Is multicultural democracy possible? To even ask such a question is enough to land one in hot water these days. Growing up in the 1990’s, “multiculturalism” and “diversity” were exciting new buzzwords; today they have acquired the status of dogma. However, I would argue that a certain form of multiculturalism poses an existential challenge to democracy, while other forms of diversity can be acceptable and even healthy. There must always be a range of acceptable opinion and tolerance for disagreement; the challenge is to define this range in a way that can bend without breaking.
First, some very important clarifications and definitions of terms. Democracy is rule by the people, i.e. self-government. In a democracy, the people choose their leaders and thus their laws. Culture is a set of foundational beliefs and values. Within a culture there can be a high degree of diversity and even many subcultures. Civilizations are the largest cultural units, extending both temporally and geographically beyond the limits of a particular national culture. The United States and the United Kingdom share a common culture in many ways, while differing in many others.
Another way to ask the question is, can two or more groups of people with fundamentally different values and beliefs agree to live under a single set of laws?
We know that multiracial and multiethnic democracies are in fact highly possible. Countries like the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and South Africa prove this point. In the United States, we have been a multiethnic democracy since 1776 at the latest. We first became a multiracial democracy in 1870, when the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote, though the end of Reconstruction overthrew its enforcement. We did not restore our multiracial democracy until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, though the effects of racism and discrimination linger on.
We also know that multicultural empire is possible. Take the Ottoman Empire with its Sunni and Shia Muslims; its Arabs and Turks; Armenian Christians and Jews. An emperor or sultan may rule over a very diverse populace; historically, this is what it meant to be an emperor and not a mere king. The emperor may event grant religious tolerance to his people, as many Ottoman sultans did to varying degrees. And the Ottoman Empire lasted quite a long time, nearly seven hundred years.
But is multicultural democracy possible?
The relevance of this question within the context of the United States today is not primarily one of immigration, for the simple reason that the numbers do not bear this out. Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States at 13%, and yet they tend to share the same Christian faith as America’s earliest settlers (though they may be Catholic instead of Anglican or Puritan).
We also have relatively small numbers of Muslims in the United States (1.1%), much lower than almost all European countries, and they don’t tend to live in segregated neighborhoods. Compare this to 8.8% in France and 6.1% in Germany. American Buddhists (1%) and Hindus (1%), as well as a majority of American Muslims, have demonstrated a willingness and ability to assimilate into the broader culture.
It would be a different matter entirely if we were to wake up one day and find that half the country was Hindu or Muslim or Confucian. Then we might have to debate whether we could maintain the Judeo-Christian values that formed the basis of our nation’s founding in a truly multicultural setting, but this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
(Another brief point of clarification before anyone starts objecting that Franklin and Jefferson were Deists… In speaking of our Judeo-Christian founding, I am referring to that line in the Declaration of Independence that states men are “endowed by their Creator” with certain inalienable rights. This touchstone of American liberty — later quoted by Abraham Lincoln and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass — traces back to Chapter 2 of Genesis, where man is said to be made in God’s image. This is the foundation of our freedom. But I digress…)
The real relevance of the question of multicultural democracy to America’s future is its bearing on the so-called “culture wars.”
In many ways America appears to have two competing cultures, which correlate approximately with our two dominant political ideologies and two parties. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, don’t just have different ideas about tax rates, immigration, and foreign policy. In fact, they may share many of the same positions on these topics. However, they tend to drive different cars, wear different clothes, follow different sports leagues, and listen to different music.
Quick! Here comes a man in loose jeans, work boots, and a Nascar T-shirt driving a pickup truck with a “Don’t Tread on Me” license plate. Is he liberal or conservative? Republican or Democrat? How about a woman with pink hair, arm tattoos, and a nose ring driving a Subaru?
More important than these relatively shallow differences, liberals and conservatives today have different foundational myths, different conceptions of the Constitution, and increasingly different value systems.
Conservatives and Republicans tend to adhere to “traditional values,” a long-time cliché in American politics that is meaningful nonetheless. They believe America’s founding was basically good, that Washington and Jefferson (though wrong on slavery) were American heroes, and that the Constitution is essentially a pro-freedom document. Conservatives also tend to see a larger role for faith and family in American life, and a smaller one for government.
While many conservatives are accepting of gay and trans people (and some are even LGBT themselves), they tend to reject more aggressive efforts to push the LGBT agenda, especially in schools and churches. Conservatives once opposed gay marriage (a moot point since Obergefell). Today many are simply seeking protections for Christians in our increasingly secular culture. Examples would include allowing Catholic adoption agencies to continue to operate even if they don’t place children with same-sex couples, allowing churches to study the Old Testament without being charged with hate speech, and not compelling a baker to use his creative talents to design and create a wedding cake celebrating a same-sex marriage. For many on the other side of the culture war, this is simply asking too much.
The leftists who have recently taken over from more traditionally liberal Democrats see America as a fundamentally racist and evil country. Our story, they tell us, begins in 1619 with the arrival of the first African slaves at Jamestown, not the founding of Plymouth in 1620 or the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. As slave owners, Jefferson and Washington were irredeemable racists whose statues should one day come down. Even the multiracial Hamilton musical is problematic, as it does not dwell long enough on the sin of slavery. What they fail to realize is that the more racially and ethnically diverse a society becomes, the more it needs a set of unifying values. And it’s hard to unite around the idea that we are all irredeemable racists.
Believing religion to be more a source of strife and superstition than of good, leftists tolerate it only if it is of the liberal “let’s just everyone be nice to each other” variety. They are uncomfortable with public prayer of any kind, and would prefer people to keep their religious beliefs to themselves (much as conservatives once asked homosexuals to closet their sexual preferences).
The undisputed victors of the recent culture wars, leftists have failed to be magnanimous in victory. It is not enough that they control most mainstream news outlets, almost all colleges and universities, and the majority of television shows, movies, and pop music going back to the 1960’s. It’s not enough that they have all of Big Tech – Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google, and Apple — on their side, with their gatekeeping ability and mountains of data.
Following the death of George Floyd, all of America’s major cultural institutions lined up squarely on the left of the cultural divide. Since the Capitol riot of January 6th, leftist organizations and groups do not even pretend to tolerate conservative viewpoints. January 6th may prove to be the Reichstag fire moment of the culture wars. Just as Hitler needed an excuse to banish leftwing parties from the German government, the Democratic Party needed an excuse to banish conservatives forever from the mainstream culture, and they got it.
Never mind that Jacob Hansley, AKA Jake Angeli – the infamous horns-wearing, face-painted protestor who bragged to have been sent by Q – is not a fair representative of the majority of Americans who hold conservative views. Anyone who ever supported Trump or the Republican Party, or raised even the slightest question about 2020 election integrity, is now persona non grata.
Conservatives already sensed the need to start their own media companies and tech platforms. Now many are wondering if we need our own banks and schools too. As hot as the culture wars have grown in recent years, we may be looking at yet further division to come. Which brings me to the original question: can multicultural democracy survive?
I hope so, if this is indeed the direction we are heading. But I suspect the real reason we are in a culture war and not merely a culture game is that both sides suspect one must inevitably dominate the other. As Lincoln so famously admonished: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Either we will return to our Judeo-Christian roots and respect the Constitutional framework established by our founders, or we will become a secular progressive culture in which conservative values exist only in scattered pockets.
If it is to be the latter, I would at least hope for political conservatives to be shown the same respect as religious minorities like Muslims and Hindus, or ethnic minorities like Nigerians and Pakistanis. Let liberals practice the multicultural acceptance and celebration of difference that they preach. Only by tolerating conservative culture can liberals truly prove their commitment to multicultural democracy.
Follow me on Twitter at @FPphilosopher
I’m trying to grow my site! Will you help support me by choosing one of the options below? A monthly subscription plan of $5/month is also available here.