Let’s Undo the Melting Pot


Review of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, by Yascha Mounk

New York: Penguin Press, 2022


Yascha Mounk was born in Germany in 1982 to a Jewish mother who had been forced to flee Poland in 1969 by a government-directed wave of antisemitic hatred and purges. Although he had grown up and was educated in Germany, he could not escape the fact that his German friends saw him as a Jew, not a “true” German. Hoping that life would be better in America, he earned a PhD at Harvard, moved to New York, and in his first book, Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany, declared himself a “New Yorker.” Mounk, who became an American citizen in 2017, is still struggling with identity, and beginning to persuade me that perhaps there truly is no history, only biography.

Acutely aware of the racism and inequity in the contemporary United States, he proposes to do something as unprecedented as the creation of the American Republic was in its day. Mounk wants to inspire a Great Experiment in which America remakes itself into a diverse democracy where not only every citizen as an individual, but every ethnic group as a group stands in true equality. This new America will be a “public park,” a place where every individual can choose “to do things on their own, to congregate in likeminded groups, or to pursue joint activities with complete strangers,” secure in the knowledge that in the new America “nobody suffers from pervasive discrimination or enmity on the basis of their ascriptive identity.”

In his new book, The Great Experiment, Mounk is proposing to turn the United States into a new kind of country, a place where people arriving from widely diverse homelands and cultures will be free to transfer the culture and identity of the land of their birth to their new homeland, retaining their ancestral customs, values, beliefs, and languages by living as separately as they choose from an array of other identity groups—all of them equal. In Mounk’s vision, individuals will be free to remain within or to walk away from ancestral identity groups, beliefs, and practices, free to identify as a member of no group at all, free to become whatever they choose to become. This, he argues, will create a more integrated culture and political system, avoiding the dystopian future augured by the divisiveness of contemporary movements that exacerbate sharp political cleavages between natives and immigrants, or along racial and ethnic lines.

An interesting aspect of this vision is how closely it echoes American history—up to a point.  Many groups that immigrated voluntarily to America, from the Palatine Germans fleeing famine in 1709 through the great wave of immigration that ended in 1921, made concerted efforts to maintain the culture of the old country. They transplanted as much as they could of the old world, building culturally vibrant communities that flourished and held real political power, then evanesced as the children and grandchildren became American.

Asking, “Must the many become one?” Mounk gets to the heart of his vision of America by discussing an idea of which he disapproves: America as a melting pot. The phrase was popularized by Israel Zangwill’s play, “The Melting Pot,” which opened in Washington, D.C., in 1908. Zangwill’s lead character describes the United States as a great melting pot into which “Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian—black and yellow,” were poured, melted, and stirred until they emerged as Americans. President Teddy Roosevelt was in the audience; he is said to have shouted “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill!”

The playwright’s argument was that the Old World cultures that immigrants carried to America needed to melt away and be replaced by a truly new world. In the words of the hero in Zangwill’s play, “What is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!” Mounk dislikes the melting pot as a model for the future of diverse democracies because it demands that individuals abandon their ancestral culture.

Zangwill was prone to intense enthusiasms, taking up with reform movements including votes for women, Zionism, and its opposite, Jewish assimilationism, advocating for each of these and several other movements with great intensity, and dropping each for some new cri de cœur. Born in the Old World, he was not wrong to think that radically novel things were happening in this New World where a man was not defined by his ancestry. He and Mounk have that in common. And each of them shows a tendency to be swept up by a series of grand ideas.

The outcome of the decades of mass migration to the United States at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, followed by decades of admitting very few immigrants, was that by the 1950s the grandchildren of fin de siècle immigrants spoke, dressed, and behaved like other Americans. Their demeanor, beliefs, and attitudes shocked the priests and rabbis imported to serve immigrant communities. If an American did not like the parish priest, she walked to a different parish—behavior that was unthinkable in Poland or Ireland. But immigrants and their children not only left their churches and dense ethnic neighborhoods, they moved from city to city in search of opportunity. Commonplace for Americans, European observers disapproved because Europe viewed moving from place to place as a sign of moral and economic failure. 

The grandchildren of immigrants were often unable to speak their ancestral language, and frequently married outside the ethnic group or the ancestral faith; the ethnic neighborhoods evaporated. By the end of the twentieth century, it was impossible to tell the descendants of the 1870-1921 Great Wave from fifteenth- or twentieth-generation Americans. Surnames are a poor clue in a country where a Rodriguez is likely to have cousins who are Sullivans, Abramsons, and Winthorps. 

In Mounk’s vision of the future, our public sphere will resemble a vibrant public park where each group can do its own thing, but where people from different groups will often choose to interact. Informal rules that govern how people treat one another will encourage individuals from diverse groups to seek out mutual understanding and solidarity, holding on to the idea that the citizens of an ethnically variegated democracy can come together to create a meaningfully shared life. Among the things he leaves unclear in this re-envisioned America is what language Americans would do this in, given that many will live in densely authentic cultural groups and freely choose not to learn English.

He dislikes the “melting pot” ideal because it fails to “sufficiently respect the cultural traditions of citizens who hail from different parts of the world,” with the result that some immigrants “felt that they needed to hide their real selves in order to gain full acceptance.” He also dislikes the alternative “salad bowl” metaphor, according to which “citizens drawn from different backgrounds should live side by side, preserving the integrity of their groups,” because such societies tend to “fragment, rather than to unify,” countries. Pointing to the attention the British press has paid to public schools that follow curricula from the country of origin and where instruction is in the language of that country, Mounk argues that the separatism of the “salad bowl” can lead in bad directions. 

Darker versions of the “salad bowl” might lead to a country where “residential segregation is the norm, friendships between members of different groups are rare, kids whose parents hail from different countries and cultures go to separate schools, communities barely tolerate the idea that their children might marry an outsider, and many of their members are unfree to make their own choices.” What remains unclear is what, beyond good intentions, will prevent Mounk’s “public park” from becoming a dark “salad bowl.” In a “public park” system that values the autonomy of diverse cultures, it will be difficult to reach or enforce a moral consensus about whether plural marriage, vaginoplasty, child marriage, clitoridectomy, honor killing, or any other practice valued by a cultural group is or is not legitimate, raising the question of whether such a society could enforce any moral norms at all.

Writing on topics as fraught as ethnocracy, Mounk can be stunningly breezy. He suggests that Lebanon make it work by encouraging greater trust and closer contact between members of different groups. Lebanon, of course, is an agglomeration of Maronite, Melkite, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, with Druze (a Levantine faith that is neither Christian nor Muslim) and both Sunni and Shia Muslims roped together within arbitrary borders and given a constitution by France in 1926.  And it is but one entry on the sobering list of countries cobbled together by Western imperial hubris, and left to fail. 

In a section strangely at odds with his optimism about multicultural harmony, Mounk points out that the area of public policy where citizens are especially likely to feel that their elected representatives refuse to listen to them is immigration. He warns that by ignoring the strong preference of American voters interviewed by pollsters for limiting legal immigration and ending illegal immigration altogether, moderate and progressive politicians risk feeding a populist backlash that has the potential to undermine core liberal and democratic values in fundamental ways. And he argues that while liberal democracies can legitimately determine the number of people they choose to admit as immigrants, and stipulate requirements those immigrants must meet, lax border enforcement not only makes citizens oppose immigration, it can make them hostile to immigrants. Mounk proposes a novel approach to immigration and ethnic diversity. Rather than working to assimilate immigrants to the English language and American culture, he proposes that America should conduct a Great Experiment by creating a kind of government that has never been attempted: a democracy that grants true equality to citizens embedded in a diverse array of cultures. Novel political systems that succeed are so rare that one understands why Mounk begins this book by asserting that Americans accomplished such a feat once before, in 1776, when the thirteen seaboard colonies won independence from Britain and embarked on a great experiment in democracy, setting up a self-governing republic at a time when, he asserts, similar attempts had miserably failed in every country where they had been tried. Here Mounk is mistaken. 

The thirteen colonies did not lack successful precedents for democracy. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia had been independent, self-governing republics of white male freeholders for a century and a half. These three commonwealths fought wars, signed treaties, and constructed legal systems unassisted and unchecked by a mother country that rarely noticed them until the French and Indian War (1754-1763) caused Britain sufficient inconvenience to induce Parliament to impose a western boundary on its seaboard colonies. Parliament quite rationally wanted to direct resources to its important colonies in the West and East Indies by avoiding the cost and nuisance of future Indian wars in North America. American resentment of Britain’s new restriction on western expansion was the first step towards independence.  

Unsurprisingly, the ranks of the Continental Army were drawn disproportionately from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia, as were the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These colonies had long and deep experience participating in democratic governments that were more than a century and a half old when the Constitution was written, and there were ancient precedents.

By contrast, if it is tried, the Great Experiment that Mounk proposes will create a genuinely unprecedented type of American government, one that sounds nothing like the United States, but an awful lot like India—with one key exception.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, wrote the Discovery of India while he was a political prisoner of the British Raj. His book persuaded the intelligentsia of an entire subcontinent—a patchwork of peoples and regions of disparate ancestries, customs, faith traditions, and languages, living in every environment from snowy mountains to deserts and tropical rainforests, a vast region that had never been ruled as a unit until Britain conquered it—to regard itself as an ancient nation state. To persuade them of this, Nehru spun a magnificent myth, writing a magisterial history of the subcontinent that gave birth to a nation that has sustained democratic government for nearly three-quarters of a century. 

India is, of course, divided into distinctive regions by politics, history, geography, and culture. It has 22 official languages, 122 major languages and well over a thousand additional languages, depending on how you count. English became the lingua franca by default. Mounk appears to be proposing that the United States and other countries emulate India by creating ethnically varied regions and enclaves inhabited by linguistically and culturally distinctive groups, and that these groups regard one another as members of a polity but—in contrast to India—not as a nation. 

A nation is a territorial community of birth, unified by a unique language and culture that is continuous, even as it evolves. We describe individuals who, like Mounk, elect to join such a community as naturalized because the legal process of naturalization confers the rights that native-born citizens enjoy. This process enables an immigrant to join a community of birth, a nation. 

Could immigration to America take an entirely new path, a path where immigrants build dense, attractive ethnic communities in which children choose not to assimilate, deciding instead to sustain their ancestral cultures in a reconceptualized version of the United States that Mounk calls “diverse democracy”? It would be a remarkable achievement.  Mounk himself tells the reader that he “would love to…(take) you on a tour of all the diverse democracies that have fully solved their problems and built admirably just societies. But such countries do not exist. And so the best I can do, for now, is to propose an imperfect alternative: to start thinking about how to do things right…”

In the diverse democracy of Mounk’s imagined future, people of every race and religion will be treated with respect and dignity, as people are in a public park, but they will not be required to assimilate to American culture or values. Diverse democracy will enable people to choose what they want to be and to do, although there will be rules against things like coercing or robbing other people. All citizens will enjoy freedom not only from oppression by the government, but from coercion that might be imposed on them by their elders. Diverse democracy will be bustling yet peaceful, and heterogeneous without being fragmented. Each person will retain the liberty to stay within the confines of their ancestral community, but many people will recognize how much they have in common with those compatriots who do not look or sound anything like them. Our new, diverse democracy will maintain respect for those who prefer to stay within their own communities, yet encourage a majority of citizens to embark on a life that is, to some meaningful extent, shared. And, despite not sharing an identity as members of a culturally distinct nation, the huge variety of subcultures in this new, diverse democracy of the United States will cohere under a stable and just government. 

It is, frankly, more than a little difficult to believe that Mounk’s diverse democracy will work. Stable, democratic government has, after all, been very difficult to create or sustain. The world’s liberal democracies are places where the great majority of the population share a language, a culture, and an identity as members of the nation; this unity enables them to cohere despite political differences. Culturally cohesive nations have sustained democratic government for upwards of three-quarters of a century in countries as disparate as Costa Rica, Japan, India, and Denmark. But, despite the successes, many efforts to sustain democracy in Latin America, Africa, North Africa, post-Soviet Europe, the Near East, North Africa, and Asia have failed. One way democracies fail is by fracturing along ethnic fault lines.  

Democracy organized as ethnic federalism, an alternative showcased by its success in Canada and Belgium, can allow multiple groups to retain their unique cultures while enjoying the benefits of citizenship in a large, democratic state. However, ethnically diverse federal states have a tendency to fall apart and fail when the delicate power balance among multiple groups is upset by unequal birth rates, or when one group enjoys disproportionate economic success, or when droughts, floods, or swarms of locusts create famines that force large populations to move. At present, it is the climate crisis that is destabilizing power balances in multiethnic countries as it forces populations to flee their homelands, and resistance to admitting refugees increases.   

America continues admits something in the neighborhood of two million illegal and one million legal immigrants per year, and many of them find housing in dense immigrant neighborhoods. I have no idea how many of them would choose to sustain the language and culture of the homeland in the intentionally constructed ethnic enclaves Mounk envisions.   

What I do wonder is whether Mounk fully realizes how deeply American he sounds. I cannot help seeing him as standing in a long line of American utopians. It begins with the English Puritans who crossed the ocean to build A City Upon a Hill and continues with the long list of failed American utopias—New Harmony, Brook Farm, the Fourierists, the Kaliflower Commune. Americans continue to create them. 

Perhaps Mounk, having been slapped around by the impossibility of ever being seen as a “true German,” is especially vulnerable to the yearning for a new kind of country, a country where ethnicity does not limit opportunity. Perhaps, like Columbus, who sighted the Bahamas and believed that he would soon land on the coast of China, Mounk landed at a culturally diverse political science department in the District of Columbia and mistook it for America. If so, Emerson may have gotten it right, perhaps all history truly is biography. 



Posted on 3 May 2022

DIANA MUIR APPELBAUM, an author and historian, is at work on a book tentatively entitled Democracy Requires a People.