The people against democracy: why our freedom is in danger and how to save it. By Yascha Mounk. Harvard University Press; 393 pages; $ 29.95 and £ 17.99.
DEMOCRACY is going through its worst crisis since the 1930s. The number of countries that can plausibly be described as democracies is shrinking. Strong men are in power in several countries that once seemed to be democratizing, including Russia, Turkey and Egypt. The United States – the engine room of democratization for most of the post-war period – has a president who taunted his opponent with chants of “locking it down” and declined to say whether he would accept. the outcome of the election if it went against him.
But what exactly is the nature of this crisis? And what is it that drives him? Yascha Mounk’s “The People vs Democracy” stands out in a crowded field by the quality of its answers to these questions. Mr. Mounk offers an admirable blend of academic expertise and political acumen. He teaches at Harvard University, where he has been involved in collecting data from opinion polls, but he grew up in pre-1989 West Germany, where the distinction between real and so-called democracy was more than academic. He also takes the trouble to decipher terms that too many commentators on this subject take for granted.
Mr. Mounk argues that there are two sides to liberal democracy. One focuses on the first half of the equation: protecting individuals from the tyranny of the majority with checks and balances and enumerated rights. The second focuses on the other half: handing over power to the people. For most of the postwar period, these two versions of liberal democracy went together like apple and pie.
Today, however, the popular will is increasingly in conflict with individual rights. The liberal elites are ready to exclude the people from important decisions, notably in matters of immigration in the case of the European Union, in the name of “rights”; meanwhile, the populists are prepared to dispense with constitutional niceties on behalf of the “people”. Politics is defined by a growing battle between illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, on the one hand, and undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy, on the other.
The most obvious reason why liberal democracy is divided into its components is poor economic growth. From 1960 to 1985, the income of the typical American household doubled. Beginning in 1985, it remained stable as a tiny minority of Americans saw their incomes increase. The liberal elites tend to explain this divergence by the laws of globalization. Populists have a darker interpretation: that these elites use a mixture of lobbying power, personal connections, and technocratic expertise to rig the system to their own advantage, including bailing out banks with taxpayer money.
Mr. Mounk points to several other developments that help explain the divide. The social media revolution is shifting power from traditional media gatekeepers to laptop warriors. In addition to allowing malicious people to spread fake news, as many have pointed out, this revolution also makes it easier for strangers to draw attention to personal transactions. The growing diversity of Western societies, driven in part by immigration and in part by the idea that different groups should celebrate their differences rather than adopt dominant mores, politicizes the issue of racial identities, with potentially explosive consequences. . Political entrepreneurs are turning politics upside down by taking over old parties, like Donald Trump, or creating new parties, like Italy’s Beppe Grillo, exploiting the pent-up resentment of old elites and using new media to get their message across , raw and unfiltered.
Mr. Mounk is much less convincing on the question of what to do about this dire situation. He makes some courageous suggestions. He argues that technocratic elites must moderate their ambitions. The more they try to protect important areas of decision-making, including immigration, from the will of the people, the more they will create festering resentment. He urges policymakers to focus on the domestication of nationalism rather than attempting to view it as an anachronistic relic. He advocates for more effort to transform children into citizens through civic education. Here he is admirably cut off with his fellow academics who are so determined to portray Western civilization as a story of oppression that they risk undermining any residual faith their students may have in democracy.
Yet too little time is spent tackling the nuances of these ideas – for example, how to persuade a technocratic European elite to listen to the voice of the people when all bureaucratic incentives are to ignore them. And he throws too much banality about “fixing the economy”, as if there were no hard trade-offs between, say, increasing productivity levels and destroying stable jobs. It’s like Mr. Mounk’s editors asked him to provide a happy ending for the Hollywood woman after all the blood and gore, and he just went through the motions without any real conviction.
“People Against Democracy” is punitive reading for all kinds of reasons. It provides ample evidence to suggest that the battle between illiberal democracy and liberal elitism will only intensify. This shows that these forerunners of openness, the young, are in fact much more skeptical of democracy than are their elders. But the main reason for its crippling effect is unintentional: the prescriptions for saving democracy are so much weaker than the explanation for why it is in danger.
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Pomme contre tarte”