‘The People vs. Democracy’ review: Liberalism on the brink

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Economic stagnation, major migrations and the rise of populism are destroying democracy as we know it

By: Neera Chandhoke

Charles Dickens authored one of the greatest opening lines in his A Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’ Mounk, wittingly or unwittingly, reinvents the theme. Most of us have spent our lives in ordinary times. Today we live in extraordinary times. Our decisions, he warns, will determine whether terrifying chaos will spread, whether unspeakable cruelty will be unleashed, and whether liberal democracy can survive in the United States, Greece, Hungary, and Germany. Mounk, as is the wont of western political scientists, does not bother to take India into account, but this work could well have been written for us. We used to live in ordinary times. Today we live in extraordinary times, stamped by bitter disagreements on the basic terms of the political contract that inaugurated democracy in the country. What on earth happened?

Berlin Wall and after

In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall liberal democrats rejoiced. The only political system that had challenged their supremacy had collapsed. The future of humankind could be secured only when humanity’s love affair with democracy was regulated by constitutions, procedures, institutions, the rule of law, and individual rights. These staples of liberalism are intended to trump the brute power of electoral majorities. Liberals fear mobs; they fear demagogues, who evoke irrational passions, even more.

Today the link between liberalism and democracy, argues Mounk, has been broken for three reasons: economic stagnation, major migrations that transform demographic profiles and shake up power equations, and the rise of an irresponsible social media. This has led to the rise of populism. We cannot say that populist leaders are undemocratic. They come to power riding the chariot of electoral victories. This power is neither tempered nor regulated by safeguards.

Representing themselves as ‘outsiders’ to the world of politics, much as Donald Trump and Narendra Modi tend to do, positioning themselves against power elites, disdaining limits placed on pure power, dismissing the media and civil society organisations as irrelevant, and paying scant respect to the rule of law and individual rights, populist leaders have destabilised the balance between limited power and accountability. They prefer to speak directly to a nebulous category called ‘the people’.


The anti-elitist and anti-institutional thrust of populism might appeal to crowds, but it is dangerous. In France, Marine Le Pen has chalked up her growing support to rebellion against a self-interested E.U. oligarchy.

The repercussions

There are other examples of attacks on a powerful political caste in Europe. The problem is that Donald Trump in the United States, Nigel Farage in Britain, Frauke Petry in Germany, Marine Le Pen in France show scant respect either for the lessons of history, or the complexities of plural societies. Their solutions to intractable problems are simple, for example building real as well as virtual walls to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’. Axiomatically simple solutions to complex problems do not work. Consequently, populist leaders resort to the ignoble practice of blaming previous governments, political competitors, institutions, foreign powers, migrants and/or minorities, and tagging them as roadblocks in the way of change. They claim that they think out of the box and represent themselves as problem solvers. In practice, Mounk seems to suggest they reduce politics to administration or governance.

Visions of how plural societies are held together, how social and economic justice can be realised, how power can be used for creating a good life, and how power holders can be held responsible are relegated to the dustbin of history.

The impact of populist rhetoric, freed as it is from liberal notions of propriety and recognition of the dignity of others, has destroyed democracy. Populist leaders mobilise masses under the banner of ‘the people’. But masses might mobilise for deeply illiberal causes. A prime example is the anti-immigration movement in Europe. There is no longer any distinction between, the author argues, rights-based movements and movements that trample upon the rights of identity-based groups. Those who disagree with the politics of racial and religious majoritarianism are dismissed as liars, or as in the case of India, as anti-national.

What lies ahead

The results are serious. In Germany, the right-wing leader Frauke Petry is known for her toxic rhetoric against immigrants. She openly suggests that fear and envy are an important part of politics. A television channel in India has assembled data on hate speech and concluded that abusive and provocative diatribes against minorities and women has dramatically increased in the last four years.

Confrontational anti-elite rhetoric has catapulted ugly vocabularies in India’s civil society. If we want to avoid disaster as Mounk suggests, we should revive liberal democracy by tempering inequality, reiterating the value of pluralism, and holding the social media responsible.

The work carries a warning.‘The people’ is one of the most elaborate political fictions invented by power holders after the ‘divine right of kings’. There is no such thing as a pre-political popular will. It is forged by political leaders. But populists whip up passions and shut down debate. The road to populism is, therefore, expectedly, strewn with the rubble of democracy.

The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It; Yascha Mounk, Harvard University Press, ₹699.

Courtesy The Hindu

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