictures of them warmly greeting each other, which she is now, embarrassingly, sort of trying to delete from her social media accounts and so on.
You know, she is part of a political movement which sees the established order as an enemy and which is deeply hostile to the United States, which is deeply hostile to the European Union. In the last few months, she has realized that that is a political liability and tried to move away from it a little bit.
But I do not for a moment credit those protestations in the last few months. And so, yes, you know, Hungary is really a problem because having a semi-democratic or semi-authoritarian state in the heart of the European Union both makes it very hard for the EU to act as a unified bloc on important matters and is, frankly, a real threat for the legitimacy of the EU because a European citizen should ask themselves what justifies pooling their sovereignty with a dictator in Budapest. But—
HAASS: Do you think the EU would be wise to kick Hungary out?
MOUNK: I think it’s too late to do that because there’s now so many different populist leaders within the EU that they have a kind of club of mutual protection. But I think that that is what the EU should have done, yes.
But, despite all of the challenges that Hungary poses, it is a much smaller, much less powerful, and still less affluent country. France is one of the founders of the European Union. It is one of the historically great and important powers in the heart of Europe. It has a much bigger economy.
And so, yes, if Marine Le Pen becomes a resident of the Élysée Palace that would be terrible for France, it would be terrible for Ukraine, it would be terrible for the EU, and it would be very bad for the United States.
HAASS: Wendell Willkie, you had a question.
HAASS: We just need a—
Q: Mic. Hi. Wendell Willkie, NYU.
I take your point about the importance of everyday patriotism. You think of our national hymns—you know, purple mountain majesty, amber waves of grain—or you think about President Bush throwing out the pitch at Yankee Stadium in the first game after 9/11.
But, at least today, you didn’t speak to or you sort of diminished the enduring importance of American ideals and said they really resonate more with elites, and I think of the work of Danielle Allen, you know, the book that she did on the resonance of the Declaration of Independence.
And it would seem to me that, you know, while most Americans don’t know what the Eighth Amendment is, the underlying ideals of the Declaration have a certain powerful appeal, which, going to your point about how you’re more optimistic about conditions on the ground than they are among our feuding elites with—you know, amplified by social media and so on, you think about the progress on gay marriage or acceptance of interracial marriage, all of these things, and I wonder whether our ideals give us—are a greater source of strength than would be true in other democracies.
MOUNK: Yeah. So, look, I do think that there is a deep repertoire of constitutional patriotism in the United States and it has a very, very positive effect. I’m not trying to play those two things against each other. The kind of patriotism I’m talking about should be based on both civic and cultural components, and the most important thing about the civic component is that it is—is that it can allow us to ensure that we’re only patriotic in good causes, right.
There’s nothing more patriotic, in my mind, than the brave Russians who have been protesting in the last month at great personal risk against this war to say, not in the name of our nation, and this is something that in the long history of constitutional protests in the United States would have even more resonance, has even more power.
Nevertheless, I just think that, you know, I’ve read so many books about civic patriotism and it’s always described as a sort of silver bullet, and then you go out and talk to people and most people just don’t care very much about politics.
And so I think when we just rest our understanding of what makes people Americans, what makes people love this country, what makes people under some circumstances willing to sacrifice for this country, we really need to complement it with this kind of cultural component. And that’s something that I find people often underestimate.
So because, especially people who are perhaps less elite than people in this room, all of whom, I’m sure, have spent a lot of time abroad in different countries, you know, it’s very easy to say what’s the commonality between someone who’s living in San Francisco and somebody who’s living in Omaha and somebody who’s living in New York? What’s the commonality within the United States of people who come from different ethnic groups? And it’s a remarkable thing about the United States that you can sometimes tell somebody’s ethnicity by their idiolect, right, by the way that they speak English.
So there are real, real differences. But as somebody who’s an immigrant to this country and has lived in many different places, I’m also struck by the commonalities, right. I’m also struck just by the way in which our cultural scripts structure how we speak to each other, how we interact, and the extent to which that’s true of many of my students who say that they don’t feel that (now ?). And that’s an integrative power that also is historically American that has to do with being a society of immigrants, that has to do with the facility Americans have of telling people you can be proud of your cultural heritage. You can continue to be true to it in important ways and, at the same time, you can be a hundred percent American, and these two things are not in conflict with each other.
I think that’s a strength in many diverse democracies but especially in America that we can be proud of alongside our civic traditions.
HAASS: As you can tell, we have an author of a rare breadth and depth. The only problem is we don’t have time. So we’re going to have to stop it here. The good news for those in New York is that they can get some calories in the next room and continue the conversation with Yascha.
The good news for all of you is you can buy and read the book. If you’ve read it, you can reread it. The video and transcript of this meeting will be posted on CFR.org, and, again, the book is The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, and it is a really well written and well thought out and important book and I urge people to read it.
Sir, thank you very much.
MOUNK: Thank you, Richard. (Applause.)