Can Diverse Democracies Survive? Without the glue of a shared national narrative, probably not.

AuthorWoodard, Colin
PositionOn political books

The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure

by Yascha Mounk

Penguin, 368 pp.

Thirty years ago--on Christmas Day in the Western calendar--the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin and replaced with the Russian tricolor. The USSR officially ceased to exist the following morning, putting an end to the Cold War struggle between East and West, Communism and capitalism, and--allegedly at least--despotism and freedom. Pundits proclaimed the end of history: The big questions were answered because liberal democracy had triumphed. A globalized world of free markets and ephemeral boundaries would be benevolently presided over by the United States, the sole remaining superpower, in a unipolar world in which the seeds of nationalism and dictatorship would find little purchase.

Those bold statements, it turned out, were premature. Now Russia is again a dictatorship, invading its neighbors and threatening the world with its nuclear arsenal. The American Republic narrowly survived a violent coup attempt just one year ago, while liberal democracies remain under siege throughout the world. As it turns out, there are plenty of other forces apart from global Communism that can push nations toward authoritarianism. From the disorienting effects of an increasingly globalized economy, large-scale migration flows, and a financial crisis that nearly brought down the world economy, populism, xenophobia, and nationalism have taken root once again. In Hungary, Brazil, India, the Philippines--the list goes on--autocrats have been on the rise, and Americans have reason to fear that the next presidential election could precipitate the end of the American experiment.

In February, the Economist Intelligence Unit released its 16th annual survey of the state of democracy worldwide. For the second year running, it had hit a record low--a rate of deterioration not seen since the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Only six in 100 of the world's people now live in what the EIU would categorize as "full democracies," and the U.S. is not among them, ranking as a "flawed democracy" for the second year due to its dysfunctional political culture and poorly functioning government.

The world's ongoing slide into authoritarianism has generated a frantic effort among political scientists, historians, and national security experts to identify the causes and possible solutions. Over the past four years, several books have been published that diagnose a deadly disease but offer only the most rudimentary treatments.

Now Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, has a new book that delves more deeply into solutions than prior scholarship. His ambitious effort will help jump-start serious conversations about how to rescue the long-standing democracies of "the West," even if some of its central arguments don't quite hit the bull's-eye, especially when the target is the U.S. itself.

The Great Experiment posits that one of the main reasons so many liberal democracies are in crisis is because they have become far more ethnographically diverse in recent decades, a development that has undone the once-explicit ethnonationalist self-conception of countries like Sweden or Germany and shattered previously dominant groups' control over the Netherlands, United Kingdom, United States, and Canada. "Their transformation is owed to the unforeseen and unintended consequences of policies that had objectives unrelated to the ultimate outcome," Mounk notes. In 1945, fewer than one in 25 U.K. residents were foreign born; now it's one in seven. Sweden was almost completely homogenous; now one in five residents has non-Swedish roots. In the middle third of the 20th century, the U.S. severely limited immigration from outside northern Europe; today, four-fifths of legal immigrants come from Asia or Latin America. The "Great...

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