Mounk on the crisis of democracy

Yascha Mounk’s recent The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It is one of several important efforts to understand the crisis that right-wing populism is creating for liberal democracies in many countries. (An abbreviated version of Mounk’s analysis is published in his contribution to the Atlantic in March 2018 (link).) Mounk shares with Madeleine Albright (Fascism: A Warning), John Keane (The New Despotism), and Levitsky and Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) the concern that the political realities that brought Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States have the potential of profoundly undermining our democracy. I share that concern (linklinklinklink). And yet after reading the book, I’m not entirely convinced that Mounk has hit the target quite right. In the end, he sometimes seems to be more of a critic of liberal democracy than of radical authoritarian populism.

To begin, Mounk makes a determined effort to separate “democracy” from “liberalism”, where the former concept refers to any system in which the “people” rule and the latter refers to any system that embodies legal and institutional protections of the rights and freedoms of all — majority as well as minority. In this way he gives credence to the claim by Viktor Orbán in Hungary to have created the basis of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary (link). Here are the definitions that Mounk offers:

  • democracy is a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy. 
  • Liberal institutions effectively protect the rule of law and guarantee individual rights such as freedom of speech, worship, press, and association to all citizens (including ethnic and religious minorities).
  • liberal democracy is simply a political system that is both liberal and democratic—one that both protects individual rights and translates popular views into public policy.
  • Democracies can be illiberal. (27)

But democracy is not a single-stranded political conception. It is an “ideal type” that draws together several important ideas: self-rule, of course; but also the rule of law, constitutional protection of citizens’ rights, and a commitment to the neutrality of political institutions. Democracy is anti-authoritarian; and this means that there need to be principles, rules, laws, and institutions that protect the rights and freedoms of individual citizens. Therefore the only system worthy of the name as “democracy” is in fact what Mounk refers to as “liberal democracy”. And what Orbán describes is not democracy — any more than a counterfeit coin is a coin.

Mounk details the large decline in public confidence in the political institutions of liberal democracies across Europe and North America. He sees this as an especially worrisome feature of our current political realities: a rising percentage of citizens are willing to look with favor on “strong man” government or even rule by the military. And he recites the evidence of contempt for democratic values and institutions expressed by President Trump since 2016, and by the Republican Party for decades before that.

Over the course of his campaign, Donald Trump broke just about every basic rule of democratic politics. He promised to jail his political opponents. He refused to say that he would accept the outcome of the election. He bullied the press and threatened to expand libel laws. He invited a foreign power to sabotage his main competitor. He incited hatred against ethnic and religious minorities and promised to take unconstitutional action against them. (119)

What Mounk does not do is trace the connection between conservative Republican activists, their deliberate strategies aimed at discrediting and demeaning the institutions of government, and the resulting decline in public opinion that he documents. These shifts of public support for democratic values and institutions are not self-generated; they are at least in part the result of deliberate anti-government strategies of the right, in the United States and other countries. Figures such as Grover Norquist (“I simply want to reduce [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”), Newt Gingrich (“One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty” (link)), and the Tea Party had a very consistent and extended political message: government is not to be trusted, and the institutions and values of our political system are bankrupt. Surely this propaganda offensive — fueled by Fox News, talk radio, and social networks — has played an important role in the decline of trust (and adherence) in the institutions and values of liberal democracy. On this topic I find more to learn from McAdam and Kloos, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America (linklink).

In fact, chapter 2 of Mounk’s book (“Rights without Democracy”) could serve as the letters of indictment of a fairly cerebral right-wing populist propaganda specialist. Much of the chapter seems intended to show that liberal democracy is a sham: “As long as you let us call the shots, we will pretend to let you rule” (53). Bureaucrats, judges, international lawyers, and the wealthy make the major decisions, in Mounk’s telling of the tale. Mounk gives the impression that the “founding myth” of American democracy (or British democracy) is exactly that — a myth. And here Mounk is unfair. It is of course true that citizenship was limited in the first century of the US democracy; but it is also true that, through struggle by African-Americans, women, and other excluded minorities, the political system and constitution expanded. We are not the political system we were in 1776 or 1789 or 1861. Nor is it obvious that representative democracy is less democratic than direct democracy — unless we take it as a definitional matter that democracy means direct decision-making by the population.

Mounk’s narrative here gives some credence to the radical populists’ claim that “elites are running the country” (in Britain, in Germany, in the EU, in the US), based on the extensive bureaucracies involved in modern government. He discusses bureaucrats and civil servants, judges, independent agencies, and international treaties and organizations as examples of “unelected elites making basic decisions”. But this claim is itself far too sweeping and simplistic. The fact that public health specialists offer scientific advice about wearing masks during pandemic — and governors act on this advice — is not elitism; it is the result of the principle that “good public policy should be guided by the best scientific understanding of the problems we face.” Yes, governments in liberal democracies deploy legions of “technical experts” or “technocrats”, and these men and women help to formulate public policies in directions that are often hard to sell on Fox News. But this is how governments should act; and it is part of the shameful performance of the Trump administration that Trump and his cabinet have done everything in their power to silence and ignore the advice of qualified scientists, from climate change to atmospheric science to global pandemic.

Mounk emphasizes the very substantial increase in “bureaucratization” that state agencies have undergone in western democracies — the creation of large agencies with substantial regulatory authority such as the Securities Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency (64). And he seems to suggest that this process gives some truth to the populist refrain that “elites are running our lives without control by the people”. But, as Mounk obviously agrees, a large bureaucracy is unavoidable in the administration and regulation of complex activities like the broadcast spectrum, nuclear power plants, food safety, or pollution. This is not an indication of elitism; it is rather a necessary consequence of highly complex and extended economic and social processes that serve to ensure the health, safety, and security of the public — the people. A democracy requires regulatory agencies, under the broad charter of legislative action. Government is “big” — big government exercises a great deal of decision-making authority. Of course! Democratic legitimacy requires that we make these processes more transparent to the public, but the fact of bureaucracy is not a legitimate complaint against liberal democracy.

Mounk gives an extended example from Switzerland to illustrate the way he divides “democracy” from “liberalism”. A local community sought to prevent a local mosque from building a minaret; the Federal Supreme Court declared in favor of the rights of freedom of worship of these individuals, including the right to build a minaret; and the populist right took up the issue, brought it to a national referendum, and were able to incorporate a restrictive clause  against Muslims into the Swiss constitution: “Freedom of religion and conscience is guaranteed … The construction of minarets is prohibited” (48). Mounk describes this as a case in which “democracy” and “liberalism” parted ways: “That is why I prefer to say that the controversy over minarets epitomizes the disintegration of liberal democracy into two new regime forms: illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism” (48). But the justices of the FSC are not elite technocrats substituting their judgment for the “will of the people”; this is exactly what a Supreme Court is charged to do within a constitutional democracy. How else are the rights and freedoms of minorities to be defended against the will of the majority?

Mounk notes that populist leaders and parties seek to undermine the press: “In the early phases, the war on independent institutions frequently takes the form of inciting distrust, or even outright hatred, of the free press” (44). He sees this effort as an attack on liberal principles. But the war waged by radical populist leaders against the press (including, of course, Donald Trump) is not merely anti-liberal; it is anti-democratic. Its aim is to disenfranchise the portion of the population that would oppose the populists’ policies and action by denying them access to information and fair interpretation by other intelligent, well-informed observers. It is to replace “freedom of thought and speech” with the power of propaganda, and the goal is not merely to deny information to potential opponents, but to shape “knowledge” and political discourse in ways that favor the political fortunes of the populist. Again — democracy without liberal institutions and values is only sham democracy.

Mounk is of course right in noticing that populists claim to advocate for democracy, by proclaiming to their followers that they are the true “people” and that their will is the political program of the populist movement. But this is charade, as Mudde and Kaltwasser (Populism: A Very Short Introductionlink) and other scholars of populism have shown. When Sarah Palin claims that the “real Americans” are those who live in small racially homogeneous towns in the Midwest, she is making an appeal to a minority segment of the American population. Her “real Americans” do not include people of color, liberals, urban people, gay people, or legal immigrants. This is not an appeal to democracy; it is an appeal to an exclusionary view of “good Americans” and “bad people living in the country”.

In brief, Mounk’s mid-semester grade for the American democracy is pretty low:

At a minimum, I suggest, any democracy should have in place a set of effective institutional mechanisms for translating popular views into public policy. In the United States, these mechanisms are now significantly impaired. The country’s commitment to liberal rights remains deeply ingrained. But the form this liberalism takes is increasingly undemocratic. (92)

This is a C- when it comes to evaluating a set of political institutions; it suggests that perhaps the student should choose a different major. But actually, we have more to work with in our liberal democracy than Mounk believes. And there is a certain amount of risk of contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy here: part of the problem in our democracy is a declining level of confidence in political institutions and the worth of government — a decline very specifically and deliberately orchestrated by the right for the past forty years — and the C- hits us where it hurts.

This is not to suggest that liberal democracy does not need reform. The role of money in politics; the disproportionate influence of big business on public policy; the persistent and deliberate racism involved in voter suppression strategies of gerrymandering and discouragement of minority participation in elections — these are the fundamental flaws of our existing political institutions, and they clearly demand solution.

And yet — liberal democracy is the best we have to offer. Modern democratic institutions of government are not the key risk to human freedom in the twenty-first century; the real enemy of individual freedom and dignity is the sustained rise of powerful populist parties and bosses. Levitsky and Ziblatt are closer to the truth than Mounk.

Mounk has a response to these criticisms:

High-minded defenders of liberal democracy believe that there is something uniquely legitimate about the political system to which they are committed. 

Its democratic element, they claim, ensures citizens’ equality. In a monarchy, the king is elevated above his subjects by the accident of his noble birth. In a democracy, by contrast, all citizens get one vote without regard to the color of their skin or the station of their ancestors. 

Its liberal element, meanwhile, ensures citizens’ freedom. In a totalitarian regime, the government can regulate the lives of its subjects in the most minute detail and punish them at whim. In a liberal polity, by contrast, the reach of the law is limited, and citizens are protected against arbitrary interference in their lives. The peculiar genius of liberal democracy is that it is able to honor both of these values at the same time. 

This account of democratic legitimacy is a little too blithe. (129)

Really? Are we wrong to be “high-minded”? In its essence, this is precisely the defense that is needed for the institutions of a liberal democracy: it is a complex of institutions and values aimed at assuring a population of equal citizens the full exercise of their rights and liberties within a system in which they are guaranteed equal rights of political participation. The hard task is to reform, perfect, and preserve those institutions in the face of the forces of reaction.

The rhetorical structure of the book is “diagnosis, causes, remedies.” The remedies that Mounk explores include three major areas of progress that are needed for a multiethnic, multiracial democracy: a solution to the problem of “nationalism” (or more generally, of divided cultural identities); a more just set of economic institutions and opportunities for all citizens; and the rebuilding of what he calls “civic faith”. Interestingly, these areas of recommended reform align rather well with the list I mentioned in an earlier post:

  • A broad consensus that all members of society are treated fairly
  • Confidence in a high level of equality of opportunity in social, political, and economic positions
  • Confidence that government institutions and officials are reasonably honest and transparent
  • Confidence that private influence does not unduly affect the content and application of laws and regulations
  • An overriding conviction that we are “one society” consisting of many communities, and that the wellbeing of all depends on the contributions and fair treatment of all
  • An effective interlacing of communities through cross-cutting political, social, and economic organizations

The most substantial practical advice that Mounk offers as a strategy for lending strength to our liberal democracy (and resisting authoritarian impulses of some of our leaders) is popular protest and expression of our values in the public space — real, active political engagement on behalf of a just liberal democracy.

Thankfully, there is a lot that those of us who want liberal democracy to survive the dawning age of populism can do: We can take to the streets to stand up to the populists. We can remind our fellow citizens of the virtues of both freedom and self-government. We can push established parties to embrace an ambitious program capable of renewing liberal democracy’s promise of a better future for all. And if we do win—as I very much hope we shall—we can muster the grace and the determination to bring our adversaries back to the democratic fold. (265)

I find much to admire and learn from in Mounk’s book. The complaints offered here are aimed, really, at the lawyerly effort that Mounk makes to build the case against liberal democracy. Much of the narrative provided in the “diagnosis” part of the book is an impassioned argument aimed at demonstrating the correctness of many of the populists’ key complaints against the liberal state. And a lawyerly defense of the legitimacy of the institutions of contemporary liberal democracies is lacking. But this concedes too much to right-wing populists. Liberal democracy and right-wing populism are not on the same moral plane. And illiberal democracy is no kind of democracy at all; it is despotism.

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