The People vs. Democracy: A Review

Less than one-third of Americans born since 1980 believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy. In 2011, 44 percent of Americans aged 18-24 liked the idea of a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress or elections, an increase of 10 percent since 1995.

Those statistics in The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It by Yascha Mounk may be the most disturbing facts in Mounk’s troubling book, which documents how liberal democracy is under attack throughout the world.

It’s tempting to trust the young to save us. Their opinions on many matters are moving this country in a compassionate direction. But any such confidence would be wrong. Opposition to liberal democracy is growing among the youth as well. Mounk’s book, published by Harvard University Press, argues convincingly that even in the United States liberal democracy is fragile.

Mounk offers the following definitions:

  • A 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).
  • A liberal democracy is simply a political system that is both liberal and democratic….
  • Democracies can be illiberal…where most people favor subordinating independent institutions to the whims of the executive or curtailing the rights of minorities they dislike.
  • Conversely, liberal regimes can be undemocratic…[when] elections rarely serve to translate popular views into public policy.

Mounk argues:

Liberal democracies are full of checks and balances that are meant to stop any one party from amassing too much power and to reconcile the interests of different groups. But in the imagination of the populists, the will of the people does not need to be mediated, and any compromise with minorities is a form of corruption. In that sense, populists are deeply democratic: much more than traditional politicians, they believe that the demos should rule. But they are also deeply illiberal: unlike traditional politicians, they openly say that neither independent institutions nor individual rights should damplen the people’s voice….

Elites are taking hold of the political system and making it increasingly unresponsive: the powerful are less willing to cede to the views of the people. As a result, liberalism and democracy, the two core elements of our political system, are starting to come in conflict…. Liberal democracy, the unique mix of individual rights and popular rule that has long characterized most governments in North America and Western Europe, is coming apart at the seams. In its stead, we are seeing the rise of illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, and undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy.

Mounk uses the term “populist” too loosely. There are many kinds of populists. But he makes an important point. When illiberal democracies impose a tyranny of the majority, populist tyranny can come from the “left” or the “right” — or from a political movement, like Trump’s, that draws on rhetoric from each tradition.

Mounk identifies three conditions that helped stabilize Western democracies. Rapidly rising incomes provided confidence in the future. Domination by one racial or ethnic group minimized conflict. And centralized mass media marginalized extremist views.

Now, however, economic insecurity, increased racial conflict, and social media that spreads extremism pose threats to liberal democracy.

To fight for liberal democracy Mounk proposes:

  • Reduce economic inequality, “live up to the promise of rapidly rising living standards,” and strengthen the nation state to “once again take control of its own fate.”
  • Establish clearly that “members of any creed or color are regarded as true equals [and] every individual enjoys rights on the basis of being a citizen, not on the basis of belonging to a particular group.”
  • Invest “vast educational and intellectual resources in spreading the good news about our political system” and help people evaluate social-media messages more carefully.

As I see it, Mounk’s emphasis on rapidly rising income is unfortunate. I’d rather see a focus on guaranteeing economic security with measures such as assuring everyone a living-wage job opportunity. And I question his rejecting rights based on belonging to a particular group. That language seems to reject affirmative action programs, which have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 2016.  

Overall, however, Mounk’s alarm erases my prior trust in America’s ability to resist authoritarianism. For some fifty years, the weakening of political parties and increased polarization have made compromise more difficult. At the same time, undemocratic liberalism has deepened as elite power has increased, ordinary people have less voice, and elected officials are less interested in their opinions. Those trends have led to great frustration and a willingness on the part of many to let Trump “shake things up.”

For the first time, the U.S. president openly attacks constitutional norms at home, favors authoritarian rulers abroad, and is dismantling the international order that prevented a violent world war for 70 years. Worse yet, he’s taken over the Republican Party, which refuses to challenge strongman stance. Widespread voter suppression efforts and the efforts to avoid the peaceful transfer of power in Wisconsin and Michigan illustrate that the Republican impulse toward illiberal democracy is not limited to Trump. He may merely have smoothed the path that others may take in the future with greater success.

If Democrats regain control of Congress and the White House, they may try to ram through new legislation unilaterally, as they did when they weakened the Senate filibuster, which opened the door for the Republicans to weaken it further. But if they do, that heavy-handed approach will be a mistake that would harden polarization. They should instead make it clear that they prefer to craft legislation that has some Republican support and are listening to contrary opinions.

For that reason, I was encouraged that Nancy Pelosi agreed to the Problem Solvers caucus proposal to allow votes on measures that have significant bipartisan support. She has indicated a willingness to stop blocking any bill that may not get majority Democratic support.

If and when Republicans refuse to negotiate in good faith, let that process be transparent, so the onus will be on them. Otherwise, the Democrats can make it clear that one of their priorities is to support “purple” measures that are backed by a majority of rank-and-file Republicans as well as most Independents and Democrats. That approach will cultivate more democracy, and give people more confidence that their representatives are listening to them.

The best way to counter illiberal democracy and the urge to crush “enemies” is to strengthen liberal democracy with a willingness to negotiate and compromise. Outside agitators can rightly turn up the heat with strong demands and popular pressure. But they can do so with enough humility to recognize that ultimately legislators must play a different role.

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