Why democracies fail

The Washington Post notes Yascha Mounk’s latest book, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. “We all know the reasons. Ethnic hatreds come easy. When scapegoating demagogues stoke them during hard times, they make the classic promise: Break the democracy pact, and people like you can be great again.”

What happens if you believe, as Vice President Mike Pence told the Republican National Convention in 2020, that “the choice in this election is whether America remains America”? And what happens when your version of America loses?

Immigration is at the core of this distress. The shock that 50 million people for whom English is not the dominant language at home. The shock that Nigeria is the source of the highest educated immigrant group.  The shock that immigrants  due to citizenship have become voting eligible

Mounk tries to rewrite the basic pro-immigrant slogan: “He asks us to abandon the tired slogans, the “melting pot” and the “salad bowl,” in favor of the “public park” metaphor: “A public park is open to everyone.” “A public park gives its visitors options.” “A public park creates a vibrant space for encounter.” “

(Stephen Douglass in 1869 had coined the term “composite nationality.“)

A copy of the book’s introduction is here.

From the summary on Amazon:

Some democracies are highly homogeneous. Others have long maintained a brutal racial or religious hierarchy, with some groups dominating and exploiting others. Never in history has a democracy succeeded in being both diverse and equal, treating members of many different ethnic or religious groups fairly. And yet achieving that goal is now central to the democratic project in countries around the world. It is, Yascha Mounk argues, the greatest experiment of our time.

Drawing on history, social psychology, and comparative politics, Mounk examines how diverse societies have long suffered from the ills of domination, fragmentation, or structured anarchy. So it is hardly surprising that most people are now deeply pessimistic that different groups might be able to integrate in harmony, celebrating their differences without essentializing them. But Mounk shows us that the past can offer crucial insights for how to do better in the future. There is real reason for hope.

It is up to us and the institutions we build whether different groups will come to see each other as enemies or friends, as strangers or compatriots. To make diverse democracies endure, and even thrive, we need to create a world in which our ascriptive identities come to matter less—not because we ignore the injustices that still characterize the United States and so many other countries around the world, but because we have succeeded in addressing them.

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