Yascha Mounk is a Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University and the founder of Persuasion. Mounk is also a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.
So, there’s actually something about the basic mechanism of democracy that does make it harder to sustain diversity. In other ways, the principles of liberal democracy are the right solution. And so, obviously my vision for the future is that of a diverse democracy. But we shouldn’t be at ease about the ways in which democracy can sometimes inflame ethnic and religious tensions as well.
- Is a diverse democracy more democratic
- Challenges for diverse democracies
- Yascha’s vision for diverse societies
- The most dangerous idea in American Politics
- Is it more difficult for diverse ideas to flourish?
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Today’s guest is Yascha Mounk. He is a Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, the founder of Persuasion, and the author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. Many Americans pride themselves for their cultural diversity. However, America is not alone. Decades of immigration have turned European countries like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom into diverse nations as well, while countries like India and Brazil have always been diverse.
Indeed, diverse cultures are not the exception, but the rule among liberal democracies. Unfortunately, cultural differences are often a source of conflict and polarization rather than a source of strength. In this conversation, Yascha explains the challenges of diverse democracies, but also offers a roadmap for them to succeed. In the end, this is a conversation full of hope and optimism for how democracies can continue to thrive. So, here is my conversation with Yascha Mounk…
Yascha Mounk, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Pleasure to be here.
Well, Yascha, I am a huge fan of your work. I absolutely loved your new book, The Great Experiment and I loved it because it touches on a topic that is on my mind frequently – Namely, how diversity affects democracy. And your book makes an aspirational case for diverse democracy. But I say aspirational, because you begin with the recognition that diverse societies can go wrong. Indeed, there is often a tension between our vision and our reality. So, let’s tear those apart. Let’s just start with the vision. Do you believe that a diverse democracy is a more democratic democracy?
Yes. I think that we need to have democratic institutions to make ethnic and religious diversity work in the best way. I think that at the core of the vision that I believe in are the principles of philosophical liberalism and of liberal democracies. Which is to say that we want to have collective self-government, but we also want to have individual freedom and I think that the institutions of a constitutional republic or for liberal democracy are the best ways to achieve that. One slight footnote on this is that many people seem to think that those things go naturally together. That democratic institutions always make it easier to sustain democracy, but that’s actually not the case.
Most of the most famous democracies in the history of the world have prided themselves on their ethnic purity. Whether you look at Ancient Athens, at the Roman Republic, at the Republic of Venice, which lasted for a thousand years. And a lot of attempts at diverse societies actually came under empires, under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, under the Ottoman Empire, under Vienna of the 19th century, Constantinople of the 14th century, or later Istanbul a few hundred years later.
And there’s a kind of reason for that. Which is that if I live under a Monarch, it doesn’t matter so much how many members of my group there are and how many members of your group there are. Because in the end, neither of us has political power. As long as we can trust the Monarch, it doesn’t matter if there’s more immigration or if you have more kids than I do. In a democracy you’re always looking for majorities and collective self-government means that we together set the laws for which we abide. And that actually gives people a rational reason to worry about demographic change. Because suddenly if my group used to be in the majority and now it’s in the minority, ‘Hang on a second. Perhaps all the laws will change. Perhaps some of the freedoms that I enjoy might be undermined.’
So, there’s actually something about the basic mechanism of democracy that does make it harder to sustain diversity. In other ways, the principles of liberal democracy are the right solution. And so, obviously my vision for the future is that of a diverse democracy. But we shouldn’t be at ease about the ways in which democracy can sometimes inflame ethnic and religious tensions as well.
Yeah. Ivan Krastev actually had an interesting quote in an article he wrote called “The Fear of Shrinking Numbers” where he wrote, “The fear of being outnumbered is deeply rooted in politics. This fear is particularly strong in democratic politics, where it means being outvoted.” And I think that really gets at the point that you’re making that in democracies while having diverse opinions allows there to be more deliberation, more viewpoints, more discussion that can bring about a more epistemic democracy. At the same time, there’s a real tension within it, because if those groups really identify with an ethnicity, with a religion, with a race, whatever it might be, they’re going to look at others as being literally an other. Somebody that they’re worried about being out-voted or somebody who they’re trying to be in a majority to outvote and that’s a real concern.
Yeah, absolutely. You know, this gets to the core of what perhaps my vision that I developed in The Great Experiment goes which is: How do we deal with that? One of the things that makes it difficult to make diverse democracies work are the fundamental elements of human psychology, are the fact that we have a very strong tendency to favor the in-group and discriminate against the outgroup. There’s a great psychological experiment which gave rise to what’s called the minimal group paradigm in which Henry Tajfel in Bristol in the 1960s gets a bunch of kids into the lab. You know, these kids have a lot of similarities. They go to this school in Bristol. They’re all white, all boys. And he just gives them a sheet of paper with a bunch of dots on it.
And he has them guess how many dots are on this sheet of paper. And then he claims, you know, ‘I’m going to split you into the underestimators and the overestimators.’ He actually assigns them randomly, but they think that, you know, all of the people have either underestimated or overestimated the number of dots. Then he has them play a simple distribution game where they have to give groups points that are going to be converted into cash later. And it turns out that just by asking, ‘Hey, do you want to give more points to members of your group, the underestimators or the same amount of points to the other group, the overestimators, people start to discriminate against this completely arbitrary pointless group of underestimators versus overestimators.
So, what we learned from this is two things. First, that people tend to discriminate in favor of their own group and against the outgroup. And second, that it is a little bit malleable, how people think about or define their own group. And so, one of the things that we need to do in our democracy is to encourage people to think that they share commonalities across ethnic and religious boundaries. A healthy democratic society that is able to sustain this diversity is one that recognizes discrimination and injustice, but gives people liberty to have freedom of worship, to spend their lives among members of an ethnic or religious in-group, if that’s what they choose to do, but which encourages as much togetherness and as much recognition of shared interests, of shared identity as possible.
And one of the things I worry about at the moment is that sometimes our institutions don’t try to counteract the natural tendency people have to be groupish. They actually double down on them. They encourage people to identify themselves as much as possible in those terms. And because of just the basic human mechanism of favoring what you see as the ingroup over the outgroup, I worry that that can lead to real fragmentation of our society.
Now, there’s a natural inclination to make the point that you’ve made, which is that diverse democracies are very difficult to sustain. But at the same time, we could also drop the idea of diversity and simply say, democracy is difficult to sustain. Is this really just a problem about maintaining democracy itself or is there something fundamentally different about bringing together diverse groups into a democracy that make it fundamentally more difficult?
Yeah. So, look in my last book, The People vs Democracy, I think about, among other things, what the causes of the rise of populism are and I recognize a bunch of causes that aren’t directly related to diversity. Right? I do think that the economy matters and the fact that for a lot of Americans, for example, they feel that their standard of living hasn’t meaningfully improved in the last 30 years, that makes it easier for people like Donald Trump to win. I think obviously the rise of internet and of social media matters because that makes it easier for demagogues to spread lies and incite hatred.
And I think by the way, an argument I didn’t talk that much about in that book, that the kind of socio-economic, but also intellectual, self-segregation of the American elite from the rest of the population matters as well. Just how far removed the decision-makers in this country, the richest people in this country, the most influential people in this country tend to be from the experience and from the neighborhoods of average Americans and the way they look down on them. I think that that does actually drive a lot of resentment and a lot of the vote, again for populism, particularly right-wing populist candidates like Trump.
So, there’s all kinds of things that don’t have to do with diversity, but we are also in a historically unprecedented situation. We have no real example of democracies that managed to sustain deep ethnic and religious diversity while treating people fairly, which is the aspiration that our society now has. And we have lots of examples in history of ethnic and religious diversity going wrong, both in democracies and in nondemocratic societies leading to genocide, leading to civil war, leading to terrible forms of exploitation, domination like slavery. So, I think there is good reason to think that there is a special challenge to sustaining diverse democracy. And I think we can see some of that in our politics. We can see how fears about demographic change incite the cultural divisions that characterize the United States and many other democracies today.
So, I kind of began by asking you, if you thought a diverse democracy was more democratic and you obviously favor the idea of having a more diverse democracy even though it’s an obvious challenge to be able to sustain one. What advantages does a diverse democracy have over a more homogenous one?
Well, first of all, it’s not clear to me that my argument exactly is that, you know, it would be wrong to have a nondiverse democracy. I think that it’s perfectly legitimate for countries to decide about how many immigrants they want and under what conditions. And there are still a few democracies that are reasonably homogeneous. Japan is perhaps the most important example of a large democracy that is pretty homogeneous. Bulgaria is another example. The one, you know, that Ivan Krastev is from. And they’ve had a lot of emigration, but not all that much immigration. And I don’t want to tell Bulgarians or Japanese how to manage the tradeoffs of their situation. What I’m most concerned with is the great majority of democracies, democracies that I know best, the one which we are recording this conversation, that already are highly diverse.
So, in the United States, in Germany, in India, in Brazil, in so many countries around the world, the question of, ‘Would it be nice to have more diversity or not?’ is sort of irrelevant. Because we are deeply ethnically and religiously diverse. And unless we were willing to engage in terrible forms of violence and terrible forms of social conflict or terrible forms of political injustice involving making people a sort of permanent undercast, we will have to figure out how to build diverse democracies that actually treat their citizens as equal.
So, for me the most important starting point is not, ‘Hey, there’s something so wonderful about diversity that we should turn all these democracies into more diverse nations.’ It’s that when you look around the world today for a set of political reasons and decisions from the past, but actually didn’t quite anticipate this outcome. And certainly, didn’t consciously try to bring it about most democracies in the world and certainly the most populous and influential ones now are deeply diverse. So, we better figure out how to deal with that in a way that’s fair to inhabitants and that’s going to be able to sustain our democratic Institutions.
Yeah, that’s actually something that’s overlooked in the United States. The United States oftentimes prides itself for its diversity, for the fact that it’s got so many different immigrants that come into its country, that it’s been a melting pot of multiple cultures, but what’s oftentimes overlooked is that diversity is really the rule oftentimes rather than the exception throughout the world. I mean, when we look at other countries, we see multiple ethnicities, multiple languages within other countries, multiple religions. And even in Europe, like you just mentioned, you described Germany. We could talk about the United Kingdom and France today as even being diverse democracies that maybe wouldn’t have been as diverse a few decades ago, but are increasingly diverse democracies today. And it’s becoming even more so with the amount of immigration and the amount of just international travel that people take today.
Yeah, absolutely. So, I think you can sort of distinguish between three different cases here. One is that there’s lots of societies other than the United States that have always been diverse as well. When you think of a place like Brazil, whose history is different to that of America in some important respects, but also has similarities. It’s also a settler society. It also has the descendents of enslaved people still living there. And as a result, it also has a very complicated ethnic mix within the population.
So, certainly United States is not unique in that. Then there’s a second kind of society in which you’ve always had different population groups living besides each other most of the time in a kind of uneasy peace, some of the time in a violent and bloody conflict. So, India is an obvious example of that where you’ve had primarily Hindus and Muslims, but also some Christians, also some Parsees, also some Sikhs living within the same territory side by side in a very different way than a country like Switzerland has the same situation with being composed of different linguistic groups. And then you have a bunch of societies that used to be quite homogeneous, but really were quite different from America in 1950 or 1960.
But that because of immigration and refugees and a set of other reasons have become nearly as much immigrant societies as America nowadays. I grew up in Germany. You know, when I was 18 politicians, particularly conservative politicians, but a little bit politicians of all parties, still used to claim like an incantation this line, ‘Germany is not a country of immigration. It’s not an immigrant country.’ Unlike something like the United States. Well, they’ve given up that line, because it just is too far away from the lived reality of a country. The share of people who are born outside of Germany’s borders who live there today is nearly as high as it is in the United States. So, today Germany is a deeply diverse society and like the United States it will have to figure out how it can constructively deal with that diversity.
The question that you’re really grappling with though is – How do we make diverse democracies succeed? How can we make them work? And you have a particular vision of that. You describe it through the metaphor of a public park. Why don’t we just take a moment and have you explain it and how it’s different from like the melting pot or the salad bowl, which are two other metaphors that are oftentimes used, but have very different implications.
Yeah, absolutely. So, I think with these sort of these different facets of the vision that we want to have for our society and the one you talk about is an important one, there’s also a few others. But yeah, one vision that you know, was never quite as prominent as people want to say in retrospect, but certainly, or as simplistic as people want to say in retrospect, which certainly had a certain influence, particularly in the decades of very little immigration after World War II in the United States, is that of a melting pot
Now the caricatural ideal of a melting pot is, you know, you can have all of these people come to the United States. Perhaps they are able to influence the resulting culture in some small way. So, we have ziti with meatballs and we drink Guinness and whatever, but really we should end up with a society and a culture that is highly homogenous in which everybody is very similar to each other and you don’t really have deeply distinct family cultures that survive. You don’t have people laying a lot of store by their cultures of origin or their groups of origin. Now, this is actually a caricature of what the idea of a melting pot was.
I went back, which nobody seems to have done, I mean, people talk about the melting pot in these dismissive ways and everybody acknowledges that the idea comes from this play by Israel Zangwill that was first performed in 1905 in Washington, DC called The Melting Pot. But none of them seem to have read it. They’ve read somewhere that that’s what the phrase comes from they don’t seem to actually know the play. And the play is actually a much more moving ideal. It describes a young boy who comes to the United States from Eastern Europe, but he’s Jewish. His whole family has been murdered in a pogrom. He has this nightmarish vision of the Russian army general who has killed his family sort of standing guard over his troops as they murder has parents and his siblings.
And he has this ambition of not writing the great American novel, but composing the great American symphony. The music of a new man, of a melting pot of all these people coming from around the world to forget their old vendettas and become friends in this new country. And he falls in love with a girl, Vera, who’s Russian who comes from an aristocratic family. And, you know, who’s a sort of social worker and an activist and she shares his vision, is enchanted by his music, helps him get it performed. But then her father comes from Russia to stop her from marrying a Jew and he turns out not just to be a Russian baron, but he turns out to be the army general who stood guard over the murder of David’s family.
And so, he actually at this point, recants and he says, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t marry you.’ And he breaks off the engagement. But at the very end of the play, he finds the moral strength to say, ‘This is the person I love and we cannot be defined by our parents.’ So, the original vision of a melting pot was actually a very morally inspiring one, which wasn’t this sort of ahistorical post-World War II, TV dinners, and we all watch The Brady Bunch and pretend that everything’s hunky dory. It was a very ambitious moral vision that we should be able to forgive each other the historical injustices we’ve done to each other. David needs to be able to marry the daughter of the person who’s killed his family.
So, that was the idea of the melting pot, which I think had real appeal if you think about it in terms of that play, but which was often when used as a kind of stand in for, you know, the immigrants should come here and they should give up their own cultures. And, you know, we end up with this very bland and homogeneous American society. So, that I think was obviously wrong. The alternative vision, the alternative metaphor that people have often embraced is that of the salad bowl or a mosaic. There’s a few different ways of putting it.
But the basic idea there is, you know, you create a society which really is no more than an association of associations. Being American is never going to have any real meaning. You’re just going to be an Irish American or Hispanic or an African American or Muslim American. And really the fundamental thing about you is your belonging in a particular identity group. And at the most extreme, we don’t conceive of people anymore in terms of individual rights and responsibilities, but just as members of groups that have particular rights and privileges and your life is really going to be defined in the way it is today in Lebanon, for example, by your membership in one of those groups.
So, anybody who hopes to sustain some form of common American culture, some form of commonality across these groups is actually a sort of bigot or somebody who, you know, is like one of those melting pot people who just like isn’t comfortable with any kind of real diversity. And that I think there’s also a mistake, because a) historically we see that in many societies where people fail any kind of shared national identity, you are not able to sustain public goods, welfare state, public spending. You’re not able to sustain a meaningful solidarity with each other and you often have conflicts even civil war. So, I think this idea of just giving up on any kind of commonality is wrong as well.
And so, one of the metaphors that I use in the book is that of a public park, which is helpful I think because a park is a place where I can go and be among my own group. I can go with a bunch of people who arrive in the park with and we can stay among ourselves. But it can also be a place of encounter. It can also be a place in which the kids of one group and the kids of another group end up playing catch together or playing soccer together. In which people actually make connections that go beyond what they brought to the park with them.
And so, for me, I think that is the kind of society that we should be aiming for. One in which people have the right and do in fact celebrate what’s specific about their heritage, about their culture in which there’s something meaningful to who your ancestors are and you can continue to sustain those traditions in so far as you wish and choose. But in which, nevertheless, there is also more rather than less contact between the members of those different groups, more rather than less friendship between the members of those different groups, rather than just those communities that co-exist alongside each other with no meaningful interaction, you know, for the foreseeable future.
So, the vision that you have of a public park is really fascinating to me in part, because I can envision it in different ways in my own community, but at the same time, living in the Midwest, we don’t have the same type of vibrancy of public parks that… I mean, it sounds like the public park that you’re describing sounds almost like Central Park, for instance, in New York City. It comes across very much like that. My wife, for instance, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, when she thinks of a park, she thinks of the woods and getting into nature and having a sense of solitude. It’s just a very different type of park.
When my kids think of a park, I mean, they grew up in the suburbs, they literally just think of a playground. That’s it. The playground is the park and nothing more, nothing less. In like my own community, I don’t feel like it’s quite as vibrant as the one that you’re describing. I guess my question for you is, is this a very cosmopolitan vision of the way that diverse democracy should work? Is this kind of embedded in a very urban view of the way the world works that may not completely make sense for people outside of that?
Well, look, I think perhaps this particular metaphor might, but I think the deeper thing for which it stands doesn’t. So, I didn’t have Central Park in mind. I actually had Prospect Park in mind. Sort of a park in Brooklyn, you know, even more easy to mark than Central Park. So, you’re onto something there absolutely. But I think the Midwest is similar in many respects. I think the Midwest is much more diverse than it used to be and not just in Chicago, but in many towns across the Midwest. I think a lot of the time you have people who are robustly members of particular religious and sometimes ethnic communities who have a lot of their life revolve around the church or the mosque of the synagogue.
And yet at your kid’s school, I imagine that a lot of them are friends with each other, go visit each other’s houses that within the town, there’s people doing business with each other across those kind of communities. And so, I think that the particular metaphor of Prospect Park might ring more vividly to somebody living in New York City.
But I think the thing that I’m trying to express which is that we don’t have to choose between allowing people to be based within their own communities to have the freedom, to prioritize their religious convictions and the ethnic ties with which they come into the world. And the aspiration that we also should have something in common as Americans, that we should be able to make common cause across groups. That in a functional and healthy society the boundaries between these groups aren’t rigid, but when people choose, they can also be fluid. That’s something that I think should ring as true I hope in the Midwest, as it does in Brooklyn.
No, that’s very fair. And I must have misspoke if I’m saying that there’s no diversity within the Midwest, obviously there’s a lot of religious diversity.
Yeah, you weren’t saying that.
And there’s a lot of people that in my own community, there’s a lot of children in our school that literally their parents are coming from other countries that are living here. So, I mean, there’s a lot of different diversity, but at the same time, it’s sometimes feels more like the melting pot version here. People are much quicker to adapt to a more homogenous society because you don’t have enormous enclaves of different ethnic groups the way that you might in an incredibly large city like New York City.
Well, let’s think about it for a moment, not through the prism of this metaphor, but through the sort of philosophical debate about. Whether liberalism or something like communitarianism is better able to provide the foundations or values and principles that can sustain our democracy. So, for me, I start with the recognition that there’s two kinds of dangers to the society that we shouldn’t want. One of them is the traditional danger posed by the state and posed by the tyranny of the majority. And that I think it’s the danger that critics of a melting pot often have in mind. So, if 90% of the town are Christian and 10% are Muslim, you could imagine a situation in which Muslims are openly discriminated against or experience all kinds of informal disadvantages.
In a society in which the state doesn’t do this, but in which people actually are really putative and intolerant you might get versions of a discrimination that are nearly as bad or just as bad. And so, one of the things that we need to sustain is the traditional set of freedoms that people should have in order to resist the tyranny of the majority, we need to have laws which say you cannot make it harder to build a mosque than it is to build a church. You cannot fire somebody from their job because they don’t come to worship in your church or because they express some religious belief that you disapprove of or dislike and so on and so forth. Right?
So, there’s a whole set of protections we want to give people so that they can choose their lives. But there is also a second danger, which is often underestimated. And that is what my colleagues, Jim Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, called the cage of norms. Which said that when you look at most traditional societies, they don’t exactly live under the tyranny of the majority in the way we’ve talked about. And they certainly don’t live in anarchy. They don’t live in a society where there’s no rules at all even if there’s no state perhaps. But they have these incredibly strong social norms to which everybody is subject. And those norms aren’t imposed by the state on some religious or ethnic minority. They’re not imposed by one group on another.
They’re imposed by their group on their own members. they are the priest or the parents or the imam or the rabbi telling you, ‘You better live like this and if not, it’s going to have really bad consequences.’ And so the second freedom that we need to sustain, and this is where these communitarians who want to think of our society as just an association of associations, who think we should organize diverse democracies not around individuals, but around groups go really wrong is that we also need to make sure that individuals are free from those kinds of pressures of their own group.
But if at the age of 18 you decide that you no longer want to go and worship in your parents’ church or that you want to marry somebody, God forbid, from another group or that you want to leave your town to go to a different part of a country. You are able to do that without having to fear for your lives or without having to suffer some really unfair disadvantages. And so for me, the best way of recognizing the need for that double freedom against the tyranny of the majority, but also against persecution from your own group, against the cage of norms, is with classic precepts of liberalism. What are those classic precepts?
They are that we all get to choose how to live our lives. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize the importance of groups. It is owed to our recognition of the importance of groups that we emphasize this so much. It is because we have that liberty that we can continue to sustain the ethnic and religious ties with which we’re born. And most people always choose to remain members of the communities in which we’re born to some extent. Liberals, philosophical liberals, don’t have a strange idea that nobody’s influenced by the family that they’re born into or that a virtuous individual would cast off all of their education and strike out and remake themselves from scratch.
Most people won’t choose to do that, but those who do want to do that have to have a Liberty to do that. We all need to have the freedom to worship as we please, which can involve staying members of communities we’re part of, but we also have to have the liberties to worship in a different kind of way from our family, not to worship at all, to go and strike out on our own if that’s what we choose. And that I think philosophical liberalism is uniquely positioned to recognize. And so that’s part of the vision of the kind of society that I lay out in The Great Experiment.
So, you were just talking about tyrannies of majorities and that’s a lot about what democratic politics is about – trying to find ways to form political majorities to find some measure of consensus within society. And there’s an idea that’s out there that is the Democrats inevitable demographic majority, which you describe as the most dangerous idea in politics. Can you explain why you think this is the most dangerous idea in American politics?
Yeah, I do think that it’s a really dangerous idea and interestingly, it’s one of the few ambitious theories which nearly everybody on the left and nearly everybody on the right believes in in America. You know, like there’s so little common ground now between Democrats and Republicans or between liberals and conservatives. And unfortunately, one piece of common ground they found is something that is both empirically wrong and normatively really dangerous. So, what is this idea? During the middle of the George W. Bush years, especially after the 2004 election, there was deep pessimism on the left. People thought, ‘How is it possible that this guy won again? America must be a really conservative country.’
And there was a really appealing theory that came up during those years formulated by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira who said, ‘Hey, actually, there’s these demographic changes underway that are really going to help Democrats.’ One of them that people pay less attention to and was much less central to the book, but was there as well was it’s going to be more highly educated people and highly educated people tend to vote for Democrats. And so, you know, the growth of places like the Research Triangle is going to turn the politics of North Carolina in a more liberal direction. That’s sort of one of the kinds of arguments they were making. But the core argument they were making is quite simple.
Whites tend to be more conservative and vote for Republicans more. And minority groups tend to be more liberal and vote for Democrats more. The portion of a white population is stagnating or declining and according to the United States Census Bureau whites are going to be in the minority by something like 2045. And so, actually over time, the country will transform in such a way that Democrats will have this natural advantage. So, there’s this rising democratic electorate, which eventually in some iterations became the inevitable demographic majority for Democrats. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 seemed to vindicate that theory in important ways. And a lot of Democrats really, really put their hopes on this and some parts of the party, especially on the progressive side of the party, it became a substitute for having to listen to people.
It was, you know, ‘We’re going to win any way. We just need to mobilize the right people. We just need to wait for the electorate to change in the right way. We just need to wait,’ to put it very bluntly, ‘for old white people to die out.’ And at that point, all these terrible people like Trump won’t have a chance. And it’s one of the reasons why we missed Trump’s chances in 2016. There’s all these articles from The New York Times and NPR saying, ‘Just demographically, no chance Trump can possibly win’ Which obviously turned out to be wrong and dangerously so.
Now, ironically Republicans, rather than rejecting this theory, started to take it on board and you see this really strongly in an essay called, “The Flight 93 Election,” by Michael Anton published anonymously before becoming a senior advisor at the Trump White House. And in it he was basically saying that this is the very last chance that Republicans have to turn around things before the country is lost forever. Flight 93 is the flight on 9/11 that was a little bit delayed. Passengers realized what was going on. They knew that they were headed for certain death. And so, they decided to storm the cockpit to avoid that fate and the plane ended up crashing in a field in Pennsylvania.
And Michael Anton was saying, ‘Look, unless we storm the cockpit, everything is going to go wrong, because of, I quote, the ceaseless importation of third world foreigners and the way that this is going to just destroy the country.’ So, we need to storm the cockpit. Trump might not be able to fly the plane, but this is our last chance. Why? Because of the emerging demographic majority for Democrats. So, you start to see why I think this is a dangerous idea. Now, thankfully, this is all wrong. If you had tried to predict how people would vote in 2008 or 2016 by looking at the patterns of Irish Americans and Italian Americans in the 1960s, you would have gotten it really, really, really badly wrong.
When you look at the change in electrical patterns between 2016 and 2020, the only reason why Trump was competitive in 2020 is that he really increased the share of the vote among African Americans, Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and especially Hispanics. The only reason why Joe Biden is president is that he really increased his share of his vote among white voters. And when you look at the development of modern society more broadly, I’m really doubtful that it’s helpful to think about it in terms of whites versus people of color nearly as much as we tend to.
Because this prediction by the United States Census Bureau that America is going to be majority-minority assumes one broad rule for all kinds of different groups that haven’t historically been bound by it in that way. It assumes that somebody who has seven black and one white grandparent is going to think of themselves as black, rather than white which perhaps is plausible given the specific history of African Americans, though I don’t think it’s nearly as obvious as the stipulation assumes. But it certainly assumes that somebody like Matt Iglesias say who has some parents who were born in Mexico, even though he’s white is going to think of himself as meaningfully different and vote meaningfully differently than whites. It completely erases the experience of mixed-race Americans who are now a significant share of the us population, a very rapidly growing share of the population.
It assumes that Asian Americans are naturally going to be politically on the side of African-Americans and Latinos in a bunch of debates about taxation or about education. Even though Asian Americans don’t make less than the average white American. They actually make significantly more than the average white American. The average Asian woman now makes more money than the average white man in the United States.
And so, I don’t just worry about how political strategists are misled by this idea of a rising demographic majority, because I think it’d make it harder for Democrats in particular to beat somebody like Donald Trump if they have these illusions about the nature of American politics. I worry about what would happen to the country if American elites managed to persuade the rest of the country that the fundamental prism through which to look at our society is this fight between two pretty homogeneous blocks with whites on the one side and people of color on the other side.
Yeah. From an empirical standpoint, it’s odd because it doesn’t assume that there’s any change within politics, which is by its nature just incredibly dynamic. I went back and read Robert Dahl’s Who Governs? And it’s an interesting read because he talks about how the Italian-Americans all supported Republicans and the Irish American supported the Democrats and any of the aldermen that were Republicans were Italian-Americans and all of the Democrats that were alderman were Irish Americans, and it’s a cleavage that no longer exists within the United States. And my point is that these cleavages can change. Another cleavage you mentioned was how more educated Americans tend to vote Democrat. And in the past, it used to be that more educated people used to vote conservative and used to vote Republican. Today more educated people vote on the left.
Again, it’s another change because politics is dynamic and it’s constantly changing. But I think the reason why it’s dangerous, to really emphasize your point, is the fact that it puts people into a box based on things like their race or their religion or something about them that they can’t even necessarily change and say, ‘That’s how you’re going to vote and that’s the only way that you’re ever going to vote.’ It doesn’t consider the way in which politicians can change their policies to be able to attract different types of people to their cause. It doesn’t consider the way that people can persuade different people on different views.
Yeah. I think that what you’re saying is exactly right. So, you know, one part of this is we’re underestimating political agency here. You can draw and redraw political boundaries. And I think the political parties in the United States have really moral consequential choices to make about this. Republicans can convince themselves by listening to people like Michael Anton that they’re only ever going to have support among white voters so they should disenfranchise non-white voters, discriminate against them, somehow try and make a majority by relying on the white vote to last as long as possible no matter what the social cost or the cost to our democratic institutions.
Or they can say, ‘Hey, look at how much we’ve actually without trying all that hard increased our vote share among all these other groups. You know, what if we really appeal to those groups. Why don’t we become the party, for example, of a multiracial working class that is slightly resentful against elites in various ways, but might have pitfalls and problems of its own.’ But I think that’d be good for American politics so far as it depolarizes the electorate by race. And Democrats in exactly the same way have a choice to make about whether they want to listen to a misunderstood theory, which Ruy Teixeira, one of its authors, has himself, you know, half recanted and half emphasized the way in which it was being misunderstood.
And say, you know, let’s give up on white voters and just try to run up the number on people of color or whether they say, ‘Hey, there’s actually all kinds of people who are horrified by Donald Trump, including many white voters and by the way, there’s all kinds of white working-class voters who we should be able to reach with some of our economic policies. And we’re really going to take the fight to Trump in those groups. And we’re going to try to really increase our vote share among those groups.
Now why this matters is that, you know, some of my friends on the Democratic side, they hear something like the idea of a rising demographic majority and they think it’s a hopeful one. They think, ‘Oh, great! You know, by 2050, we’re going to win!’ Now one irony is some of those are whites. So, actually, they’re not thinking about the fact that according to the logic of all this, they should then be on the other side. Which they don’t want to be. Right? But secondly, I think they really underestimate how does dystopian that vision is.
I don’t want to live in a country in which I can walk down the street and, you know, tell with 95% accuracy who you’re voting for by looking at the color of your skin. And that’s not going to be a good side for anybody to live in. If we have such a racially polarized politics in 2045 and 2050 or whenever this is supposed to deliver those stable majorities to Democrats, perhaps the quote unquote right team in the minds of people who like this theory is going to eke out a victory every time.
But the other group is still going to be nearly 50% of the people. They’re still going to be pretty powerful. They’re going to be really, really angry and it’s going to be a terrible society for everybody to live in. And we’ll be in real danger of civic conflict. So, I do think that the assumption that’s going to be the case it’s really dangerous. And, you know, even though I am deeply opposed to Donald Trump and it seems strange to say that, you know, any vote for him as good news, the racial depolarization we’ve seen in the pattern of the vote between 2016 and 2020 is I think a good piece of news for our democracy.
So, we’ve been talking about diverse democracies, and there’s an assumption that when we think about diversity that we’re talking about diversity in terms of the way that you look, for instance, maybe the religion that you believe, race, ethnicity. But there’s also a diversity in terms of the different ideas that people believe. And one of the great ironies of the 21st century is that we seem to be living in increasingly diverse societies. And I don’t want to diminish any sense of structural racism or racism. There’s plenty of that within the world and within the United States and other countries. But societies are getting increasingly diverse where you can look around and see people from different backgrounds, but there’s not a lot of diversity in terms of people you interact with in terms of what they believe.
It seems like there’s increasing homogeneity in terms of beliefs where people who might support the left tend to only talk to people who support the left and people who support right-wing candidates only talked to people who support right-wing candidate. In our desire to create a more diverse society have we made it more difficult for diverse ideas to flourish?
That’s a really great question. You know, let me share something personal. I mean I’m an immigrant to this country and I arrived here to go to grad school. So, you know, I’m an atypical case. But I’m really struck by the fact that… We can all be self-critical about how diverse our friend group is. And certainly, mine could be even more diverse than it is. But really, you know, I have friends from many different ethnic groups of many different sets of religious beliefs, from many different parts of the world. And that’s the world I live in. I mean I teach at Johns Hopkins where I think something like 20% of the incoming class is white.
So, my students are a wonderful mix of every ethnic group, every religious group and that’s just a normal part of what it feels like to live in the American elite today. It might’ve been different 20 or 40 years ago, but today that is the case. And that’s a wonderful and beautiful thing. It’s one of the things I love about the United States. I barely know anybody in this country who didn’t go to college. In fact, I barely know, anybody in this country who didn’t go to some kind of elite college, who has a postgraduate degree. And so, what really strikes me about the lived reality of America’s elite today and of people who are most influential is how self-contained it is and how much distance people have from the rest of America.
And I think that that leads to all kinds of problems. I think it leads to a form of disdain for a lot of the population. You cannot be a democrat, a small-d democrat, if you don’t think that most people most of the time make the right decision or at least have some set of decency, which means they respond to urgent moral arguments.If you just don’t believe that at all, there’s no reason why you should believe in democracy. On that criterion, a lot of my friends are not democrats. A lot of my friends think so negatively about their own country and about the average citizen in it that it’s puzzling to me why they still think that they are democrats.
So, that’s one problem with this. But another problem I think is a huge pessimism about the subject of his book, about the great experiment. Because they, for example, think that their friends who are from certain ethnic or religious groups whom they met at their fancy colleges are representative of the political opinion or of the optimism or pessimism of average members of that group. So, natural mistake to make, right? When you think, well, what do members of group X thing you say, ‘Well, let me think of the people I know from that group.’ And if everybody you know is from an elite background, that’s who stands for it. Now, it wouldn’t surprise you that the views of the average white person at Harvard university is a pretty bad standard for the views of the average white American.
Well, surprise, surprise, the views of the average Latino or African American at Harvard university is a pretty bad standard for the views of the average Latino, African-American in the country. And one of the results of this is that I guarantee to you that a great majority of my acquaintances in this country and the great majority who probably listen to your podcast would assume that Latinos and African-Americans are more pessimistic about the American dream, about the future of the United States than the average white American. And that is not in fact true.
You know, one of the reasons why I’m optimistic about the United States being able to succeed in this very difficult undertaking of making its diverse democracy work is that actually the average Latino and the average African American in this country has a lot more optimism about the future than the average white person. And that’s one of the aspects of viewpoint diversity that we miss when we take all of our sense of this country, our understanding of this country from within the views expressed both publicly through the media, but they also have privately by members of an elite group.
Well, thank you so much for joining me, Yascha. I’ve been an enormous fan of your work. An enormous fan of your earlier book, The People vs. Democracy, huge fan of this current book, The Great Experiment, listen to your podcast, read lots of your articles. Thank you so much for all the work that you’ve done. Thank you so much for writing this book.
Thank you. It was a really wonderful conversation. It was my pleasure.
Follow Yascha Mounk @Yascha_Mounk
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