Social scientist Yascha Mounk on American democracy and how we can find common ground

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A woman wears a mask while walking past an American flag painted on a wall. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
A woman wears a mask while walking past an American flag painted on a wall. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Social scientist Yascha Mounk warned years ago that anti-democratic leaders were on the rise. He was right.

And yet today, he feels hopeful:

"I think the situation today is a mix of reasons to be very, very concerned in the midst of reasons to be optimistic," he says.

Politics feels like a centrifugal force, pushing, tearing American democracy apart.

Mounk says there's an opposite force — one that pulls even the most diverse democracy together: Underappreciated joys in all our daily lives.

"It's a love of the cities and landscapes, of celebrities and TikTok stars and even silly aspects of contemporary culture."

Today, On Point: Can that common ground hold?


Yascha Mounk, professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University. Contributing editor at The Atlantic. Author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. (@Yascha_Mounk)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Interview Highlights

You write ... in the opening pages of the book that the history of diverse societies is grim. Why?

Yascha Mounk: “When you look at the history of humanity and some of the most brutal and violent episodes within it, it has often pitted one ethnic, religious, racial group against another. When you think of some of the deepest injustices in human history, like slavery. When you think of some of the most violent episodes from wars, to civil wars, to forms of ethnic cleansing to genocide, they were often animated by this clash between different groups.”

Do you have concerns that the same inevitability might befall the United States?

Yascha Mounk: “I don't think it's an inevitability. But, yes, I think what we're trying to do in the United States today, and in many other democracies around the world, by the way, is historically unprecedented. And that is to take these deeply, ethnically and religiously diverse societies, to sustain democratic institutions within them and to actually treat all of their members as equal.

"And I think you need to appreciate the difficulty of that in order to have a sense of how we can proceed. And in order to actually also, paradoxically, have a little bit of optimism about our chance to succeed, in order to be able to recognize that we have actually made real progress in the last decades and are doing much better than many other societies in the history of the world.”

On how other multi-ethnic democracies function, and why it's unrealistic to emulate them in the U.S.

Yascha Mounk: “You can always compare the United States to other countries and say this country might be doing a little bit better in this respect, or in that respect. But I think the idea that we should all be looking to New Zealand or Botswana as the obvious solution to everything is a little bit naïve. I've also heard people say that Germany, where I'm from, or the Netherlands, have solved all of their problems because of their different political institutions.

"... So I did go and look at different societies when I was researching this book. Because I thought, hey, perhaps we can just, you know, go and emulate their institutions, and copy what they're doing and implement that here in the United States. And that's the way forward. And that would have been a fun way of writing the book. I could have spent some time in interesting places around the world and written, you know, nice stories about what they're doing, saying we should just always do the same. I just don't think that there are examples of societies that really have peace and equality in their country to a very substantial extent, which we can easily emulate. And I think if somebody says that all the United States has to do is to copy Botswana and New Zealand, that's a little bit unrealistic.”

On polarization in the United States

Yascha Mounk: “I think it's important to talk about the kind of changes we've had in United States and the kind of polarization we have. So in the debate, people often imply that the main problem here is our failure to deal with ethnic and religious diversity in the country. And as I pointed out in the first part of the conversation, when you were all being skeptical of my pessimism, that is a very difficult thing to get right.

"It is a very, very difficult thing for us to do. I think on that count, we really have made progress. And so it is remarkable, for example, that in the 1960s, Americans would have strongly objected to their children marrying somebody of a different race. And today, most Americans say, I'm perfectly fine with my child marrying somebody of a different race. Now, you're right. That the polarization that is really worrying in our country today is the partisan and the political polarization.

"It is now a lot of Democrats saying, I would be really upset if my child married a Republican. And a lot of Republicans saying, I would be really upset if my child married a Democrat. And that is obviously because of not just the polarization in our politics, but also the extremism of the current Republican Party. So, again, I agree with you, that the stakes are very high. But it is absolutely possible for any democracy to fail.

"And it is especially possible for this ... diverse, complicated American democracy to fail. But that makes it all the more important to look a little bit under the hood at the actual developments in society. And these two questions are actually related. You know, I've been looking in detail at the recent French election. And what I find striking there, is that you had the deeply fatalistic and pessimistic narrative of Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, these far-right candidates.

"And then from the half of society, you had a different kind of fatalism, saying, Yes, it's true that our society is failing. It's true that we're not managing to integrate immigrants. And, you know, that's our fault, not their fault. But, you know, in a way, Le Pen and Zemmour are right. Those are the conditions that actually make it easier for these dangerous ... far-right figures to succeed.

"So the connection between my optimism and pessimism is that I think we actually need to convince our fellow citizens that in the half of society, a lot of things are going right. And that we are able to create a vision of a democracy in which most of us would actually be excited to live. Of a society that we would enjoy being compatriots in, to be able to hold off the danger on the political level. To be able to hold off the danger from far right, authoritarian populists who absolutely do present a clear and present threat to the survival of the American republic.”

You've written ... about this concept of civic patriotism. So what is it, and why could it help pull American democracy together?

Yascha Mounk: “As a German Jew, the idea of patriotism does not come naturally to me. And I certainly understand the big dangers that an exclusive form of nationalism can pose in the world. At the same time, looking, for example, at the moment in Ukraine, I'm also deeply aware of how inspirational a force, a love of country, rightly understood, can be. We're seeing millions of people in that country voluntarily risking their lives to defend Ukraine against this terrible invasion ordered by Vladimir Putin.

"And so I think that we should recognize the positive as well as the dangerous potential of patriotism. I think of it as a kind of half-domesticated animal. If we lead, let the worst kinds of people monopolize that resource and stoke this beast until it runs wild, it can become incredibly dangerous, but we can also make it useful for us.

"Now, there have historically been various kinds of conceptions of how you should think about patriotism or nationalism. One is a kind of ethnic nationalism. That's the idea that what really defines a country is common descent. And to be truly French or German or American, you have to have grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great grandparents who already lived in a country who belonged to some majority ethnic group, that I obviously reject. I don't see why that should found. Why should have moral importance. And most citizens reject, most Americans and also most Germans and French people today recognize that many of their true compatriots have roots in all kinds of parts of the world.

"So that leaves a civic patriotism, which has historically been the answer that philosophers and intellectuals who defend patriotism have given. And it's something that's important, personal to me. I was saying earlier that one of the reasons why I was proud to become an American was my love of the United States Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights and the important liberties that gives us, even if we have to keep fighting for it.

"I also worry ... that civic patriotism in itself can be insufficient. And one of the reasons for that is simply that most people don't care that much about politics. But when they say they love the country, they're not thinking of the Constitution and they probably can't tell us what's in the Eighth Amendment. And so actually, what most people are talking about when we say the love of a country, is that they do love, it's [an] every day dynamic, ever changing culture. But they do love the city where they grew up, that they love the sounds and smells of the country.

"They do like, at least are used to the kind of cultural scripts which govern the way that we interact each other. And yes, obviously aspects of that, they identify with certain celebrities, or certain sportspeople and so on and so forth, and that everyday cultural patriotism, it reflects in a natural way the great cultural and ethnic diversity of a country.

"And is, as we were implying earlier, shared by immigrants to a very, very large extent. And so I think this is an important resource that we should appreciate alongside the civic patriotism. As one of the bases of what today, in fact, does unite Americans when we're looking away from Congress, and looking away from cable news and looking away from all of the partisan rancor.”

Book Excerpt

From THE GREAT EXPERIMENT: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure by Yascha Mounk, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 Yascha Mounk.


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Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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