“Our system has failed at one of the core ambitions of a democracy.” —Yascha Mounk
It’s a good time to be writing books about the death of democracy.
After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, a whole genre of nonfiction has emerged seeking to explain how democracies die or why Western liberalism is in retreat. The latest contribution is Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger.
Mounk’s book asks a fairly simple question: Why are citizens across the world falling out of love with democracy? Mounk argues it’s because people are realizing that the system is no longer delivering on its core promises, namely to improve their lives and translate popular will into public policies. The question now is whether these people can be persuaded that liberal democracy, for all its faults, is still the best way to organize a society.
I sat down with Mounk to talk about how we reached this crisis point and what, if anything, we can do to get out of it.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
I’ve had a ton of books cross my desk in the last year warning about the demise of democracy. What are you saying here that’s different or new?
I tried to give a comprehensive account of the crisis we face, but also the reasons why we got into this mess and the things we can do to get out of it. I think people have gradually become less enthusiastic about liberal democracy itself, and that’s a problem we haven’t thought enough about.
This isn’t a new problem, right? The currents driving this antipathy toward liberal democracy have been underway for a long while.
Right. And it’s very much a global phenomenon. To make sense of this political moment, you have to understand that Donald Trump is not a unique phenomenon, that there’s very similar political movements in other countries, and that illiberal populists have been rising for 25 to 30 years.
So it’s not enough to focus on, say, defeating Donald Trump in 2020. We should do that, of course, but the problems run much deeper. We’ve got to figure out why people are turning against their own political system — and that’s partly what I wanted to do in this book.
So why are people turning against their own political system?
People no longer feel that the political system is actually delivering for them. I think there are three primary drivers of the rise of populism. One of them is the stagnation of living standards for ordinary people. From 1935 to 1960, the living standard of the average American doubled. From 1965 to 1985, it doubled again.
People never loved politicians or Washington, but when it came time to vote, they said, “Well, I’m doing twice as well as my parents did. My kids are going to do twice as well as me, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.” But living standards haven’t gone up in decades, and now they’re just saying, “Let’s throw some shit against the wall and see what sticks.”
A lot of this discontent is driven by economic concerns, but the form it takes is cultural or racial. We have to recognize that we’re in the middle of a unique historical experiment: We’ve never managed to transform countries that thought of themselves as being monoethnic and monocultural into multiethnic ones, which is what’s happening in Europe and, to a lesser degree, in the United States. Some of these countries were always multiethnic, but they also had a clear racial hierarchy in which some people had advantages over others.
Overturning all that is desirable, but it’s also politically difficult. We’re in the middle of a giant fight. A lot of people are rightly saying, “We need to live up our ideals,” but a bunch of people feel they have something lose because of it.
We have to recognize that we’re in the middle
of a unique historical experiment
I think a lot of people are saying to themselves, “The elites have failed. These so-called liberal democratic institutions have failed. My vote has no influence on public policy. Why should I give a damn about preserving this system?”
Our system has failed at one of the core ambitions of a democracy, which is to translate popular views into public policies. That’s because of the role of money in our politics, because of the revolving door between legislators and lobbyists, and because the political class has become separated from the bulk of the population.
I acknowledge in the book all the ways our political system is failing. It’s failing to deliver on people’s ambition to rule themselves. It’s failing to deliver on their aspirations for a better material future. It’s failing to deliver on the promise of building an inclusive America.
But at the same time, it’s not as simple as “our democracy is wonderful” or “it’s a total failure.” We’re succeeding better than most countries, and the question is always, “How can we get better?”
I think we’re learning that a lot of people never really gave a shit about liberal democracy to begin with. As long as their lives were stable, they were content with the status quo, but as soon as the stability started to slip away, they readily embraced populists like Trump or reactionaries in Europe like Marine Le Pen. This idea that people are committed to fixed political principles is largely a fantasy.
I agree, and this keeps me up at night, to be honest. I grew up in Germany. There were a lot of very fervent Nazis in the country in the 1930s and 1940s. When democracy was introduced by force by the Allies in the late 1940s, views about democracy were pretty ambivalent. But you fast-forward 20 years and people suddenly seem very committed to democracy. The question is why?
For a long time, political scientists have wanted to believe that it’s because liberal democratic ideals — rule of law, separation of powers, minority rights, individual rights — have a real, independent power among citizens, and that once German citizens saw them in action, they accepted them in some deep way. But I don’t think that’s true — in Germany or elsewhere.
I don’t either, and my sense is that in Germany, as in America, people embraced a system that appeared to be working — but that attachment was always contingent upon the system working. The minute it stopped working, or was perceived to not be working, everything was up for grabs again.
I think that’s right. This is what political scientists call “outcome legitimacy,” which means a system’s appeal is based on its ability to provide order and give people stuff, and not, as many people believe, on some deep ideological attachment.
In the same way, you can look at America’s very long history of functioning as a democratic republic and say, “These ideals are so deeply ingrained in American culture that surely it would be impossible to dislodge them,” but you can also look at the fact that all through that time period, most citizens experienced very rapid increases in their living standards, and now they don’t. That helps explain why Americans seem to be a lot less committed to democracy than we once were.
What’s your response to the people who say, “To hell with liberal democracy, let’s try something else.”
I say take a look around. Look at countries that used to rely on liberal democratic rules — Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary, etc. — and notice what happened when liberal democracy eroded. They all became more terrible places to live because of the destruction of their political system.
I suppose you could look at someone like Trump as an ugly but necessary corrective to a flawed system. At the same time, he could also be a sign that things have degenerated to such a point that the system just isn’t salvageable any longer.
The optimistic case is that in a complex system like democracy, there are stabilizing mechanisms. The elites get too remote from the people. The special interests take on too much power. Eventually, average voters get really pissed off about that. They send somebody like Donald Trump into office to smash some things up, and either Trump himself actually loosens the grip of special interests or elites recognize the threat posed by somebody like Trump and clean house a little bit.
Unfortunately, not much of what’s happened over the past year or two in the United States or in the last 10 or 20 years in countries like Poland and Hungary and Turkey makes me optimistic about that. Instead, what we’ve seen is that authoritarians have tightened the grip of special interests over the political system, rewarding loyalists and ignoring the voters.
Near the end of the book, you call for a restoration of civic faith. I agree that we have to do a better job of cultivating citizens and building public trust, but I look around at this media environment — which is really unprecedented in human history — and I just don’t see how it’s possible.
It was also very difficult to imagine this at the time of the Civil War or during the civil rights movement. The one opportunity that this moment presents us with is a chance to focus the mind. The generation that came of age during World War II understood why it’s superior to live in a democracy rather than a fascist system. The generation that came of age during the Cold War understood how, despite its many shortcomings, the United States was a much more just place to live than the Soviet Union.
For people who have come of age in the last 30 years, it was easy to just focus on our shortcomings, because there was no viable alternative out there in the world to which we were comparing ourselves. Now that people see what authoritarian populists have done to countries like Turkey or Russia, and many people are seeing what a populist like Trump is threatening to do to this country, I think there’s a chance that they will relearn the importance of our political system.
But that’s ultimately up to all of us. Some people might not agree with me; but for everybody who does agree with me, I hope they will think of it as one of their tasks to make that point, to explain the urgency of that to people. That’s one of the reasons that drove me to write this book.