Amid the plethora of book interviews conducted by former US president Barack Obama, two sentences jumped out at me: “America is the first real experiment in building a large, multi-ethnic, multicultural democracy. And we don’t know yet if that can hold.”
That is a startlingly bleak view. When white leaders of apartheid South Africa suggested democracy would not work in a multiracial society, they were denounced as racists. But that is the possibility Mr Obama seemed to be raising.
He was not wrong to pose the question. His successor Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election were built around the false claim there had been voter fraud, especially in heavily-black cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia. A recent poll shows that a majority of Mr Trump’s voters believe fraud took place. Although Mr Trump’s efforts look likely to fail, racial tensions were central to his attempt to subvert democracy.
If anything, Mr Obama’s mistake was to suggest that such challenges are unique to the US. India and Brazil are also large multiracial, multicultural countries, where democracy is under increasing strain.
The founding fathers of independent India insisted that the country must be secular in outlook and that all citizens were equal regardless of religion. But India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, is a Hindu nationalist and aggressively majoritarian in outlook. His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party returned no Muslim MPs at the last election. The rise of Hindu nationalism has coincided with an increasingly autocratic style of government that many liberals believe threaten the civil liberties of Muslims — as well as the independence of the courts and the media.
In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has used arguments that are reminiscent of the US Republican party. The Brazilian president has argued that he is the victim of voter fraud. Mr Bolsonaro has also denounced affirmative action policies for black, mixed race and indigenous Brazilians remarking, “I would not board a plane piloted by a quota beneficiary.” The Brazilian leader is equivocal in his attitude to democracy and has often praised the 21-year period of military rule in Brazil.
The experiences of the US, India and Brazil all suggest that racial, cultural or religious tensions can rise to levels where some politicians and voters begin to reject the basic principles and understandings that underpin a democracy.
However, there are counter-examples of countries that have become much more multi-ethnic and multicultural in recent decades without fearing for serious threats to their democracies. They include Canada, Australia and the UK.
So what is the difference? One possibility is that in the US, India and Brazil, the largest ethnic or religious group has come to fear that its position in society and privileges are under threat in a way that is not (yet) apparent elsewhere.
In Brazil, the 2010 census showed that white Brazilians were less than 50 per cent of the population. In the US, projections that the country will be minority white by 2045 have led to gloomy speculation among some Republicans that the party may never win another national election — and intensified efforts at gerrymandering and voter suppression. In India, majority paranoia is less easy to explain, since Hindus account for just under 80 per cent of the population of nearly 1.4bn people. But many BJP leaders have promoted the idea that Muslims enjoy unfair privileges and that India’s religious balance is threatened.
The question of how to handle ethnic and cultural tensions within a democratic structure has been handled in different ways all over the world. Some countries have gone for very pronounced forms of group rights. Malaysia has entrenched educational and employment privileges for the Malay majority. In Lebanon, the settlement that ended the civil war allocated seats in parliament and public-sector jobs by religion and sect. But in both countries, group preferences have become associated with cronyism and corruption.
At the other end of the spectrum, France prioritises common citizenship above group rights. Many French intellectuals remain adamant in their rejection of communitarianism — arguing that it is an American idea, alien to France. This emphasis on individual over group rights has clear attractions to any classical liberal. But it is open to the accusation that it ignores realities of entrenched inequality.
Looking around the world, there is no doubt that Mr Obama is on to something. Multicultural and multiracial democracies are often fraught with tensions, and no country has hit upon a formula that clearly works. But, in a world of mass migration, attempting to enforce monoculturalism, looks increasingly like a recipe for stagnation or tyranny. Both Japan and Hungary have adopted highly restrictive attitudes to immigration for explicitly cultural reasons. But both countries’ populations are shrinking.
Elsewhere, extreme efforts at maintaining the dominance of one ethnic group have led to “ethnic cleansing”, as in Myanmar, or to the mass imprisonment and re-education camps that China has constructed for Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Making multi-ethnic democracies work is hard and uncertain work. But the alternatives look unattractive, unworkable — and sometimes horrifying.