A book excerpt and interview with Yascha Mounk, author of “The People vs Democracy”
“THE fact that my family has been in the wrong place at the wrong time for at least three generations probably played an important role in sensitising me to the speed with which seemingly stable, peaceful and tolerant societies can break apart,” says Yascha Mounk, about why his political antennae are so attuned to the symptoms of populism.
Mr Mounk is Jewish, his parents are Polish and he was raised in Germany. Today he is a lecturer at Harvard University and leads the Renewing the Centre programme at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in Britain.
Though he admits that he has grown “even more pessimistic” watching the Trump presidency, he is an optimist. His next book, he says, will probably be on “how to make a multiethnic democracy work”. We asked Mr Mounk five questions to answer in around 100 words each. Below that is an excerpt from his book, on how to resist populists.
The Economist: You note the separation of liberalism from democracy. Please explain how they are different.
Yascha Mounk: Our political system aims to realise two core values: liberalism and democracy. When they work well, liberal states ensure that citizens enjoy individual freedom. They should be able to decide on their own what to say (or not to say), who to worship (or not to worship) and how to lead their lives. At the same time democratic states also enable collective self-determination. Instead of allowing a priest or a general or a monarch to make their minds up for them, citizens get to decide their own political fate.
The Economist: When and why did the “liberal democracy” contradiction emerge: has it always been an inherent feature?
Mr Mounk: Liberalism and democracy can reinforce each other: we need freedom of speech to sustain fair elections. At the same time, the ability to boot out an overreaching government protects our individual liberty. But the potential for them to come into conflict has also always existed.
In the end, no clever institutional set-up can stop the people from impinging on the freedom of individuals, or handing more and more power to an authoritarian ruler, when they are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo. Since citizens of many democratic countries have grown particularly dissatisfied with the performance of their governments over the past decades, this tendency is especially pronounced at the moment.
The Economist: How much of the populist surge is a result of economic inequality and stagnant incomes for the 99%? If we fix that, will it deflate the populist trends—or is there more to it than economics?
Mr Mounk: Populists have been rising in virtually every liberal democracy around the world, and they have been doing so for a long time. So we need to look for structural and cross-national reasons for their success. These include the rise of the internet and of social media, which make it easier for outsiders to challenge incumbent elites, as well as a rebellion by parts of the population against the rise of increasingly multiethnic societies.
But they also include the remarkable stagnation of living standards for ordinary citizens which many countries, like the United States, have experienced in the past decades. Giving people back a sense of optimism about their—and their country’s—economic future would not fix everything. But it would go a long way toward rebuilding trust in the ability of liberal democracy to deliver tangible benefits for ordinary citizens.
The Economist: Artificial intelligence is poised to transform business and society: why not governance? Many political challenges seem remediable by algorithm—an actual technocracy to replace the technocrats. Is this a viable way forward?
Mr Mounk: Tech can definitely help to make the delivery of government services more painless and less bureaucratic for citizens. That’s a big win. But there are two big obstacles to utopian dreams of an “actual technocracy” which will be hard to overcome. First, many government decisions contain an important normative element; leaving these up to algorithms only obscures that fact, often with deeply unjust ramifications.
Second, modern democracies face a much deeper “technocratic dilemma”. On the one hand, citizens want to feel that they are making the decisions. On the other hand, they want to lead their own lives rather than figuring out how to, say, keep a power plant safe. This deeper tension is not resolved by replacing metaphorically faceless bureaucrats with literally faceless algorithms.
The Economist: In the battle of “the people” versus “democracy”, who should liberals in the 21st century root for? What can they do to ensure their side wins?
Mr Mounk: They should resist picking sides. Faced with an electorate that is increasingly tempted by authoritarian populism, some liberals may be willing to sacrifice collective self-determination all the better to protect individual rights. But our ability to rule ourselves is a core political value—and in the long run, a political elite that rigs the system to keep an angry mob at bay will, in any case, grow tyrannically.
So the solution is twofold. We need to hold fast to both our liberal and our democratic values. And at the same time, we need to show that an energetic defence of these values points the way to many ambitious changes to the status quo. Instead of claiming that everything is already great, as some politicians are wont to do, we need to demonstrate that our values are still able to point us towards transformative policies that make the world a much better place.
Adapted from “The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It” by Yascha Mounk, published by Harvard University Press
To stop corrupt or populist governments from entrenching their power, citizens have to uncover violations of democratic rules and norms. They have to take to the streets to show that the populists don’t speak in the name of the whole people. And, no matter how righteous their disdain for the allies and flunkies of authoritarian strongmen may be, they need to do their best to peel off some members of the ruling regime.
But to stop populists from regaining power in the future and save the system in the long run, its defenders also have to do something more ambitious: they must ensure that liberal democracy once again lives up to the expectations of its citizens.
Over the past years, the Turkish government has arrested so many journalists, fired so many civil servants, and abolished so many institutional safeguards that the country is quickly turning into a straightforward dictatorship. Since taking office in 2015, the Polish government has undermined judicial independence, co-opted the state media, and colonized the bureaucracy to such an extent that the electoral playing field is increasingly skewed against the opposition. Even in the United States, where the existence of multiple veto points at both the state and the federal level has slowed the erosion of liberal institutions, the executive branch has made significant strides toward subverting the rule of law.
In countries such as these, where authoritarian strongmen have already won power and are systematically starting to change the most basic rules of the game, liberal democracy faces an imminent threat to its survival. What can its would-be defenders do to stop the populists from making further power grabs?
It is rarely easy for the opposition to constrain the actions of a determined government. But when the government consists of authoritarian populists who are disdainful of traditional constraints on their power and desperate to bend the system to their will, resistance is that much harder. Like in South Korea, it involves coming out into the streets to protest dangerous laws and executive orders. It involves ringing hostile legislators to voice opposition to the causes they support. It involves plenty of meetings, complicated logistics, incessant fundraising, and any number of boring tasks that can seem strangely disconnected from the noble purpose they supposedly serve.
“Freedom,” the title of a book by Francesca Polletta suggests, “is an endless meeting.” The preservation of freedom, it can seem in moments of great political peril, calls for an endless series of endless meetings.
But while the work of resistance is undoubtedly cumbersome, most political scientists do believe that it makes life difficult for populist governments: The painstaking work of opposition can call attention to unpopular policies; slow the progress of pending legislation; embolden judges to strike down unconstitutional laws; provide support to embattled media outlets; change the calculus for moderates within the regime; and force international governments and organizations to put pressure on a would-be dictator.
Plenty of recent cases showcase such successes: In Poland, mass protests may have helped push the country’s president to veto a proposed legislative reform, which would have given Kaczynski’s party an even tighter grip over the judiciary. In Hungary, mass protests may have helped convince Orbán to allow Central European University to keep operating even after he passed a law to shutter it. And in the United States, mass protests may have helped embolden judges opposed to the administration’s travel ban.
The first part of the solution to the threat of populism is as straightforward as it is cumbersome, then. Even when they are faced with powerful adversaries, and even when it feels like wasted time, the defenders of liberal democracy should fight to preserve the basic rules and norms of the existing political system. Whenever a populist ruler oversteps the bounds of his rightful authority, they must pour into the streets—loudly and in large numbers.
Even when the reasons for protest proliferate, and acts of opposition come to feel dishearteningly ineffective, it’s very important for the defenders of liberal democracy to resist authoritarian strong men with courage and determination. But since anyone who seeks to constrain the populists faces a decidedly uphill struggle once the strongmen have taken office, it is even more important to beat them at the polls.
This is obviously true in countries where the populists have not yet won. In Sweden or France, in Austria or Spain, citizens retain the power to ensure that candidates with evident disdain for the rules of the democratic game do not get a chance to put their predilections into practice. It is paramount that they use it. But even in countries in which the populists are already in office, elections remain crucial. Since it usually takes years for authoritarian strong men to consolidate their power, a lot hinges on the electoral savvy of the opposition.
Five years into the rule of Recep Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, and Hugo Chávez, many outside observers still believed that they were strengthening democratic institutions in their countries. All three made encouraging noises about the value of political openness and the importance of breaking with an authoritarian past. And though each of them did skew the playing field in his own favor by the time he first ran for reelection, the opposition still retained a real chance of winning. It wasn’t until these strongmen gained a second or even a third victory at the polls that they completed their countries’ descent toward outright dictatorship.
This demonstrates how high the stakes will be when authoritarian populists like Jarosław Kaczynski, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump first come up for reelection in the coming years. If they are soundly defeated, liberal democracy is—at least in the short run— likely to recover in Poland, India, and the United States. If they manage to win another mandate, all bets are off; given enough time and power, each of these leaders is likely to damage democracy in grave and lasting ways.
The only democratic protection from the assault of authoritarian strongmen, then, is to persuade the people to vote against them. But the most active members of the resistance are often surprisingly uninterested in helping opposition parties win. In Poland, for example, the influential Committee to Protect Democracy explicitly eschews any involvement in electoral politics. Similarly, in the United States, many members of #TheResistance are so hostile to the Democratic party that they do not see it as a priority to help the opposition win back Congress in 2018 or take the White House in 2020.
Even in circumstances where opposition parties are deeply flawed, this is the wrong approach. In the end, the only safe bulwark against the populists is to keep them far from the halls of power. Though it may be unfashionable for activists to campaign for a mainstream party, joining a political movement that has a real hope of success at the polls remains one of the best ways to stand up for democracy.
Excerpted from “The People vs. Democracy”. Copyright © 2018 by Yascha Mounk. Used with permission of Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
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