Masks. Vaccines. Immigration. Abortion. Gun control. Taxes. The list of divisive issues in American politics goes on, with liberals and conservatives seeming more polarized and less able to agree than ever before. Indeed, democracy is in a fragile state, not only in the US but around the world. What’s gone wrong to get us into this sorry situation?

In an enlightening discussion last week at the Chicago Humanities Festival, two thought leaders posited an unexpected response: it’s not so much that we’ve messed things up—it’s that we’re in the midst of an unprecedented democratic effort, and there are bound to be some bumps in the road. Moreover, if we want the future to look bright instead of dim, we need to start working harder to bridge societal divides.

Yascha Mounk is a German-American political scientist, professor of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of four books, the most recent being The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.

Dr. Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith America, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that aims to promote interfaith cooperation. He’s also the former faith advisor to President Obama and author of four books, most recently We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy.

According to Freedom House’s 2021 ‘Freedom in the World’ report, the world has entered the 16th year of a democratic recession, and the international balance has shifted in favor of tyranny. What has caused democracy to become so fragile, and are we at some kind of precarious turning point?

Delicate Democracy

We’ve come to take it for granted that in relatively affluent countries like the US, Australia, Germany, or Japan, democracy will always be the chosen system of government and is unlikely to come under serious threat. “I started worrying about whether that was really true, because I saw all these signs of fading democratic values,” Mounk said. “People participating less in civil society, the extremes rising, people being more open to populist leaders.” Take Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modhi in India, or López Obrador in Mexico, to name a few.

This shift, in Mounk’s opinion, has structural reasons, like a stagnation of living standards for middle- and working-class citizens, as well as a rise in internet and social media use, which pulls parties and issues to the extremes. “But it also has to do with the fact that we’re trying to do something unprecedented right now,” he added. “We’re trying to build religiously and ethnically diverse democracies that treat their members as equals.”

When democracies like Germany and the US were founded, they were to a large degree religiously and ethnically homogeneous. The US has become more diverse, but it doesn’t have a history of treating different groups of citizens equally; one group got the power and influence while other groups were excluded.

There’s a widespread pessimism in the US about the state of society—but, Mounk pointed out, building diverse democracies is extremely hard, and it’s gone wrong multiple times in history. “If you understand that, you can look at the changes in US society over the last decade and have optimism,” he said. “Maybe not at a political level, but in the changes you see at the heart of our society. We are actually making real progress towards building these diverse democracies, and we’ll continue to build on that in the coming decades.”

How’s that for a breath of fresh air?

Crucial Civil Society

Patel’s focus is on building civil society: athletic leagues, religious organizations or houses of worship, and other special interest or hobby groups where we spend time outside of our families. “Civil society is the place where people from diverse identities and divergent ideologies come together to engage in common aims and cooperative relationships,” Patel said. “This is the real genius of American society—you have a critical mass of institutions and spaces that bring people together for common aims, and the nature of the activity shapes cooperative relationships.”

Bringing people from different groups together to deepen trust and understanding is key. Groupishness, Mounk pointed out, is part of human nature, and that will never change—but we must manage it in a way that inspires cooperation and friendship rather than hatred, resentment, or violence.

He cited India as a thriving diverse democracy, but with periodic outbursts of violence between Hindus and Muslims. Studies have found that in villages and cities where there’s less violence, there are more civic associations that unite people; Hindus and Muslims are both members of literature clubs, athletic clubs, volunteer organizations, etc. In places where violence more frequently breaks out, these associations still exist, but they keep Hindus and Muslims separate. It’s no big surprise, then, that in moments when tensions are running high, the people in the first group of cities trust each other, while in the second, they don’t feel like they know each other.

This second group, though, has been the rule throughout history; what we’re trying to do now is the exception. “The rule of human history is that identity communities build institutions for their own identity communities to serve, grow, and reproduce them,” Patel said—and, when it comes down to it, to fight other communities.

A brilliance of diverse democracies, he added, is that groups can start institutions that are an expression of their identity—say, a Jesuit university or a Jewish volunteer organization—but serve people from any group. Patel’s own father, an Indian Muslim, came to the US to attend the MBA program at Notre Dame—a private Catholic university—and that’s why Patel is here today.

“That’s the secret sauce of America’s democracy, and I think it’s in danger,” he said. “We have to continue to build spaces out of our own identity expression that connect to other identities and have a stake in them thriving.”

Demography’s Not Destiny

The US Census Bureau has predicted the US will be a “majority minority” country by 2045. If that’s true, Mounk and Patel both said, we’d better start working harder to get away from the polarized, divisive political culture we’re stuck in now.

“We’re at a moment in America where liberals and conservatives don’t agree on anything,” Mounk said. “But there’s one thing they agree on, and it’s wrong and dangerous: that’s the idea that demography is destiny.” In his opinion this is far too simplistic, because the way different demographics vote can change over time.

Catholics and Irish Americans were key for Democrats in the 1960s, Mounk said, but today are one of the most reliable voter bases for Republicans. What made Trump competitive in the 2020 election was that he significantly increased his share of voters among every non-white demographic, from African-American to Asian-American to Hispanic. Biden ultimately won because he increased his share of white voters relative to Hillary Clinton’s share from 2016. “We simply cannot predict who’s going to be winning elections by running those numbers out into the future,” Mounk said. “And that’s a good thing for our society, because I don’t want to be able to look into this audience and know who you voted for by the color of your skin.”

Fixing the Future

Technology has done some damage to democracy, mainly through social media algorithms that amplify the most extreme voices at the expense of moderate, rational ones. What can tech do now to reverse this harm—and go beyond that to revitalize democracy, build meaningful connections between groups, and dial down political polarization?

Patel spoke of the importance of solution-minded entrepreneurs in helping heal social wounds. “A huge part of what makes our society healthy and vibrant is people standing up and saying ‘I’ll solve that,’” he said. “Local solutions to local problems can have massive national implications.”

The democratization of technology, information, and knowledge means there’s a greater proportion of people than ever before with access to tools that can catalyze positive change. We see people using tech to solve issues like homelessness, pollution, climate change, and even making existing digital technologies more ethical.

How can this spirit of community-oriented innovation be applied to fixing and preserving our ailing political system and bridging the many divides between citizens?

A line from Mounk’s book reads, “Never in history has a democracy succeeded in being both diverse and equal, treating members of many different ethnic or religious groups fairly, and yet achieving that goal is now central to the democratic project in countries around the world.”

We’ve got our work cut out for us.

Image Credit: Breaking The Walls / Shutterstock.com

Vanessa is senior editor of Singularity Hub. She's interested in biotechnology and genetic engineering, the nitty-gritty of the renewable energy transition, the roles technology and science play in geopolitics and international development, and countless other topics.

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