America Is Not Yet Finished
The People vs. Democracy by Yascha Mounk
In The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy was the final political system, capable of defeating all-comers and mastering the historical currents which led up to it. No longer would there be a serious threat from competing political visions, no endless cycle of revolution and reaction. All that remained was “the endless solving of technical problems… the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”
Then came Donald Trump. Riding the crest of a populist wave, his presidency seemed evidence against Fukuyama’s thesis. History is returning, and in the past few years all sorts of pundits have stepped up to explain where liberal democracy went wrong and how to fix it. Count The People vs. Democracy among them.
Yascha Mounk begins by noting that liberalism and democracy don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand; it is possible to have one without the other. Their unique marriage in the present day has been “glued together by a contingent set of technological, economic, and cultural preconditions.” (28)
The crisis is that this glue is coming undone. Liberal democracies are rapidly de-consolidating into two kinds of regimes:
A system of democracy without rights
A system of rights without democracy
The first system, a democracy without rights, has elections, but it contains—even encourages—certain illiberal, ochlocratic pulses. A narrow conception of the demos may be used to exclude minorities from having certain kinds of rights. In the extreme, this process may lead the regime to backslide into an “illiberal democracy” (a term embraced by Viktor Orbán), where the existence of an independent press, an apolitical civil service, and other constitutional safeguards on the exercise of political power are compromised.
On the other hand, a system of rights without democracy reduces politics to the kind of post-historical regime Fukuyama had in mind. Important questions are no longer debated in the legislative arena, but answered in offices, courts, and meeting-rooms. The masters of this regime are highly-educated experts, technocrats, administrators, judges, and planners. Wielding an effective monopoly on political power—at least regarding the truly important decisions—this group tends more and more to resemble a class or caste in itself, with its own motives that are increasingly divested of and insulated from the public will.
As evidence that liberal democracy is de-consolidating, Mounk discusses a good number of qualitative studies. We have the usual indicators: people trust their political system less than ever, they distrust political leaders, they don’t believe the media, and they don’t vote as much as they used to.
Fascinatingly, they have also become less likely to view liberal democracy as necessary, and more likely to consider outright authoritarian alternatives (like rule by the military) as good. According to the numbers (gathered by Mounk himself), someone born in the United States in the 1980s is only 40% as likely as someone born in the 1930s to view democracy as essential. Twice as many of those born in the 1980s view democracy as a “bad” or “very bad” way to govern the country. Surveys from 1995 to 2011 show a monotonic increase in the number of people who believe that “having the army rule” is a “good” or “very good” political system, up to a high of 1 in 6. (108-11)
Liberal democracy may be on shakier grounds than we once believed. But what to make of the various threats to liberal democracy? Mounk is not as interesting here, for his analysis mostly exhausts itself on the numbers. A disenchantment with the political system may explain why people are willing to dispense with it; it does not explain why they want to travel in a populist direction.
Or perhaps I should say populist directions. The use of a singular term, populism, often hinders our understanding by conflating different movements together. To take an example: populism in the Anglosphere is often seen as the last gasp of social conservatism, a case of bitter, old, privileged people refusing to move over in a new society that doesn’t put them at the centre of everything.
People who believe this are often surprised to find out that populists in many European countries (such as Marine Le Pen) are, above all, popular with the young: “In the second round of the 2017 presidential election, some exit polls suggested that only one in five older voters favoured Marine Le Pen; among the youngest voters, nearly one in two did. . . polls have found similar results in countries as varied as Austria, Sweden, Greece, Finland, and Hungary.” (122).
What this shows is not that populism is a young man’s game or an old man’s game, but that populism is not a typological or rational category of political doctrine or thought. The usual methods of political philosophy are therefore of limited use in understanding it. We should, I think, understand it as an “historical moment” (as Enzo Traverso does in The New Faces of Fascism).
Yascha Mounk makes this mistake in The People vs. Democracy. This is really only a book about a particular point in time: Trump’s America. The arguments follow the contours of American politics. Sometimes Mounk broadens the examples to Europe, Turkey, or India, but the resulting inferences are unsound, being drawn from political vehicles that are, in their own way, liberal, reactionary, fascist, socialist, nativist, or fundamentalist.
Populism, thus sketched, always seems irrational and undirected. Enzo Traverso concludes that this is because populism is inherently contradictory as a matter of political strategy. Sometimes it is; just as often though, it is not. While we may prefer to believe that populism is simply what happens when enough idiots are given a public platform, this belies the coherence and intelligence of many populist networks. There can be as much difference within these movements as without.
To Mounk’s credit, he does not dismiss what populists say outright (as Naomi Klein does). The last two-thirds of The People vs. Democracy acknowledges some fair grievances and discusses how we might address them, lest “every downturn in the business cycle or every blunder by a mainstream candidate… pose an existential threat to liberal democracy.” (194)
People have a very important need for self-actualization and recognition. Fukuyama, channelling Plato, describes this extensively under the name thymos in The End of History. But the best explanation of it is still what George Orwell wrote in his review of Mein Kampf:
[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain… Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
Like fascism, populism has some kind of deep emotional appeal to many people. Liberal democracy perhaps once had this, but in the present day, where “globalization has threatened the meaning of national belonging” at the same time that “the digital economy has threatened the meaning of work”, it no longer seems to offer any existential consolation.
Instead of coming to realize who we are in the world through “earned identities”—professions, jobs, parenting, charity, community—we turn instead towards “ascriptive identities”—categories we belong to, but which we have no real control over: ethnicity, nationality, race, sexuality, gender, neuro-divergence.
Mounk illustrates this change with an anecdote told to him by a senior politician (who remains anonymous):
If you had asked one of my constituents who he is a few decades ago, he would have said: ‘I’m a foreman in the factory.’ But then a lot of manufacturing jobs up and went. People took an economic hit. But they also lost a sense of identity. If I ask them who they are nowadays, they tell me: ‘I’m white. And I don’t like all those immigrants coming in.’ (232)
Mounk believes that liberal democracy has lost its emotional appeal—in America, at least—because of society’s over-emphasis on its failures; it's almost total and systematic exclusion of Black Americans from the political system until the Civil Rights era, for example. Not enough is made of its successes. Accordingly, Mounk argues for a rediscovery of civic virtue, a kind of “inclusive patriotism” along the lines of what Barack Obama described in his Selma speech:
What enormous faith these men and women had, Faith in God—but also faith in America. . . What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
America is not yet finished. We might wonder, then, how it could ever be possible to re-consolidate the meaning of liberal democracy. How is it possible to recover nationalism in a liquid world with porous borders and global media? The trajectory of the political system is simply at odds with this. We may continue to call what we cling to “liberal democracy”, but by adapting it to a changing world, we have made it something different.
And the world really is changing. “We live in an era of radical uncertainty,” writes Mounk. “The range of possible outcomes is much wider now than it seemed to be a few years ago. Prediction is a more difficult game than ever.” (25) Mounk’s tone here is negative. His own hand is admittedly tipped more towards those systems he characterises as having rights without democracy, motivated as they are by rational calculation and technical procedure.
But, viewed another way, uncertainty grants us an escape from a political deadlock in which most people lack the power to solve the problems that haunt them. Formerly checked and constrained in our ability to act, we discover a new possibility for it through which we may inject the world with meaning, at the same time disclosing our existence to others in a way that satisfies the need to be recognised for who we are:
In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world. . . This disclosure of "who" in contradistinction to "what" somebody is—his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide—is implicit in everything somebody says and does. It can be hidden only in complete silence and perfect passivity. . .
(Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2e, p. 179)
Populism is only one such possibility. Seen in this light, it cannot really be understood as a de-consolidating. That implies it is a step backwards. Really, it attempts to be a step forwards, a something generated from within the parameters of liberal democracy that seeks to move beyond its present sclerosis.
Will it succeed? I personally don’t think so. The manifested populisms are not a singular phenomenon. Their energies are scattered and aimed in different directions. But if liberal democracy is coming undone—or merely changing—then that means history is returning. So the question remains: what comes next? Will it be any better?
One could fairly argue the extent to which we “participate” in these identities, but I think most would agree that categories like ethnicity or gender are more “fixed” than something like your profession.