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Building Democracy to Fight the Nativist Attack: A Review of 'The People vs. Democracy'

If we want to protect society from the rise of illiberal democracy, we need to take very seriously what it would mean to make society democratic in ways that give people control over their lives.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to low-wage federal contract workers during a protest where the workers demanded presidential action to win an increase to $15 an hour wage in Washington, DC. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty)

As someone who came to politics opposing US government policies, I’ve been surprising myself lately by how much I end up talking about the importance of “rule of law." I'm used to being the one to criticize how bad our laws are, how unfairly they are enforced, and how oppressive government actions are. But there is nothing like a brush with fascism to make liberal democracy look like something worth defending.

In his book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Harvard University Press, 2018), Yascha Mounk makes the case that people living in societies that have had fairly stable liberal forms of democratic government have become complacent in its defense, and that they urgently need to get active in supporting what he argues is actually a fairly fragile system of government. There is a lot that is important in this book, while for a leftist reader there is a lot that is irksome.

"As economic growth has slowed and economic inequality has risen, many people have a sense that their futures and their children's futures are likely to be worse than the past."

First, the important. Mounk is a Harvard professor, a German of Jewish heritage, who has studied the rise of right-wing nativism in Europe and North America. In his up-close conversations with nativist right-wingers, as well as his extensive analysis of the research done in this area, he puts his fingers on the pulse of this emerging, and increasingly politically important, worldview.

His basic argument is that liberal democracy is in serious trouble. One sign of trouble is declining support for it among young people, whose lives have been lived far from struggles over fascism and authoritarian communism. Among the most startling facts is the survey result that less than one third of millennials in the US thought that it was ”extremely important to live in a democracy”(5).

Mounk argues that there are three major social changes that are undermining the stability of the current system in many countries: the rise of social media; people’s lowered optimism about their, and their children’s, economic futures; and a decline in ethnic unity in many nation states.

In the section on social media Mounk argues that while the printing press has had many positive impacts on society, when it was first invented, it led to an incredible destabilization of European societies, and decades of sectarian warfare. Similarly, we are entering a period where transformed means of communication will destabilize settled social patterns.  As social media replaces the book’s “one to many” form of communication with a network of “many to many” modes of communication, the gatekeepers who had ensured stability in the cultural system, through control of publishing, have given way to a system of almost unrestrained communication. He argues that, for all of its faults, “the dominance of mass media limited the distribution of extreme ideas, created a set of shared facts and values, and slowed the spread of fake news.” Social media is changing all of that, and without claiming that it is all good or all bad, it is very destabilizing.

Through the stable period experienced in the US and Western Europe since the Second World War, many countries saw rising living standards, and a sense that the future would be better than the past. This has kept people happy enough with their political systems to not rock the boat. As economic growth has slowed and economic inequality has risen, many people have a sense that their futures and their children's futures are likely to be worse than the past. And many blame their government and politicians for not delivering.  

Finally, most of the world’s stable liberal democracies have been relatively mono-ethnic. The European nation states were mostly built on the basis of one dominant ethnic group. The US was built upon a dominant white identity, even if that white group was drawn from a variety of “nations.” As people of color in the US are moving toward a majority status, many white Americans are vulnerable to the rhetoric of nativist politicians.

What studies have shown is that when white people live in diverse communities they are generally content with diversity. It is people who still live in relatively homogeneous areas of a country, who are afraid of a demographic future that they imagine as not safe for themselves, who are vulnerable to the manipulations of nativist rhetoric.

A lot of the anger at immigration is driven by fear of an imagined future rather than displeasure with a lived reality. When immigration levels rise, it is not only the experience of day to day life that changes; just as important, the social imaginary of what the country's future might hold is transformed as well. As a result, the belief that people from the majority group will eventually be in the minority has come to play a bigger role in the political imagination of the far right both in Western Europe and in North America (174).

I am a Californian, and I remember thinking it was strange, as we were approaching becoming a state without a white majority, how much panic there was in the air around race. That was the time of several successful racist and nativist ballot initiatives. A few years after the demographic shift happened, the feeling in the state became much cooler. Mounk explores this case. “At the time, observers were understandably worried about the future of race relations in California. But in the 2000s and 2010s the fever broke. Most Californians grew comfortable with the fact that high levels of immigration were a part of the local experience” (178).

These three causes of instability make liberal democracies vulnerable to nativist political parties. And nativist leaders, such as Trump in the US, Modi in India, Orbán in Hungary, Erdoğan in Turkey, can quickly turn liberal democracies into illiberal ones. An illiberal democracy, is one in which the majority's opinions define government policy, unmediated by checks and balances of the rule of law. Nativist leaders can come to power through a popular vote by playing to the resentments of voters. Then Mounk argues, within a few election cycles the strong leaders who come to power promising to solve the problem they have whipped up, undermine the constitutions that protect individual rights and the people’s interests.

After the fall of communism Poland was widely seen as on its way to building a liberal democracy. Then the nativist Law and Justice party came to power, and over time began an assault on liberal institutions such as freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary (126).

One of the most powerful lessons for people in the US right now, is the admonition that we watch our institutions like hawks, and resist with all of our force, attempts to undermine them. The rule of law really does matter when you have a political party ruling that does not respect the institutional checks on what a ruling group can do with those powers that are concentrated in a state.

On the flip side, Mounk raises concerns about the dangers of undemocratic liberalism, where institutions function without input or response to the concerns of the governed. I would argue that this is the approach to government of the dominant forces within the Democratic Party and the old mainstream of the Republican Party in the US. These are the people who felt comfortable running the country in the interests of economic elites, and not responding to the concerns raised by the people, such as the need for a raise the minimum wage. Monk focuses his description of undemocratic liberalism on the European Union, where a set of institutions controlled by an elite group is able to make powerful decisions, such as imposing austerity on the people of Greece, without being accountable to a functioning democratic process. Frustrations with undemocratic liberalism can often throw a population into the arms of the nativist politicians who push for illiberal democracy. This is much of the story behind the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.   

Mounk’s analysis of the rise of illiberal democracy is powerful. His reading is grounded in serious empirical study he has done himself, a thorough reading of the existing scholarly literature, as well as a deeply insightful analysis of his own. His explanation of the roots of undemocratic liberalism is less persuasive, which undermines the whole end of the book, where he proposes solutions. Those weaknesses can be seen in the equivalence he draws between the right and the left, and in his lack of attention to the realities of power.

In this review I have used the word nativist to talk about the forces that use hatred of “the other” to gain support from majorities. Mounk, instead, uses the term “populist,” and there are several places in the book where he puts people like UK labor leader Jeremy Corbyn into the same box as the Donald Trumps of the world. And while it is true that people on the left sometimes don't support the formal rules of liberal governments, such as freedom of speech, as much as they should, there is nothing in the politics of Corbyn, or of Bernie Sanders in the US, that is about building a dictatorship based on pushing people's fear buttons.

Populism is a general term for a politics based on responding to the desires of the population. During the run up to the 2016 election, it was frustrating for those of us who supported Bernie Sanders, to hear the media refer to Trump and Sanders as populists, with the presumption that there was something by definition wrong with populism. Sanders did not challenge liberal institutions, nor did he stir up hatred, or make false claims. Instead, he spoke to real passions for justice within the US population. It was people’s sense that Hillary Clinton didn’t care about their concerns and interests that led to the lack of enthusiasm that lost her the election.  There is nothing wrong with populism. The problem is with nativism, and with a populism that would undermine the limits that need to be imposed on power.

The second issue that undermines the power of the book is that Mounk’s analysis of the nature of undemocratic liberalism lacks any attention to the entrenched power of the elites who run our political and economic systems. This may not be surprising coming from the executive director of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, an institute named for the Prime Minister of the UK, who was instrumental in starting the Iraq war and promoting neo-liberal economic policies.  

Mounk has little to say about how to hold power to account. This can be seen in the narrowness of his definition of democracy. For him democracy is “a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy” (27). Nowhere in this definition is the idea that in a democracy, the people need to have the power to make choices over the things that matter to them. The Greek roots of the word “democracy” mean power of the people, and having power means more than just being able to vote.

Mounk admits that in the US, liberal democracy grew up as a means of control. “For the founding Fathers, the election of representatives, which we have come to regard as the most democratic way to translate popular views into public policy, was a mechanism for keeping the people at bay”(55). Critics on the left have argued, from at least the time of Marx, that formal democratic processes embedded in a capitalist economic structure, leave us with a political system prone to be run by and for the elites. If there is no democracy in the economic sphere, then political systems are prone to being corrupted or insignificant.  

Like many liberal thinkers, Mounk sees democracy as being about a formal set of rules, rather than being about the substantive question of how to create systems that will give people real control over the conditions of their existence. Capitalist processes make people relatively powerless over their economic lives. An electoral system in a capitalist context needs intense protections, which few societies have, to keep the wealthy from dominating politics through control over media and election spending.

As a result of populist pressure at the time of its adoption, the US Constitution included the amendments that make up the Bill of Rights. Valuable as those rights are, they are largely negative. They are rights to be left alone by the government. Within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are also what have come to be known as a positive set of rights, or rights to have one’s basic needs met. The right to freedom of speech is crucial, but also crucial is the right to access to clean drinking water. Within the liberal tradition, freedom is defined as freedom from interference. The classical republican tradition goes a step further and sees freedom as freedom from domination (Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford, 1999).

Liberal institutions are one set of important mechanisms needed to hold the power that is embedded in states to account. But left-wing populists, such as Bernie Sanders, have also demanded that political systems serve the needs of the people, and not the interests of the wealthy. They want government to hold to account the powers of capital that are running wild and destroying the climate, ripping up the fabric of people’s communities through a market based approach to housing, and making the future look bleak by allowing runaway inequality.

"The fight for democracy is not just a fight for formal politics. It is also a fight for control over all of the forms of unaccountable power that dominate our lives."

Mounk argues for getting money out of politics and for economic policies, such as progressive taxations that will get rid of inequality. But it is precisely the left-wing populists Mounk derides, who will make the system do those things. Radical populist social movements mobilize counterforces to the elites who run our systems in ways that end up undermining support for liberal democracy.

Mounk worries that many college professors in the US are teaching a critique of the enlightenment that will undermine support for liberal democracy. As one among that camp, I want to share my view of the foundational Enlightenment thinker John Locke. The same John Locke who favored formal political democracy, also fought hard for the enclosures that threw the poor off their land in Britain. He wrote the constitution for the slave colonies of the Carolinas. And he argued that Native Americans had no right to their land, because they did not hold it in private hands. In his system, which focused on the individual lives of property owners, women were largely invisible, as wardens of the home.  

Locke’s liberal democracy was based on the presumption of the autonomous individual who had no obligations to anyone else. Every individual would be equal before the law, as long as they were considered rational. Enslaved people, Native Americans, and women didn’t count. In the US, the white supremacist view of African-Americans as not fully deserving of rights, distorts our legal system to this day.

Another one of the most basic principles of Locke’s system was the protection of the right of individuals to dispose of their property as they pleased, with no obligations to attend to the needs of others. One of the most important roles of government in his system was to protect private property. This left the person with no access to land facing a property owner as formal equals to negotiate fair agreements. This completely ignored the lived reality that the poor person had no bargaining power, and so formal legal equality meant very little.

If we want to protect society from the rise of illiberal democracy, we need to take very seriously what it would mean to make society democratic in ways that give people control over their lives. We need to do more than allow them to vote for the technocrats who would extract wealth from them. Undemocratic liberalism is not just an unfortunate state of affairs. It is precisely the problem that got us into this mess. And the way to fight it is not just to wring our hands, and suggest that those with power act more responsibly. People need to fight as hard against economic domination as they fight to save formal liberal democracy. The fight for democracy is not just a fight for formal politics. It is also a fight for control over all of the forms of unaccountable power that dominate our lives.

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Cynthia Kaufman

Cynthia Kaufman

Cynthia Kaufman is the author of Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope and Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change. She is the Director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action at De Anza College. She blogs at cynthiakaufman.wordpress.com.

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