Melting Pot (or Not?): Democracy and Cultural Diversity


Melting PotI’m in the middle of reading Kenneth Minogue’s new book, and so far it is all-around brilliant.

The basic premise is that democracy has wrongly evolved from a mere process to a supreme ideal. More and more, Minogue argues, the West is substituting individual moral responsibility for a superficial form of collective salvation. In short, decisions at the ballot box have subtly become the supreme authority on moral truth.

I’ll be reviewing the book in the near future, but at the moment I wanted to focus on a point Minogue makes in a chapter called “Democratic Ambiguities.” In the chapter, Minogue highlights various elements we need to understand before holistically evaluating democracy. One of Minogue’s many points therein centers around the social conditions necessary for successful democracy. One of those conditions, in Minogue’s view, is cultural homogeneity.

As Minogue writes:

…[T]he ideal of democracy has little purchase on plausibility unless “the whole people” is a relatively homogeneous set of people who “speak the same language” (even if it is only in a metaphorical sense, as in states such as Spain, Switzerland, and Belgium).

But what about the claim that there is no definitive “American culture”? Minogue apparently disagrees:

The United States established its cultural homogeneity as virtually a condition of admission to its shores. A pays politique can hardly exist unless individuals share similar sources of information and talk to each other in mutually comprehensible terms.

To prove his point, Minogue offers several examples where democracy has failed due to competing cultural (or “tribal”) forces. By examining situations in Lebanon, Spain, Northern Ireland, and Africa (no country in particular), Minogue concludes that some degree of cultural homogeneity is necessary for a well-functioning democratic society:

The idea of democracy and the idea of cultural diversity (as promoted by multicultural doctrine) are thus contradictory ideas. The classic cases of democratic failure have been states composed of radically different tribes or sets of people in which the possibility of accommodation under a rule of law will not work because one group can only understand rule by the other as a form of oppression.

In other words:

You cannot have a democracy without having a people, and they must be a population that treats each other as individuals rather than as collective enemies and rivals.

On this blog, I have often touted James Madison’s views on federalism as an ideal way for (sub)cultures to compete (e.g. on matters related to gay marriage). The beauty of federalism is that it not only paves a way for eventual cultural homogeneity to be achieved, but that it allows for the losers to re-compete or take their arguments elsewhere (to Texas, for example).

In this respect, this view jives with Minogue’s overall point about democracy as a process rather than an ideal. (When do we cede to “process” rather than proclaim “morality!!!”?) But there is a certain aspect of federalism that seems to oppose (or at least, challenge) Minogue’s view of Democratic Necessities 101. If cultural homogeneity is essential for healthy democracy, why should we endorse a federalistic outlook that results in a country filled with disagreeing states (or “cultures”). Why should we allow for “voting with your feet” when we could pick one winner and stick with it? It seems that for federalism to meet Minogue’s criteria we need to see it as a way to efficiently allocate cultural homogeneity. Certain matters depend on the locales — indeed, most matters do — and others reside with the federal government.

The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life by Kenneth MinogueFederalism is a beneficial model for democracy because it allows for both cultural homogeneity and cultural diversity. In both cases, it results in a more authentic society — one that primarily wages its battles where they count: closest to home. But what if such an institutionalized struggle becomes so energetic that it leads to widespread chaos and disarray? What if our  policy warfare leads to cultural implosion rather than eventual cultural cohesion.

The bigger and more important questions seem to be these:

What are the most essential building blocks for democracy to thrive healthily? What is the basic “language” we all need to speak to get along in the day-to-day, despite our varying moral disagreements? What, in American society, belongs to the federal government?

I have a feeling Minogue will provide his own answers to these questions as I continue reading, but I’m interested in your initial thoughts. I myself think the answer has to do with ensuring the promotion of Radical Individualism and True Community (surprise, surprise!), but what do you think?

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