Reviewed by Richard Tutin
Democracies have been around for a long time. Community members gathering to express their views and make decisions that affect their life and future goes back in one form or another to ancient times. While we often think that ancient Athens was the first to order its life in this way, there is the suggestion that it was being done on a limited basis well before the Athenians adopted it.
It was though a limited concept. Athens, for example, restricted those participating in the democratic process to males who owned property and had wealth. Women, children, slaves and resident foreigners were not included.
The exclusion of sections of the population remained a feature of democracy for many centuries. It has only been in the last one hundred years that the right to vote has been extended beyond propertied males. The extension of the voting franchise and the advent of representative democracy has expanded the size of congresses and parliaments in many countries. While women were now able to be elected to office, the cultural makeup often remained unchanged. For example, the Australian parliamentarians for many years came from the British cultural background that began the colony in 1788. People from other cultures including members of the Indigenous Community were excluded or discouraged from becoming electoral candidates.
As we moved into the twenty-first century, it all changed. Democracies whose populations were more diverse began to recognise the value of organising their governmental processes to be as culturally representative as possible.
This has set the stage for what Yascha Mounk has called the Great Experiment. Mounk’s detailed analysis of democracy in multi-ethnic societies shows both the benefits and the difficulties that are currently being faced by modern democracies. Centuries of misunderstandings and antagonisms between different cultural communities has put pressure on the democratic processes as competing voices struggle to be heard.
The growth of powerful autocracies, some masquerading as democracies, has made some ethnic communities very suspicious of democratic leadership and decision-making. Mounk skilfully addresses these and other issues that threaten to derail the whole process. Responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, economic pressures and societal changes have often caught democracies flat-footed when they need a swift response. For some, the slowness of decision-making when action is needed immediately has caused tension while others feel the consideration of the needs of different ethnic backgrounds is destroying the makeup of their society and the way in which they have lived.
It is, as Mounk says, easy to be pessimistic about diverse democracy and yet he offers hope that over time these changes will slowly become part of the fabric of what it means to live and participate in a democratic society in an ever-changing and challenging world. In many ways, democracy has always been an experiment that has waxed and waned. Mounk would like it to proceed to greater heights as people choose to emphasise what they have in common over what divides them.
Yascha Mounk is a writer, academic and public speaker known for his work on the rise of populism and the crisis of liberal democracy. A contributing editor at the Atlantic, where he has a regular column, his journalism has also appeared in the New Yorker and Harper’s, among other outlets. He is currently Associate Professor of International Affairs at John Hopkins University and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent book, The People vs Democracy, was published by Harvard University Press in 2018.
The Great Experiment – How To Make Diverse Democracies Work
ISBN 978 152663 014 8