The People vs. Democracy:
Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It
By Yascha Mounk
(Harvard University Press, 2018)
Since Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 presidential election, the president’s opponents on the left and right have proclaimed him a threat to democracy, minority rights, and even world peace. The grassroots #Resistance movement seeks to undermine Trump’s policy agenda wherever it can and hopes he exits the White House in disgrace in January 2021, if not before. Journalists and academics have published a growing number of books and articles attempting to explain Trump’s narrow victory and its implications for American democracy. Yascha Mounk’s new volume is perhaps the best of these, but the book has several shortcomings. The empirical analysis is not always persuasive, and Mounk’s proposed solutions are not particularly imaginative. The People vs. Democracy is nonetheless an engaging, thoughtful, and ambitious work.
As Mounk notes, partisans across the political spectrum abuse terms like liberalism, democracy, and populism. “Democracy,” in particular, tends to be associated with whatever societal attributes a particular author finds desirable. To avoid this problem, Mounk begins his work by providing concrete definitions. Although it is not a novel insight, he makes the helpful point that liberalism and democracy are not synonymous. A regime that rejects minority rights, free speech, and other liberal values may nonetheless be democratic; a society governed by an undemocratic elite may protect rights reasonably well.
At present, Mounk sees the rise of illiberal democracy in places like Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the United States as the most pressing threat to freedom. In these countries, he argues, democratically elected governments threaten individual and minority rights. On the other hand, anti-establishment movements haven’t come from nowhere. Mounk acknowledges that undemocratic liberalism—in the form of unelected judges and bureaucrats, transnational institutions like the European Union, international treaties, and central banks—has fueled populist sentiment throughout the Western world. Although he thinks, on balance, that these groups and institutions are beneficial, he is also aware that they limit democratic control over public policy and erode public trust.
The book’s chapter on undemocratic liberalism includes Mounk’s most compelling arguments. He notes the disturbing cultural and geographic disconnect between our nation’s elite and the people it governs. At its best, this chapter is reminiscent of Christopher Lasch’s later work, which castigated the highly educated, urban Americans who dominate our political institutions as arrogant and out of touch.
Mounk provides polling data from across the globe to document ordinary citizens’ loss of confidence in their own governments. Fewer people, especially young people, now say that it is “absolutely important” that their countries be governed democratically. In most wealthy countries, the percentage of people open to a military dictatorship or other form of authoritarian rule is apparently rising. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who would support such a government has more than doubled. Among the youngest voters, nearly one-quarter think “having the army rule” would be a good system. Young people are also increasingly likely to identify themselves as political radicals.
These findings are central to Mounk’s argument, but he overstates his case that they reflect a collapse of liberalism. Critics such as political scientist Erik Voeten and journalist Jeff Guo have noted that Mounk’s presentation is misleading. To generate some of his most dramatic figures, Mounk transformed data that were originally on a multipoint scale into dichotomous variables. This presentation shows that the number of people with the highest level of enthusiasm for democracy has dropped, but it lumps all other categories together. Had Mounk presented the mean respondent values for these scales, the difference would have been less dramatic.
I also question the significance of growing support for military government. Mounk interprets this to mean that many people would literally like to see generals running the country. He may be right. I suspect, however, that America’s bipartisan consensus that the military is beyond reproach explains why the United States was such an outlier on this question. Americans are conditioned always to “support our troops.” This is disturbing in its own way but does not necessarily indicate that Americans reject democracy.
Following such writers as Yuval Levin and Jonathan Haidt, Mounk identifies several developments that have encouraged a decoupling of liberalism and democracy. The first is technological. The rise of the internet, and especially social media, has ended the mainstream media’s monopoly on information. The freedom to exchange information fulfills liberal hopes for an unregulated public sphere. At the same time, marginal movements can spread their messages with unprecedented ease. Ideologues can also ensconce themselves in a media bubble that continually feeds them misleading and even factually incorrect information. Instead of the consensus and enlightenment for which liberals hoped, mistrust and polarization are the result.
Economic stagnation and growing inequality are another source of rising skepticism about the compatibility of liberalism and democracy. Political theorists like to emphasize the growing acceptance of liberal ideals in the twentieth century. But it is possible that most people were never enthralled with liberal democracy as a matter of principle. Instead, its stability may have resulted from the high and rising standard of living that it seemed to provide. The consolidation of liberal democracy across the Western world coincided with unprecedented affluence, widely shared. Even more important, all signs indicated that the long-term trajectory was toward even greater prosperity. Although the economy would experience vicissitudes, in the end each generation was expected to be better off than its predecessor.
This pattern has broken down. Economic growth continues in the United States, and few Americans are destitute by global or historical standards. Yet the wealthiest Americans are capturing most of these gains, and wages are stagnant for the rest of the country. Many of the oldest millennials are approaching middle age with less economic security than their parents enjoyed at a similar stage of life, despite higher levels of education. Material comfort was one of liberal democracy’s greatest selling points. If it no longer delivers on that promise, faith in liberalism and democracy may erode further.
The final challenge comes from rising diversity throughout the Western world, a trend that fuels identity politics and xenophobia. Mounk notes that most Western democracies were relatively homogenous ethnostates after World War II, due mostly to the ethnic cleansing that occurred during and after the conflict. Although the United States has always been more diverse, it nevertheless provided structural advantages to the whites. Diversity and increasing social equality, however, are leading to new feelings of anxiety among demographically threatened majority groups. A growing percentage of Western electorates are willing to vote for demagogues who scapegoat racial and religious minorities.
Mounk obviously loathes President Trump and views his administration as a dire threat to liberal values. By focusing so much attention on a single president, however, Mounk has limited his work’s contemporary audience and long-term influence. The trends that Mounk identifies predate Trump and are not the product of any particular administration. By framing his argument as a series of mishaps leading to the 2016 presidential election, readers not already convinced that Trump is a “populist strongman” may disregard the rest of Mounk’s arguments.
Like other Trump critics on the center-left, Mounk contends that Trump has violated democratic norms by attacking the media and state institutions. However, his comparisons of Trump to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are a stretch. Despite Trump’s criticisms of Congress and the legal system, institutions reining in Trump are clearly working. Although Trump sometimes speaks like an illiberal democrat, he has not governed as one. Indeed, Trump’s failure to carry out many of his populist promises are among the most disappointing aspects of his administration. Aside from his temporary ban on immigration from a handful of majority-Muslim countries—which may have been foolish but is ultimately inconsequential—Trump has thus far governed as an ordinary Republican, and a rather ineffectual one at that. Where is our infrastructure bill, our “America First” foreign policy?
The book also loses steam when Mounk offers recommendations to stave off the death of liberal democracy. Despite astutely describing many challenges, he hesitates to recommend anything more than the standard progressive to-do list: reducing the influence of money in politics, providing more money for education, fighting racial segregation in schools (which I assume means busing, but Mounk is not clear on this), protecting the welfare state, and protesting President Trump in the streets. To defeat the populist challenge, Mounk suggests that progressives merely have to double down on their usual playbook. But if politics as usual are what brought us Trump, there’s little reason to think that more of the same will provide an alternative.
Mounk’s discussion of nationalism is, on the surface, the book’s most daring and potentially controversial element. Although Mounk despises nationalism, he acknowledges that, for the time being, a post-nationalist world is not a viable option. However, Mounk is optimistic that nationalism can be tamed and made more inclusive. To that end, he offers a tepid defense of “cultural appropriation”—now maligned by most of the left—as a sign that different cultures in America are influencing each other and becoming intertwined. According to Mounk, it is counterproductive for progressives to criticize white people for wearing dreadlocks or eating sushi. Although he does not use the term, Mounk implicitly endorses the vision of America as a cultural melting pot.
On the level of policy, Mounk makes general statements in favor of immigration control and border security, arguing that our leaders “should take concerns about the rapid pace of immigration seriously and acknowledge that the nation is a geographically bounded community that can only persist when it has control over its borders.” No restrictionist would argue with that sentiment. Yet in substance, it simply means that Mounk does not support totally open borders. He argues that undocumented immigrants “who have been here for a long time” should be allowed to stay and affirms that family reunification should be a key element of American immigration policy. He presents this as the compromise position, yet in substance it is indistinguishable from the 2016 DNC platform, which also noted that immigration should remain “within reasonable limits.”
Despite its weaknesses, The People vs. Democracy provides many trenchant criticisms of contemporary Western democracies. Mounk identifies many real and pressing problems. However, despite claiming that liberal democracy is under siege and that undemocratic liberalism is largely to blame, Mounk offers few innovative solutions, and his deviations from progressive dogma are mostly symbolic. This combined with his focus on Trump’s shortcomings leaves the reader to conclude that, if a handful of states had voted differently in 2016, Mounk would have few complaints with the state of American democracy and this book would not have been written.
George Hawley is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. His books include Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, Making Sense of the Alt-Right, and Demography, Culture, and the Decline of America’s Christian Denominations.