Essayist Yascha Mounk: ‘Humans are tribal. We can be incredibly cruel to those outside the group’

The German-American scholar – published widely during the Trump era – is studying how multiculturalism can thrive in democratic societies

Yascha Mounk
Political scientist Yascha Mounk in Washington DC, on January 15, 2019.Stephen Voss / Redux / ContactoPhoto

Yascha Mounk has a slight German accent to his agile and fluent English. The 40-year-old Munich-born political scientist became popular in academic circles during the Trump era.

His latest book, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, is about democracies facing the challenge of cultivating a multicultural society.

A visiting professor at St. Antony’s College in Oxford, he received EL PAÍS in a dining hall at the university – a calm space, quite the contrast to the heated political debates in which Mounk likes to immerse himself.

Question. While you certainly see threats to democracy all over the place, you also believe that democracy has grown stronger… isn’t that contradictory?

Answer. A very important number of democracies are on the verge of being taken over by authoritarianism, such as Hungary, Brazil or India. Even the democracies that we have always considered to be more stable are seriously threatened, as is the case in the United States. But, at the same time, in the last two years, authoritarian governments have proven to be quite weak. Russia isn’t attractive today… it has weakened its position in the world with the terrible and unjust attack on Ukraine. And China doesn’t seem to be the model of success it was just a few years ago.

Q. You mention China: Xi Jinping recently entrenched himself in power, for at least another five years.

A. Ten years ago, China could boast impressive economic success. There was a modicum of freedom for its citizens, a modicum of foreign media consumption – even mild forms of criticism were permitted in certain spaces. Today, the country’s authoritarian structure is turning totalitarian – the Communist Party’s reputation abroad has suffered greatly. Compared to [China’s] dictatorship, democracy is seen as quite attractive.

Q. And yet we don’t see the progress of our democracies…

A. Actually, we’ve seen tremendous progress in the position of women, or in terms of gay rights. In fact, we’ve seen a rapid transformation of many European societies, which now have a much more multi-ethnic conception of themselves. There have been very important advances for minorities in countries like the United States or the United Kingdom. For me, the real challenge of democracy is guaranteeing ethnic or religious diversity. I have reasons to be optimistic.

Q. That’s the central theme of your latest book: the challenge of multiculturalism.

A. We are experiencing an unprecedented situation in many countries. Spain, Germany – where I grew up – Switzerland, Italy… they were all reasonably homogeneous societies. In all of them, an ethnic origin was shared, although there were some linguistic differences, as in Spain. The conception of “nation” involved ethnic and cultural homogeneity.

Q. And now, with more immigration, many citizens haven’t been able to accept the shift away from that.

A. What all those countries now have to do is build a new society that is much more ethnically and religiously diverse and treats all of its citizens equally.

Q. In your book, you point out three major obstacles to achieving that.

A. The first obstacle is that human beings are tribal. We tend to treat our group members very generously… but we don’t feel obligated to act in the same way with those who are outside the group. We can be incredibly cruel to those people.

The second obstacle is that groups can easily draw barriers around themselves, based on criteria involving ethnicity, religion or language… this has led to the most destructive wars, the worst genocides and ethnic cleansing in living memory.

Q. And the third obstacle – the most striking one that you write about – is that democracy, as it is, may not be the best tool to face these challenges.

A. Exactly. As defenders of democracy, we tend to think that all of these problems can be solved through electoral mechanisms… but sometimes, the only thing [these mechanisms] do is make the problems worse. For instance, in an absolute monarchy, neither you nor I would have the slightest power. In a democracy, we’re supposed to trust the system to find a solution… but if you’re an immigrant and have more children than I do, I may feel like you’re stealing from me. If I’m in the majority and I perceive that you’re part of a growing sector that threatens my interests, I and others like me may use the democratic system to concentrate power before losing it.

Q. So what’s the magic formula for integration?

A. First, we need to ask ourselves what kind of metaphor we want to adopt when we think about integration. The traditional image of the US and other countries has been that of a melting pot – the pot in which everything is mixed. Different cultures are integrated into a homogeneous culture. Other sociologists have embraced the idea of the salad bowl, also called the mosaic: communities that live next to each other, without interacting. Both models, in my opinion, are wrong. I propose a third model, which I define as the “public park.” A place where we can meet fellow citizens of different backgrounds and have a conversation.

Q. You also propose a rather attractive idea of patriotism.

A. I’m a German Jew. Nationalism or patriotism don’t come naturally to me. But in the last 20 years, I’ve understood the power that national symbols and rhetoric have. It’s delusional to think that we’re living in a post-nationalist era… yet I believe that patriotism is a half-domesticated animal, which can be very dangerous in the hands of some people.

Traditionally, there have been two approaches to nationalism. An ethnic nationalism, which has justified aggression against the outside world. I reject that completely. And then there is the so-called “constitutional” or “citizen” patriotism. I’m more inclined towards this second option, which usually focuses on the laws and rights that unite us. But I don’t believe that this is enough to sustain diverse democracies. We should instead aspire to a “cultural patriotism” – which refers to cities, landscapes, sights, smells, cultural traits… even famous people or YouTube stars. A celebration of the present – dynamic, fast-changing – which already contains the influences of immigrants and diverse groups. This daily cultural patriotism can help us let go of our fears.

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