The Identity Trap:
A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time
Penguin Press (2023)
For much of history, societies have violently oppressed ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. It is no surprise that many who passionately believe in social justice came to believe that members of marginalized groups need to take pride in their identity to resist injustice.
But over the past decades, a healthy appreciation for the culture and heritage of minority groups has transformed into a counterproductive obsession with group identity in all its forms. A new ideology aiming to place each person’s matrix of identities at the center of social, cultural, and political life has quickly become highly influential. It stifles discourse, vilifies mutual influence as cultural appropriation, denies that members of different groups can truly understand one another, and insists that the way governments treat their citizens should depend on the color of their skin.
This, Yascha Mounk argues, is the identity trap. Though those who battle for these ideas are full of good intentions, they will ultimately make it harder to achieve progress toward the genuine equality we desperately need. Mounk has built his acclaimed scholarly career on being one of the first to warn of the risks right-wing populists pose to American democracy. But, he shows, those on the left and center who are stuck in the identity trap are now inadvertent allies to the MAGA movement.
In The Identity Trap, Mounk provides the most ambitious and comprehensive account to date of the origins, consequences, and limitations of so-called “wokeness.” He is the first to show how postmodernism, postcolonialism, and critical race theory forged the “identity synthesis” that conquered many college campuses by 2010. He lays out how a relatively marginal set of ideas came to gain tremendous influence in business, media, and government by 2020. He makes a nuanced philosophical case for why the application of these ideas to areas from education to public policy is proving to be so deeply counterproductive—and why universal, humanist values can best serve the vital goal of true equality. In explaining the huge political and cultural transformations of the past decade, The Identity Trap provides truth and clarity where they are needed most.
“A passionate book about how the things we have in common are greater than the things that divide us . . . A thoughtful deconstruction of identity politics well worth discussing.”
—Kirkus Book Reviews
"Barack Obama’s favourite political thinker Yascha Mounk... 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 ... 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."
—Matthew Reisz, Times Higher Education Supplement
"Compared to so many shrill denunciations and poor intellectual histories, which often reduce the problem to “blame Hegel” or “blame Foucault”, Mounk’s painstaking and thoroughly researched account is a revelation... Mounk goes out of his way to be even-handed, even optimistic. Despite the oft-fanatical nature of identity-pushers, their tendency to hound and cancel their perceived foes, Mounk believes that the majority of people are reasonable, and that minds can be changed through dialogue and new information... In the face of the 'identity synthesis,' Mounk’s liberalism is very much worth defending."
—Nina Power, The Telegraph
“America’s academic, cultural, and political institutions went insane beginning around 2014, and I’ve been trying to figure out why ever since. In The Identity Trap, Yascha Mounk explains how a few powerfully bad ideas, propelled through institutions by people with good intentions, are causing systemic dysfunction and dangerous polarization. This is among the most insightful and important books written in the last decade on American democracy and its current torments, because it also shows us a way out of the trap.”
—Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, and coauthor of The Coddling of the American Mind
“In his indispensable book, Yascha Mounk proposes an alternative to the ceaseless combat between ‘woke’ and ‘anti-woke’ extremes—one that takes seriously the enduring malignant legacy of systemic discrimination yet correctly identifies that universal values, not group solidarity, offer the surest path to justice, fairness, and enduring social peace. The Identity Trap is necessary reading for understanding both the appeal and profound limits of identity based politics while offering a compelling alternative rooted in the highest ideals of liberal democracy.”
—David French, New York Times columnist
“Yascha Mounk explains the intellectual roots of our current focus on identity, what’s wrong with it, and how we can get back to belief in a shared humanity in an erudite yet easy-to-read account.”
—Francis Fukuyama, author of Liberalism and Its Discontents
“Yascha Mounk and I don’t agree on everything, inevitably, but I very much admire his aim to take seriously a set of ideas that have been subject to much more heat than light. The question of who speaks for the group is one that yields no easy answers. Social identities connect us in multiple and overlapping ways; they are not protected but betrayed when we turn them into silos with sentries. The Identity Trap brings vital context to some of the most fraught and divisive debates of our time.
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University, and author of Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow
““Yascha Mounk tackles one of the most consequential, controversial and—as he puts it—counterproductive contemporary debates with great seriousness as well as sensitivity. This book is brave, bold, erudite, and rich in detail. Mounk is impressively thorough in his analysis of the theories and personalities, social developments, and demographic and technological changes that have brought us to an impasse in identity politics. This is a must read for anyone who wants to explore an alternative approach to framing public life and building coalitions to create a fair and equal society.”
—Fiona Hill, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
“Why are so many people embracing simplistic notions of ‘identity,’ in the guise of social justice, to substitute for reasoning, empathy, and even fairness? The Identity Trap is a smart tutorial on how we got to this point and how we get back to elevating logic over performance art to function as a mature society.”
—John McWhorter, Columbia University and the New York Times
“Yascha Mounk has written another powerful, timely book, seeking to understand the origins and impact of the ideas that rightly or wrongly constitute ‘identity politics’—where they come from, what effect they have, where they could lead. His book is both an excellent analysis and an eloquent plea for the recovery of shared values, the ideas that link us instead of dividing us.”
—Anne Applebaum, author of Twilight of Democracy
“Yascha Mounk is our most active contemporary defender of liberal democracy. In this brave and important book, he takes on the dangerous new ideas of the 'identity synthesis.'... It is a tragedy that so-called "progressives" have come to agree with racists that Martin Luther King's great "dream" is not just unachievable, but undesirable. This splendid book explains just how mistaken they are."”
—Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator, Financial Times
The Great Experiment:
Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure
Penguin Press (2022)
Some democracies are highly homogeneous. Others have long maintained a brutal racial or religious hierarchy, with some groups dominating and exploiting others. Never in history has a democracy succeeded in being both diverse and equal, treating members of many different ethnic or religious groups fairly. And yet achieving that goal is now central to the democratic project in countries around the world. It is, Yascha Mounk argues, the greatest experiment of our time.
Drawing on history, social psychology, and comparative politics, Mounk examines how diverse societies have long suffered from the ills of domination, fragmentation, or structured anarchy. So it is hardly surprising that most people are now deeply pessimistic that different groups might be able to integrate in harmony, celebrating their differences without essentializing them. But Mounk shows us that the past can offer crucial insights for how to do better in the future. There is real reason for hope.
It is up to us and the institutions we build whether different groups will come to see each other as enemies or friends, as strangers or compatriots. To make diverse democracies endure, and even thrive, we need to create a world in which our ascriptive identities come to matter less—not because we ignore the injustices that still characterize the United States and so many other countries around the world, but because we have succeeded in addressing them.
The Great Experiment is that rare book that offers both a profound understanding of an urgent problem and genuine hope for our human capacity to solve it. As Mounk contends, giving up on the prospects of building fair and thriving diverse democracies is simply not an option—and that is why we must strive to realize a more ambitious vision for the future of our societies.
In 2022, the book was selected by Barack Obama as one of his recommended reads.
“A rare thing: [an] academic treatise . . . that may actually have influence in the arena of practical politics. . . . Passionate and personal.”
—Joe Klein, New York Times Book Review
“The fundamental argument of The Great Experiment is correct both morally and practically. Building diverse democracies is indeed hard. But, given the current composition of our societies, no alternative exists . . . A coherent and well-written call to arms.”
—Martin Wolf, The Financial Times
“Mounk’s calm mix of storytelling, political theory and social psychology exegesis, peppered with some charming insights, has a comforting seriousness.”
“Liberal democracies beat authoritarianism in the 20th century but are growing more unstable in the 21st. In The Great Experiment, Yascha Mounk shows us our history, our psychology, our self-inflicted wounds, and our best hope for creating stable democracies that benefit from diversity. This magnificent book increases our odds of success.”
—Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethnical Leadership, NYU
“In this brave and necessary book, Yascha Mounk honestly confronts the challenges to democracy posed by diverse, multiethnic societies, while at the same time refusing to give in to fashionable pessimism. He argues that we can and should find ways to build common ground, using good-faith patriotism to build consensus. Anyone interested in the future of liberal democracy, in the US or anywhere else, should read this book.”
—Anne Applebaum, Staff Writer, The Atlantic; Senior Fellow, SNF Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University.
“The Great Experiment confronts the intense challenges faced today by diverse societies in creating norms and institutions that allow their citizens to live peacefully with one another. It moves from insightful analysis of our current crisis to practical suggestions on how to mitigate conflicts over race and identity—a blueprint for a more optimistic future.”
—Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow, Stanford University
“Can diverse democracies flourish? The Great Experiment is a bold and necessary counter-argument to nativists, populists and pessimists.”
—Helen Lewis, Staff Writer, The Atlantic
The People vs. Democracy:
Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It
Harvard University Press (2018)
The world is in turmoil. From India to Turkey and from Poland to the United States, authoritarian populists have seized power. As a result, Yascha Mounk shows, democracy itself may now be at risk.
Two core components of liberal democracy—individual rights and the popular will—are increasingly at war with each other. As the role of money in politics soared and important issues were taken out of public contestation, a system of “rights without democracy” took hold. Populists who rail against this say they want to return power to the people. But in practice they create something just as bad: a system of “democracy without rights.”
The consequence, Mounk shows in The People vs. Democracy, is that trust in politics is dwindling. Citizens are falling out of love with their political system. Democracy is wilting away. Drawing on vivid stories and original research, Mounk identifies three key drivers of voters’ discontent: stagnating living standards, fears of multiethnic democracy, and the rise of social media. To reverse the trend, politicians need to enact radical reforms that benefit the many, not the few.
The People vs. Democracy is the first book to go beyond a mere description of the rise of populism. In plain language, it describes both how we got here and where we need to go. For those unwilling to give up on either individual rights or the popular will, Mounk shows, there is little time to waste: this may be our last chance to save democracy.
Financial Times: Best Books of 2018
New York Times Book Review: Editors' Choice
Prospect Magazine: Best Books of 2018
“A trenchant survey from 1989, with its democratic euphoria, to the current map of autocratic striving.”
—David Remnick, The New Yorker
“Mounk’s extraordinary new book provides a clear, concise, persuasive, and insightful account of the conditions that made liberal democracy work—and how the breakdown in those conditions is the source of the current crisis of democracy around the world.””
“Brilliant… Mounk’s argument takes us back full circle to the trepidations of the Founders, who empowered the people to select their own leaders but whose ultimate authority would be mediated and constrained by independent forces within a constitutional framework. As this superb book makes clear, we need both the liberal framework and the democracy, and bringing them back together is the greatest challenge of our time. The last 68 pages describe what we can do to pull ourselves back from the brink…take notes and start your to-do list. It’s important.”
—Los Angeles Times
“What exactly is the nature of this crisis? And what is driving it? Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy stands out in a crowded field for the quality of its answers to these questions. Mounk provides an admirable mixture of academic expertise and political sense… A chastening read.”
“One of the many things to recommend this clarifying book is its international scope. As much as Donald J. Trump might fancy himself one of a kind, Mounk argues that the American president is part of a global wave. ”
—The New York Times
“The People vs. Democracy provides an acute analysis of the rise in populist nationalism and the challenges to democracy in our time. If you’ve not heard of Yascha Mounk before, you definitely will in the future.”
—Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
“Yascha Mounk mounts a powerful argument that liberal democracy stands at a critical point. He shows that the forces of technology, economics, and identity are pulling our political systems toward one of two highly undesirable extremes: illiberal democracies run by populist demagogues and undemocratic liberalisms governed by technocratic elites. He points us wisely toward a domesticated, inclusive nationalism and a renewed civic faith. An important book that should be read widely.”
—Dani Rodrik, Harvard University
“The rise of authoritarian populism shows that we can no longer assume that liberal democracy is the wave of the future. So argues Yascha Mounk in this sobering and astute analysis of our current political moment. This splendid book is an invaluable contribution to the debate about what ails democracy, and what can be done about it.”
—Michael J. Sandel, Harvard University
“Yascha Mounk is sounding a tocsin that we must heed. Minority rights and majority rule are not irrevocably yoked together; as they diverge, the future of liberal democracy is in peril. Everyone worried about the state of contemporary politics should read this book.”
—Anne-Marie Slaughter, President & CEO, New America
The Age of Responsibility:
Luck, Choice and the Welfare State
Harvard University Press (2017)
A novel focus on personal responsibility has transformed political thought and public policy in America and Europe. Since the 1970s, responsibility which once meant the moral duty to help and support others has come to suggest an obligation to be self-sufficient. This narrow conception of responsibility has guided recent reforms of the welfare state, making key entitlements conditional on good behavior. Drawing on intellectual history, political theory, and moral philosophy, Yascha Mounk shows why the Age of Responsibility is pernicious and how it might be overcome.
Personal responsibility began as a conservative catchphrase. But over time, leaders across the political spectrum came to subscribe to its underlying framework. Today, even egalitarian philosophers rarely question the normative importance of responsibility. Emphasizing the pervasive influence of luck over our lives, they cast the poor as victims who cannot be held responsible for their actions.
Mounk shows that today s focus on individual culpability is both wrong and counterproductive: it distracts us from the larger economic forces determining aggregate outcomes, ignores what we owe our fellow citizens regardless of their choices, and blinds us to other key values, such as the desire to live in a society of equals. Recognizing that even society s neediest members seek to exercise genuine agency, Mounk builds a positive conception of responsibility. Instead of punishing individuals for their past choices, he argues, public policy should aim to empower them to take responsibility for themselves and those around them.
"A smart and engaging book."
—James Ryerson, The New York Times Book Review
"A terrific book. The insight at its heart―that we live in an ‘age of responsibility,’ and that the conception of responsibility now at work in much public rhetoric and policy is both punitive and ill-conceived―is very important and should be widely heeded."
—Jedediah Purdy, Duke University
“In a compelling challenge to conservatives and liberals alike, this important book prompts us to reconsider the role of luck and choice in debates about welfare, and to rethink our mutual responsibilities as citizens. ”
—Michael J. Sandel, Harvard University
"An important new book. . . Over the course of the past half century, Mounk points out, political officials of both major parties have turned repeatedly to the core value of personal responsibility, calling on it to redefine the purposes and design of government as well as pushing the state to play an ever more disciplinary role in relation to its most vulnerable citizens. They have been motivated, Mounk suggests, not merely by a political agenda, but by a fantasy of the just social order―a vision in which each individual person cares for herself and the government acts to ensure that citizens receive only the public support their efforts merit. The dream, as Mounk reveals, is a narrow and crabbed one. Placed under his precise and dispassionate analysis, it shows itself to be conceptually dubious and empirically unworkable.
—Sean McCann, Los Angeles Review of Books
"Impressive, frequently charming… The book employs a fair amount of extant philosophical work to provoke a change in our public discourse and practices, while also performing some creative philosophical work that might be of interest to disciplinary philosophers."
—Scott Anderson, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
Stranger in My Own Country:
A Jewish Family in Modern Germany
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015)
As a Jew in postwar Germany, Yascha Mounk felt like a foreigner in his own country. When he mentioned that he is Jewish, some made anti-Semitic jokes or talked about the superiority of the Aryan race. Others, sincerely hoping to atone for the country's past, fawned over him with a forced friendliness he found just as alienating.
Vivid and fascinating, Stranger in My Own Country traces the contours of Jewish life in a country still struggling with the legacy of the Third Reich and portrays those who, inevitably, continue to live in its shadow. Marshaling an extraordinary range of material into a lively narrative, Mounk surveys his countrymen's responses to "the Jewish question." Examining history, the story of his family, and his own childhood, he shows that anti-Semitism and far-right extremism have long coexisted with self-conscious philo-Semitism in postwar Germany.
But of late a new kind of resentment against Jews has come out in the open. Unnoticed by much of the outside world, the desire for a "finish line" that would spell a definitive end to the country's obsession with the past is feeding an emphasis on German victimhood. Mounk shows how, from the government's pursuit of a less "apologetic" foreign policy to the way the country's idea of the Volk makes life difficult for its immigrant communities, a troubled nationalism is shaping Germany's future.
“[Mounk's] book combines anecdote and analysis in a witty and engaging manner that belies his deeply serious purpose.”
—Daniel Johnson, The Wall Street Journal
“Informative and entertaining . . . What is it like to be a Jew in Germany in the postwar era? What would lead even a handful of Jews to choose to make their lives in the country that was responsible for the Holocaust? And how did the descendants of the perpetrators treat the descendants of the victims? These are the questions at the heart of Mounk's book, which starts out as a memoir but evolves into something more like a history and a polemic. Accessibly written and full of humor, Stranger in My Own Country uses Mounk's own experiences to shed light on postwar German history and current German politics.”
—Adam Kirsch, Tablet
“How do things stand with German Jews [today]? In Stranger in My Own Country, Yascha Mounk gives an artful and thoughtful answer . . . Mounk's personal anecdotes do a lot to make his mindset understandable, but he also deals with the big picture. The best feature of his fine book is how he interweaves macro and micro levels of discussion. He does this, moreover, in graceful prose, which helps to showcase his talent for disentangling paradoxes in original ways.”
—Paul Reitter, Bookforum
“[Mounk] is a gifted raconteur and aphorist, and if you want to learn about Germany's preverse, absurd love for its Jews- the flip side, or the bastard child, of its historical anti-Semitism - this book is a fine place to start . . . There is an adage, usually attributed to an Israeli psychoanalyst, that the Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz. If you want to understand how that can be, read this book.”
—Mark Oppenheimer, The New York Times