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A political scientist explains how multiculturalism’s “success” gave us Trump

"We're actually witnessing the success of multiculturalism."

Donald Trump Holds Political Rally In Louisville Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The success of right-wing populists in Europe and North America has led many to question the viability of multiculturalism. Steve Chapman, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, asked last summer: “Has the great American experiment in diversity ended in failure?”

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, often admired for her reasonableness and tolerance, remarked in 2015 that multiculturalism has been revealed to be a “life lie” or a sham.

Last November, I interviewed moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt about the tensions endemic to multicultural societies, and he concluded that “diversity, immigration, and multiculturalism are right at the heart of the sociological problem in Western democracies.” Haidt wasn’t opposed to multiculturalism as such, but he worried that it leads to reduced social capital and the amplification of “tribal tendencies.”

Pippa Norris, a Harvard comparative political scientist, sees it much differently. In a conversation with me last month, she said:

No, we're actually witnessing the success of multiculturalism: It's taking over in the broader sense in the population and in society. I can give you lots and lots of trends on that. You can look at various polls and surveys measuring things like tolerance of minorities, cosmopolitanism, the attitudes toward the United Nations, toward NATO, toward the European Union, and you find that young people are incredibly cosmopolitan, incredibly multicultural. They see their lives as being one where you work in one country, you live in another, you end up in a third.

But, predictably, there is a reaction against multiculturalism, which is a sign that it has succeeded. Social changes have accelerated multiculturalism, and that is perceived as threatening to those opposed to it. There are immense pressures to adapt and adopt.

We have to think about how best to adapt to multiculturalism, but in terms of broad social attitudes, there's no evidence that, for example, attitudes toward homosexuality or gender or religion are in any way going in a more traditional direction.

According to Norris, the ultranationalist drift we’re seeing is predictable: Societies are changing, becoming more inclusive, and that has occasioned a reaction from older, more traditionalist citizens.

The crucial question is whether individual states can absorb these reactionary movements. If, for the foreseeable future, we’re going to see more populist pushback, does that mean we can expect more societal disruptions and constitutional crises in Western countries?

Norris is cautiously optimistic:

A lot depends on the type of system a country has. Different systems will respond in different ways to populist pressures. In most European systems, the party system is flexible. In the United Kingdom, for example, you have 13 parties sitting in Parliament. In Netherlands, Germany, and other countries, you've got a multi-party system. In a few countries, like the United States, you've only got two parties. Now, those parties themselves are umbrellas, so they're ideologically indistinct in certain regards, but it's also very difficult for other parties to break through.

Are there going to be populist parties in the future? Absolutely. They're not going to go away. How successful they are depends on the institutional rules and depends on how other parties respond to them in terms of either taking over their issues, ignoring them, or trying to isolate them in certain regards. But the American system is resistant to major shocks because of the strength of the two-party structure.

Ultimately, Norris sees more reasons to be hopeful than not. In America, at least, our institutions are doing precisely what they should do. But, she warns, the real test has yet to occur:

The courts have done what the courts should do. The media has done what it’s supposed to do. Civil society is still vibrant. The protests are amazing. Young people are energized. Opposition groups like the ACLU are seeing a tremendous spike in contributions. But we haven’t yet been properly tested. The tests are not in the good times or safe times. The tests are when the major crises occur. There will be another crisis in the next four or eight years, another terror attack or some other emergency.

This will be the real test.

You can read the rest of my interview with Norris here.