Today when we think of the term “liberal,” it suggests the political template of the American Left. But the word has its origins in the Enlightenment’s fundamental values of free inquiry, individual rights, and respect for the public square. In our current era of toxic discourse, when trolling has become a profession and bad-faith arguments fuel multiple cable-news networks, Yascha Mounk’s focus on these philosophical liberal values can seem naive — or revolutionary. With populist authoritarian movements on the rise around the world, the notion that we ought to fight back by recommitting ourselves to rational, earnest political debate may ring hollow to some, but Mounk argues that we have no alternative. The core values of liberal democracy must be defended and put into practice, he says, both to protect the rights of individuals and to safeguard groups who have been historically marginalized. These goals are sometimes at odds, but Mounk insists that promoting free inquiry is the only enduring path to a free society.
Born in Munich, Germany, to a Jewish family expelled from Poland, Mounk has long focused on the hidden tensions within democracies. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, he felt profoundly apart from his fellow Germans; in his first book, Stranger in My Own Country, he describes his younger self as a “boy named Jew.” In his studies at Cambridge and Harvard, and in more recent work, Mounk has explored how nations like India, the Philippines, and Hungary have turned away from democratic ideals, and how the same pressures have arisen within the United States. His most recent book, out this month, is The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.
Lately, Mounk has found, the very people we expect to uphold the core values of democracy — politicians, journalists, and public intellectuals — are likely to shrink from the task. Some have lost faith in those ideals, believing them to be tainted by the legacy of historic injustice; others choose not to stand up for them in public, out of fear of being targeted by online mobs; and some simply feed off conflict for their own benefit.
Mounk’s insistence on the importance of those classic ideals led him to found Persuasion, an online newsletter/think tank that seeks to “defend free speech and free inquiry against all its enemies.” He also hosts The Good Fight, a lively and thoughtful podcast in which he speaks at length with a broad array of thinkers on both the Left and the Right. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he spoke to me by video chat from Berlin about the endemic divisions within American politics, the disparate impact of social media on our discourse, and whether anyone is truly open to being persuaded anymore.
McDermon: One thing we seem to lack in political conversation today is good faith. Once I determine that you are on the opposite side, I must discount whatever you say as either false or insincere. And after that, there can be no common ground. Is there an escape from this impasse?
Mounk: As an undergrad I studied the history of political thought, from Plato to Nietzsche, and I encountered many thinkers who were incredibly smart and insightful but had worldviews and values that were very different from those most of us hold today. I think higher education trains you to accept that there can be people you have deep disagreements with, yet who are still well-intentioned, and who try as hard as you to understand the world and improve it. What I find so striking about the tone of public discourse in the United States today — especially on social media, but also on the op-ed pages of big newspapers and in the speeches of politicians — is that we seem to think anybody who is a decent human being and half intelligent has to agree with us on fundamental issues. So if you don’t agree with me, then you’re probably stupid, or you’re a grifter playing some kind of con, or you’re acting out of crass self-interest. I think that is dangerous, because it turns any significant political difference of opinion into a moral or intellectual defect. I’m a philosophical liberal, though liberalism means different things in different contexts to different people. In a philosophical sense I take it to be one of the core aspirations of our democratic political system. We want to rule ourselves collectively — that is the democratic part — but we also want to ensure that we as individuals retain key freedoms and liberties, including freedom from the will of the majority. We should be able to decide what to say or not to say, how to worship and whether to worship at all, who to have over for dinner and who to have stay over after dinner. The basic predicament of living in a big, raucous, diverse democracy is that we have to find ways of living with and hopefully respecting people who have very different ideas about the world than we do.
McDermon: It almost seems like we need a mediator.
Mounk: Certainly it would help if we didn’t have politicians who try to convince us that the other side is evil. Not so long ago Barack Obama and John McCain fought hard, passionate presidential campaigns, but nevertheless they had respect for each other and expressed that publicly. We can make a contribution to that ourselves in how we behave in private and on social media, or whatever platform we might have. We should seek out the smart — rather than the ignorant — positions on the other side, try to be clear and firm in our arguments, and not resort to denunciations or ad hominem attacks. Getting out of this mess ultimately depends on the individual choices of millions of people.
McDermon: I think many of us would say that we are open-minded and weigh evidence on all sides of an issue before we make up our minds. But is that really true? How do we make up our minds on political questions?
Mounk: There is persuasive research showing that, at least in the moment, people really aren’t open to different points of view. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant and a rider for the emotions and the intellect, respectively: the rider of the elephant may have the sense that he is determining where the journey goes, but the elephant is not always under the rider’s control.
Rather than coming to a question with an open mind, we often look for permission to believe what we already believe. Instead of looking at all the evidence dispassionately and going with whatever is most convincing, I look for enough evidence to allow me to hold on to my existing view without seeming completely irrational. It’s a form of motivated reasoning. This might suggest that we never change our minds and that attempts at persuasion are pointless, but I think we have all changed our minds about important subjects over the course of our lives. We perhaps know friends and family members who have changed their politics radically. And we know of ideas that were mainstream ten years ago and are not mainstream now. And some ideas that are mainstream now probably won’t be mainstream ten years hence.
So I think this slower process of persuasion — of encountering ways in which your view of the world doesn’t quite square with the facts, and hearing different points of view stated elegantly and forcefully — works. It chips away at your convictions and might pay off a year from now or five years from now, even if it’s rare that a single article or conversation will change your mind immediately.
McDermon: Does this change how we should go about trying to persuade people who disagree with us?
Mounk: Yes and no. Yes, in that it should make us more charitable and patient. It should make us recognize that people whose views we find objectionable or offensive today aren’t bad people and might become our political allies tomorrow. But also no, in the sense that, ultimately, the give-and-take of argument and the power of example can still create openings. Just don’t assume that a clever retort or carefully argued position, much less a denunciation of somebody, is going to have an immediate effect.
McDermon: You’ve spoken about philosophical liberalism as a requirement for living in a pluralistic society, where people with divergent viewpoints have to get along. But if I believe that my values are transcendent or revolutionary, I might not be content with polite disagreement. Whether I advocate socialism or Christian conservatism, I want to achieve a society in which my views are the essential ones. So I see discourse as a battleground, and my aim is to win.
Mounk: There will always be people who say, “I have the one true path for how to live, and I’m willing to impose it by force if necessary.” And there might not be an argument that will persuade them otherwise. They might even be right! But we live in societies that are deeply diverse and contain radically different religious beliefs and political philosophies. Any attempt to impose one comprehensive vision of life on our fellow citizens is likely to end in enormous bloodshed. We need a set of ideals that can keep the peace among people who will have opposing convictions about how to live their lives, some of whom might truly believe that others are going to hell.
To me, the precepts of philosophical liberalism are the best tools we have to keep the peace among those different groups. You get to live your life as you see fit, and you get to proselytize and try as hard as you can to convince me to adopt your way of life; but if I am not convinced by your proselytizing, you have to let me live my life the way that I see fit.
There’s a criticism of philosophical liberalism as an abstract ideal that doesn’t recognize how important things like religion and identity are to people, but it is actually the opposite. Its principles are drawn from serious reflection on how dangerous those differences can become unless we find a way to allow people to remain true to their deepest convictions.
The basic predicament of living in a big, raucous, diverse democracy is that we have to find ways of living with and hopefully respecting people who have very different ideas about the world than we do.
McDermon: It seems that in the last decade the more censorious voices have grown prominent on both the Left and the Right. Even as they are battling it out, they’re in agreement over this illiberal approach.
Mounk: Yes, I’m very concerned about that. I’m particularly concerned about the way in which it is happening on the Right, and how Donald Trump violated the basic rules and norms of the American republic. In the intellectual spheres of the Far Right, there are people who basically say that conservatism is not compatible with the principles of American democracy, and if their side wins power, they should impose their moral views on the rest of society. Some traditionalist Catholic intellectuals have recently risen to prominence by arguing for that. They are far from being, now or at any point in the future, a majority of the U.S. population, so it’s unclear to me how this plan is supposed to work. But it is a very dangerous sign of the times.
At the same time, on the Far Left there is a misguided idea that, because certain racial groups have historically been excluded from the laws and principles that govern the U.S. — and because even today not everybody profits from those laws and principles to the same extent — the right thing to do is to abandon them and treat people according to their membership in particular ethnic or religious groups.
It seems naive to me to assume that making how somebody is treated depend explicitly on their race will somehow result in institutions that treat Black or brown people as well as, or perhaps better than, white people. To me, the better alternative is to admit that for much of American history, the noble ideals this country has embraced on paper have not been applied to a large segment of the population, but also to acknowledge that we are making progress toward living up to those ideals, and to fight hard to live up to them more fully, rather than give up on their importance.
McDermon: After the end of the Cold War, political scientists like yourself mostly believed that democracy was the final form government would take. Once a country became stable, with a peaceful transfer of power and a relatively prosperous economy, it would stay that way. You don’t believe that anymore. Why not?
Mounk: What you describe is basically what I was taught in graduate school ten years ago. Although there are a number of relatively affluent dictatorships around the world, and some poor or unstable countries with brand-new democratic governments, when you looked at the countries that had been through at least a couple of free and fair elections and had strong economies — countries like the United States, Germany, and France — they were astoundingly stable. There wasn’t a single example of a country like that falling to dictatorship. So I assumed that all the big democracies would forever remain democratic. And perhaps, over time, as newer democracies became more affluent and affluent dictatorships became democracies, the democratic world would continue to expand.
This theory came with several assumptions: It assumed that most people believed in basic democratic values. It assumed that they rejected autocratic alternatives to democracy out of hand. And it assumed that politicians and parties that attack the basic elements of democracy would not hold significant power in democratic countries. Looking around the world in the early 2010s, I started to wonder whether those assumptions were really sound. My colleague Roberto Foa and I did some survey work in which we found that the number of people who thought it was important to live in a democracy was rapidly declining, while the number of people who were willing to endorse authoritarian alternatives to democracy was rising. And we were starting to see the growth of populist political parties that called some of the basic elements of democracy into question. So even before Donald Trump became the forty-fifth president of the United States, I had started to sound the alarm that democracy was in serious danger around the world.
McDermon: You point out that this long period of stable Western democracies might have been somewhat illusory; that the stability we saw might have been possible only during a period of broad economic expansion, when citizens felt their lives were improving. Are there other factors that helped stability endure?
Mounk: The democratic world seemed stable for many decades, and then suddenly a bunch of countries saw real challenges to the stability of their democracies at about the same time. The question is: What was true for all those decades that is no longer true now? I think there are at least three answers.
One, as you mentioned, is economic conditions. For much of the past seventy-five years, a majority of citizens in Western democracies could say that their living standards had significantly improved over the course of their lives. They were more affluent and more comfortable than their parents had been, and they could be pretty confident that their kids would do even better. That has started to change. For the last thirty years or so the average U.S. citizen has not really experienced a significant improvement to their standard of living. And that makes them more skeptical that the system and politicians are actually working for them. It makes them more open to voting for radical alternatives.
The second big change is actually the subject of my next book: the rise of diverse democracies that genuinely try to treat citizens equally. For much of history many democratic countries were highly homogeneous. Even the diverse ones, like the U.S. and Canada, had a clear ethnic and religious hierarchy that put one group at the top and others at the bottom or in the middle at best. What’s new is that we’ve made real progress toward building diverse democracies with meaningful equality. European countries are much more diverse than they were sixty, or forty, or even twenty years ago, and most Europeans are more willing to accept that people who hail from Asia or the Middle East can be “real” Germans or Swedes or Greeks. The U.S. has made substantial progress toward racial equality, if you compare the state of the country today with what it was fifty years ago. But in all of those countries there’s also a significant portion of the dominant population that is rebelling against these changes; that is resentful that the country is becoming more diverse; and that is opposed to the country becoming more equal.
And finally, most obviously, there is the rise of the Internet and of social media, which has made it much easier for demagogues to spread hatred and lies and exploit people’s frustrations with their political system.
Even before Donald Trump became the forty-fifth president of the United States, I had started to sound the alarm that democracy was in serious danger around the world.
McDermon: As somebody who came of age with the rise of the Internet, I distinctly recall the techno optimism and the sense that the Internet was going to allow us all to understand each other better and to connect despite our differences. The way it curdled into the opposite is one of the great surprises of my life. How did that happen?
Mounk: That change happened incredibly rapidly. We tend to forget this now. I was teaching a class at Harvard called Democracy in the Digital Age until about 2015, and through all the years I taught that class, my main goal was to convince students that the Internet might have a dark side, because most of them came in with the expectation that the Internet was this beacon of hope that was going to overturn dictatorships, empower the voiceless, and lead us toward equality.
The mistake we made at the time was to think that platforms like Facebook and Twitter would shape the environment they created; that the idealistic spirit of Silicon Valley would somehow spread to the users of those platforms, whether they were in California or Italy or Myanmar. Ironically we’re now making the same mistake in reverse: we’re seeing a lot of bad things happening in the world and saying it must all be the fault of Twitter and Facebook. We’re seeing the threat Donald Trump represents to our democracy. We’re seeing the rise of authoritarian populists like Narendra Modi in India, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. And we think there must be something about the algorithms, about the platforms, that is empowering authoritarians.
Just as our past view of the Internet was a little too optimistic, our current view is overly pessimistic. The Facebook algorithm is not solely to blame for what people see and share in India or Brazil. I think these platforms are more subject to cultural and political trends than we have assumed.
McDermon: So you’re suggesting that the algorithms reveal something about the people who are using them. They’re not steering us into a car crash — we’re the ones at the wheel.
Mounk: To a significant extent. Look, I think there are differences between the social-media platforms. Personally I find Reddit to be a healthier environment, by and large, than Twitter and Facebook. It has something to do with the existence of both an up-vote and a down-vote button. The things you are shown first tend to be posts that have a lot of support or admiration, rather than the ones that are the most controversial, as is the case on Twitter. And it may well be that there are certain changes Facebook and Twitter can make to their algorithms to improve people’s experience on the platforms and perhaps in the world. But I think we were naive in ascribing the power to improve the world to these platforms ten years ago, and we might be overly paranoid in blaming them for everything bad that’s happening in the world today.
McDermon: You’ve mentioned how the degradation of democracy is not just an American phenomenon. It is happening in many places around the world. What can we learn from watching the rise of authoritarianism elsewhere? What can that tell us about what to expect here?
Mounk: There are a number of important lessons. The first is that countries don’t realize the extent to which they’re vulnerable. In nearly every country the political and socioeconomic elites say, “That guy? He can never be president. Come on! We’re a sensible country. We wouldn’t elect somebody like that.” And that often turns out to be wrong. So expand the limits of your political imagination.
The second lesson is that, once these authoritarian populists come into power, they tend to be reasonably effective at fulfilling their goals. Again, people often assume that inexperienced political leaders are going to be limited by their own incompetence in the harm they can inflict. Remember all the columns written in the months after Trump’s election saying not to worry — he would be impeached within a few weeks?
The third lesson is that, once populists win, they often manage to reconfigure the political system as a constant series of referenda on them. The political debate becomes: “Do you like or hate Silvio Berlusconi? Do you like or hate Narendra Modi? Do you like or hate Donald Trump?” This gives them tremendous staying power. Because even if they’re relatively unpopular, they will always have one part of the political system that fervently supports them.
The fourth lesson is that if you want to beat back these populists, it does not help to denounce their supporters. It plays into the polarization. The candidates who have managed to win against populists, as Joe Biden did in 2020, have done so by diffusing political tension to some extent. The same has been true in Istanbul and Budapest and other cities. Candidates there who have been effective at opposing populists were all perfectly clear about the danger that populist leaders represented, but they also expressed respect for some of the people who had voted for the populists.
McDermon: This actually gets to the next thing I wanted to bring up, which is the concept of a “democratic deficit”: people’s feeling that the government is just not responsive to their views. This viewpoint is so widespread in the U.S. as to be almost the default. How can we restore people’s belief in an effective and responsive government?
Mounk: The democratic deficit is something I’ve thought a lot about since writing The People vs. Democracy. I think it actually plays an even larger role in explaining the rise of populism than I recognized at the time. I wrote about the democratic deficit as being primarily economic. And economics does play an important role. People want big corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. They want to close loopholes for Google and Facebook, which pack a lot of their intellectual property into tax havens. Many people want a more robust welfare state when it comes to things like health insurance, educational benefits, or childcare benefits.
But I have come to think there’s a second way to talk about the democratic deficit, a way that makes members of the educated elite, like myself, a little uncomfortable. Part of the democratic deficit is a deficit of respect. It is a way of talking to our fellow citizens as if we are enlightened beings who have figured out how to live, and they are a bunch of backward, bigoted reprobates we need to educate. If I wrote the same book again today, I would place greater emphasis on how this cultural aspect of the democratic deficit makes it much easier for populists to mobilize people to their cause.
McDermon: I’ve been using the word polarization to describe the political circumstances in the United States, but it feels inadequate for the deep conflict that divides us. So many of us see our fellow citizens as not just misguided or wrong about something, but as enemies.
Mounk: This is something that I worry about a lot. I am incredibly grateful for the vaccines that scientists have developed, at record speed, for COVID-19. I got the vaccine the first day I was eligible for it. And I have very little patience for people who spread bogus information about vaccines. Even so, I was shocked when I went to a dinner party a few months ago and an acquaintance of mine said, “Those people who are refusing to get vaccinated, may they all die.”
I mentioned that I like Reddit, but when you go on Reddit today, there are popular communities that celebrate stories of Americans who believed that the vaccine was dangerous, refused to take it, and ended up getting seriously sick and in many cases dying. I get where the feeling comes from, but I think it is a deep moral and political mistake to indulge it. To live in a democracy, you must think a majority of your fellow citizens are capable of decency, capable of moral deliberation, capable of goodness. This means that when people make a mistake, when they pass up a lifesaving vaccine, we have some compassion for them rather than bathing in schadenfreude. This, to me, is a sign of just how far the country has veered from the kind of civic relationships we need to sustain our democracy.
McDermon: We’re talking about a society lacking in unifying ideas or beliefs. The things that used to hold us together — institutions like government or churches or community organizations — have been waning in influence. The other thing that has united people in my lifetime was having a common external enemy.
Mounk: Yes, in the past we’ve had the Cold War and 9/11 as events that at least temporarily helped unite Americans. I certainly don’t wish for another Cold War or terrible terrorist attack, but it is possible that some event we can’t foresee will come and change the political landscape and bring different debates, and different fracturing points, to the fore. Another possibility is that we get too close to political violence, to a breakdown of democracy — or we go through a civil war, as we did in the nineteenth century — and we’re able to make a new start afterward.
Neither of those scenarios is in any way desirable. But it’s hard to be optimistic about this country overcoming its current political challenges without some disaster happening.
McDermon: When you founded Persuasion last year, you wrote in the mission statement that “the core values of a free society are more imperiled now than they have been at any point since World War II.” What are the greatest threats to those values?
Mounk: They are now seriously threatened by the rise of populist and authoritarian politicians who have significantly undermined the rights and liberties of minorities and of the political opposition. But I also see a danger to some of those liberal values from my own side of the political aisle. I see universities, think tanks, and foundations embracing illiberal norms and practices that punish supposed “wrongthink,” that fire people in the middle of social-media storms without due process or investigation into whether the allegations against them are true. And this helps create a culture of fear. While I was back in Europe over the last couple of months, I didn’t hear a single person say, “Of course, I would never say this publicly . . .” In the U.S. people say this to me all the time. Many of them are left-wing, and none express opinions that I would regard as fundamentally objectionable. We have gotten scared that something we say might cross some imaginary line, might be misinterpreted, might be weaponized against us. That was not the case when I first came to the U.S. ten years ago, and it’s something I think we should worry about.
McDermon: But haven’t there always been ideas or arguments that are considered outside the bounds of acceptable discourse? Some people have suggested that what’s changed recently is which people are trying to set the boundaries.
Mounk: Society was never as free as it might or should have been, but the right answer to that has never been to punish people for their opinions, past or present.
I do think there is an atmosphere of a witch hunt at the moment, similar to the terrible Joseph McCarthy period of anticommunism. Allegations are enough, in many cases, to get academics or public figures fired even if they turn out to have been unsubstantiated rumors. People are afraid to defend others because just defending somebody who stands accused makes you vulnerable. The way academic and cultural institutions often buckle to pressure on social media is absurd.
We have gotten scared that something we say might cross some imaginary line, might be misinterpreted, might be weaponized against us. That was not the case when I first came to the U.S. ten years ago.
McDermon: You used the word wrongthink earlier as an example of something that might get you punished or “canceled.” It occurs to me that the realm of social media, particularly Twitter, is built to manufacture “groupthink,” not just because you get rewarded for likes but because — especially if you spend a lot of time there — your thoughts themselves tend to take on the form of a good tweet: a quick, clever take. Maybe the pernicious effect isn’t just people arguing on Twitter but what’s happening in their heads.
Mounk: I think that’s right. A real danger of this constant feedback mechanism is that we start to change ourselves in order to get rewards rather than punishments.
But I worry more about something else, which is that these social-media platforms really are deeply unrepresentative of public opinion at large. When you look in particular at who uses Twitter, it is a small minority of the American population. The people who post about political content on Twitter are an even smaller subset, and their ideological leanings are completely unrepresentative of the average American. But a disproportionate number of journalists, politicians, and other institutional leaders are active on Twitter and mistake the consensus there for something like a true glimpse of public opinion.
Then you get silly scandals. In 2020 a professor of communications at the University of Southern California was talking to his class about how to avoid the use of filler words like um and like. In Chinese, he said, the most common filler word is na-ge. Some of his students wrote a letter of complaint to say that the similarity of this Chinese word to the N-word offended them, and this set off a storm on social media. Instead of explaining to those students that a superficial similarity between a Mandarin word and a terrible English slur does not make the Mandarin word offensive, the dean of the business school essentially tarred this professor as a racist and relieved him temporarily of some of his teaching duties.
McDermon: Another big problem we face is that we don’t really inhabit a shared reality anymore. People decide which authority to trust based on their political tribe, so questions that could be resolved by a functional political system turn into vicious squabbles over wearing masks or whether it’s acceptable to join a public protest during a pandemic lockdown. It seems impossible for a society to function this way.
Mounk: I think people always worry too much about the outliers. While Donald Trump was still in office, at every talk I gave, someone would ask me how we could convince his most ardent supporters that he was bad for the country. And I always answered, “You can’t.” His most ardent supporters are not the people we need to reach. We need to reach the great majority.
In the same way, I think, we worry a little too much about the conspiratorial fringe. Twenty years ago about 10 percent of Americans didn’t believe Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon. Now, according to most serious polls, about 10 percent of Americans believe there’s some truth behind QAnon. Yes, that is worrying, but there will always be 10 percent of people who believe things that are patently false. To me, the question is: How do we get 80 percent of society to operate on the basis of some shared set of ideas, norms, values, and principles? And that has become much harder because of the way in which social media deeply discourages disagreement within your own political tribe. It’s also become harder because fewer and fewer media outlets have the ambition to speak to more than half of America.
McDermon: In The People vs. Democracy you wrote that one reason American democracy may have been stable for so long is that it wasn’t fully democratic. White people were dominant for centuries, while Black people and other minorities were brutally subjugated. For true democracy to exist, those groups have to be able to claim their rights. But for democracy to thrive, there also has to be a sense of shared identity. How do we forge such a thing?
Mounk: There’s a deep human tendency to favor the in-group and discriminate against the out-group. We see this not just in American history but in virtually every society in the history of the world, and in most parts of the globe today. In that sense it’s not surprising that the U.S. today is riven by tribalism, by discrimination, by racial injustice. But if we want the great experiment of our diverse and increasingly equal democracy to succeed, we need to push against that human tendency. We need to acknowledge the importance of different religious and ethnic identities. We need to fight against the reality of serious injustice. But we also need to push toward a society in which we are able to see each other as fellow citizens; in which we’re able to take pride collectively in our country and in what it might achieve; in which we choose to emphasize our common interests rather than the things that have for so long divided us.
This is a task for culture and education as much as for politics. It is a task for civics teachers: to emphasize not just how we might change things but also why the basic elements of liberal democracy are worth defending. We need an inclusive patriotism that celebrates the everyday culture and the civic ideals of our country; that shows they are — or, at least, can be — open to people of all walks of life.
McDermon: The idea that rich elites control the levers of power and subvert the will of the people is common on both the Left and the Right. What should we make of the fact that, across the political divide, there is this agreement that our system is set up to work against the will of the people?
Mounk: I think it shows how unresponsive a lot of our political and cultural institutions are to the views of average Americans. I didn’t grow up in the United States. I came to this country for graduate school. And I’m struck by who I do and don’t know in the country. I have a pretty diverse group of friends and acquaintances in terms of ethnicity and religion, but the slice of the population I know is incredibly homogeneous in socioeconomic terms. For example, the vast majority of people I know in this country went to college. The majority have postgraduate degrees, and probably about half went to a small handful of prominent colleges and universities. And my experience is not atypical of people who teach at American universities, who decide where to spend the wealth of foundations, who staff the major newspapers and magazines, who work on Capitol Hill, or who run the big corporations. So I do think one problem in this country is this vast difference in experience between the top echelons of society and everybody else.
McDermon: You mentioned that in Germany you don’t feel the same kind of censorious atmosphere in intellectual life that you do in the U.S. Is there no such thing as German cancel culture?
Mounk: There is. It’s less strong than in the United States, but I wouldn’t say it doesn’t exist at all. There are two models for the spread of identity politics on the Left. The first is simply that many cultural movements — from rock and roll to hip-hop; from the campus protests of the 1960s to Occupy Wall Street ten years ago — originated in the U.S. and then slowly spread to other countries. So European countries are often about five or ten years behind the cultural developments of the U.S. Though the situation remains less dramatic there for now, it is likely to follow suit soon.
According to the other model, there’s something uniquely American about this set of ideas. Linguist John McWhorter and writer Ian Buruma have proposed that there is a religious nature to some of the more extreme forms of so-called wokeness. There’s a kind of religious fervor, and there seem to be ideas of original sin and self-flagellation involved.
If that is true, then these ideas would be more likely to be exported to a historically Protestant nation like the Netherlands or Australia than to France, for example. I think it’s too early to say. We’ll have to see how things play out. But, broadly speaking, I think we should take wokeness seriously as a political ideology, even if it does have some religious element.
McDermon: Back in the U.S., we’re in a moment when our understanding of American history is being vigorously contested along partisan lines. I wonder, could this be a chance to redefine our national identity?
Mounk: The interesting thing is that, when you talk to ordinary Americans, their view of history is not as divided along partisan lines as you might think by watching CNN. And polls bear this out. Most Americans are willing to acknowledge the deep racial injustices that have marked the country’s past. They absolutely want the history of slavery to be taught in schools. And, at the same time, right or wrong, most Americans believe that the country has, for the most part, been a force for good in the world.
Though you can quibble with that basic consensus in certain ways, it is a perfectly reasonable starting point for how to think about our country. The U.S. has always had, and continues to have, deep flaws, like virtually every other country in the world. But it has also played an incredibly important role in spreading democracy and rights and the ideal of self-government around the world.
Those two ideas might be in tension, but they don’t contradict each other at all. A national narrative needs three important things: to be true, to be widely accepted, and to help inspire solidarity. I think one can be built here that does all three.