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Yascha Mounk’s Misguided War on Wokeness

“The Great Experiment” flatters liberal readers that by expressing their distaste for cancel culture, they have become diverse democracy’s most gallant defenders. 

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In May, shortly after a white supremacist gunman killed 10 people at a grocery store in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, the conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan published a piece on his Substack outlining the “sinister symmetry” between the motivations of the attacker and “woke” left orthodoxies on race. According to Sullivan, “critical race theory” is like white supremacy: Both see people first and foremost as members of a racial group and reject “the possibility of color-blind citizenship.” In other words, the deranged fear of intentional white genocide and the work of calling attention to the subtle salience of race in everyday life “need each other,” Sullivan wrote. “And, in their racialized heart, they are morally exactly the same.” 

The notion that America’s democratic culture is threatened by the twin “illiberalisms” of right and left, specifically on issues of race, has become regnant among leading centrists. When they write their columns about the excesses of cancel culture, writers like Sullivan (and George Packer and Bari Weiss and Thomas Chatterton Williams and Steven Pinker) understand themselves as classical liberals, defending freethinking rationality against the mobs of establishment wokeness as much as the seething violence of the radical right.

The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure 
by Yascha Mounk
Penguin Press, 368pp., $28

Yascha Mounk, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and outspoken founder of the online magazine Persuasion, enters this conversation as a political scientist with a track record of prescient interest in democratic failure. In summer 2016, Mounk and co-author Roberto Foa warned that voters across Europe and North America were becoming less committed to democratic values and institutions. This work on “democratic deconsolidation” set Mounk up for a larger public profile after Trump’s election: He wrote a book about authoritarian populism and hosted The Good Fight, a Slate podcast for the smartest of the Resistance set. Especially since establishing Persuasion in 2020, Mounk has become a persistent and prominent critic of cancel culture and identity politics.

The core contribution of his new book is to combine these two interests, to show how the left’s desire “to make racial identity the all-encompassing dividing line of American life” really threatens democracy itself. Mounk writes that human tendencies to “groupishness” and conflict make multiethnic democracy both hard and historically improbable. Having never achieved this before, we are nonetheless trying to build societies in which citizens from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds are truly equal. The Great Experiment is his bid to remind us that diverse democracy is worth doing but that it might fail, especially if centrist moderates fail to protect it. And his sense from observing “the discourse” is that the mainstream left is, in its own way, just as pessimistic about this enterprise as the far right, even if its leaders don’t quite realize it.

Mounk is right that the stakes are high and that the future of this project is uncertain. It’s unfortunate, then, that The Great Experiment offers so little meaningful guidance or new insight. Pious and relentlessly superficial, this is a book motivated by feelings more than facts, grounded in single anecdotes, and positioned against a blurry sense of the discourse rather than specific claims or critics or events. This doesn’t make for a very persuasive intellectual intervention, though it’s a killer psychological one. Mounk flatters his liberal readers that it’s now unfashionable and even brave to believe publicly in multicultural democracy—and that by expressing their distaste for cancel culture or “woke” politics, they have become diverse democracy’s most gallant defenders. But is it? And are they? 

From the perspective of those who have wielded power for a rather long time, multiethnic democracy must indeed look like a great experiment, thrust upon Western nations only in the late twentieth century as the unplanned consequence of immigration and economic growth, a challenge to be overcome by societies that were, until recently, relatively homogeneous. This is how Mounk lays out the issue. (It is also, one feels obliged to note, the framework favored by the radical right.) But it’s not really true. Since the eighteenth century, marginalized groups have been fighting for full citizenship in modern democracies, and thus the ability to lead meaningful lives free from violence and discrimination. From religion to sexuality to race, it is Mounk’s question that has driven democracy’s tumultuous modern history: Is it possible to build equitable democracies in heterogeneous societies? The experiment has been underway for centuries. 

Diversity is a good thing, Mounk solemnly assures us, and we should beware xenophobic populists. (Ethnic cleansing, he clarifies, is “a future to be feared, not desired.”) But we also shouldn’t be under any illusions: Humans are hardwired to form groups and tend to treat outsiders badly. Through most of human history, diversity has been “a stumbling block rather than a strength,” as well as a force that “significantly increases the danger of violent conflict.” Diverse democracy, then, runs entirely against the grain of how humans work, how we use power, and how history has unfolded. Heterogeneous societies typically “come apart,” Mounk contends, producing states that are hopelessly anarchic, warped by domination, or so fragmented by the devolution of power to minorities that there’s no center left to hold.

So history and human nature conspire to make diverse democracy a tough sell. But we’re also making two political mistakes, Mounk argues, that will make it basically impossible to achieve. First, American political discourse has given up its liberal individualist sheen in favor of group-based identitarianism—what he frames as an “overwhelming focus” on ethnicity and “the irreconcilable conflicts between whites and people of color.” Debating  everything in terms of “ascriptive identities” like race or religion, Mounk warns, elevates “the kinds of groups that have torn diverse societies apart in many parts of the world.” At the same time, the way we talk about multiculturalism and equality has become much too negative. It’s depressing, Mounk advises, when politicians and elites focus relentlessly on what’s going wrong for minorities or imply that zero meaningful progress has been made. The Great Experiment faults both political extremes for these mistakes, but it’s clear who is being lectured. Listening to the “self-declared defenders” of multiethnic democracy, he explains, chiding the left, “it can be difficult to remember why anybody should hope for it to succeed in the first place.”

Between poisonous white supremacy on the one hand and downbeat talk about historical and structural racism on the other, Mounk thinks we need a more positive, optimistic take on what diverse democracy can achieve, a reminder of our purpose and destination. Most of the book is spent describing (and redescribing and redescribing) this democratic North Star. Presented as an edgy and even daring recommitment, it is banal to the extreme. This “attractive vision” is a free society “in which compatriots from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds … embark on a meaningfully shared life without giving up on what makes each of them unique.”

We should be pursuing, he writes, an effectively color-blind liberal democracy in which racial and religious distinctions matter less than they do now, because the underlying injustices have been fixed. Multicultural democracies should offer citizens a sort of dual liberty: freedom from state authorities as well as the suffocating social coercion and “restrictive norms” of the groups into which they are born. This would be a world without ethnic nationalism or “love of country.” Instead, good patriotism would be fueled by a hazy “love of culture,” which could help “a white Christian living in rural Tennessee to feel special concern for a Hispanic atheist living in Los Angeles—and vice versa.”

Mounk’s road map to this future state is underwhelming. He recommends “reinforcing positive trends and avoiding bad mistakes” to establish what he describes as the four key pillars of any diverse democracy: secure prosperity, universal solidarity, effective and inclusive institutions, and a culture of mutual respect. Beneath these themes hangs an odd and uneven smattering of policy ideas, from eliminating unpaid internships to barring the Ivy Leagues from using race in admissions decisions, from expanding automatic voter registration to opposing restrictive local building regulations. 

Perhaps his most original proposal is that we ditch traditional metaphors for democratic multiculturalism (“melting pot” and “salad bowl”) in favor of something new. At considerable length, he suggests that we conceive of diverse democracies as public parks: “bustling yet peaceful and heterogeneous without being fragmented,” sites that allow all citizens to “do their own thing” or mix with strangers as they see fit, spaces that are “open to everyone.” His enthusiasm for this image notwithstanding, inspired by a fine day spent playing soccer in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, it’s not obvious why this model is so helpful to think with. For there’s nothing naturally inclusive or liberal about public recreation spaces. In the United States, after all, they spent much of the twentieth century famously segregated and not, in fact, open to everyone. 

When Mounk concludes, courageously in his telling, that “the future of the park we share can look brighter than its present,” or that “the costs of failure are far too high to settle for a lesser destination,” it’s hard to disagree. Yet if syrupy bromides and a wobbly metaphor are all that moderate centrists have to offer at such a perilous time for diverse democracy—a moment, if we’re to believe Mounk, that true liberals alone can address—well, we might really be in trouble. 

Let’s set aside, as Mounk often does in this book, the threat posed by right-wing populists to diverse democracy, and consider the left. It’s not hard to see how an emphasis on racial or sexual identity runs against the grain of classical liberalism, which conceives of human beings as free-floating individuals with dignity and rights hinging on sameness. There’s a worthwhile debate to be had here. That debate might involve asking, as Mounk doesn’t in The Great Experiment, what models of diverse democracy might exist between American identity politics on the one hand and, say, color-blind French universalism.

Though he’s loath to commit to anything so specific, it’s France—where it’s been illegal since 1978 to collect statistics on racial or religious identity, and where the establishment repudiation of “wokeism” has been particularly robust—that appears to be closest to what Mounk seeks. In practice, however, the French approach leaves much to be desired: Being officially unthinkable has not made racism any less present in France (just tougher to see and address), nor has it stopped the rise of xenophobic illiberal populists like Marine Le Pen, who have lifted themselves to the cusp of national power. It is arguably the worst of both worlds. 

If not France, should Americans look to Canada, where multiculturalism has been an article of faith and source of national pride since the 1960s, and where explicit anti-immigration sentiment has found little purchase? Or is New Zealand, another settler-colonial state that’s now at the forefront of Indigenous reconciliation, an example of how to allow recognition and justice for oppressed groups while maintaining a shared national identity and a robust liberal democracy? This is not the kind of book that will tell you.

At any rate, this debate isn’t possible to conduct in good faith without being honest about the core disagreements and the alternate visions. The fatal flaw of Mounk’s book, as well as the source of its fundamental unseriousness, is that it relies on an ungenerous and false depiction of what left-wing politicians, activists, and intellectuals hope the future will look like. Woke leftists say they are champions of both diversity and democracy, Mounk explains, but what they really want is much more sinister: a “dystopian” future in which no progress on racial justice is ever made, in which “power may have shifted” to minorities “but some of the worst problems” would persist, and in which we “are condemned, whatever we do, to remain forever defined by racism and exclusion.” Left-leaning citizens, he believes, want basically illiberal multicultural societies

in which most people will still eye anyone who has a different religion or skin color suspiciously; in which members of different identity groups have little contact with one another in their daily lives; in which we all choose to emphasize the differences that divide us rather than the commonalities that could unite us; and in which the basic lines of political and cultural battle still fall between Christian and Muslim, native and immigrant, or black and white.

The Great Experiment invites readers to smugly believe that leftists actively desire an unpleasant and misanthropic future in which progress and solidarity have become well-nigh impossible, sacrificed to the satisfaction of woke righteousness and cancel culture.

This vision does indeed sound dystopian, so severe and unappealing that you might fairly wonder if it were invented for the sake of argument. One might also wonder: Who exactly holds these dire views? Which voices on the left are hoping for reduced intercultural contact or a society in which citizens share little in common or believe that we are “incapable of building on the progress” of the past century? This is difficult to say, for Mounk isn’t in the habit of naming names. The “pessimistic” view against which The Great Experiment is positioned is rarely attributed to specific thinkers or activists. It is nevertheless held, he explains, by “many people” and “growing parts of the left,” often advanced by “some of the loudest voices in the debate.”

Does he mean The 1619 Project, perhaps? Or columns and books by writers like Ibram X. Kendi or Ta-Nehisi Coates? Or even an overwrought op-ed from a student at a small liberal arts college? Apparently not, for none of these are ever mentioned by Mounk. Rather, he takes issue with a 2001 anthropological work on female circumcision; a one-woman Broadway show; and the ideas of Chandran Kukathas, an Australian political theorist. It’s hard not to think that Mounk has written a book that is shaped a little too much by Twitter; that he is reacting to his online sense of which voices “dominate the discourse” rather than engaging with a real debate. 

More seriously, however, there’s an unhelpful slippage at the heart of Mounk’s depiction of the woke left. The raison d’être of this book is to respond courageously to pessimism about democracy’s future and resist a diversity discourse that denies the potential for any progress. But Mounk has actually manufactured that pessimism for himself, by conflating the left’s criticism of past and present with its alleged fatalism about the future. Through this sleight of hand, Mounk argues that when woke leftists “blame the injustices of the system” for racial inequality or violence, this is also an indication that they “seem to think that the future is unlikely to get much better.” It is the position of many on the left, we are told, that Western nations have “always been characterized by enormous injustices and are unlikely to experience significant improvements,” even though the two claims are not necessarily or even obviously linked.    

It’s true that debates around race, gender, religion, and sexuality in modern American life have been highly critical of the individuals and systems responsible for so much suffering and domination. But this doesn’t logically imply the belief that such problems are forever intractable, nor has Mounk shown that this connection is borne out in the thinking of real thinkers and activists. He just observes that forceful criticism and pessimistic fatalism go “hand-in-hand.” This basic error, I think, is why it feels like Mounk is tilting at windmills throughout this book—and why it’s difficult to imagine many leftists disagreeing with the broadest strokes of his “unfashionably optimistic” vision for diverse democracy. 

More than anything, this book is a bid by Mounk to give his fellow liberals an emotional lift; to help them feel that their discomfort with “wokeness” is heroic and that they are being good democrats by rejecting identity politics. Many political or polemical books do this kind of psychological work, and of course those who feel aggrieved when others indicate their pronouns, or are shocked to find that they cannot criticize a model’s body on Twitter without being told that this is disgusting behavior or write yet another piece about cancel culture only to hear from the Internet that they have lost their sense of proportion and are fomenting a moral panic—they will read The Great Experiment and feel quite vindicated, their inflated irritations glazed with newfound democratic heroism. 

The dangerous moment is when that spine-straightening impulse slips beyond sanctimony into the conviction that only you are interested in building a better world; that others want something deliberately darker. Because Mounk’s view (“a future of diverse democracy in which citizens who stem from different ethnic or religious groups feel that they have a lot in common”) is righteous and pugilistic and also utterly blasé, it will feed the impression among liberals that only they still want nice things; that the left has given up, not only on the means with which they are familiar, but on the end itself—a flourishing, peaceful, and cooperative multicultural democracy. This is not true. But if liberals like Mounk behave as though it were, it will indeed be difficult to make our diverse democracies endure.