Magazine | June 11, 2018, Issue

Between Liberalism and Democracy

The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, by Yascha Mounk (Harvard, 400 pp., $29.95)

Donald Trump’s election, said a senior Harvard professor to Boston magazine, was a revolt of the lower half of the IQ scale against the upper half. It’s probably more accurate to say it was a revolt of those with fewer years of schooling against those with more years. Going to school is not the same as getting an education, of course, much less finding wisdom.

It might therefore be revealing to test a different proposition: Trump’s election was a revolt of those with more common sense against those with less. That proposition is untestable, of course, as countless professors would rush to tell you. Who’s qualified to say, and, more important, to measure, what common sense is? Not professors, I assure you.

At any rate, the Trump phenomenon has forced intellectuals on the left and the right to revisit their models (and no, not the way Trump visits models). The People vs. Democracy is among the most interesting of the new books on the left trying to come to grips with what it variously calls “populism” or “authoritarian populism.” Not merely in America but around the world, the populist tide ushers in nothing less than “the crisis of liberal democracy,” argues Yascha Mounk, a lecturer on government at Harvard and a columnist at Slate.

Mounk is a good, clear writer, whose grandfather came from a part of Eastern Europe that had belonged at various times to Poland, the USSR, and Ukraine; he himself grew up a Jew in Germany. His family’s experience led him to wonder at the ease with which the Berlin Wall fell and at the limitless democratic future that seemed to await the world. Political scientists turned that optimism into a theory of “democratic consolidation,” which explained how the new democracies that had emerged in the final three decades of the 20th century would settle down into liberty, prosperity, and stability, as the old democracies had.

Alas, the 21st century has not been kind to these fledglings. Mounk describes a process of democratic “deconsolidation” in Russia, Turkey, China, India, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, and other countries. Even well-established democracies are backsliding, he fears, what with Brexit in Great Britain, Marine Le Pen in France, anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany — and “the most striking manifestation of democracy’s crisis,” Trump in the White House.

Liberal democracy, Mounk explains, is a compound of democracy, meaning popular rule through elections, and liberalism, implying the protection of individual liberties through the rule of law. Political scientists once thought that the two went together like love and marriage, but they were wrong. Perhaps it is better to say that political scientists briefly thought so, in the Hegelian moment when Francis Fukuyama was proclaiming the end of history, and in the century when progressivism assured us that all good things were not only possible but inevitable. The sad reality, however, as Mounk sees it, is that liberal democracy is coming apart — and the divorce will be very messy.

It takes a lot of schooling, or an education of a peculiar kind, to treat tensions between equality and liberty as a novel problem. Fareed Zakaria wrote a good book on the subject more than a decade ago; Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a classic on it almost two centuries ago; and James Madison devoted some of the best pages of the Federalist to it. Mounk does not discuss Tocqueville at all, and spares Madison only a few disapproving paragraphs. The hefty footnotes prove that Mounk has read a lot of modern sociology, political science, and journalism, including many “classics,” as he calls them, loosely; but one wishes he had read better.

Nonetheless, the book has several significant virtues. As liberal democracy splits into “undemocratic liberalism” and “illiberal democracy,” Mounk admits that the former has helped to breed the latter. Contemporary “political elites have insulated themselves from popular views to a remarkable extent,” he explains. Elected legislatures, “once the most important political organ,” he writes, have ceded much of their power “to courts, to bureaucrats, to central banks, and to international treaties and organizations.” And the legislators who remain are “less and less similar to the people they are meant to represent.” It is unusual to find a liberal analyst willing to acknowledge that the administrative state and what Angelo Codevilla calls its “ruling class,” along with the rise of transnational and international authorities, have in many democracies degraded the people’s sense that they are in control of their own government. It is still more unusual for an analyst on the left to argue that, at least in part, populism is the people’s revenge for this loss of political power.

To be sure, he puts the expected spin on these points, explaining the ruling class as primarily an expression of the capitalist concentration of wealth (à la Thomas Piketty) rather than as an outgrowth of the modern state and its handmaidens. Thus the Citizens United decision and the malevolent 1 percent come in for the usual criticisms. Political and economic causes intertwine eventually, of course, even for orthodox Marxists (not that Mounk is any kind of Marxist).

Give him credit, then, for asking about culture, diversity, and immigration. He recognizes that democracy has almost always had an affinity for ethnic homogeneity (which makes it easier to trust one’s fellow citizens); that diversity, therefore, had little to do with democracy though much to do with individual liberty; and that high levels of immigration create tensions even in America, a society used to it, and a fortiori in mono-ethnic European nation-states. They are (or were) called nation-states for a reason. Toss in economic stagnation, and the populist reaction against newly, or increasingly, multi-ethnic societies is almost bound to worsen.

To these sensible observations he adds several that in today’s academy come close to courageous. He acknowledges that some version of the colorblind constitution is indispensable; writes approvingly about free speech and dismissively about “cultural appropriation”; and blasts the growing anti-Americanism of the American Left. In Europe, he notes, “the left has long recognized that the dominant conception of the nation was ethnic and religious. As a result, it has long followed the same strategy that parts of the American left are now adopting: It has abandoned democratic patriotism in favor of a radical critique of inherited institutions.”

And yet . . . Mounk never permits himself to draw from these aperçus any conclusions that would fall outside the dominant scholarly, which is to say the dominant political, consensus. He demands a “domesticated” nationalism and an “inclusive” patriotism, and points to Barack Obama’s speech at Selma in 2015 as an example. Close analysis of that speech (see my “Obama at Selma,” NR, April 6, 2015) would show how far Obama’s patriotic nationalism rests on a fundamentally transformed notion of America. Mounk himself has a similar ambivalence toward the American Founding, which he praises for its “democratic myth.”

The Founders themselves, he explains, hated democracy and regarded representation as a way of keeping the people at bay. He exaggerates this point by selectively quoting, for example, from Federalist 10. He has James Madison affirming that “the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.” Mounk leaves out the first part of the sentence — “Under such a regulation it may well happen that the public voice . . .” — and he doesn’t mention the next sentence, “On the other hand, the effect may be inverted.”

No doubt Madison expected a representative republic to be a better form of government than a “pure democracy.” But the point was to vindicate the people’s own claim to rule by constructing governments “wholly popular,” that is, without monarchical or aristocratic parts, but “exclusively representative.” Mounk forgets the “wholly popular” side, and the fact that James Wilson and other Founders often praised the state governments and the new federal government as democratic republics or even plain democracies. He criticizes the Founders’ Constitution as antidemocratic because its process of elections frustrates more direct democratic rule, even though he would never for a moment consider living under such an unmediated government. And then he turns around and criticizes the Founders’ republicanism because it is insufficiently liberal — that is to say, by today’s debased standard of liberalism, redistributionist or socialized. The only liberal democracy that measures up to his standards is one run by contemporary liberals, one that, by the Founders’ lights, would be well on its way to being both illiberal and undemocratic.

Yascha Mounk is a progressive who worries that progress, defined as the development of liberal democracy toward ever greater social justice, is far from inevitable. He should worry first whether social justice is superior to justice, which never claimed to be inevitable. When it comes time to solve “the crisis of liberal democracy,” he’s with Hillary: He prescribes a less soporific version of the kind of nostrums she touted in 2016 (e.g., “a radical reimagination of the way education is organized from kindergarten to college”). His condemnation of Trump is, if anything, more unmeasured than hers. But if Hillary had won, it appears, the most serious problems of liberal democracy in America would have been on the way to solution.

Charles R. Kesler — Charles R. Kesler, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is the editor of the Claremont Review of Books.

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