Saturday, March 10, 2018

Atlantic Monthly interview with Yascha Mounck with comments on how stable democracies founded as monoethnic and monocultural, and on the threat of America "abandoning its committment to democracy"

I'm quoting some of this interview and rather than do the usual bold type for emphasis added, emphasis will be in red against a prevailing dark blue font.
Frum: Now the second. You write acutely about the difficulty of achieving democracy within multiethnic states. Yet you seem to take for granted that large-scale immigration flows must and will continue into developed societies. If mass immigration from new ethnic groups is so disruptive to democracy, shouldn’t democracies accept less of it?

Mounk: Nearly all democracies in the world have been founded as monoethnic and monocultural. Decades of immigration have challenged this self-conception. And while a lot of people are very happy to embrace this transformation, others are very resentful about it.
Canada and the United States are less different from this than one might think. They have of course always been more ethnically diverse. But they also had a strict ethnic hierarchy, which has slowly been challenged over the past decades. Neither in North America nor in Western Europe has there ever been a truly equal, multiethnic democracy. So what we’re trying to create right now is a historically unique experiment.

Two convictions flow from this observation. The first is that we need to fight for an inclusive nationalism. This means that we oppose any attempt to identify the nation with a particular ethnic or religious group (as parts of the current U.S. administration consistently do). We must do what we can to protect vulnerable minorities from attacks. But we must also emphasize what we have in common as Americans, rather than scoffing at the need for collective identity or only being willing to celebrate subnational identities like race or religion.

The second conviction gets to the crux of your question. Any genuine liberal democracy will treat all of its citizens the same. But it also lies in the nature of democracies that they get to decide who joins the club. So we need to accept that there can be a legitimate range of opinion about the level of immigration we should have. Decisions about whether, for example, to prioritize family ties or some conception of merit should be made by democratic majorities. We’d need to get into the weeds to see whether we ultimately have the same views on the best kind of immigration policy; but where I suspect we agree is in the broader point that this is a legitimate discussion to have.

Now we interrupt the interview.  The attempt to create a multiethnic stable liberal democracy has, according to Mounk, never been successfully created before.  One of the questions that emerges whether one is liberal or conservative in the Western liberal tradition is .... can this kind of multiethnic liberal democracy be created and maintained without any recourse to a civic religion?  What is left?

One possibility is shared cultic consumption.  Yes, pop culture.  Highbrow culture won't get the job done.  There's no point in trying to indoctrinate all would-be citizens in culture as would be defined in The New Yorker or Times Literary Supplement.  You're better off coming up with something more like Star Trek or Blue's Clues or Sesame Street or Star Wars.

Then we get a little further.

Frum: A few moments ago, you offered some comfort: Authoritarian populism may be on the rise, but has not yet taken power in most places. There’s one conspicuous exception of course. If the United States succumbs, can others resist?

Mounk: This is really two questions. The first is about the geopolitical consequences of America abandoning its commitment to liberal democracy. Countries in Western Europe often forget to what extent America has protected them from the ill winds of world politics over the past half century. If the United States evolves toward illiberalism, the consequences would be disastrous. European democracies like France and Germany would become increasingly dependent on Russia. Japan and South Korea would become open to influence from China. This will ultimately put a lot of pressure on their domestic as well as their foreign policy.

The second question is even more important though, and it is about what it would tell us about the stability of other supposedly stable democracies if liberal democracy erodes in the United States. Despite all of America’s specific problems, it is the oldest democracy in the world. With the exception of Canada, it has the deepest experience with trying to make a multiethnic democracy work. If the forces that are pulling us apart are strong enough to make democracy fail in this country, I fear that similar reasons will also prove strong enough to make democracy fail in most other countries in the world.
I think it's necessary to translate what Mounk calls "America abandoning its commitment to liberal democracy."  The idea that within the Trump administration that the electoral college will be abolished or that popular vote will be abandoned seems improbable.  Not impossible, but largely improbable. 
No, I would suggest that there's a different way to read what Mounk calls the abandonment of a commitment to liberal democracy.  There is a way to read that "end" as the emergence in the wake of the Cold War of a unipolar division of power in global military/economic terms.  We could even go so far as to say that the United States was simply the one world-ruling power in the wake of the end of World War II and that the Cold War was the fake war by dint of propaganda and counter-propaganda through which that unipolar world was established.  The Great Society and the JFK era was the utopian and optimistic era of the American Crusader State while the Reagan years were a bit more mixed in its mythology since the defeat of the Evil Empire had to happen, but I've written elsewhere on how the nostalgic mythologies of the red and blue map out pretty readily to those sci-fi franchises that date to the JFK/LBJ mythology and the Reagan mythology.  America's entertainment industry kept coming back to the blockbuster franchises that imagine that with team red or blue we'd ever save the world or damn it, but the primacy of America was never in doubt.
Now, maybe, it is. 
The United States abandoning what Parker and Stone said with all jocularity was the role of Team America: World Police would not be an abandonment of “liberal democracy”, but of globalist internationalism, which is not so ironically what agitators considered to be on the far left and far right seem to actually agree about.
If the United States concludes that there's no point in continued investment in NATO that's not going to be a disaster for the United States.  If the United States pulls out of the Phillippines or Japan it's not like the United States has somehow abandoned the cause of liberal democracy, but it "would" seem to tell China by such actions that, well, you probably get the basic idea. 
There may be a sense in which the legacy of English/British imperialism and colonialism survives in a "kindler, gentler" form in the United States.  Not that this is really a kindler or gentler form of colonialism or imperialism if you stop and think about it, but it can be spun that way by people within Anglo-American contexts.  Christopher Hitchens' big pivot was his fear that compared to what he used to hate about Anglo-American imperialism Islamo-fascism was worse.  Well ... eh ... maybe? 
If the United States decides at a policy level that a unipolar world in which the United States and its economic and military interests don't really have to define the fate of the world that's not giving up on liberal democracy.  Recognizing a multipolar world, in fact, exists and that American supremacy can't possible last isn't that daring an observation.  The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was floating theories as to how and why the United States must inevitably fall decades ago. At some point the United States would not be able to maintain the delicate balance between sustaining its welfare state in its Great Society form on out (i.e. into the late 1980s) while simultaneously maintaining its military presence over the world in an anti-Soviet stance. 
Then the Cold War ended in a way that didn't involve mutual nuclear destruction or a pre-emptive strike or any kind of disarmament.  Over time groups that we helped to militarize against the Soviet threat kinda sorta became threats against us (i.e. the US).  If the war on terror could be construed not necessarily as a domestic safety issue alone but as a defense of our presence the world over to prevent a multipolar world then it's possible even for a somewhat traditional conservative type to suggest that there's a difference between a department of defense that keeps the citizenry safe and a department of defense arrayed across the world where we have occupying forces in nations whose people sometimes react by means normally defined as terrorism.  Couldn't we define what we did in the Revolutionary war as terrorism against a stable and in its own eyes legitimate imperial state?   Now I read Burke's address on American taxation so I do know why, even within a British imperial context, the American revolution was considered unique to a point where a member of Parliament could see it coming and argue its potential merits.
While I'm thinking via blog here I don't think we can ultimately say that British and American colonial or imperial interests are necessarily the same.  Once we take Mounk's suggestion to heart there's no reason to suppose an American history depends on an English history across the board.  If American and Birtish rule can be distinguished by America seeking to build a multiethnic democracy that the British empire never set out to create and probably can't, then in that sense the British empire ended with World War II and the contraction of its colonial activities.  If there's a lesson in any of that, and frankly I'm not entirely sure there is, it's that a colonial empire could be persuadd as a reflection if its stated ideals to rescind a colonial empire.  What emerges in the wake of that is ... well ... can we look at all the places where the british rescinded their empire and say it's peachy there?  That may not necessarily be the point, though.
What I'm getting at is a question as to whether or not an attempt to create a genuinely viable and successful multiethnic democracy is possible without some kind of civic religion on the one hand and, more pertinent to the global human condition, whether or not such a viable multiethnic democratic state can survive if its foreign policy amounts to imposing that ideal of multiethnic democracy on the rest of the world.  The paradox would be that American imperialism cannot be taken as a good faith advocacy for the kind of democratic multiethnic society we might claim to have inside our borders if we're demonstrating by our global military presence that we are, so to speak, the world police for everyone else.  Walter McDougall's way of distinguishing these impulses was to describe the "promised land" conception of America vs the "crusader state".

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