Center Spotlight | Michael Lusztig

For this month’s Center Spotlight we interviewed Tower Center Associate Michael Lusztig about his latest book, The Culturalist Challenge to Liberal Republicanism. In the book, Lusztig explores the risks multiculturalism poses to liberal democracy through examination of Mexican immigration to the United States and Islamic immigration to Europe. Lusztig is a professor of political science at SMU and received the Colin Powell Fellowship from the Tower Center to finish writing his book in 2017.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Dr. Michael Lusztig

I’ve always had a sense that there was some kind of destabilizing element to multiculturalism. Coming from Canada and having seen the effects of multiculturalism, I thought  it would be interesting to explore the implications of it.

What about multiculturalism did you think would be destabilizing?

What it does is it undermines a collective sense of community by emphasizing things that separate us. It gives different groups different interests that aren’t necessarily compatible with one another.

The book description says that multiculturalism threatens the immortality of liberal democracy. How do you see that playing out?

That’s a good question. What I argue in the book is that multiculturalism per-se isn’t a major problem. Multiculturalism serves as a stocking horse for larger problems. That is to say groups might seek to overthrow the liberal democratic system of values under the guise of multiculturalism. And here I’m thinking about radical Islam, just to take one example. The idea that the value systems are incompatible and yet one of the tools that radical Islam has used in Europe has been multiculturalism. Multiculturalism paints itself as a very benign force, but for at least some Islamic multiculturalists it’s almost like a camouflage. So, you can recruit radicals who are dissatisfied with our values and seek to change them, but you do it under the guise of multiculturalism.

How would you describe a multiculturalist?

I think you can look at our values in two different ways. One would be a national sense of values, which is to say we privilege the values that conform to our national identity. But, at the same time in all liberal democratic states we also privilege subnational cultural identities. For example, in the United States federalism privileges subnational cultural identities of the various states. Well, multiculturalism is another form of subcultural identity. Multiculturalists are those who feel we put too much emphasis on our national sense of identity if that comes at the expense of our subnational senses of identity.

What multiculturalists want to do is to protect certain, what we call, essential communities, or communities that have physical characteristics or linguistic characteristics that are essential to their collective sense of community.

Where do you see democracy going? What do countries need to do about multiculturalism?

In the book what I argue is that it’s not time to panic. There are steps that some countries are already undertaking. For example, Britain and the Netherlands have recognized the dangers of multiculturalism after terrorist incidents in both countries and have taken steps towards assimilating immigrants in to a sense of national identity. And that’s something they hadn’t done before. Their acculturation policy had simply been: leave people alone and let them develop cultures within the nurturing content of Britain. What governments are starting to realize is that can be problematic and that you have to at least to some degree go back to the melting pot model and say: “Look, we’re going to assimilate a certain basic set of common values before we emphasize that which makes us different.”

Would a place like France where historically immigrants have had a hard time assimilating be an example opposite of Britain and the Netherlands?

I think that’s exactly it and I do use France as an opposite example in the book. France has been very resistant to multiculturalism. One of the things I argue is that multiculturalism actually has certain aspects to it that are important to our sense of justice. If we are completely insensitive to multicultural values we’re not as just as we would be. So, I think France might be an example of going too far the other way, in that what it means to be French is that you are French. There’s an essence of French-ness that goes beyond the essence of American-ness, which is a creed.

Anyone can be American if they conform to our set of values. We consider our sense of national identity based on creed. In Europe there is more of a tendency to base a sense of us-ness on history and characteristics that make these countries different from one another. So being French, having origin in France, having French blood, is to some extent having what it means to be French. And so, under those circumstances, there’s no real way for immigrants to assimilate as wholly as we would have them assimilate in the United States. And for that reason what France tends to do, and countries like it, is to make immigrants feel like they can never aspire to be wholly French.

In other words, if you think about this in terms of the three bears theory of multiculturalism, France is insufficiently multicultural, Britain and the Netherlands were too multicultural for a while, and what you really want to do is find that sweet spot in the middle.

Would you argue that’s what America is doing?

I would. One of the cases I look at in the book is Hispanic immigration. There are those who’ve said that the large number of Hispanic immigrants coming into the United States is a potential source of destabilization. I look at that thesis and find no real confirmation for it. While Hispanics typically assimilate more slowly than do members of other groups, after, say, two to three generations they are indistinguishable from other groups. They fully assimilate. They may retain aspects of their heritage culture, but they are as fully American as any other cultural group. So, I think we have done a good job in finding that sweet spot.

What impact are you hoping your research will have?

I’m always a little pessimistic about these things. I think hopefully that it reinforces things that are already going on. It is confirmation of the direction that countries like the United States and, belatedly, Britain and the Netherlands have started to take. And maybe it’s a bit of a warning signal for countries that remain deeply committed to multiculturalism to the extent that Britain and the Netherlands were, and Canada might be an example of that—and it might not—but it would worry me a little in that direction. And I think countries like France and Japan still have a ways to go before they become sufficiently multiculturalist in their understanding of what it means to be citizens of those countries.

Why does Canada maybe need a warning?

Coming from there, I know that one of the more controversial questions there is: “What does it mean to be Canadian?” If you ask an American, “What does it mean to be an American?” they can rattle on for 10 minutes. But, many Canadians, if you ask what it means to be Canadian, there’s a bit of a sense of despair. And many define themselves as, “well we’re not American”, or “we’re multicultural”, or “we’re more tolerant”, or things like this. But those aren’t really the basis of nationhood, those are the basis of distinction from other nations. I think that when a country seeks to define itself in terms of how different its citizens are from one another, that does create an absence of center.

What’s your next project?

The book I’m working on now is called The Republican Hero. In that book what I’m looking at is the role that heroism, or our conceptions of heroism, plays in promoting political values and in informing regime-defining values. The heroism that has typically defined liberal democratic regimes persists, albeit in a different form than in the past. I argue these heroes still play an important role in promoting and preserving and protecting our core values.