On Thursday, Yascha Mounk, professor of the practice of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, gave a lecture titled “The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.” The lecture, which was hosted by the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD), focused on the challenges that come with what Mounk termed the world’s “Second Great Experiment” — building successful ethnically and religiously diverse democracies — and why there is still reason for optimism.
The event — CSAD’s final program of the year — was held in the Oden Hall Auditorium with about 50 students and professors in attendance. Director of CSAD and Professor of Political Science Joseph Klesner introduced Mounk as a German-born public intellectual who serves as host of a weekly podcast “The Good Fight,” is a contributor to publications such as the New York Times and The Atlantic and is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mounk gave three potential reasons for the recent rise of authoritarian populism around the world: a stagnation in living standards, the rise of social media and increasingly multi-ethnic populations in formerly homogenous democracies. He focused his talk on the final reason, seeking to address the question of how to best enable diverse and equal democracies to function when there is little historical precedent for them.
To illustrate why maintaining multi-ethnic democracies is so difficult, Mounk said that he regularly poses to his students the question of whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich. After they answer the question (which never fails to divide the room), he tells them that they have a choice: Either they and those who agree with them can get $8 and their opponents $10, or they can get $7 and their opponents $3. Most students choose the latter, demonstrating the natural tendency of humans to form groups and discriminate against those who think differently. Although the example is lighthearted, it represents a larger historical pattern of race, religion and culture dividing people across history.
“It’s all kinds of criteria by which people have historically discriminated against each other. But when you look at all the annals of human history, some of the most common criteria have been around categories of group identity,” he said.
Mounk suggested that although democratic institutions play a big part in maintaining peace in multi-ethnic societies, some characteristics unique to democracy also contribute to hostility between groups: Unlike in a monarchy, the bearers of power in a democracy are constantly shifting, meaning that the arrival of new groups may cause a current majority to lose their power — a fear that may cause increased aggression toward minority groups.
Mounk noted, however, that countries have made considerable progress in the last 50 years. He said that although it is understandable for people to be impatient about eliminating the discrimination that remains, studies show that the descendants of immigrants to the United States and European countries have been more successful with every passing generation. The percentage of minority groups represented in the upper tiers of most fields has also greatly increased in the last couple of decades.
To combat this kind of out-group discrimination in democratic regimes, Mounk emphasized the importance of guaranteed individual rights, which give citizens the freedom to participate in any group on a sub-national level. “The reason why we respect groups in a liberal society is because the members are voluntarily part of it,” he said.
But he also spoke of the need for national solidarity — or patriotism — that transcends individual groups. “Patriotism could often be the thing that draws us out from our own narrow communities, but it allows me to, say — I might be a white Protestant person in Boston. But when I see someone who is Black and Muslim in L.A., we actually have something in common, which is that we’re both American. And so we owe a certain amount of solidarity to each other,” he said.