Home>Democracies and Cultural Diversity : Yascha Mounk for Sciences Po's School of Research

28.10.2022

Democracies and Cultural Diversity : Yascha Mounk for Sciences Po's School of Research

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Yascha Mounk's conference for Sciences Po's School of Research (credits: Thomas Arrivé)

Jacques Chapsal lecture theatre hosted on 25 October 2022, in the framework of the Rendez-vous de la recherche, an event featuring the Professor, Writer and Researcher specialised in political science and international relations, Yascha Mounk. Sergei Guriev, Sciences Po's Provost and Professor of economics, welcomed the latter by mentioning his many activities as Associate Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies but also as a former doctorate student in Paris through an academic exchange with Harvard University. Open to a rich discussion with members of the CEVIPOF, Janie Pelabay and Annabelle Lever, Yascha Mounk opened with a lecture on the topic of his new book: The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure (Penguin Press). Analysing the challenges that the liberal democracies are facing due to the diversification of their populations, he described himself as cautiously and rationally optimistic and offered a few solutions to this current context.

The democratic experiment is pluricultural

One of Yasha Mounk's most read book, on the rise of populism in 2016, was titled The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Harvard University Press). During an interview with a German media, he explained the three main factors that led to this dangerous rise threatening democracies: the stagnation of the new generations standard of living compared to their parents', the technological revolution that allowed misinformation and hate messages to circulate more easily, and finally the transition from monocultural to pluricultural countries. He almost fell out of his plane seat when he learned on his way back to the United States that far right media interpreted his term “the great experiment” as close to the “great replacement” theory. That is one of the reasons he focused his newest book on the pluriculturalism factor.

The conference organised by Sciences Po was an opportunity to shed light on the dichotomy of the word “experiment”. The writer did not mean it in the scientific, meticulously orchestrated way, the one your chemistry teacher might have taught you, but in the sense that “qualifies actions that were adopted in an unprecedented situation”. To the Professor, the liberal democracies were the first to “treat all members as equals”, when historically different cultures would ignore each other (in vast territories) or a main culture would dominate the others.

The Professor from John Hopkins University wondered why it seemed so difficult to maintain stability in a pluricultural country. The first reason would probably be human nature. Humans like to live in group, they would be ready to give the best of themselves for their community, to "love and to protect" it. Yascha Mounk likes to try a social psychology experiment on his students by offering them to discuss a silly subject as “Is hot dog a sandwich?”. The students can then observe the way they stay true to their group but also discriminate the other group. As the guest speaker then explained, there is a “dark side” to the group: humans will be quick to treat with “coldness, defiance, or an extreme cruelty” people from another group. If the nature of the divide between human groups evolved through time and space, depending on languages, economic systems, religions, origins… This dark side is always ready to rise and has been at the root of wars, ethnic cleansing and genocides.

Although Yascha Mounk has always been “rooting for democracy”, he does believe that the voting system presents a clear disadvantage for democracies towards monarchies or autocracies, by dividing citizens depending on their political views. The majority group will then be afraid to be overthrown by the minority group, which hurts stability and ignites tension between groups.

Liberal democracies should be “public parks

What should liberal democracies do to face those difficulties that are music to the autocracies' ears?

If Professor Mounk is set against one idea, it is that someone who supports liberal democracy “cannot like commmunity, the group”. Liberal democrats “simply believe that there is two necessary kind of freedom to live with dignity: being free from the power of the State and free from the tyranny of majority”. It implies that the State should not be able to tell his citizens what to believe or think, but neither should their community (family, friends, rabbi, priest…).

 Liberal democracy recognises the importance of groups in people's lives only if they are free to chose if they want to be a member of those groups.

Regarding pluricultural democracies, Yascha Mounk identified two modern integration models, the “melting pot" which choses to focus on people similarities and to ignore their differences and the “salad bowl or mosaic” which consists of a “community of communities” with members that live side by side without really sharing anything. He considers that the two models are flawed, one by being too homogenous and erasing the beauty of multiple cultures, the other one by a lack of solidarity. the metaphor he chose to go with is that of the “public park” where “we can go there and discuss among ourselves, but we can also end up chatting with other people”. In this park, there would be “no rule to talk or not talk to other people”, it would be a free choice. This metaphor of liberal democracy would allow some people to keep as a priority their religion or ethnicity while also allowing others "to reach out and make connections". Such a society would be more vibrant for it, it would feed a spirit of solidarity among citizens.

What about the risky topic of patriotism? “Patriotism doesn't come naturally” to Yascha Mounk, who grew up as a jewish boy in Germany before studying in the United States. Nevertheless, the “incredibly strong symbolic power of nation” shouldn't be ignored. This “beast”, “if we engage with it and try to domesticate it, can we make it useful”? The political scientist doesn't have a doubt about it. Although, only if patriotism is not seen in its ethnical or civic definition but as “an everyday cultural patriotism”. A country has "its own sounds, smells, social scripts, stars… it can be influenced by the past but it’s based on an everchanging dynamic culture", a country bears the marks of its diversity.

Finally, even if the guest speaker of the Rendez-vous de la recherche claimed to be “very worried for democracy in the coming years", with events such as Donald Trump's possible candidacy in 2024 or the war in Ukraine, he keeps nevertheless a “guarded limited optimism”. Yascha Mounk reminded us with supportive figures and facts, approved by Sergei Guriev, that the situation has evolved in the right way in sixty years, regarding racism, homophobia or the possibilities for immigrants and their children of having a better future. The great experiment lived by liberal democracies is difficult, it is not yet a success but the progress is real.

MORE INFORMATION:

28.10.2022

Democracies and Cultural Diversity : Yascha Mounk for Sciences Po's School of Research

alt
Yascha Mounk's conference for Sciences Po's School of Research (credits: Thomas Arrivé)

Jacques Chapsal lecture theatre hosted on 25 October 2022, in the framework of the Rendez-vous de la recherche, an event featuring the Professor, Writer and Researcher specialised in political science and international relations, Yascha Mounk. Sergei Guriev, Sciences Po's Provost and Professor of economics, welcomed the latter by mentioning his many activities as Associate Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies but also as a former doctorate student in Paris through an academic exchange with Harvard University. Open to a rich discussion with members of the CEVIPOF, Janie Pelabay and Annabelle Lever, Yascha Mounk opened with a lecture on the topic of his new book: The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure (Penguin Press). Analysing the challenges that the liberal democracies are facing due to the diversification of their populations, he described himself as cautiously and rationally optimistic and offered a few solutions to this current context.

The democratic experiment is pluricultural

One of Yasha Mounk's most read book, on the rise of populism in 2016, was titled The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Harvard University Press). During an interview with a German media, he explained the three main factors that led to this dangerous rise threatening democracies: the stagnation of the new generations standard of living compared to their parents', the technological revolution that allowed misinformation and hate messages to circulate more easily, and finally the transition from monocultural to pluricultural countries. He almost fell out of his plane seat when he learned on his way back to the United States that far right media interpreted his term “the great experiment” as close to the “great replacement” theory. That is one of the reasons he focused his newest book on the pluriculturalism factor.

The conference organised by Sciences Po was an opportunity to shed light on the dichotomy of the word “experiment”. The writer did not mean it in the scientific, meticulously orchestrated way, the one your chemistry teacher might have taught you, but in the sense that “qualifies actions that were adopted in an unprecedented situation”. To the Professor, the liberal democracies were the first to “treat all members as equals”, when historically different cultures would ignore each other (in vast territories) or a main culture would dominate the others.

The Professor from John Hopkins University wondered why it seemed so difficult to maintain stability in a pluricultural country. The first reason would probably be human nature. Humans like to live in group, they would be ready to give the best of themselves for their community, to "love and to protect" it. Yascha Mounk likes to try a social psychology experiment on his students by offering them to discuss a silly subject as “Is hot dog a sandwich?”. The students can then observe the way they stay true to their group but also discriminate the other group. As the guest speaker then explained, there is a “dark side” to the group: humans will be quick to treat with “coldness, defiance, or an extreme cruelty” people from another group. If the nature of the divide between human groups evolved through time and space, depending on languages, economic systems, religions, origins… This dark side is always ready to rise and has been at the root of wars, ethnic cleansing and genocides.

Although Yascha Mounk has always been “rooting for democracy”, he does believe that the voting system presents a clear disadvantage for democracies towards monarchies or autocracies, by dividing citizens depending on their political views. The majority group will then be afraid to be overthrown by the minority group, which hurts stability and ignites tension between groups.

Liberal democracies should be “public parks

What should liberal democracies do to face those difficulties that are music to the autocracies' ears?

If Professor Mounk is set against one idea, it is that someone who supports liberal democracy “cannot like commmunity, the group”. Liberal democrats “simply believe that there is two necessary kind of freedom to live with dignity: being free from the power of the State and free from the tyranny of majority”. It implies that the State should not be able to tell his citizens what to believe or think, but neither should their community (family, friends, rabbi, priest…).

 Liberal democracy recognises the importance of groups in people's lives only if they are free to chose if they want to be a member of those groups.

Regarding pluricultural democracies, Yascha Mounk identified two modern integration models, the “melting pot" which choses to focus on people similarities and to ignore their differences and the “salad bowl or mosaic” which consists of a “community of communities” with members that live side by side without really sharing anything. He considers that the two models are flawed, one by being too homogenous and erasing the beauty of multiple cultures, the other one by a lack of solidarity. the metaphor he chose to go with is that of the “public park” where “we can go there and discuss among ourselves, but we can also end up chatting with other people”. In this park, there would be “no rule to talk or not talk to other people”, it would be a free choice. This metaphor of liberal democracy would allow some people to keep as a priority their religion or ethnicity while also allowing others "to reach out and make connections". Such a society would be more vibrant for it, it would feed a spirit of solidarity among citizens.

What about the risky topic of patriotism? “Patriotism doesn't come naturally” to Yascha Mounk, who grew up as a jewish boy in Germany before studying in the United States. Nevertheless, the “incredibly strong symbolic power of nation” shouldn't be ignored. This “beast”, “if we engage with it and try to domesticate it, can we make it useful”? The political scientist doesn't have a doubt about it. Although, only if patriotism is not seen in its ethnical or civic definition but as “an everyday cultural patriotism”. A country has "its own sounds, smells, social scripts, stars… it can be influenced by the past but it’s based on an everchanging dynamic culture", a country bears the marks of its diversity.

Finally, even if the guest speaker of the Rendez-vous de la recherche claimed to be “very worried for democracy in the coming years", with events such as Donald Trump's possible candidacy in 2024 or the war in Ukraine, he keeps nevertheless a “guarded limited optimism”. Yascha Mounk reminded us with supportive figures and facts, approved by Sergei Guriev, that the situation has evolved in the right way in sixty years, regarding racism, homophobia or the possibilities for immigrants and their children of having a better future. The great experiment lived by liberal democracies is difficult, it is not yet a success but the progress is real.

MORE INFORMATION: