The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure by Yascha Mounk - review by Richard V Reeves

Richard V Reeves

What Chicken Tikka Masala Teaches Us

The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure


Bloomsbury 368pp £20

There are ‘more books upon books than upon any other subject; we do nothing but comment upon one another’, lamented the French essayist Michel de Montaigne. ‘Every place swarms with commentaries; of authors there is great scarcity.’ And that was in 1588.

One wonders what Montaigne would make of the hundreds of books published over the last few years on the state of democracy, or liberalism, or both (the distinctions are not always as clear as they should be). More than once, democracy has been saved by bullets and patriots. This time, it seems, our saviours are to be books and podcasters (unless, of course, you are facing actual invasion).

You could be forgiven, then, for feeling a little weary on opening the pages of Yascha Mounk’s latest book. Do we really need another book on the perils facing democracy? But, to borrow Montaigne’s terms, Mounk is an author rather than a commentator. He was worrying about populism, liberalism and democracy long before it was fashionable. In his previous works, he zeroed in on the dangers of ‘illiberal democracy’, showing that when faced with dynamic populist movements, democratic structures do not serve as a secure bulwark against intolerance. Think Hungary, Turkey and India.

In his new book, Mounk pans out and looks at the challenges facing democracies – and specifically diverse democracies – across recorded history. Rather than presuming that democracy is a normal state of human affairs, from which any departure should be seen as an almost unnatural event, he reminds

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