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In ‘The People vs. Democracy,’ Trump Is Just One Populist Among Many

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The title of Yascha Mounk’s new book, “The People vs. Democracy,” makes clever use of what looks like a glaring oxymoron: After all, what is democracy if not rule by the people? When democracy is under siege, the belligerents are supposed to be dictators, oligarchs and autocrats; the people are supposed to be the guardians (if all goes well), or else the victims (if it doesn’t).

But that’s just the delusions of liberal democracy talking. Mounk, who lectures on political theory at Harvard and builds on the important work of scholars like Jan-Werner Müller and Cas Mudde, shows how populist insurgencies can undermine democracy — in the long run, that is.

At first, populist movements often present themselves as deeply, even radically, democratic. The 2016 Brexit referendum is a case in point. Inviting citizens to vote on such an enormous policy change was a simple enactment of direct democracy. Those who voted for Britain to leave the European Union declared they were wresting autonomy away from the bureaucratic clutches of an unresponsive, Brussels-based elite. A characteristic slogan of the pro-Brexit campaign was “Take Back Control.”

Much of this rhetoric baldly exploited anti-immigrant bigotry — a classic tactic in the populist playbook. For all that populists purport to champion the will of the people, their definition of the people is often restrictive and “deeply illiberal,” Mounk writes, if not downright exclusionary. They also rail against institutions that circumscribe what they deem to be the popular will: “They openly say that neither independent institutions nor individual rights should dampen the people’s voice.” Which is what makes populism ultimately inimical to liberal democracy, and what allows Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, to say he is building an “illiberal new state based on national foundations” while maintaining his popular support.

Notice how far we’ve gotten without a mention of you-know-who, the chief populist of the United States. He’s included in “The People vs. Democracy,” as he should be, but one of the many things to recommend this clarifying book is its international scope. As much as Donald J. Trump might fancy himself one of a kind, Mounk argues that the American president is part of a global wave. Populist forces are surging in Britain, Germany, Italy and France; in places like Venezuela, Hungary, Turkey and Poland they have already settled in, set up house and gotten around to the next step: gutting institutional safeguards in order to shore up their rule.

Political scientists like Mounk talk about norms and institutions with a kind of reverence that can seem puzzling to non-scholars and non-wonks. But institutions are what allow people, whose experiences and interests differ and diverge, to live together in a democratic system. Whether entrusted with regulating banks or protecting civil rights or enforcing term limits, “liberal institutions are, in the long run, needed for democracy to survive.”

Mounk is a clear and often forceful writer, if not an especially stylish one; he favors the step-by-step explication and the tidy formulation. His prose seems to reflect his preferred mode of politics: earnest, respectful and pragmatic.

As necessary as institutions are, Mounk is also attuned to how they can become purveyors of “undemocratic liberalism,” which he defines as “rights without democracy.” In order to address complex problems that aren’t optimally solved by democratic deliberation — interest rates, for instance, or climate change — enormous power gets consolidated in the hands of unelected officials. “Bureaucratic agencies staffed with subject-matter experts began to take on a quasi-legislative role,” Mounk writes about the postwar era, when states faced a number of new, convoluted challenges in a transformed world.

A thread that runs through populist rhetoric the world over is rage at technocratic elites. Mounk doesn’t believe the resentment is necessarily baseless, even if he thinks the demagogues who seize on such anger offer scapegoats instead of solutions. “Some of the most important economic decisions facing countries around the world are now taken by technocrats,” he writes, with little to no allowance for people to voice their dissent.

Even if economic inequality among nations is decreasing, it’s been growing within most countries, including the United States. Elites do democracy no favors, Mounk suggests, when they respond to the public’s fears by ignoring them, or insisting that everything as a whole is getting better while downplaying suffering as mere collateral damage. Addressing those fears, though, shouldn’t mean indulging the populist penchant for racist invective and conspiracy theories.

“The case for taking so many policy decisions out of democratic contestation may be perfectly sound,” Mounk writes, in his typically sober way. But such a case needs to be actively made, rather than offered up as a no-brainer; there’s little a populist demagogue can weaponize more easily than a policy, however sensible, presented by knowing elites as a high-minded fait accompli.

Mounk spends a good deal of his book offering concrete proposals for how to get out of the populist spiral. Pointing to the impeachment last year of South Korea’s spectacularly corrupt president Park Geun-hye, he advocates mass protests in response to blatant abuses of power and the need, however difficult, “to peel off some members of the ruling regime” and get them to change sides. He also suggests some remedies that might sound reasonable to technocratic ears but seem politically wistful, to say the least: tamping down exorbitant housing prices, devoting more resources to enforcing tax regulations, enabling “all working-age adults to take regular sabbaticals to upgrade their skills.”

You can sense Mounk trying to be hopeful, wondering whether the chaos in the White House will “inoculate” Americans against the illiberal siren song, but the norm-watching political scientist in him can’t help being worried. He points to the example of the Roman Republic, which lurched between plebeian and patrician rule for a century, wearing down norms and institutions so that with each blow, they “were a little less capable of containing the assault.” President Trump, with his extensive experience in both real estate and bankruptcy, has probably deployed his demolition crew knowing full well that swinging the wrecking ball is easy; building something is harder.


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