Finding ways to get along
BOOKS | Can we make diverse democracies work?
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Humans are tribalistic creatures. It’s part of our sin nature. Separate us into any kind of groups, and we start to become suspicious of anyone on the outside.
This tendency means the growing racial and religious diversity of Western countries is a big—even historic—challenge. In his book The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure (Penguin Press 2022), political scientist Yascha Mounk says we don’t have a blueprint for making diverse democracies work, and the titular “Great Experiment” is whether we can come up with one. The matter is urgent. If we fail, our children face a bleak and possibly violent future.
Mounk describes his own politics as left of center, and so conservatives—especially populist conservatives like Donald Trump—get their share of criticism. But Mounk also points out ways in which progressives are undermining the Great Experiment. He takes environmentalists to task, for instance, for opposing the economic growth that creates opportunities for everyone to excel. He also worries about those on the left who are trying to make “racial identity the all-encompassing dividing line of American life.”
For a conservative, the most interesting part of the book is Chapter 9, “Demography Isn’t Destiny.” Here, Mounk jumps into the debate over how demographic changes will affect the politics of the future. American progressives have said with gleeful certainty that mass immigration will create a permanent majority for left-wing politics. Some on the right have responded by saying elites want to “replace” native-born Americans with immigrants who will vote for the left. But even many conservatives who reject such incendiary language have been concerned that progressives were correct and that large-scale immigration is a natural boon to the left. (I have expressed this concern myself.)
Mounk makes a persuasive argument that these worries are likely unwarranted. He shows how what seem to be rigid political beliefs within groups—and obvious boundaries between them—can disappear in a relatively short time. Today’s hombre may be tomorrow’s white guy, and growing rates of intermarriage raise a healthy challenge to identity politics altogether.
Conservatives: If you read this book for no other reason, read it for that chapter. It’s deeply encouraging.
For the Great Experiment to succeed, members of every group must have confidence that they and their children have a fair shot at prosperity. To his credit, Mounk (unlike many progressives) doesn’t ignore or attempt to downplay the success of Asian Americans and other immigrants in the United States. He points to data showing that many of these groups have higher incomes and more upward mobility than white Americans.
But this highlights the book’s greatest weakness: Mounk’s commitment to the welfare state. Mounk argues that expanding the welfare state will help the Great Experiment succeed. But what if Thomas Sowell is right? What if welfare undermines the values that are the key to prosperity (and to why Asian Americans do so well)?
Mounk doesn’t engage with that argument. Throughout the book he instead assumes—rather than demonstrates—that historic and systemic racism is the major contributor to urban poverty today. But if welfare and the culture it encourages hold back poor Americans (black and white) while other groups get ahead, then welfare is not a solution but a problem.
And if Mounk is right about the importance of economic growth, then the welfare state’s drag on the economy poses another challenge. Mounk doesn’t mention America’s $31 trillion (and rapidly growing) national debt, but it’s surely an obstacle to the Great Experiment having a happy conclusion.
Overall, though, this book is an insightful look at a critical matter.
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