Review- Mounk, “The People Versus Democracy”

Yascha Mounk, “The People Versus Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It” (2018) –


(Note: I initially wrote this for a little magazine, but since then pretty definitive pieces on the book and it’s genre appeared in n+1 and in Dissent. Both are well worth reading and say much of what ought to be said. But I do try to post a review of every book I read, and I did read this book, so I thought I’d post this here.)


Harvard-based German political scientist Yascha Mounk is one of the latest to step up to the plate to explain the decline of the liberal political order, the necessity of reviving it to more or less pre-2016 status, and how we can get there. Younger than many in the same ideological cohort and less tied to wildly unpopular neoliberal institutions and policies, he’s got the marketing game down pretty good too- The People Versus Democracy is the sort of thing bound to get a Vice interviewer excited. The book is schematic and breakable down by bullet points, well-suited to an audience used to getting their public intellectuals via TED talks.

The title is something of a stumper. We’re more used to hearing arguments about freedom versus democracy, or merit versus democracy– fear of the masses taking down the big important people, from people representing (or fancying themselves to represent) the latter. What does the people versus democracy mean?

What Mounk means when he talks about the “people versus democracy” is “the people versus liberalism.” Mounk allows that there is such a thing as illiberal democracy, where elected strongmen abuse the rights of minorities and trample due process. This is one of the primary things he fears from Trump, Modi, Orban (who boasts of the “illiberal democracy” he has made of Hungary), etc. But as far as he is concerned, the only true democracy is liberal democracy, and that is what he is worried about “the people” undoing.

Political thinkers of his generation and that preceding him (barring a few unserious radicals), Mounk tells us, assumed liberalism and democracy naturally go together. This is what the “End of History” moment in the late 1980s meant. But we are now witnessing the “deconsolidation” of liberalism from democracy. Democratic publics are turning against liberalism, with its provisions of equal justice under the law and checks on executive power, both in the new democracies that liberals had such high hopes for post-1989 (mostly in Central Europe) and in liberal democratic states of older vintage: Brexit Britain, AfD Germany, LePen’s France, Trump’s America.

Unlike libertarian figures like Jason Brenner and their proposals for bringing back property (or better yet, IQ-based) restrictions on voting, Mounk sees democracy as something like an equal partner to liberalism in the “liberal democracy” formation. This gives him some additional context that many of the liberal doomsayers lack. He grants that if liberal democracy has become unpopular among worryingly large swaths of contemporary electorates, it is due in no small part to the elites in liberal societies hollowing out the substantive meaning of their democracies. Judges and unelected bureaucrats unilaterally makes rules that affect millions and the wealthy buy access to power, Mounk explains. This results in a situation of “rights without democracy,” the equal and opposite of the illiberal democracy scenario. It’s hardly surprising that people prefer the latter, if those are their choices.

What has brought us to this state of affairs? Mounk identifies three factors behind the disaggregation of democracy and liberalism: social media; economic stagnation; and the rise to importance of “identity.” Stagnation makes people mad; social media lets their anger circulate widely, quickly; “identity” gives them someone to be mad about.

Mounk’s history of the late twentieth century puts the dysfunction of liberal social science bereft of political economy or class analysis in stark relief. In his telling, social media and the economic restructurings that led to secular stagnation in the developed world are the results of the genies of technological and economic progress, respectively. The identity politics thing is the result of immigration, with an assist from liberal college professors who say mean stuff about the Enlightenment. Why these things have taken on the importance that they have – and they all are important, even if they are framed unhelpfully – and why the political system of liberal democracy is unable to cope with them, are not answers Mounk answers or really addresses.

Mounk can talk about an economy. He cannot talk about capitalism, a system of organizing production; which is to say, a system of power. We hear a lot about the impositions on freedom made by illiberal democrats such as Orban and Duterte. We hear a little about the inroads liberalism has made on democracy through wealth concentration. We hear nothing about how freedom and democracy are made into abstractions by the reality of class power in a capitalist society. Liberalism, at its most ambitious, builds out the degrees of freedom and democracy possible without defeating capitalism: the government can’t imprison you for dissident speech but your boss can make you ask to go to the bathroom; you can vote for someone to vote on laws but not for who runs your workplace. This is a massive, almost juvenile reduction of a complex set of dynamics, that doesn’t even get into how race and gender interact with capitalism to produce even grosser unfreedoms and inequalities. But it is pitched at the writing and analysis level of The People Versus Democracy, and Mounk does not engage any critique like that, even to dismiss it. The closest he comes is comparing Jill Stein and Naomi Klein to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon as purveyors of “easy answers.”

Mounk comes perilously close to something like class consciousness when discussing the influence of wealth on policymakers in formally democratic countries. Less than a matter of open bribery (though that happens plenty), he argues, it’s a matter of “milieu.” Rich and powerful people spend their time with and get to know other rich and powerful people, and come to identify with them and their interests, and this identification shapes policy.

Alas, Mounk does not follow up on this insight. Like others on the left-er side of liberal, he acknowledges that income inequality is an issue, in terms of people’s quality of life and their willingness to engage in the sort of politics he understands as acceptable. But also typical of liberals, he does not, cannot, understand inequality as part and parcel of a structural relationship between a class that owns and rules and another class that works and obeys. A liberal democracy is already a hollowed-out democracy. It isn’t simply hollow for the poor, because they cannot participate as much as the rich (though that’s certainly part of it); it is hollow because the most pressing questions of social power are bracketed away. It’s little wonder that people would disengage, even if many of the replacement outlets for their political energy are ghastly and will only make matters worse.

Nowhere in The People Versus Democracy is the dysfunction of liberalism’s inability to confront capitalism as a system more on display than in Mounk’s proposed remedies. His economic prescriptions are about what one would expect from, say, a centrist Democrat running in a district where Bernie polled well: make the rich pay their fair share, retool welfare for the twenty-first century, etc… mostly unobjectionable, if tepid. We also hear about the need to “domestic nationalism” and “renew civic faith.” For the most part, these are as platitudinous as they sound- people should try to reach across divides, promote civics education, maybe get Zuckerberg to tone down the fake news algorithms, etc.

It’s where those phrases aren’t platitudes where the piece runs into real trouble, and reveals just how much the strain of avoiding a critique of capitalism can warp a thought process. Liberalism needs nationalism because liberal leaders, hands tied by devotion to capitalism, cannot offer their people anything more substantive with which to secure their loyalty. And “domesticate” it all you like, but nationalism has something of a habit of going feral, as we are currently seeing the world over. The “civic faith” chapter takes a bizarre stroll into political correctness-baiting. Here, Mounk pulls from some anecdotes of his time around universities to argue that we aren’t civically engaged in large part because of professors traducing the Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers. This is the sort of inflation of the power of obscure academics (and ignoring other, larger factors) that characterizes Fox News, not serious scholarship. It’s unlikely anyone is going to wave Mounk’s chapter on their way to harassing an adjunct out of a job, especially when there’s so much stronger stuff available in that vein. But it goes to show that even intelligent, up-and-coming liberal commentators will veer erratically into profoundly unlikely territory to avoid confronting the power of capitalism.

The people aren’t opposed to democracy. Capitalism is. *’

Review- Mounk, “The People Versus Democracy”

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