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Pluralism is the Lifeblood of a Genuine Democracy

Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford, the Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, explains why democracies thrive when they have a sense of community, identity, and belonging that are open to all, provided that all live by the society's rules, laws, and values.

Interview with Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford February 23, 2021 //   18 minute read

 Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford, the Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He writes commentaries for The Guardian and contributes to such publications as The New York Review of Books and Foreign Affairs. Ash is the author of 10 books, including Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, and The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague.

He begins his conversation with Chris Walsh, Senior Program Manager in the Human Freedom Initiative at the Bush Institute, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute, offering his definition of “we the people.” He also explains how some populists hate pluralism, but that pluralism is the “lifeblood of a genuine democracy.” And he reports on how Western democracies can manage their flows of immigrants through offering strong education systems, civics education, language programs, and creating a track to citizenship.

We would be interested in your perspective as someone who is not a U.S. citizen on a question that we have put to several American scholars. The question is: How would you interpret or define the American Constitution’s opening statement of "We the people”?

What an interesting question to start with. My spontaneous answer is that it identifies the difference between the U.S. but also Canadian or Australian senses of the people and a traditional European sense of what the people is. 

In German, that would be volk. The folk, the people, would be defined by blood and soil. It would be an ethnic definition of the people. 

The U.S. definition of the people, like also the French and British definition, is a civic democratic definition. That seems to be an important difference. Traditionally, not everyone could become a German or a Pole, but everyone and anyone can become an American.

Traditionally, not everyone could become a German or a Pole, but everyone and anyone can become an American.

You wrote recently about a populism that is defined as “us versus them,” and you have defined “them” as often meaning immigrants and people of a different ethnicity. How, then, do democracies with diverse populations create a common narrative?

This is one of the great challenges of our time for all our democracies. I wrote about this a bit in my book on free speech. My Stanford colleague David Kennedy told me about a cabaret where a deliberately sort of multicolored chorus sang, "In 2042 there'll be more of us than of you." In other words, it would be the tipping point, where those categorized as white or Caucasian would become less than the majority, simply a plurality. 

In Germany today, one-in-four people has what's called a migration background, not just immigrants, but also second or third generation. So, it's a huge challenge for all of us.

The answers are rather clear. You need senses of community and identity and belonging that are open to all, provided they live by the rules, the laws, and the values of the society in which they live. 

You need senses of community and identity and belonging that are open to all, provided they live by the rules, the laws, and the values of the society in which they live. 

Empirically, many of the most successful such identities are local ones. You very often find, for example, in Britain that people will identify very strongly with the city in which they live. There'll be people of Manchester or of Liverpool or particularly Londoners, who have an almost national sense of identity. But it's essential that at the level of the nation, you also have an inclusive, civic, liberal patriotism.

You’ve also talked about how, in modern populist movements, populism hates pluralism. So, how do liberal democracies like the United Kingdom, the United States, or others welcome diversity and pluralism into their societies?

Those are two separate things. One is, we have in all our advanced democracies a lot of very unhappy and quite angry people at the moment. What populists do is to cynically channel that all and blame it on "the immigrants" generally without much rational justification. That's point number one, we simply have to do a better job of explaining the origins of the problems. 

Number two, what distinguishes a tyranny of the majority from a genuine democracy is precisely pluralism. It's not majority-takes-all. It's the fact that there are anti-majoritarian institutions. Classically, that means an independent judiciary, the separation of powers between the legislature and the executive, but also the media, churches, universities, and civil society institutions.

Pluralism is the lifeblood of a genuine democracy. Without pluralism, there is no democracy. It's as simple as that. 

Pluralism is the lifeblood of a genuine democracy. Without pluralism, there is no democracy. It's as simple as that. 

What populists are trying to practice is the theory of the British Constitution. You may laugh because you may think the British don't have a constitution. We don't have a written constitution, but we have an unwritten one. And the theory of parliamentary sovereignty is that the majority in Parliament is completely sovereign. 

In classic British constitutional theory, if the Parliament decided that all red-bearded people should be shot tomorrow, then all red-bearded people would be shot tomorrow. But the reality in the British system is one of incredibly rich pluralism. You have an enormously well-established independent judiciary, a powerful independent media, the House of Lords, universities, churches, and so on. It's all about not having a winner-takes-all tyranny of majority politics.

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I'd like to drill down into what you were talking about with Londoners having a strong identity while being part of UK. In your writings, you have defended the right of people to be rooted in more than one place or in more than one way. So, how can people in diverse nations maintain a strong national identity while still having their own particular ethnic, social, or cultural identity?

In principle, it's not that difficult, because all human beings have multiple identities. I don't know of any single human being who has only one identity. The question is, how to structure that within a liberal and pluralist democracy.  

I don't know of any single human being who has only one identity. The question is, how to structure that within a liberal and pluralist democracy. 

The mistake that liberals made over the last 30 years was to go too far down the road of identity politics and a relativist multiculturalism, in which every little community, particularly those of immigrant origin but not only that, was allowed to have its own identity. 

That had two very damaging consequences. One was a moral and cultural relativism: “Your traditional Muslim community restricts the rights of women. That's fine because that's your culture.” No, we have to have a set of common standards. 

Secondly, it left the former majority - typically white working class in many of our countries - feeling that everybody else was entitled to their identity politics except them. Then, you get Donald Trump with white-identity politics or Brexit with white-identity politics.

The third thing wrong with it was there wasn't a strong enough common identity. The flag, the national anthem, the constitution, if you're lucky enough to have one, are all important in creating a strong common identity. But it’s also very important identifying with personalities.

For the Brits, it's the Queen, the federal president in Germany, the French president, the symbols of the Republic in France. There's not just a rational identification, but an emotional identification. An emotional identification with the nation is a key part.

We see some autocracies rising in places like Hungary in part by defining their ethnic identity against others. How might democratic leaders in Europe best uphold what you described as liberalism's best quest, which is a way for diverse people or peoples to live together well in conditions of freedom? 

Hungary is a classic example of the difference between tyranny of the majority and a proper democracy. Viktor Orbán wins elections, which are not particularly free and fair, partly by scapegoating Roma, Muslims, and, I'm afraid to say, Jews, as he did with the attack on George Soros. This is a classic nationalist ethnic scapegoating, as we've known it many, many times in European history. 

What is so shocking about this example, and Poland to a lesser extent, is that these are supposedly democratic countries inside the European Union (EU). Only democracies are to be members of the EU. That's written into the basic treaties of the EU. Part of the question for Europe is its inability to make a reality of the values it has in its treaties.

Let me pursue this some more. When you have large flows of refugees and immigrants into a country, or as we saw more broadly in Europe a few years ago, what strategies work well in reassuring the citizens of that country that this flow of immigrants or refugees will not replace their national culture?

That's an excellent question. In absolute terms, even those seemingly large flows at the height of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016 were a tiny percentage of the total population of what was then 500 million people in the European Union. The problem was that people in Germany and elsewhere felt that the state was no longer in control. This situation wasn't being managed. It's no accident that the great slogan of Brexit was “take back control.”

If the numbers are vast, if they're 10% of the population in a single year, that's a challenge. Although please bear in mind that at the end of the Second World War, we had these vast movements of people across the European continent, and post-war West Germany integrated 12 million refugees from the East. So, it can be done. 

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It’s the sense that the movement is under control and being managed that is so important. The great example of this is Canada. We did a study at Oxford of how the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, and Britain manage diversity. The only one of those countries that actually controls its immigration is Canada. All the rest of us have flows that are not fully under control or not under control at all. 

 We did a study at Oxford of how the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, and Britain manage diversity. The only one of those countries that actually controls its immigration is Canada. All the rest of us have flows that are not fully under control or not under control at all. 

Canada has it completely under control partly because of the blessings of geography, but they also carefully ensure that there's no single dominant minority. If you look at the Canadian immigration statistics, it's a rainbow but no single group is dominant. As a result, Canadians are very accepting of immigration and the prime minister can turn around and say, "We'll take 30,000 or 40,000 refugees from Syria," and nobody minds. 

The starting point is to be able to manage your immigration. If you let people in, then treat them properly. School them, give them the language skills, give them the vocational skills, It's very important that people get into the workplace, and put them on a track to citizenship. 

The starting point is to be able to manage your immigration. If you let people in, then treat them properly. School them, give them the language skills, give them the vocational skills. It's very important that people get into the workplace, and put them on a track to citizenship. 

It's a two-part thing: Controlling the inflows, but then really integrating people once they're there.

When I hear you talking, it seems to me that this is how leaders might persuade or show their citizens that diversity may be an advantage to the society, not a hindrance. Are there other ways that leaders can persuade their countries that diversity can be an advantage?

Yes, and I'll give you a concrete example. In Germany, the biggest single group of migrant origin is Turkish. There've been a lot of difficulties about integrating the guest workers and their children, partly because Germany didn't grant them citizenship. So, people who had been born in Germany were still being treated as foreigners. 

Last year, two scientists, German but of Turkish origin, discovered the BioNTech vaccine. That is the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, which many of us, if we're lucky, are getting jabs with in our arms. That single fact does more to persuade people of the value of diversity than 100 school classes.  

Individual examples, such as the brilliant footballer or film star who is of immigrant origin, also brings it home to people in the way that statistics never do.

Are there examples at the local level where strategies for integrating immigrants or refugees worked particularly well? If so, what can we learn from them?

Another important thing is television. Nothing does more for the recognition and acceptance of people of different origin than their being on a soap opera. There was a great soap opera in Canada called the Small Mosque on the Prairie. It had a terrific impact. 

That goes to representation by the media and in the media. It really matters that people from a minority see people who look like them on the television screen. Example: The BBC now has a terrific correspondent called Faisal Islam. But Faisal Islam is not their correspondent on Islam, he's their economics correspondent -- and a very good one.

That's what you need. You need people who are doing, so to speak, ordinary jobs, not just talking about their own communities, but, in some sense, representing those communities. 

As for the local thing, cities and towns are fantastically important. Barcelona, which has a large immigrant population, has an initiative called “We are Barcelona.” Paris has something similar. They use symbols, flags, events and so on to show we're all in this together. That has a terrific impact. 

Sometimes, it's easier for people initially to identify at the lower level with the city than it is to identify with the whole country, particularly if the country you're in is a former colonial country, where your memories of, say, the Brits or the French are not necessarily altogether sweet.

I was fascinated by the story you told about the German Turks who helped put together the vaccine. Are there other ways leaders can reassure their constituents that bringing in immigrants or refugees will be a good thing and not replace their national culture? 

It's a tricky one, isn't it? To a significant degree, we are entitled to our own culture. If we think our religious faith is part of our culture, if we think our maternal language is part of our culture, that's, in a sense, a human and civil right.  

What one can't do is classic 19th century-style assimilation, where, at the extreme, little children in the Belgian Congo were told that they were Belgians. That is an imperial enterprise. But what one can do is to make sure that everyone speaks the main language of the country or languages of the country really well from an early age, which is often not the case. That everyone knows the history of the country, as well as the history of their own country of origin. That everyone has civics classes, so that there's a common core of communication there, and that we all meet in the same media spaces.

As we all know, one of the great problems in the United States at the moment is hyperpolarization, where people are simply living in completely different realities. That's not just a problem between Republicans and Democrats, or between Fox News and MSNBC. It's also a problem if every local community or every ethnic community has its own particular media world. 

We have to bring those worlds together and having a great public service broadcaster like the BBC or the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is a very important part of the mix. I devoutly wish we could see the United States getting back to the place where you had a shared public sphere.

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