* The crisis of American democracy demands a clear-eyed understanding of the ways in which differences in ethnic groups and some sources of political polarization are never going to be resolved.
* In The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, political scientist Yascha Mounk asks the most far-reaching political question of our age: can democracies that are ethnically diverse survive?
* The first disparity between America and western Europe is that whites continue to be an overwhelming majority of the population everywhere in western Europe. Ten west European countries have populations that are over 90% white. The most diverse country in west Europe by this measure is the Netherlands, with “only” 84% whites. Compare that with the United States, where whites amount to only 60% of the population and are on their way to becoming a minority. The reason this is important has nothing to do with whiteness or European culture. Rather, Europe’s white population matters because a large ethnic majority can unilaterally set the terms of assimilation by minorities. This is as true of the Chinese majority in Singapore as of the white majority in Norway. The countries of western Europe still have the option to do what the United States did throughout its history until the 1960s: energetically socialize immigrants into the culture of their new country and require, as Theodore Roosevelt famously put it for the United States, that an immigrant’s naturalization be “predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American.” Whether any west European nation will do this is an open question, but it is an option for them. It is no longer an option for the United States.
The second disparity is the size of the individual ethnic minorities. No one ethnic minority in any west European nation is large enough to be a political force on its own except France’s North African population (estimated at 10%). Everywhere else, the largest discrete ethnicity is a few percent of the population. A few percent of the population cannot become a political force on its own, and different immigrant ethnicities seldom form alliances. In contrast, the United States has two large and politically powerful minorities: Latinos (19% of the population) and blacks (12%). Asians (6%) are emerging as another.
* The problem is that ethnic diversity in a community significantly erodes social trust, not only between different ethnic groups but also among people within the same ethnic group. This ominous relationship was first documented in 2007 by Robert Putnam in “E Pluribus Unum” (Scandinavian Political Studies). By 2020, a meta-analysis of the relationship (“Ethnic Diversity and Social Trust,” Annual Review of Political Science) could call upon 87 separate studies. All 87 found a statistically significant negative correlation between ethnic diversity and social trust…
* the third sin of omission, ignoring the literature on ethnic differences in social behavior, is definitely mortal. Social behavior refers to the constellation of ways in which people act with respect to social institutions (marriage, civic activities, religious activities) and places (workplaces, schools, sidewalks, public parks, or others’ homes). The question regarding Mounk’s topic is whether social behavior varies by ethnicity, and the answer is yes on a host of behaviors. If the differences were small, the implications for sustaining a diverse democracy would also be small. For America’s East Asians and South Asians, the differences with whites are, in fact, small. For Latinos, they usually vary from small to moderate. For blacks, they usually vary from moderate to large.
To illustrate, I use one of the most important social behaviors: marriage. The following numbers refer to the percentage of adults aged 20 and over who are in heterosexual marriages with the spouse present, using data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys for 2013–2020. Asians had the highest marriage rate (61%), followed by whites (54%), Latinos (44%), and blacks (28%)—a huge difference from top to bottom. Since marriage rates are known to increase along with education, it may be asked if the ethnic differences persist for people with high school diplomas, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and professional degrees. In the case of whites and Asians, the differences ranged from zero to five percentage points across those educational levels—small. In the case of Latinos and whites, the differences ranged from nine to 13 percentage points—moderate. In the case of blacks and whites, the differences ranged from 18 to 24 percentage points—large.
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