Yascha Mounk: Identity-focused campus culture is new threat to democracy

Barack Obama’s favourite political thinker Yascha Mounk has made his career attacking right-wing populism. His latest target – identity politics fostered on US campuses – will surprise many of his acolytes, he tells Matthew Reisz

September 14, 2023
Yascha Mounk
Source: Getty Images
Yascha Mounk

When Barack Obama listed The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure as one of his summer reads a year ago, Yascha Mounk’s reflections on the frailties of liberal democracy acquired a new audience and authority.

Yet having thoroughly skewered right-wing populism and its brash demagogues in popular books, his Good Fight podcast series and essays for The Atlantic, Mounk’s next target may surprise his considerable fanbase. This month, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, published by Penguin, explains how dangerous styles of thinking developed in and once largely confined to the academy have now gone mainstream – and why we should all be worried.

Criticising “woke” campus culture is a staple for the conservative right so how did Mounk, a darling of the liberal left and professor of the practice of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, end up sharing the same concerns?

Having grown up in a Jewish family in 1980s Munich, Mounk “perhaps had a keener awareness than some others of how quickly seemingly stable political systems can turn sour, and what that means for ethnic and religious minorities within those countries,” he explains. Many of his mother’s Polish family were killed or exiled during the Holocaust. But when, as a PhD student at Harvard University, he was first reflecting on its powerful central message – that seemingly stable liberal democracies could collapse quickly thanks to right-wing populism – his colleagues were sceptical prior to 2016, when the threat of a figure like Trump to the US political system seemed remote.

When he and a colleague presented research “showing a decline in support for democratic institutions in many Western countries”, he recalls, other academics were sceptical and made comments such as, “It’s a fun argument for you to be making, and you’ve found some interesting stuff, but surely you’re not really concerned about the future of American democracy?” He was also warned by senior scholars that trying to address what he saw as a major crisis for a wider readership was, at best, a distraction from producing specialist articles in leading journals.

Yet by the time his breakthrough book, 2018’s The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It, was published, many of Mounk’s colleagues had come to share his fears about how “a system of government [liberal democracy] that had seemed immutable looks as though it might come apart”. Still, he has some sharp criticisms of universities. At a time when the US needed to “renew civic faith”, much teaching in the humanities and the more politicised social sciences, writes Mounk, “far from seeking to preserve the most valuable aspects of our political system”, largely aimed to “help students recognize its manifold injustices and hypocrisies”.

Furthermore, the powerful career incentives in elite institutions that push young scholars to focus on research at the expense of teaching often led to students and faculty making “a tacit pact of nonaggression: as long as students don’t take up too much of their time, professors will make it easy for the bulk of their charges to get a degree without thinking too hard”.

Much of this is relevant to The Identity Trap. Although Mounk stresses that his “main concern has been and continues to be threats from the populist far right”, he has long devoted attention to “the ways in which liberal values could also come under threat from parts of the left – and how a failure to appreciate and stand up for those liberal values actually makes the job of the right easier”. He has now opted to explore this in depth.

While Mounk is careful to avoid the word “woke” and even the term “identity politics” as too contentious, it would not be unfair to describe The Identity Trap as an “anti-woke” book. There have already been quite a few others, including predictable polemics from right-wing pundits about “snowflakes” and “cancel culture”. So, as a self-described “longtime member of the left”, where does Mounk feel that he is breaking new ground?

Michel Foucault with, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Edward Said, Derrick Bell and Gayatri Spivak montage as mentioned in the article
Getty Images (montage)
The identity synthesis (clockwise) Michel Foucault (with megaphone), Kimberlé Crenshaw, Edward Said, Derrick Bell and Gayatri Spivak ‘are all serious thinkers worth grappling with’, says Mounk

“What makes it distinctive,” he replies, “is that it’s the first comprehensive attempt to understand where this ideology comes from [and] how it could become so influential in the mainstream”. The book “then builds its critiques on a more intimate and sophisticated understanding of these ideas”.

Unlike many conservative writers, Mounk accepts the contention that “many societies that claim to be just and democratic, that claim to treat all their members equally, have historically failed to live up to those ideals in terrible ways…Just about every democratic society today continues to discriminate against vulnerable minorities in all kinds of ways.”

What he totally disagrees with, however, is the idea that “we need to do away with [our] universal aspirations because they’re just pulling the wool over people’s eyes. So the only way to build a better society is to explicitly build politics around groups in such a way that how you’re treated depends on your ethnic, religious and sexual identity.” On the contrary: universalist liberal values remain “the best guide to building a better future”, according to The Identity Trap, “especially if we recognize that these ideals are yet to be fully realized”.

The first section of the book explores the work of Michel Foucault, postcolonial theorists such as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak and the pioneers of critical race theory, Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Mounk believes these are all “serious thinkers whom it’s worth grappling with, who have some important insights to offer” but he strongly disputes the claim that “the United States has not made any real progress on racial issues since Jim Crow or perhaps before that”. And that claim has become more problematic since around 2010, before which, such ideas, while “very influential in universities”, remained “quite marginal to society as a whole”, he tells Times Higher Education.

Since then, a simplified amalgam of the ideas of Foucault, Said and Bell, forged into what Mounk calls “the identity synthesis”, has moved into the mainstream, he says. “The language of postgraduate seminars at Harvard turned into the language of Democrat presidential candidates and some of the social customs which started on Ivy League campuses became the social customs of broad swaths of the American and British elite,” he argues.

This development clearly makes the 41-year-old political scientist, who took US citizenship in 2017, very uncomfortable. Though he enjoyed his time at Trinity College, Cambridge and Harvard, Mounk is worried about the wider impact of such institutions on their societies: “At the age of 18, you move to these fancy places, you’re around all these other people who are going to be incredibly influential and powerful. Then you move into neighbourhoods in London or New York or Los Angeles where most of the people you are hanging out with have a similar educational background and are working in similar fields,” he says. “By the time that you’re 40 or 50 and have genuine power and influence, you’ve been disconnected from anybody who didn’t go to one of the top universities for the majority of your lifetime.”

What emerges from this, continues Mounk, is “a cultural elite, of which I’m a part, that is very disconnected from the rest of the society, but sits in judgement on the word choices and customs of a lot of our fellow citizens. That provokes a lot of the anger that can then be channelled by far-right populists. I do think that that is an important element of how these societies function – and often my friends and colleagues are in denial about that.”

It is here that Mounk makes another link to his background. Since he grew up Jewish in Germany, he remembers experiencing “some antisemitism and straightforward discrimination” but also “quite a lot of creepy philosemitism”, when “people wanted to prove how sorry they were about the Nazis by treating you with kid gloves. I often found that to be an equally big barrier to being friends with somebody, to feeling that they were treating me as an individual rather than as a representative of some abstract group.”

Today, Mounk sees something similar in the way that activist groups committed to intersectionality, as he puts it in The Identity Trap, now expect their members to “sign up to a very broad catalogue of causes and positions – with the necessary stance on each being determined by the group that is most directly affected”.

“The idea of solidarity we’ve embraced in a large part of politics and public discourse is really impoverished,” he explains. “I can’t understand you if you come from a different ethnic or cultural group, or your sexual orientation is different from mine. So what it means to be in solidarity with you is simply to defer to you.”

Instead, Mounk wants to “defend a version of solidarity that is based on true mutual understanding. I may need to recognise that you are aware of certain forms of injustice to which it’s easy for me to be blind, but political solidarity then means fighting against them because they violate my own vision of the kind of society we want to live in.”

One of the striking features of The Identity Trap is that Mounk is generally supportive of the values and goals of those he criticises, even when he is opposed to their methods. On affirmative action, which was recently outlawed by the US Supreme Court, he takes the view that “it’s certainly understandable why, given the history of slavery and centuries of discrimination against African Americans, it would be deeply troubling if there was a very small number of black students on, for example, Ivy League campuses, and I’m certainly sympathetic to universities wanting to find ways to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

Unfortunately, Mounk goes on, “one of the levers that universities have pulled in order to achieve that effect is to discriminate against Asian Americans, and that’s simply unacceptable”. Yet the clear evidence for this is often ignored because “there’s a general political tendency that, when you’re in pursuit of a good, you don’t want to look at some of the bad that you have to do on the road to achieving that…It’s not a set of facts that you’re encouraged to look at.”

Another problematic concept is cultural appropriation. Mounk’s book admits that this concept is often used to call attention to genuinely offensive behaviour, such as a fraternity’s Mexican-themed party, where, along with ponchos and sombreros, “some of the girls had dressed up as maids. Two boys were dancing on a table clad in construction outfits.” And he acknowledges that he has “viscerally understood how intimidating the public display of racial hatred can be” ever since he witnessed a neo-Nazi rally as a 15-year-old. Hence, he “retain[s] real sympathy for some of the core arguments against free speech”. Nonetheless, he also argues forcefully that the notion of “cultural appropriation” is incoherent and unhelpful and that the dangers of restricting free speech outweigh any benefits, not least because of “the impossibility of appointing smart and selfless censors”.

It can be difficult for university presidents to hold the free speech line when controversial speakers are invited on to their campuses and students, faculty and sometimes even donors raise objections. Has Mounk got any advice for them?

They must be utterly committed to upholding academic freedom, he responds, but he sees no reason why they cannot also make their own feelings known. They could say, for example: “I’m not going to forbid certain kinds of speakers from coming to campus, even when I deeply disagree with them and find them offensive. I am willing to join a peaceful student protest that expresses dissent from their views, but the moment that turns violent, or somebody tries to disrupt their speech, there will be disciplinary consequences. Given how competitive entrance at least to elite universities in America has become, I don’t think that it will be overtaxing the cognitive capabilities of students to trust them to understand this argument.”

As a darling of the political left, Mounk’s criticisms of America’s elite universities will probably hit harder than the anti-woke rants to which institutions have become accustomed. His constructive tone, however, may help higher education institutions to play their part more effectively in a defence of democracy to which he has dedicated himself.

The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time by Yascha Mounk is published by Penguin Books on 26 September.

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Reader's comments (4)

I am sorry but this just does not make sense to American left (undefined--there is no single "left") or American universities. What is the point? Whose ideas are described? I do not know
Wonderful! Together with recent contributions from Umut Ozkirimli and others I'm hoping we're, at last, now witnessing the beginning of a long-overdue left campaign against illiberal leftist cancel culture! Let's hope that others, currently cowering behind the barricades, will increasingly find the courage to join the counteroffensive.
We need to look at how we interact with others, individually or as groups. Are we judgemental about ideas that we do not share? Or dismissive of them? Do we treat others as we would like them to treat us? Do we care about the wellbeing of those with whom we happen to disagree... and are we capable of engaging them in rational, civilised debate on the topics on which our opinions differ? That's an ideal, there will always be those who refuse to accept that anyone else has a valid opinion, who persist in confusing a view with those who hold it. But we need to cultivate this ideal to the best of our abilities. And it all starts with ME and with YOU.