In This Review

The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure
The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure
By Yascha Mounk
Penguin Press, 2022, 368 pp.
Majority Minority
Majority Minority
By Justin Gest
Oxford University Press, 2022, 424 pp.

This is not a fire drill. The U.S. political system really is burning. The country is sizzling with contention between hard-left progressives, left-leaning liberals, right-leaning liberals, and right-wing nationalists. Each faction sees itself as entrenched in fierce combat both internally—within its party of affiliation—and across the partisan divide. Americans who support former President Donald Trump cannot agree with those who are anti-Trump about virtually any issue: immigration, the proper role of religion and corporations in public life, the outcome of the 2020 election. Yet as polling shows, Americans do agree on one thing: U.S. democracy is extremely fragile.

Red alerts for U.S. democracy abound. Some have been public and collective, such as the January 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol, during which a group of insurrectionists attempted to keep Trump in power. Others have been political but also deeply personal. Far from the headlines, many Americans constantly live with the effects of democratic decay. In 2009, I lost a beloved younger cousin, whose bad choices were compounded by unjust policies that encourage mass incarceration and gun violence in a way that brought about his demise. This tragedy led me to join the fights against the country’s so-called war on drugs and for criminal justice reform. Both movements have been broadly popular, and yet the government has been slow to act. For me, this experience showcased the state’s diminishing effectiveness. Many other Americans have clearly picked up on the trend. In 2013, Congress’s approval rating fell to a remarkably low nine percent: a clear sign of just how unresponsive the institution has become. Sadly, young people are the most disaffected from U.S. politics. According to 2017 research by the political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa, roughly 70 percent of Americans born before World War II believe it is essential to live in a democracy. Among millennials, the figure is below 30 percent.

The United States has historically been the proof point that activists and leaders around the world look to when arguing that constitutional democracy can lead to durable, successful governance. Saving U.S. democracy is, therefore, critical to saving democracy worldwide. Now, one of the United States’ biggest challenges is how to transition successfully from past and current demographic patterns, in which most Americans have identified and continue to identify as white, to a stable multicultural democracy in which no single ethnic or ethnoreligious subgroup is in the majority—and in which no group dominates any others.

Red alerts for U.S. democracy abound.

Two excellent new books can help the country navigate this challenge: Mounk’s The Great Experiment and Justin Gest’s Majority Minority. Mounk, who holds an appointment at Johns Hopkins University, argues that justly managing increasing demographic diversity will be difficult. Most of the world’s democracies are, after all, highly homogeneous, with one ethnic group making up the overwhelming share of the country’s population. As I wrote in The Washington Post in the wake of the 2017 white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, “the simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved.” This is the work ahead in the United States. Mounk’s project in The Great Experiment is to provide Americans with a philosophical foundation and some practical actions for mastering this task.

Majority Minority also grapples with how the United States can grow more diverse without succumbing to authoritarian nationalism. Gest, a political scientist at George Mason University, notes that politicians across the country are using fear of newcomers to whip up support and win office, all with dangerous consequences. “Unless America’s political, business, and civil society leaders change course,” he argues, the United States risks adopting “an illiberal form of governance” that fully entrenches the minority rule of a political faction or ethnoreligious subgroup.

The United States has grappled with significant racial disparities since its founding.

Both Mounk and Gest use the term “majority minority” throughout their books. It is a common phrase. I used it, too, in my 2016 essay, “Toward a Connected Society,” in which I argued that maximizing bridge-building social ties is the appropriate goal for a highly pluralistic constitutional democracy in which no single ethnic group is in the majority. (Gest draws on this essay.) Yet I have come to think that the phrase is a profound mistake, a term that obscures more than it illuminates. It encourages people to think that demography is destiny when it very much is not; one cannot straightforwardly infer clear political implications from demographic patterns. To the contrary, ethnic and political affiliations are inevitably the result of the work of political entrepreneurs, as many scholars have shown and as both Gest and Mounk point out. The phrase also conveys an undue sense of political threat to white Americans, feeding a misguided anxiety among them that now they alone will be in the minority. Instead, the United States’ coming political challenge is that everyone will begin “from the psychological position of fearing to be a member of a vulnerable minority,” as I wrote in 2017. “Experiences of uncertainty, anxiety and endangerment are widely spread. Out of such soil grows the poison plant of extremism.” As the United States works to build a stable constitutional democracy in conditions of significant pluralism, it needs to tamp down anxiety rather than trigger it. Scholars and commentators must abandon the term “majority-minority country” and acknowledge instead that Americans can know only that their country is likely to be a place where no single ethnic group or ethnoreligious group is in the majority.

Despite using this phrase, Mounk’s and Gest’s books offer substantial wisdom and good advice on how the United States can achieve a stable, inclusive, and egalitarian constitutional democracy in conditions of maximal diversity. Gest argues that although the United States is currently on a perilous political path, it is not too late for the country to change course. The United States, he writes, has “structural advantages” that make it possible to reimagine U.S. nationhood and reconcile the U.S. population as one people. These include the facts that the country’s many minority groups are themselves incredibly diverse and do not form a single group (contrary to what the majority-minority label would imply); that recent immigration has been continuous and voluntary; and that the country has an increasing number of multiethnic and mixed-religion residents. Mounk is, ultimately, upbeat. “The great experiment can succeed,” he writes.

Gest’s sober analysis of the dynamics currently at play and Mounk’s optimism are both well supported, and the authors are good partners in the fight to protect democracy. Yet their diagnoses fail to capture the true depth and scope of the problem. They both primarily approach the political challenges flowing from the United States’ diversity as if they are largely contemporary and mostly driven by the growing share of the U.S. population that is foreign born. But the United States has grappled with significant, persistent racial disparities in opportunity and outcome since its founding. Establishing a truly diverse democracy will require not just integrating new (and relatively new) arrivals but also giving members of all the country’s communities—including long-standing minority communities—equal political and economic power. This is a task at which the United States has fallen short for centuries. There is much to learn, then, from both the analyses of Mounk and Gest and from their limitations.

RECKONING WITH RACE

Mounk and Gest start their books by recognizing that the United States is in the midst of a dramatic transition. If current demographic projections hold, by 2045, white people will make up less than 50 percent of the U.S. population. It is a trend that many political observers, including Mounk, worry could strengthen ethnonationalist politicians. As he observes, humans have a tendency to form groups and turn against outsiders, a dynamic that can spur anarchy, domination, and fragmentation— especially in states in which the most powerful group fears it is losing power. It is easy, Mounk writes, to think that society “will forever be characterized by a clash between the historically dominant and historically oppressed.”

Gest is also concerned that the United States will struggle to remain democratic while growing more diverse. He spends time on comparative empirical case studies of immigrant incorporation and demographic transitions, and he looks at multiple places where increased diversity has led to dangerous, oppressive policies. In Bahrain and Singapore, he writes, demographic change was met with political suppression. In Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago, increased diversity made racial identity central to politics, leading to irresolvable social tensions. But Gest also explores optimistic scenarios. He argues, for example, that in Hawaii and New York City, immigrants and other minorities achieved full acceptance and access to opportunities. Gest sees both of the optimistic cases as templates for the United States at large. The successful resolution of social conflict, he writes, is “contingent on whether the state equally enfranchises the newcomer population and whether its subsequent redefinition of the national identity is inclusive or exclusive—according to the combination of state institutions and rhetoric.” As the country grows more diverse, U.S. policymakers, he says, should actively redefine their country’s identity to include people of color clearly. Mounk also sees hope in the United States’ past, sketching out how the “great majority of African Americans” have by now entered the middle class, defined as the second through fourth quintiles of income distribution.

These parallels and examples do provide some insight into the challenges that can hinder—as well as the opportunities that can support—the full incorporation of minority communities. Yet the accounts by both authors also gloss over the depths of the country’s difficult history when it comes to race. According to Gest, reconciliation in New York City was achieved in the period from 1890 to 1940 because the white majority repeatedly broadened its membership to include new ethnic groups: the Germans, the Greeks, the Irish, the Jews, and the Italians. He does not mention that this broadening took place while Asian, Black, and Mexican Americans were forcibly excluded. Expanding the definition of “white” sharpened their status as outsiders and others. This process, then, is better understood as an example of how the United States previously failed to achieve a democratic demographic transition because immigrant incorporation produced more racial domination.

Demonstrators at a voting rights rally in Austin, United States, July 2021
Demonstrators at a voting rights rally in Austin, United States, July 2021
Tamir Kalifa / Reuters

Mounk’s report on Black upward mobility is also incomplete. He fails to acknowledge that 20 percent of Black Americans still live below the poverty line (in contrast to about eight percent of non-Hispanic whites) and that if current incarceration rates remain unchanged, one out of every three Black boys can expect to be incarcerated in the future. Mounk may be right that most Black people don’t live below the poverty line, but it is also true that far too many still do.

If it wants to stay democratic, the United States must transition to full power sharing across all segments of society, not just incorporate foreign-born residents and their children. The country needs to muster the institutional and cultural resources needed to achieve this broad shift. The question, then, is not only if Gest’s and Mounk’s advice assists in incorporating immigrants but also whether it can help the United States overcome the long-standing patterns of domination to which other minority communities have been subjected.

Contemporary politics makes solving this problem even more difficult. On the right, an emboldened populist vanguard is trying to resist power sharing and has captured a substantial swath of the Republican Party apparatus. On the left, radical activists seek total victory over old ways of doing things and have embraced practices of naming, blaming, and shaming that don’t exactly call people into the project of participation and collaboration. It is too easy for people to make a career-destroying mistake without room for a second chance, and the result is that many potential allies just disengage. These are not equivalent threats: only the far right has actively tried to sabotage the peaceful transfer of power, the bedrock of any democratic system. But regardless of the differences in the two factions’ strength and access to power, their persistence and growing influence will make it difficult for political leaders to construct a coalition that can both win and implement change.

LINK UP

Despite their shortcomings in diagnosing the United States’ challenges, Gest and Mounk do offer valuable prescriptions that can help everyone. Gest calls on leaders to use “connectedness as a criterion of governance.” Policymakers, he writes, should ask three related questions when making decisions: first, whether their actions “reinforce or break down social boundaries between people”; second, whether their decisions can “be adjusted to strengthen the sense of connection between people”; and third, whether their actions will lead people to “trust this institution more and participate in its efforts.” If broadly applied, this framework will foster decisions that help groups better coexist and more fully engage in the U.S. political process.

Mounk shares Gest’s interest in connectedness—although he does not use that vocabulary or go so far as to make it a formal principle. He calls on U.S. activists and policymakers to turn their political system into the governmental equivalent of a public park. The public park, he writes, is “open to everyone,” “gives its visitors options,” and “creates a vibrant space for encounter.” He writes: “The best thing you can do to advance the lived reality of a thriving diverse democracy is, quite simply, to get out of your own bubble. Seek out opportunities to build bridges to members of other groups.” Mounk recognizes that achieving this will require not just cultural commitments but real institutional change—including altering political institutions via implementing ranked-choice voting and ending gerrymandering, both of which could help reduce polarization.

It is time for the United States to revisit its approach to immigration.

Both authors also encourage a deep rethinking of U.S. strategies for political rhetoric in order to lower the temperature. As Gest puts it, political leaders should work to avoid “rhetoric-induced panic” and instead develop strategies of messaging to “construct unifying narratives about the nation and its identity.” Mounk writes that as “polarization in many democracies intensifies, and extremists attempt to poison the tone of the public debate, there is a growing temptation to turn politics into a Manichean struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them.’” To counter this, he offers principles for political speech, including “be willing to criticize your own” and “don’t ridicule or vilify; engage and persuade.”

Mounk’s most striking suggestion has to do with immigration policy: he argues that advocates of diverse democracies should embrace tight controls over borders. “There appears to be a tight empirical link between border enforcement and public views of immigration,” he writes. “Roughly speaking, countries that have weakened their determination to control their own borders have seen attitudes toward immigration turn more hostile. By contrast, countries that have strengthened control over their own borders have seen citizens grow more welcoming of immigration.”

Mounk’s view is heterodox from the perspective of his intellectual community, and he deserves credit for offering it. He is also right that the time is here to revisit our approaches to immigration, which is at the root of many of the challenges in U.S. politics. Tech libertarians see recent levels of immigration as a great boon and evidence of the health of the country’s institutions, but both the nationalist right and the left are dissatisfied with the present system. The former sees immigration as proof that U.S. institutions are out of sync with the country’s needs, and the latter argues that the United States has failed to give 11 million undocumented people a right to participate, wronging these immigrants and dramatically reducing the voice of labor in politics. Mounk spends barely a page on his important and controversial proposal, so it is hard to evaluate in this spare form. But some of the immigration policies that most benefit Silicon Valley—for instance, having hosts (such as companies) sponsor immigrants— could be extended far more broadly through the immigration system to address problems that both the right and the left see.

CALLING IN

Building a truly multicultural U.S. democracy must begin with a renewed investment in political liberalism: the philosophical commitment to a government grounded in rights that protect people in their private lives and empower them to help govern public life. This style of government is not new to Americans. Over the course of U.S. history, both Democrats and Republicans have been liberals of various flavors, including classical liberals (the more conservative, pro-market variant), New Deal liberals (the big-state Democratic Party variant), and neoliberals (the economically globalizing, democracy-spreading, technocratic variant). Each one has held power at different points in history, shaping U.S. policy in different ways.

Each of these variants was also built on intellectual paradigms that led advocates to believe they could advance the rights of all while reserving power to the few. In the twentieth century, big-state left-leaning liberals repeated the error of exclusion, including by keeping Black Americans out of welfare programs—such as Social Security—for decades. Neoliberals have also developed exclusionary systems. In recent years, this has occurred when the country defers to technocracy, expecting that the best outcomes emerge when experts govern for rather than govern with the rest of the citizenry. The result has been policies that attempt to plan the lives of others.

But the error traces back to the founders, who set up a system they believed would protect the life and liberty of the unenfranchised even as it preserved slavery and kept power concentrated in the hands of white men with property. In a letter that Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, the early U.S. leader John Adams, during the country’s revolution, she expressed skepticism that such a system could do both. Everyone needs “voice” and “representation,” she said, if the government really would protect the rights of all. She made her case on behalf of women, but the same argument has been made consistently for generations by members of a variety of groups suffering from political exclusion and domination.

A pro-Trump demonstrator arguing with an anti-Trump demonstrator in El Paso, United States, August 2019
A pro-Trump demonstrator arguing with an anti-Trump demonstrator in El Paso, United States, August 2019
Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

What the United States requires, instead, is a power-sharing liberalism and a constitutional democracy that rests on it. Creating one will necessitate renovating the country’s political culture, institutions, and economy so that each is fully inclusive, participatory, and effective. This won’t be easy, but a democracy commission created by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, for which I served as a co-chair, recently laid out one practical path forward. The commission’s membership spanned partisan viewpoints, geographies, and demographics. The members nonetheless unanimously endorsed 31 recommendations, each of which would improve the U.S. system.

The proposed reforms include items that are large and structural. The commission, for instance, recommended transitioning elections to ranked-choice voting, introducing multiple-member congressional districts, increasing the size of the U.S. House of Representatives (which would also rebalance the country’s lopsided Electoral College), and establishing term limits for Supreme Court justices. It also recommended creating a system of universal national service for young Americans and redistributing advertising revenue from large technology companies to support local journalism. These changes would increase the proximity between representatives and the represented, create stronger incentives for elected officials to be responsive to the entire U.S. population, and fully include that diverse population in shared self-government. They would also help enable members of different demographic groups and political factions to share power effectively. And they would create more productive ways of structuring how Americans hear disagreements and work through them so that the country can achieve workable, functional, and stable resolutions.

In this time of urgency, Americans should closely look at these proposals. As Mounk and Gest make clear, it will take a lot of work and creativity for the United States to achieve the democracy renovation its people deserve.

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