Couping Sweet Nothings

As I have tried to make sense of the last two years in global politics, I have been reading Yascha Mounk’s articles and listening to his podcasts for the past year. He has been unapologetic in sounding the alarm about the dangers that democracy faces. To the white nationalist right, he is obviously the worst kind of globalist. A Jew born in Germany, educated in a range of European countries and now installed at Harvard – he might as well be playing Young George Soros in the Steve Bannon-directed, Hatreon-funded biopic. And that cosmopolitan background does come through in his writing for both better and worse but more of that later.

The People vs Democracy is a summary of his research and thinking of the topic of democratic deconsolidation. It’s in 3 chunks.

The first chunk outlines our current predicament. It is the most original part of the book. Mounk’s point is that liberal democracy has historically been sold as a package – the democratic bit (elections and involvement of citizens in decision-making) mutually reinforcing the liberal bit (the rights of individuals and minorities being protected). While this alignment has not been perfect, it has been there. Mounk then observes that this package is coming apart. Populist leaders like those of Hungary, Poland, and the USA claim to embody the democratic will of the people while removing the rights of individuals and demonizing minorities. Meanwhile the institutions like the EU protect individual and minority rights but have cut themselves off from democratic accountability. Underpinning all this, the citizens of the West are falling out of love with democracy. The young view democracy far less favourably than the old – and are more open to extremist positions and military dictatorships. Politicians take an increasingly “win at all costs” approach, ignore norms in pursuit of power and receive no comeback from the electorate.

The second chunk covers the origins of this state of affairs. Mounk identifies three main causes. Firstly, social media has allowed voices that used to be peripheral and groups that used to be divided to connect and mobilize more effectively. Secondly, Western economies grew strongly after WW2 and also shared those gains equitably. Since the 1970s, inequality has risen while productivity has slowed. While we are undoubtedly better off than our grandparents, the sense of economic anxiety has risen. It is not the poorest who run to the populists but those who feel that they have most to lose. The future looks bleak. The third point is that Western nation states have experienced rising levels of immigration and now have significant non-White and non-Christian minorities. Again, this is more a matter of perception and anxiety as cities with high levels of immigration over a period of time tend to have positive views of them.

The third chunk ends with Mounk’s proposals to fix the mess. He proposes domesticating nationalism, making the economy more productive and equal, and restoring the civic faith (mostly through civics lessons). The nationalism chapter starts off with him recounting his own journey from naïve universalist to a deeper appreciation of national difference and its role in identity.

The first chunk is certainly the most original and engaging. The issues that Mounk highlights are real and the survey research is sobering. I’m not a political scientist so I can’t comment on the novelty of the liberal / democratic distinction but it was new to me. What’s missing here is some of the qualitative and contextual background to these views. There are snatches of reportage from populist rallies and conversations with important people but it is largely a dry account of a very wet and messy topic. The second section is much less original. The commentary within it bears repeating because the context of our democratic predicament is often lost in the hot takes of the day. What crazy thing has Donald Trump done or said today? And if we just focus on the surface noise then we are never going to fix any of this. While I agree with the comments on economic and national anxiety and I sort of agree about social media (I think it has been highly visible but smaller in impact than often stated), there are things missing from this account and three stand out.

  • The gap in age and education is mentioned but underexplored. The biggest predictor of voting in the Brexit referendum was university education. Closely followed by age (the two variables are not independent). The post-2008 rise in unemployment has fallen disproportionally on the young.
  • The slow, mutual unconscious uncoupling between electorates and political parties has been more complex than related by Mounk and more consequential. Political parties are both widely loathed by the public and crucially important to democratic function.
  • The associated roles of other vehicles of collective identity (unions and churches) are also alluded to but deserve more focus. Why have they fallen by the wayside and what does this mean for how citizens engage in politics?

I agree with most of Mounk’s policy proposals. And why wouldn’t I? After all, I am also a university educated white man who has emigrated from his country of birth. I am also a globalist. Calling for a fairer society and greater productivity and more education are a motherhood and apple pie statements in our milieu. To give him his due, Mounk does also plead with our globalist brothers and sisters to stop calling those who vote for populists “stupid” and talk in ways that address their anxieties and give them hope. This empathy has to go beyond the occasional broadsheet magazine article that treats Trump voters like they are animals to be observed in a zoo.

However I am not sure that Mounk’s proposals are effective. Some of the more sweeping economic and social proposals will not happen – for now. The civics lessons strike me as counterproductive (just another lesson for kids to sleep through). We can’t just teach people about democracy and political engagement, we have to let them do it. This has to start locally (all politics are local after all). Nicholas Gruen favours sortition and direct democracy. I see that as being one option but there will need to be many.

Mounk identified the slow collapse of democracy of as a multi-causal problem. I would go further and say it is a wicked problem – or even a super wicked problem. It will be solved by multiple interventions and challenges. But it requires a lot of them – and soon.

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