Books & Literature

Book Review: The Great Experiment, by Yascha Mounk

NON-FICTION: One of our most important political thinkers looks to the greatest challenge of our time: how to live together equally and peacefully in diverse democracies.

A reasonable dissection of democracy, but seemed to lack anything fresh.

The Great Experiment is political academic Yashca Mounk’s fourth book. A professor at John Hopkins University, he considers liberal democracy to be in a state of crisis. He asks, how we can make diverse democracies work?

For a non-political or compassionate audience, this is a good read. Heart-warming examples of communities working together, with a fantastic breakdown of how ingroups do or do not discriminate, the text includes many personal stories. Some of these are uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time. A couple that breaks the religion-bound-rules to be together, only for one to lose their life for doing so? Bittersweet.

Ideas on what makes for a meaningful life and how cross-cultural societies can work harmoniously? They are brought into the debate philosophically using both historical and present-day examples. For the highly political audience that is aware of how political structures work—or how they do not—these are also important themes, but hardly ground-breaking.

Unfortunately, this book promises a lot but it seems to under-deliver. Whilst author Mounk is clearly knowledgeable in terms of the content (the book endnotes—including references used—are 43 pages long), there didn’t seem to be a clear pathway to a conclusion. The connections between the chapters were ineffectual.

As such, the publication felt like a collection of short stories on a particular theme, rather than an analysis put together in a linear fashion. Made up of three main parts, titled When Diverse Societies Go Wrong, What Diverse Democracies Should Become, and finally, How Diverse Democracies Can Succeed, the book promises an analysis of democracy, a debate of ideals and finally, an action plan.

With each part containing 3-4 chapters each, Mounk then wraps it all up in Chapter Ten which is the conclusion. Meant to be inspiring, it includes a small section of song and ends with the final sentence, “Let’s get to it.” However, it’s so unclear what it is that the reader should be “getting to” that it feels like a political speech.

Perhaps if these promises were not made upfront, and if you read the book as a philosophical work of debate, it would not feel so wish-washy. Although there is one definitive chapter (that being Chapter Four on what role the state should play) which was written with conviction, most of the text includes numerous examples and involves only a dialogue and comparison of structures, political systems, or communities.

Nevertheless, there is always something new to learn from any excellent thinker, and you will leave each reading contemplative. Furthermore, it is always comforting to read a book of optimistic thought rather than hyperbolic news reports which lead one to believe that systemic problems cannot be solved.

Reviewed by Rebecca Wu

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily of Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Bloomsbury Publishing
Released: May 2022
RRP: $29.99

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