The People vs. Democracy – Yascha Mounk


Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to tell you about “The People vs. Democracy” from Yascha Mounk who is a rising star lecturer in Government (political science) at Harvard. YM is also a product of our global world as he is German-American, born in Munich in 1982, with Jewish roots and a mother who born in Poland behind the Iron Curtain. His book is one of many on the rise of populism and the attack against liberalism in the West but it is one of the most structured as to what the problems are in our Western landscape today and how we could fix them. YM’s book, which is very well crafted and goes to the core of what is behind the attacks against Western liberalism, is a call for action where ideally “doing” would eventually meet “thinking”. YM is definitely coming across not simply as a political scientist describing our times but as a defender of Western liberalism, his book being a clear incitation for readers to join in the active defence of the liberal story – very much along the lines of Desperate Measures if I might add – as if researching, writing and reading in academia or think tanks, even though very useful endeavours, were just not enough (in that one can see his younger incarnation as an active member of the youth wing of the center left SPD in Germany).  

YM confirming (what we know) that the West is going through a populist moment not only in the US but all over Europe (with Canada,  Australia/New Zealand and Japan being, to some extent, exceptions we should note) wonders whether this moment will turn into a populist age and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt. Like Yuval Noah Hahari in his latest book he goes through the one “liberal story” mantra that led our world post-Berlin wall fall and its Fukuyama-inspired “End of History” spread globally in the 1990s and early 2000s. Of note most of the people who disagreed then with Liberalism’s ability to win the day in most of the non-Western world never thought that the liberal story would come endangered one day within its core Western geographic base, the belief being that any country above a GDP per capita of USD 14,000 (Argentina’s when it fell to a military coup in 1975) would be safe from a liberal status standpoint. Liberalism was “the only game in town” and “there to stay.” No ifs or buts. Political adversaries respected democratic rules of engagement, not violating the most basic norms of liberal democracy which also entailed not screaming to jail one’s political opponent on the campaign trail. Today democracy is not such a clear cut system for all when two thirds of older Americans believe it is important to live in a democracy and only one third of millennials do so or when in 1995 one in sixteen of Americans believed in army rule as a good system while now one in six does.

YM delves deeply in the relationship and indeed sacred link and mutual dependence between democracy and liberalism which for ages were a coherent whole. Dysfunction in one can bring dysfunction in the other like democracy without rights can lead to the tyranny of the majority, something the American Founding Fathers feared and is seen today with the rises of populism throughout the West. Similarly rights without democracy when billionaires and technocrats rule the waves and excluding the people is creating another type of disconnect. YM sees a slow divergence of liberalism and democracy first and foremost found in democracy without rights or illiberal democracy when far right (and at times hard left, like in Italy today) populists across the West push different but quite common forms of messages claiming easy solutions to the problems of our times, stressing that the establishments (old political elites, media) do not have the answers and that the mass of ordinary people instinctively would know what to do. A good example would be Hungary which YM depicts in detail the descent into illiberalism over recent years.

Looking at the other dysfunction, which would be rights without democracy or undemocratic liberalism, YM provides the example of the Greek crisis and the referendum of July 2015 which saw the Greeks rejecting the austerity plan put forward by the Troika of the IMF, World Bank and the EU for its government to finally cave in to the creditors demand after intense negotiations in Brussels, thus foregoing the people’s voice (YM will nonetheless note that the people of other EU member states were actually backing the plan). I am not sure that the two features of the democracy-liberalism dysfunction, regardless of the beauty of the concept, are equally systemically threatening as the gravest danger today, by far, is the rise of illiberal democracy or democracy without rights while its sidekick, rights without democracy, pales in comparison and can always be worked on (that the Tsypras government organised a referendum, this for domestic tactical reasons, asking the Greek people whereby they liked EU-ordered austerity in order to restore the country’s finances – which incidentally ended being the ultimate outcome for Greece as seen today – could not yield any other answer than a rejection, something the Troika could not accept in terms of precedent for the Eurozone, all the more with the fragilities of both Spain and Italy at the time).

While they never especially liked their politicians, Western citizens and voters by and large trusted them and the system as their lives were improving – until now. The periods of economic growth as seen since the post-war era, even with its bumps, seems to be behind us and anxiety about the future is rising. Today that trust vanished and many Western people see any gains for immigrants or ethnic minorities coming at their expense. This economic uncertainty fuelled a question of identity after centuries of old mono-ethnic nations in Europe and a dominant white society in North America that were immigrant nations.

In Democracy with Rights, that deals with illiberal democracy or what we see with illiberal governments (in Hungary or Poland) or illiberal developments (Brexit, Trump) in the West,YM takes us to meetings and demonstrations in Dresden of PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) and the AfD (Alternative fur Deutschland) – the latter which scored its highest poll results in a location with the fewest migrants in Germany, reminding us of similar electoral fear-driven results in the U.S. and the UK – trying to understand these phenomena. The common feature of these illiberal leaders or developments is that they claim to speak or to represent “the people” against the establishment, the latter which has been self-serving and actually not working on behalf of the people. In the case of the two German political groups YM pays a visit to, they define themselves against immigration and grew strongly as a result fo the 2015 mass influx of migrants that was initially welcomed by the Merkel government. They represent throughout Europe far right and also far left political parties or movements that were once marginal or non-existent until a few years ago and became key fixtures on their domestic political scenes as with the National Front (now National Rally) in France, Five Stars in Italy, PASOK in Greece, Podemos in Spain, UKIP in Britain before its deliquescence post-Referendum, the Sweden Democrats (with roots in Neo-Nazism) with the far right parties having experienced a striking development due to identity and immigration issues Europe has struggled with since the middle of our decade. 

The striking feature of these populist parties is that they are not like the fascist or Nazi parties of old as they claim to be the true defenders of democracy as “directly” as possible (hence their love of referenda and plebiscites) so the “people” can be heard. YM rightly stresses that once the populists seize power democratically, then comes the illiberal phase where they will do their best to suppress opposition, particularly at the level of the institutions so the expression of popular will is not impeded even if they will tend to “disregard the people when its preferences seem to conflict with their own”, like we would think in Poland today. “Glib, facile solutions stand at the very heart of the populist appeal” across the democratic world and appeal to voters who do not want to think that the world is complicated and that common sense policies should easily deal with any problems their country face. Once in power their solutions far from resolving problems and responding to their voters’ anxieties usually exacerbate the problems that they are supposed to cure. With their appeal to the “real” people, they are positing an in-group, claiming a “monopoly of representation” which in the West is  usually the white natives who will share ethnicity, religion, social class and political beliefs against an out-group, usually foreigners and minorities whose interests can be disregarded. When seeking power, the populists will go strongly against ethnic and/or religious groups and once they accede to power they will turn against the institutions, formal and informal, that preserve liberalism that would be an obstacle to their monopoly of representation and gradually sheer power. Attacks on free press that could criticise the new power ensue with fake news today being the key element of discredit also for the consumption of their power base. Then foundations, trade unions, think tanks, religious associations and other non-governmental associations become targets should they dare opposing.

YM makes the point with others that the term “illiberal democracy” is not quite correct as while being illiberal and initially democratic (YM is very keen on stressing the initial democratic feature of populism) those regimes forget quickly the democratic aspect that put them in power to turn to various degrees into outright mild to hard dictatorships that retain the veneer of the democratic mantle for form. It should be clear today that both Hungary and Poland, both EU member states (creating increasingly tense debates with Bruxelles and other member states) and formally still democracies are espousing illiberal ways of government by controlling media outlets or curtailing the independence of the judiciary. Viktor Orban actually claimed the mantle of illiberal democracy as it it were a great model of government that citizens, like in Hungary, should live under. Democracy without Rights is definitely a must read to understand populism under its nuanced forms.

Rights without Democracy, which is a crafty word play with that of democracy without rights or illiberal democracy devised by YM and has some merits if only for the beauty of its construct, is however a harder case to make as it is impossible to find it an equal in terms of societal harm. In other words, YM looks at all unelected bodies, such as courts, central banks, government agencies (FCC, SEC, EPA and others in the U.S. or the Quasi-Autonomous Governmental Organisations in the UK)  and of course the likes of the IMF, World Bank or even the EU that can dictate the people and indeed entire nations what to do without having been elected by them. YM starts his perilous journey in quoting the old saying of “As long as we call the shots, we will pretend to let you rule”, going back to the Founding Fathers who were adamant not to have the people directly rule which meant a representative Republic first (Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the two arch-enemies on other key matters, were happily together in Federalist N. 63 to ensure that “the essence of the American Republic would consist in the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity”). Things changed a bit in the 19th century with major developments going on in America combined with constitutional amendments  with institutions being more willingly facilitating government “of the people, by the people, for the people”. YM feels that the “legislature” in the age of internet and social media (the latter a key culprit behind the rise of populism) comprises representatives, who have less strong ties to their local communities while indeed representing the people, has lost much of its power to “courts, bureaucrats, central banks and International organisations and treaties” to which we can add powerful lobbyists in the US but also around EU institutions. (on leaving Congress, U.S. Representatives or Senators seldom go back to their home roots, where they actually were born or in the district where they were elected, and go on living in the mega-centres where the lucrative jobs are). 

Dwelling on “rights without democracy” YM explains the shift of power away from national parliaments to unelected agencies staffed with experts yielding quasi-legislative power on complex regulatory and other issues. However YM agrees that such a gradual, imperceptible change is not the result of any elite conspiracy but a human response to real policy challenges that cannot be dealt with directly by the people or their representatives but constitutes an erosion of democracy (something we would all agree on in terms of political theory and practice but is hard to avoid, creating absurd comedy-like situations as with the famous Parliamentary exchange involving Sir Humphrey that YM borrows from the famed British TV series “Yes Minister”). YM points out that British civil servants quadrupled from 100,000 in 1930 to 400,000 in 2015 while the population grew by only one third (to which the standard Frenchman would say “only four times?” comparing it to what he knew back home while I would say the same thing but only to stress that the world having grown exponentially complex since 1930, the Brits are doing quite well in that respect). The point YM makes rightly is that government agencies have both gained power in the design of laws to be passed by parliaments and later in their applications, which most would agree creates some conceptual if not practical issues with democracy, though somewhat at the academic level as there is no other viable solution to run Western countries especially large ones. To be fair – and it is where we see that democracy without rights and rights without democracies do not carry the same level of illness – YM urges like George W to “make no mistake” as the FCC, EPA, SEC and CFPB just to name a few U.S. government agencies “have made the United States a better place” (I breathe better even if I am very sorry that Joe Smith in Montana or Paul Lefebvre in Paris cannot have direct influence on fighting climate change or regulating banks). However YM who is a true scholar reminds us that “yet, there is a real trade off between respect for the popular will and the ability to solve complicated policy problems”.

In his back and forth attack and defence mode, YM will still find there is a sound rationale for having independent central banks and not ministries of finance overseeing monetary policies as before WWII in most of Europe. Judicial review and the independence of the justice system, made specifically to act as a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority, will also be recognised by YM as a good thing, even if part of the undemocratic camp as non-elected, in defending and rescuing individual rights across the lands. At the end of the day, YM recognises the soundness of taking so many policy decisions out of democratic contestation but his point will remain that the people no longer have a direct say. To the risk of sounding elitist, it is however hard to wish for uneducated, untrained and ill-informed but otherwise well-meaning and perfectly reasonable citizens to take direct decisions on all matters of government, which is of course unpractical in the first place (unless one likes referenda which we have seen in Europe and particularly in the UK may not be the best way today to avoid massive self-harm driven by emotions and dreams of past grandeur. Having said this the Swiss have liked them as a great weekend pastime). It is clear that the lobbyists may be the exception where one would side with YM as money and special interests can indeed buy their way into legislation (YM has a great section on this item).

Having said all that and taking Brexit as a case study, one could see the dreadful saga and find that the politicians, including elected representatives (notably in the case of the hard-line Brexiteers of the Jacob Rees-Mogg kind) have been pushing outcomes the people who voted Leave in June 2016 would never have wanted as they never voted to be poorer, which a No Deal Brexit would likely produce, while facts now show that Brexit, whatever its form would cause economic pain to the British. There might thus be a case of “rights without democracy” overreach by some British politicians of the strong Eurosceptic kind, placing party ahead of national interest and ideals (or culture, or identity) ahead of the economy which would yield an outcome that would only be desired by a small minority. Then one could also argue, as these hard liners would, that it is imperative to deliver the result of the June 2016 referendum so as indeed to fully enforce democracy even if many (like me) would argue that three years later (almost the length of an American presidential term) and facts aplenty replacing emotions a new voice of the people would be the only democratic way to go to produce a legitimate way forward in what has been described kindly as a “mess” of historical and un-British proportions for the mother of modern democracy.        

As YM puts it “a system that dispenses with individual rights in order to worship at the altar of the popular will may ultimately turn against the people” – especially if seizing power on the back of non-facts and fear stocking as the illiberal democrats have shown – while “conversely, a system that dispenses with the popular will in order to protect individual rights may ultimately resort to increasingly blatant repression to quell dissent”. I would argue that while there is a great likelihood that illiberal democrats may turn into various forms of benevolent to harsh dictators once in power, the fact that our democracies are also involving bureaucrats, agencies, central banks and international organisations and treaties does not cause the same level of threat to the democratic liberalism model even if YM has a case about the impact of lobbyists and special interest groups in the shaping of legislative agendas. The beauty of the democratic liberal system is that it is improvable so “rights without democracy”, while artful in its construct, does not carry the same lethal risks as democracy without rights or illiberal democracy which closes the door to systemic improvement and leads to societal regression in terms of individual and collective freedoms. For us in 2019 the danger lies with the likes of Trump (however his policies may be liked by many voters who may not necessarily like the man, not willing to face the the reality of the overall cost to America and the world), Matteo Salvini and Luigi di Matteo (the Italian hard right and left twins who are upsetting the EU status quo), Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélanchon (a similar, though not yet in power, illiberal couple from the two extremes), Viktor Orban (the founder of illiberal democracy in the EU) and Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party in Poland (YM has a very interesting history of how Poland the poster child of post-communism successfully managed economic transition but fell prey to easy populist solutions that now threaten liberalism in a key EU country with the caveat we know that there is also a strong and increasingly heard liberal democratic voice, especially in Warsaw and major cities).            

Looking at the future, one could be forgiven for thinking that the illiberal populist drive will collapse as the younger generations will not back them. Most of the young voted for Remain in the British referendum of June 2016 (even if only very few voted – only 26% of the 18-29 age group) while most young people voted for Hillary against Trump in November 2016 (even if a majority of young whites voted for Trump, sending a peculiar message). At the same time it is a well-known fact that the British population above 60 years of age voted massively to leave the EU and go back to an era which some saw as Victorian in what was a very emotional move. In fact, most polls would show that the millennials are increasingly not thinking that democracy matters at all, some (still a minority) even feeling that a military regime would be better than what some refer to as a parliamentary “swamp” (YM show some rather scary poll results and very interesting charts showing that the older you are, the more important democracy and liberalism are while the opposite is also true). The surprising millennials position is also explained by a lack of direct (they are too young) or indirect (they have no interest in the matter) historical memory, not only about WWII but also about the Cold War as they always lived in a safe and conflict-free environment, taking all the positive aspects of their times for granted. Hence the crucial importance of education.

This trend goes hand in hand with a strong decline in confidence and trust in the democratic liberal “system” across the Western world. Citizens (and one in four millennials) would be falling out of love with democracy and more of them would be open to authoritarian alternatives. The political discourse has changed over recent years, particularly since 2015-16, with political opponents becoming enemies, and thus regrettably becoming for Michael Ignatieff, the former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party and a political theorist, someone you not only want to defeat but whom you want to destroy. Norms are breakable and those who break them, often for tactical purposes, notably the populists, are widely appealing to many voters as they offer a clean break from their perception of an increasingly unsatisfactory and frustrating political system and landscape. YM points out to the reasons why liberal democracy was thriving in the past, which he feels was not due to its inherent, high-minded values, but more as it allowed the Western world and its citizens to live in peace (something they should remember in Europe) and “swelled their pocketbooks”.

Looking at current events unfolding on the political scene, it is clear that the two-headed Italian populism that is today in power is much in the news lately and fitting the illiberal story depicted by YM. While Luigi di Maio, a strong critic of anything French these days, is seen as directly supporting the Yellow Vests movement on French soil (unacceptably breaking good diplomatic manners of the liberal and EU systems but with the May EU Parliamentary elections in mind and lagging behind his twin in the polls), Matteo Salvini is attacking central bank leaders and wildly thinking of “using” for policy purposes the gold reserves of the Bank of Italy, threatening central bank independence. However we also see that some elected representatives, even in America, tend to be faithful to their local roots like State Senator and Queens native Michael Gianaris shows when fighting against the “unfair” and “self harming” tax breaks that were to be given to Amazon for its new HQ in New York State (people keep mentioning that while graduating from Harvard Law and potentially going to a great legal career in DC or Manhattan he elected to go back to the Queens of his childhood). On the subject of elected authority, one can also read points being made that the EU Commission, this oft attacked devilish anti-democratic and bureaucratic actor ruining Europeans’ lives (to take a mild version of the populist and Brexiter credos), if it initiates legislation, does not vote it, something the EU Parliament in Strasbourg (directly elected every five years and representing the member states’ voters) and the Council of Ministers (elected nationally and representing the member state’s governments) do, making it clear that the EU is not without “rights without democracy” even if facts find it hard to reach the people at times. Lastly when the EU Commission though Margaret Vestager decided to oppose the the Alsthom-Siemens merger, France (especially) and Germany reacted by pushing changes in EU merger legislation so the EU could have its own champions and compete with US and Chinese giants.    

While I will let you enjoy the rest of YM’s book and his going to the origins or the disintegration of democracy and liberalism as well as his proposed solutions, I will recap the three main causes (in the text as YM presents them) for the problems of our times represented by the rise of the populist wave across the West:

1. “The dominance of mass media limited the distribution of extreme ideas, created a set of shared facts and values, and slowed the spread of faked news. But the rise of the internet and social media has since weakened traditional gatekeepers, empowering once marginal movements and politicians”. We went from a few providers of news and facts to many, drastically changing the simple equation from “one to many” to “many to many”, the “many” not knowing what and whom to believe and retreating behind what they want to hear, allowing populists to flourish. I think that this tech development is key in understanding the rise of populism in our days.  

2. “All through the history of democratic stability, most citizens enjoyed a rapid increase in their living standards, and held high hopes for an even better future. In many places, citizens are now treading water, and fear they will suffer much greater hardship in the future”. The stop in the rise of well being (and the stop of the social elevator or lift) led to severe societal doubts and a great opening for populists to flourish. One can easily agree and would almost hear Bill Clinton and his “it’s all about the economy, stupid!”.

3. “Nearly all stable democracies were either founded as monoethnic nations or allowed one ethnic group to dominate. Now, this dominance is increasingly being challenged.” In a tried and tested approach and while understanding the rational demand for identity preservation, foreigners and minorities became seen as culprits, regardless of whether they were actually threatening jobs or life style, allowing the populists to seize upon those fears to flourish. I believe that identity is indeed a key factor that western liberal democracies should reflect and act upon without losing their souls though adopting a realistic approach.  

I wish you all a very good reading of a very relevant book, especially in its analysis of the populist rise, its causes and the solutions that YM would propose. Even if one will not agree with all of YM’s takes (as was my case), it is invigorating to read a book from an academic that is not merely academic but is also action-driven all the more as the barbarians are at the gate.
Warmest regards,