The Great Experiment
Americans, according to John Jay, were “a people descended from the same ancestors speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” He believed American commonalities made self-governance possible. The sentiment was a bit of a stretch even in the earliest years after independence. The United States was always a country with great diversity in culture, language, and religion. Jay overlooked not just the range of European immigrants, but also the large numbers of slaves from an African lineage living throughout the thirteen states.
Of course, the differences between the original thirteen states was not unknown. Every state had its own distinct culture and regional peculiarities. James Madison actually saw the differences between the states as an advantage. He argued the diversity of interests and perspectives meant no single interest or faction could tyrannize others. Essentially, he argued diversity was an important ingredient for democracy.
Disagreements about democracy often involve questions about diversity. Some have argued democracy depends on cultural homogeneity, while others believe democracy thrives on a diversity of perspectives and opinions. Yascha Mounk tackles the subject in his new book The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. He desperately wants democracies to thrive in diverse settings, but recognizes the challenges they face. Indeed, it’s easier to form political consensus when everyone comes from the same cultural background. However, it can also limit the range of ideas and perspectives necessary to produce dynamic societies. Mounk provides a blueprint to allow democracies to embrace their diversity. It’s a blueprint not simply to make democracy possible in a diverse society, but also to make democracy more democratic.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an early proponent of the necessity for homogeneity in democracy. His version of democracy depended upon a general will that reflected the attitudes and beliefs of the community. It allowed little room for differences or dissent. Some have recognized glimpses of totalitarianism in the general will, but it’s far closer to what I refer to as homogenous democracy. Rousseau also saw the people as more pure in a rural setting where they farmed the land. In other words, Rousseau’s general will depended upon commonalities not just in culture, but even occupation and life experiences.
Thomas Jefferson had a similar vision in his own form of populism. He dreamed of a nation of citizen farmers who once again would have the same occupations and the same basic life experiences. Self-governance for many theorists relied upon political consensus rather than the mediation of political differences or interests. However, consensus depends on commonalities of interests, perspectives, and experiences as well as culture. Otherwise disagreements will naturally arise. Moreover, every difference represents a potential political cleavage that makes consensus impossible.
Many scholars confuse the doctrine of homogenous democracy for majoritarianism. They assume the cultural majority simply wants to impose their beliefs on others. However, this is an oversimplification that fails to explain modern day populism. Populists like Donald Trump implicitly view democracy through this lens. They believe the people are a single unit and anyone outside of it does not belong. The unit depends on similarities in culture and experience. It’s a provincial vision of democracy that believes the people speak with a single voice. But it’s not majoritarian, because they do not back down when they fail to represent majorities. Their claim to democratic legitimacy depends on their similarities rather than electoral majorities.
Urbanization inherently leads to diversity. Cities bring people together from different communities, but also encourage specialization in occupations. Interests between people naturally diverge as societies (and economies) become more complex. However, historically central authority and bureaucracy have also thrived in cities. So, the earliest democracies were culturally homogenous and agrarian, while empires were diverse and cosmopolitan. Even in the United States many democratic reforms particularly in the progressive era came from the Midwest and Western states rather than the more urbanized cities in the East.
However, modern democratic theories argue democratic politics depends on disagreements and differences. Political cleavages become the foundations for political parties. Participatory democracy views political parties as necessary to mobilize political participation. Radical democracy argues political conflict is central to democracy. But deliberative theory offers the most intriguing defense of diversity. It believes deliberation between different perspectives leads to a more epistemic democracy with better political outcomes for governance.
Nonetheless, the division of the body politic into different interests and groups risks fear from political competition. As Ivan Kratev writes, “The fear of being outnumbered is deeply rooted in politics. This fear is particularly strong in democratic politics, where it means being out-voted.” A healthy democracy must respect and recognize the perspectives and experiences of others, but at the same time avoid becoming an intellectual captive of our own identities. Still, people cannot ignore the real differences in experience between them particularly in matters of race, gender, religion or other areas of systemic discrimination. As Mounk warns, “The aspiration to be race blind can turn into a reality of being racism blind.”
Crisis of Democracy?
Over the past two hundred years, ideas about democracy and governance have gradually evolved. Most students of democracy today believe democracy requires diversity in opinion if not of experience and background. Indeed, more people live in diverse democracies than homogenous ones. European countries like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom today have diverse populations due to years of immigration. So, diverse democracies are no longer an abstract idea. Rather they are the lived experience of most citizens in democracies.
Today’s polarization is about more than differences over public policy. It has become about fundamental differences about democracy itself. It has brought about a crisis of democracy. But political philosopher Hélène Landemore offers real insight into this predicament. She writes, “What you call the ‘crisis’ of democracy can also be read as the growing pains of a system trying to adjust to the constraints of a globalized economy, an interconnected world, and rising democratic expectations.”
Yascha Mounk joins the Democracy Paradox tomorrow to discuss his new book The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.
Roberto Stefan Foa, Yascha Mounk, and Andrew Klassen (2022) “Why the Future Cannot Be Predicted,” Journal of Democracy
Francis Fukuyama (2018) Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
Sara Wallace Goodman (2022) Citizenship in Hard Times: How Ordinary People Respond to Democratic Threat
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1788) The Federalist Papers
Nikole Hannah-Jones (Creator) (2021) The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story
Ivan Krastev (2020) “The Fear of Shrinking Numbers,” Journal of Democracy
Hélène Landemore (2020) Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century
Jane Mansbridge (1999) “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women?A Contingent ‘Yes’,” The Journal of Politics
Yascha Mounk (2022), The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure
Yascha Mounk (2018) The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It