Harvard University Press, 2018, 400 pp., $29.95
“Democracy” is one of the most misunderstood words in the English language. In popular usage, it has become shorthand for all that is good and positive. When it comes to our political or ideological opponents, we tend to think that they are less committed to democracy than we are—or, more recently, that they are outright anti-democratic.
The sloppy way we talk about populists is a case in point: “Populist” is too often used as an epithet, casually and interchangeably standing in for “authoritarian,” “despot,” or “dictator.” In most Western democracies (Portugal being the most notable exception) populist parties are contending for second place, and sometimes more. In at least two countries—Hungary and Poland—they have claimed victory. This magnifies the threat, but, as with all threats, it also magnifies the distortions. It’s easy to see why well-meaning analysts, seeing the future of their own democracies as far less than a sure thing, end up resorting to advocacy and alarmism. It’s understandable, but that doesn’t make it right.
Many academics are able to write about things they don’t like—from odious individuals to extreme ideologies—in a dispassionate manner. The group today most associated with evil, the Islamic State, regularly manages to elicit balanced analyses from scholars—far more so than the kind of “analysis” that Donald Trump has provoked.
There are seemingly two types of Trump laments being published these days: end of democracy books and end of liberalism books. Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy is the latest entrant in the former category, and probably the most ambitious. It manages to avoid the overwrought alarmism, partisan attacks, and Hitler references that sullied Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die and Timothy Snyder’s occasionally silly pamphlet On Tyranny. Yet as with all books that speak to a present danger—its unsubtle subtitle is “Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It”—Mounk, like a good Paul Thomas Anderson film, struggles in the final third.
The problem with populists—or more precisely the problem with writing about them—isn’t that they’re anti-democratic but rather that they can be quite democratic, more democratic than their opponents, perhaps even too democratic. This is also one of the main reasons—besides racism or Russian meddling—that they seem to do quite well in elections. And not surprisingly, the better they do in elections, the more they seem to like democracy. Anyone who wishes to make sense of populist success, as well as learn from it, must start here. This is precisely what Mounk does, offering a much needed dose of conceptual clarity.
At the heart of Mounk’s inquiry is the notion that the two core components of liberal democracy—namely liberalism and democracy—are coming apart. For most of the modern era, these two concepts seemed to go hand-in-hand, at least in the West. The classical liberal tradition, emerging out of the Enlightenment after Europe exhausted itself with wars of belief, prioritized non-negotiable personal freedoms and individual autonomy, eloquently captured in documents like the Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, democracy, while requiring some basic protection of rights to allow for meaningful competition, was more concerned with popular sovereignty, popular will, and responsiveness to the voting public.
Mounk identifies how the disjunction has started to manifest:
On the one hand, the preferences of the people are increasingly illiberal: voters are growing impatient with independent institutions and less and less willing to tolerate the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. On the other hand, elites are taking hold of the political system and making it increasingly unresponsive: the powerful are less and less willing to cede to the views of the people. As a result, liberalism and democracy… are starting to come into conflict.
But is this such a new phenomenon? The story of politics is arguably a story of a struggle between these two impulses, founded as they are on different conceptions of human needs and wants. Once our current moment is cast in this historical context, it becomes easier to make sense of it.
American and European democracy might seem under threat today, but the fact that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, founding fathers of the Republic, nearly took up arms against each other adds some needed perspective. More important, though, is what they fought over. As Jason Willick recently noted, Adams was infatuated with monarchy, believed Jefferson and his allies were colluding with France, and infamously said that “democracy will infallibly destroy all civilization.” In a letter to the Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Jefferson had a rather different perspective:
The first principle of republicanism is that the lex majoris partis is the fundamental law of every society of individuals of equal rights; to consider the will of the society enounced by the majority of a single vote as sacred as if unanimous is the first of all lessons in importance, yet the last which is thoroughly learnt. This law once disregarded, no other remains but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism.
Were the masses to be feared and constrained or were they to be empowered? Rather than simply sounding the warning on illiberal democrats—the Trumps, Le Pens, and Orbans—Mounk, to his credit, also pays considerable attention to “undemocratic liberalism.” He identifies, correctly, that the former are partly a response to the latter. Right-wing populists aren’t outsiders to history. They are products of their time; they represent something deep and deeply felt, if also inchoate; they eagerly meet a burgeoning demand. For their part, undemocratic liberals bear responsibility for allowing the frustration to build, producing what the political theorist Samuel Goldman calls “the peculiar mix of panic and inertia” that today seems endemic in Western civic life.
Born in the ashes of World War II but triumphant after the Cold War, undemocratic liberalism has increasingly asserted itself through guardian judiciaries, watchful central banks, and centralized bureaucracies, whether through expansive federal governments or supranational structures like the European Union. The term “deep state,” itself a Middle Eastern import, has lately been weaponized by American populist-nationalists, suggesting something hidden and nefarious. Except there’s nothing particularly hidden about it. As Mounk notes, “A broad field of academic study has found both that it is very hard for politicians to control the bureaucracy, and that the scope of decisions made by bureaucratic agencies has expanded over the years.”
The reach of technocratic policymaking—the “administrative state” in Bannonite parlance—would not have been possible a hundred years ago. Technological progress, scientific advancement, and the necessity of ambitious welfare states to maintain social order has since made it inevitable. At the same time, higher levels of educational attainment, expectations of egalitarianism, and the universal availability of information (false or otherwise) have made citizens more aware of all the things they were unaware of.
Unfortunately, these are problems without obvious solutions. Modern government is technocratic government. Most citizens do not understand the details of regulatory policy; but even if they did, there is little to suggest that arguments over legislative minutiae would successfully mobilize electoral coalitions. So Mounk, and the rest of us, are stuck: “The case,” he writes, “for taking so many policy decisions out of democratic contestation may be perfectly sound. But even if it is, this does not change the fact that the people no longer have a real say in all these policy areas. In other words, undemocratic liberalism may have great benefits—but that doesn’t give us a good reason to blind ourselves to its nature.”
Alienated from the details of tax policy, healthcare mandates, or the vagaries of environmental regulations, voters have instead focused their energy on questions of culture, identity, and race. But, even here, governing elites wished to make sensitive conversations—especially surrounding immigration and its consequences—off-limits for polite democratic deliberation. To make matters worse, it was done in a condescending way, with enlightened moral appeals to multi-culturalism and anti-racism juxtaposed to the untutored bigotry of the masses. There was an aesthetic component as well: It was in bad taste to question the liberal consensus.
Politicians mistook immigration as just another matter for policy wonks to fiddle with—a value-neutral problem for which there was an optimal solution. Voters didn’t see it that way and repeatedly tried to get politicians to listen. In a 2012 YouGov survey, only 8 percent of British citizens said current levels of immigration had “a positive effect” on Britain. 78 percent of respondents—96 percent from the Conservative Party and 63 percent from Labour—supported Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge to reduce immigration from hundreds of thousands to “tens of thousands.” What’s perhaps most interesting, though, is that very few respondents had any faith immigration levels would, or even could, change: Only 15 percent said it was likely Cameron would live up to his pledge.
As the immigration opponent and Islam critic Douglas Murray remarked in his controversial book The Strange Death of Europe, even the allegedly Trumpist Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, wrote in 2012: “We need to stop moaning about the dam-burst. It’s happened. There is nothing we can now do except make the process of absorption as eupeptic as possible.” Murray writes:
Perhaps nothing was done to reverse the trend because no one in power believed anything could be done. If this was a political truth then it remained wholly unmentionable. Nobody could get elected on such a platform, and so a continent-wide tradition arose of politicians saying things and making promises that they knew to be unachievable.
Perhaps the rest of us believe that these sentiments are mere bigotry by another name, but they were there all the same, building in the body politic, claiming sometimes large majorities. Yet, politicians were unable or unwilling to take their concerns particularly seriously. That unwillingness could quickly turn into disdain.
Immigration was only one example of the de-politicization of politics in the self-congratulatory haze of the post-Cold War. As the Christian theologian Matthew Kaemingk observed in the Netherlands, “Dutch political debates had devolved into arguments over which party was better equipped to manage the liberal state, the liberal economy, and the liberal culture. No longer did the socialist or Christian leaders seriously argue that the government or the market rested under the sovereignty of either God or the workers’ collective.”
This was the “anti-politics” of undemocratic liberalism laid bare: a preference to narrow the range of political debate and prioritize technocratic “nudging,” by making marginal improvements within a consensus that would remain essentially unquestioned. It was, in its pristine ideal, a democracy without conflict, which soon revealed itself to be a contradiction in terms. Its search for consensus, however well-meaning, was self-defeating: Consensus is only possible when there is already consensus—and there rarely is. An artificial consensus, manufactured and nurtured by the powerful, is by definition exclusionary, pushing away anything that offers a whiff of radicalism, whether the “inclusive populism” of Bernie Sanders or the stylistic pomp-populism of Donald Trump.
Mounk is at his best when railing against the dangers of anti-politics and empty paeans to post-ideology. For it’s not just that managerial technocracy creates an opening for populists; The populists’ own politics end up so confounding to liberals that they become their own worst enemies. In discussing Venezuela’s descent into autocracy, Mounk points out how the opposition bore considerable responsibility for the resilience of Hugo Chavez. He quotes the Venezuelan economist Andrés Miguel Rondón: “We wouldn’t stop pontificating about how stupid Chavismo was. ‘Really, this guy? Are you nuts? You must be nuts,’ we’d say. The subtext was clear: Look, idiots—he will destroy the country.” Similarly, the Italian economist Luigi Zingales, writing after Trump’s victory, reminded Americans of Italy’s own vulgarian Silvio Berlusconi: The Italian opposition “was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared.”
We are far removed from the time, in 2009, when Barack Obama could have called for a “new declaration of independence…from ideology.” To limit populist inroads, Mounk suggests, requires more than mere resistance or the stopgap measure of a charismatic centrist who will lull us into thinking the storm has passed; it requires a fighting spirit, and perhaps even a fighting faith. It also requires more inward reflection on the part of an elite that still thinks it knows better (and sometimes seems to wish it could do away with the inconvenience of elections altogether). It requires bigger ideas that can absorb some populist anger—without the xenophobia—while putting forward a true political alternative.
This, though, is the hardest part. Like with many books that aspire for policy impact and relevance, Mounk’s book struggles to transition from a cutting analysis to a compelling plan of action. It’s not just that the pivot is unconvincing. It’s that in attempting to pull it off, Mounk sometimes falls into the very traps he himself so eloquently describes in the first two thirds of the book. There is a tendency to rely on a set of obvious, if vague institutional fixes. His goal is for the liberal state to live up to its stated ideals through a shared commitment to fairness and equal protections under the law. He is seeking to construct something he calls “inclusive nationalism,” a concept that sometimes overlaps with Jürgen Habermas’ idea of “constitutional patriotism.” Like Habermas, Mounk ultimately puts a lot of faith in people getting fired up about a rationally ordered and fair society.
Mounk’s policy chops are impressive—the section on housing policy has the virtue of being both interesting and plausible—but after an ambitious buildup, the recommendations seem anticlimactic, the sort of technocratic to-do list that would be well at home on the websites of well-studied Democratic politicians or, for that matter, the Center for American Progress. Like all anti-populists, Mounk is tempted by a narrow instrumentalism. Policy fixes serve no grander narrative and no greater cause; reform is primarily a means to keep populists at bay. To return to politics is to find new ways of ending it. There is little doubt that Mounk would prefer a world without populists. But without energetic challengers, one wonders why the parties of the center-Left and center-Right would so much as consider rethinking their aims.
There is nothing wrong with a failure of imagination per se, but it does illustrate, perhaps inadvertently, how difficult addressing the “problem” of populism will be. There may not, in fact, be a solution.
I am an ordinary liberal—my liberalism a product of convenience more than conviction. I’m a liberal largely because I’m a product of liberalism. Yascha Mounk, though, is a true believer. He doesn’t have a big idea, at least not a new one. His big idea is liberalism. Whether or not that will be enough—or whether it can be—is a question his book cannot answer.
Listen to both Yascha Mounk and Shadi Hamid discuss the new book on the The American Interest Podcast.