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Yascha Mounk’s ‘Democracy vs. the People’

Yascha Mounk’s ‘Democracy vs. the People’

Ben Ryan reviews the latest book from Yascha Mounk and asks if our system is worth saving and how to do it.

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There are times, reading Yascha Mounk’s Democracy vs. the People,when you wonder whether any of our current Western political system is worth saving. Reading Mounk’s concluding chapters, however, left me thoroughly convinced that if it is, these are not the remedies that will deliver it.

This should not be taken as saying that this is a bad book. Far from it, the bulk of the argument is thoroughly convincing. Mounk skilfully paints a vivid picture of a liberal democratic order which is being torn in two between “illiberal democrats” on the one hand and “undemocratic liberals” on the other.

The early part of the book explores that key thesis; that the lazy assumption that liberalism and democracy are essentially the same thing (or at least necessarily mutually reinforcing) is being shattered and the two forces dividing.

On the illiberal democrat side Mounk explores the rise of various populist leaders and parties including Donald Trump, Hungary’s Victor Orbán, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, and others. His contempt for Trump is evident and he occasionally strays into hyperbole (bad as he is – and he is bad – it is surely not yet true that “Donald Trump’s election to the White House has been the most striking manifestation of Democracy’s crisis”. In a world of Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, even Orbán, Trump is, as yet, a rather poor amateur at subverting democracy) but there is a wealth of statistical and other evidence to support the overall thesis.

Most compellingly, he draws on World Values Survey and other data sources to illustrate that this is not an isolated issue in a few different national contexts having a moment in the sun, but is rather something which can be tracked over the course of time across the democratic world. The data shows that people are becoming less and less enamoured of democracy. For example, of Americans born in the 1930s, 71% believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy. Americans born in each subsequent decade are less convinced, until you reach those born in the 1980s, just 29% of whom believe living in a democracy to be essential. That level of support is also declining across all age groups.

If not more worrying is that Mounk’s data also shows that people are not only less supportive of democracy, in the sense of becoming passive or apathetic, but are also actually gaining interest and support for authoritarian alternatives. In a host of countries support for strongmen and army rule is growing, as is disdain for democratic institutions and elections.

The evidence is overwhelming, extremely well presented and thoroughly depressing – not least in the section in which Mounk forcefully argues that “the young won’t save us”, but on the contrary the West’s younger voters are the least enamoured with liberal democracy, and provide the core support for many of the illiberal democrats.

At the same time, Mounk charts the rise of “undemocratic liberalism”, showing how decision making in Western politics has been increasingly captured by non–democratic bodies including central banks, constitutional and other courts, regulatory bodies, international treaties and others. The ability of elected representatives to change the system really is highly reduced from where it was in past decades, usually as a result of deliberate decisions on behalf of undemocratic liberals, sometimes with good intentions and sometimes for naked political gain (Mounk draws on American examples in particular here). Again this is impossible to dispute and Mounk makes his case extremely well drawing on examples from across the West.


The middle section of the book then explores the origin of these two trends. Mounk identifies three primary factors; economic factors, ethnic and racial factors and social media. He is strongest on the economics angle, demonstrating how inequality (drawing on Piketty), and declining living standards after decades of rises have contributed to a loss of hope and momentum in the future. This is especially true in the USA, where from 1935–1960 living standards doubled and from 1960–1985 they doubled again, but since then they have been essentially flat, making the average household no better off now than 30 years ago. The American dream can look hollow to people who are the first post–war generation to not be able to expect that hard work will let them ultimately have a better standard of living than their parents.

This is a familiar argument, but more interesting is that Mounk combines it with the observation that the loss of confidence is not so much about people’s present, lived reality so much as an anxiety about the future. Those US counties, for example, that were deemed to be most at risk from automation were significantly more likely to vote for Donald Trump. There is nothing irrational about that. For people without (or even, increasingly, with) college degrees the future looks like one in which they are going to be the big losers. They have lost the hope of progress being in their best interests. This is the point missed by more optimistic writers like Steven Pinker; it’s not that things have got much worse (though on inequality they have) it’s that the expectation has tilted from people believing things will get better to one in which the consensus is pessimistic. In such a context people stop seeing their society as one in which everyone can win and start retreating into a defence of what they fear losing.

Migration becomes a key to this for that very reason. For a segment of the population who feel at risk new arrivals exacerbate their concerns. Mounck ties this into an analysis that notes that places where democracy has flourished have tended to be mono–ethnic or dominated by a single group. The logic goes that people find it easier to believe in the equality of the group if people are like them, and so the dramatic changes in diversity and migration present a challenge for building community and democracy.

It should be noted is that so much of this depends on our definitions of what counts as an ethnicity. Belgium, for example, is a very white country, but is ethnically divided between Wallonia and Flanders and has (with some exceptions caused primarily by problems in their electoral system) been a generally successful functioning democracy. Certainly those divides are real and can be disruptive at times, but on the whole Belgium has not found it difficult to create a cohesive demos. The same could be argued of multi–national constructions like the UK and Spain. Independence campaigns in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Catalunya, the Basque country and to a lesser extent in Wales and Galicia have been disruptive at times and may yet break those states apart, but they have by and large not led to any systematic breakdown in democracy. There is also a degree of historical hindsight underpinning this idea – it looks today only natural that Germany and Italy are a single cohesive nation state and that it is possible to posit such thing as an ethnic German or Italian. A hundred and fifty years ago that was far less certain. Solidarity can be forged across groups for democratic purposes, it has done so often before.

However, Mounk is surely correct that the combination of economic decline and increasing diversity has prompted a particular difficulty for many Western states to confront. Being true to solidarity and democratic responsiveness would seem to demand a response to migration patterns – but how to do this without simply adopting anti–liberal populist policies or compromising their own values.


The weakness, of this book lies not in its analysis, which is compelling and interesting, but in the proposed remedies. To give Mounk his due, at least he has some; it is commonplace among a genre of books at present to bemoan the system without proposing anything substantive. Nor are the solutions proposed bad ideas in and of themselves. But nor do they really hold much hope for significant success.

The first issue is that having carefully laid out that the system is being pulled between two problematic poles (the illiberal democrats and the undemocratic liberals) Mounk’s remedies really only address the first of those two.

I will return to the issues with the solutions to illiberal democracy, but it is worth noting briefly that on the second issue, undemocratic liberals, Mounk has no proposed remedies at all. Having laid out a system in which too much power is invested in central banks, constitutional courts, regulatory bodies, international treaties and the like, we never get a solution to how to reverse that trend. Mounk rightly criticizes Poland’s Law and Justice party and Hungary’s Victor Orbán for unravelling key institutions and checks and balances to undermine democracy, but he never tells us which of these various bodies he wants to disband.

It is not hard to understand why, of course. These bodies may be undemocratic but they were designed for a reason and in some cases seem to be holding the dam against a wave of chaos. The European Central Bank, for example, is deeply undemocratic, but who could disband it confident that the resulting fallout could be contained? The Bank of England seems to exceed its remit, yet was also credited with being the only functioning body in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote. Quite which undemocratic plank needs to be pulled out without breaking the whole system or inadvertently empowering the illiberal democrats is what nobody seems willing to answer.

Mounk’s solutions instead focus largely on the issue of illiberal democracy. Here the problem is not that there are no remedies, but that those that are proposed attack the symptoms of the problem not the root.

Mounk is strongest on the economic remedies (his remedy to the question of ethnicity is an idea inclusive patriotism which is left fairly undeveloped beyond the aspiration to find a, largely undefined, positive vision for everyone to aspire to). He proposes a radical approach to taxation, housing and productivity which are designed to address the issue of inequality and declining living standards.

The logic of these as remedies is that as long as the economy is booming, and everyone is benefitting people will forget about the claims of the populists and accept liberal democracy as a positive. No doubt there is some in truth in that – though it is true of any regime (Hungary’s deeply illiberal government has just presided over a very economically successful 2017, which will no doubt bolster their electoral position), but it seems to me that this is exactly the trap that the EU has got itself into over the past decade or two.

Essentially the EU faces an impossible paradox. The only thing that has made it popular is when it has been deemed to be economically successful and limits itself to being an economic tool. However, to be truly sustainable as a model (as the crisis has shown) the EU needs to expand beyond its current remit, to take on a greater role in governance and in fiscal policy and to further erode national parliamentary sovereignty – a move that would be deeply unpopular, particularly if the only raison d’être it can provide for itself is economic. The problem facing Europe is that if it makes itself nothing more than an economic body it can never be more than that, yet in order to survive and thrive it needs to be more than it currently is.

This is essentially the paradox that Mounk is creating. He hopes that economic solutions will undercut the populists and citizens will go back to supporting liberal democracy as in their own apparent best interests. Yet, in so doing, it makes liberal democracy utterly reliant on fair weather loyalty; essentially it will be popular so long as the economy improves, household income increases and inequality is kept in check.

Even if it is possible (and it is not as if the West’s leaders, at least in the EU, have not been trying to revive the economy for the past few years) the root issue is that, as Mounk himself has shown, liberal democracy is no longer valued. That is not a problem that can be fixed by building houses or reforming taxation, excellent as those ideas may be, it is not a practical issue but a philosophical one.


There is a telling moment towards the end of the book when Mounk has a section on the need for “meaningful work”. That is a critically important idea, and one where Mounk will find ready allies among advocates of Catholic Social Teaching for whom dignity in work has been a pillar of their theological–ideological position for a long time. However, where they might depart from Mounk would be in a revealing rationale for why he believes this to be important. For him, this is vital because such work provides an “earned identity” without which they are ‘likely to default to an “ascriptive” identity – making their ethnicity, their religion and their nationality more central to their worldview’.

Herein lies the big flaw in Mounk’s solution, and where to my mind he misses the mark in his diagnosis of our current crisis. For liberal democracy to survive its current crisis, and to thrive, it needs to be a system that people can love and hold onto even in the bad times, not just when economic progress masks societal problems. This is where ideas and identities come in. Mounk’s discounting of “ascriptive identity” is precisely part of what is holding liberal democracy back – nationhood and religion are not intrinsically threatening forces to be quashed, but the source of belonging and belief that liberal democrats are going to need to build on if they are ever to be a truly sustainable force.

There is a certain mythology of liberal democracy as if it sprung into being at some point during the Enlightenment as a rational counter force to irrational and unhealthy identities, to which it is intrinsically hostile. This is quite untrue; liberal democracy was born, has a history and origin story precisely in ideas drawn from its Christian and national past, it rests on Christian ideas of human dignity, freedom, and remains broadly reliant on the political power of a sovereign nation state. Rejections of these identities do not strengthen liberal democracy, but on the contrary, undermine it.

David Goodhart’s diagnosis of society divided between “anywheres” and “somewhere” comes to mind on this point, but I think the divide goes deeper; it is a clash in how we envisage belonging working – as a matter for the mind or for the soul. Mounk seems a classic proponent of the “mind” school in which belonging, and therefore, loyalty, to the system is based on at least a degree of rational choice. Identities are earned and chosen based on decisions, and therefore a better performing West will ultimately succeed in winning citizens back. The “soul” school is the seam into which populists are tapping, and is more tied to the idea that what someone is simply intrinsic. You do not rationally arrive at the decision to be British, or Western, you simply are and cannot be otherwise. For this school it is not enough that something performs well, it must appeal to who they are without undermining critical aspects of their identity.

The political system that will win out is the one that ultimately succeeds in forging some sort of joint belonging between the two schools. Liberal democracy has been guilty for far too long of relying on “output legitimacy” – the idea that people will go along with something so long as it keeps producing decent results. To be truly sustainable the West needs to find a telos that captures the loyalty and love of its citizens, and by tapping into those deep rooted identities that never went away, and are not intrinsically dangerous or hostile (though they can certainly be employed in dangerous ways), but which motivate and inspire the vast majority of the world’s population. At present the West is lamentably falling short of that goal, and so has no answer to the populist revolt and Mounk’s illiberal democrats.

No amount of tinkering with taxation and housing policy will ever resolve that critical shortcoming in the current leadership. It takes a philosophical and identity answer to remedy Mounk’s crisis.


 Image from the Kremlin.

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is Home Affairs Adviser at Church of England. He was Head of Research at Theos until late 2019. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism.

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Posted 21 May 2018

Democracy, Donald Trump, Global Politics, Identity politics


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