In one of several recent books looking for the meaning of populism’s surge in the 21st century, not only in the United States and Europe but also well beyond Western borders, the author Yascha Mounk, a German-born scholar at Harvard, offers the startling assumption that populism as a solution to political and economic problems is attracting new generations of voters.
This proposition runs counter to the assumption among Western liberals, particularly in the US, that older voters who support dictatorially inclined leaders will soon be gone.
In April, Joanne Myers, director of programs for the Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs and a contributor to PassBlue, gave the floor to Mounk to talk to a New York audience about his chilling analysis that “the world is falling out of love with democracy.” His most recent book is “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.”
Mounk, who has lived in several European countries and watched them struggle with new political forces that challenge comfortable thinking in the liberal West is, in addition to lecturing at Harvard, also the executive director of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
“In his book ‘The People vs. Democracy,’ Mounk argues that liberalism and democracy are coming apart, creating new forms of both illiberal democracy — democracy without rights — and undemocratic liberalism — rights without democracy, Myers said by way of introduction. “He tells us why trust in politics is dwindling and liberal democracy, that unique blend of individual rights and popular rule, is wilting away.”
Here are excerpts from Mounk’s provocative remarks and questions that followed:
Yascha Mounk: “All of you remember Winston Churchill‘s famous speech [when he said that] from Stettin in the north of the Continent to Trieste, an iron curtain is descending across Europe. Well, today there is a populist belt that goes from Stettin in the Baltic Sea all the way south to Athens in the Aegean. You can drive thousands of miles without ever leaving a country ruled by populists. So the idea that this is a fringe phenomenon is by now outdated.
“A growing number of citizens are falling out of love with democracy. In the United States, over two-thirds of Americans born in the 1930s and the 1940s say that it is absolutely essential to live in a democracy. Among younger Americans born since 1980, less than one-third do. Twenty years ago, about one in 16 Americans said army rule was a good system of government. Now it is one in six.
“You see similar data in many European countries. In Germany, France and the United Kingdom, the number of people who say that a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections is a good thing, has roughly doubled over the course of the past 20 years. It now stands at 50 percent in both France and the United Kingdom.
“Let me start with what is actually going on. I think in order to do that, we have to remember that our political system has two core aspirations: it has the aspiration of giving us individual freedom, of putting us in a position to decide ourselves autonomously how we lead our lives; and it’s meant to give us collective self-rule, so that we together decide on our politics rather than having a monarch or a priest or a dictator tell us what to do. . . . The liberal element requires that we have individual rights, the rule of law and the separation of powers, because those things are needed for individuals to actually be able to determine their own lives freely.
“Now, once you have defined the liberal elements separately, you can define democracy in a much more straightforward way than we usually do, and I think that helps the clarity of our thinking. Democracy in the original Greek means the rule of the demos, the rule of a people. I think to be democratic, a country actually has to translate popular views into public policies to some real extent.
“What I fear is happening is that these two co-elements of our political system are slowly drifting apart. But actually for a long time, we have had systems which I would call rights without democracy or undemocratic liberalism. It is not a very pretty phrase. . . .
“There has been some debate about whether the term ‘illiberal democracy’ is the right term to use. I think it is. Let me give you an example of that. About eight years ago, Switzerland had a vote — a popular referendum in fact — on the building of minarets, the towers adjacent to mosques that are used to call to prayer. Fifty-eight percent of the Swiss constitution voted to ban the building of minarets, as a result of which the Swiss constitution now reads, and I quote, ‘There’s freedom of religion in Switzerland. The building of minarets is forbidden.’ It doesn’t make a ton of sense.
“If you want to understand the discontinuity in what our democracies are doing, we have to ask the chicken question. We have to say, ‘What was true for 50 years of democratic stability that no longer appears to be true?’ I would suggest there are three obvious big reasons here.
“The first is the stagnation of living standards for ordinary citizens. So from 1945 to 1960, the living standard of the average American doubled; from 1960 to 1985, it doubled again; since 1985, it has been flat, it has been stagnant. That really changes how people think about politics. They never used to think of politicians as paradigms of moral virtue, they never trusted them completely. We used to say: You know what? In the end, they seem to be sticking to their end of a deal. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.’
“The second reason has to do with culture and identity. If you go back to 1960, in most democracies the question, ‘Who really belongs in this country?’ would have had a very straightforward answer. In Sweden and Germany and Italy, people would have said, ‘Well, somebody who descends from the same ethnic stock, somebody who’s ethnically Swedish or German or Italian.’ Over the last 50 or 60 years, that has started to change. In Germany, the country where I grew up, it was impossible to become a German citizen by immigrating to the country. It was only by either descent or because you married somebody who is German. Well, that has changed now. . . .
“There is a cultural change as well. More and more Germans embrace, and even celebrate, the fact that obviously some of their compatriots might be brown or black, that they might be Muslim or Hindu. But there is also a big rebellion against that, and in a way that shouldn’t surprise us. . . .
“The situation in the United States and in Canada is both similar and different. It is different in that these societies have always been multiethnic in various ways. But it is similar in that there has been always a strict racial and religious hierarchy and that some people have had great advantages over others by dint of that. . . .
“Social media is the last addition to this mix that really makes the cocktail explode. Twenty-five years ago, you had a system of communication that was in some ways not so different from what would have been the case 200 or 300 years earlier. . . . You had a few centers and they would broadcast out into the rest of the world. So in order to have a real voice in our society, you had to own a television station, a radio station, a newspaper or a publishing house or at least be one of the people invited to use and share in that platform. . . . [Now] think of some of the brave kids in Parkland, Florida, who have become a real part of our national conversation in the last few months.”
Joanne Myers: To what do you attribute the fact that millennials don’t want to embrace democracy anymore? How do you explain that?
Mount: I think that there [are] a number of reasons. One of them is that, frankly, in many places democracies haven’t served them very well. When you look at the stagnation of living standards, it is especially among younger people. Forty years ago, nine in 10 Americans by the time they were 30 years old could say, ‘I make more money than my parents did when they were my age.’ Now only one in two Americans do. . . .
“In European countries, it has a lot to do with insider-outsider economics, in which if you got a decent job in Italy 20 or 30 years ago, you have a pretty decent salary, you have a pretty decent pension. You’re probably not rich — it’s not that affluent a country — but you can lead a pretty good life. But because the pension system has been reformed and because the labor market is so inflexible, hiring somebody young is both so risky because you can never get rid of them, and it is so expensive because so much goes not just to their wage but to basically propping up the pension of parents, that there are far too few jobs for young people.
“So there’s a vast class of young people, many of whom have done what they’re supposed to, many of whom have finished university degrees, who just cannot find a job. I’m not surprised when they say, ‘Hey, what do I have out of democracy?’
“The second thing, of course, is the passing of a certain historical memory. For a lot of older people, the memory of them or their parents fighting against fascism or understanding the threat of fascism, certainly an understanding of what dictatorship and totalitarianism meant in a county like the Soviet Union, is life, and for a lot of young people it is not. When they say, ‘Hey, how important is democracy?’ it’s in part because they don’t really have a life understanding of how horrific the alternatives to it are. . . .
“Populists have much more longevity than we would like to believe. Even though they usually have a terrible record in government, they often stay in power for a long time. They often make surprising comebacks, like [Silvio] Berlusconi did in Italy and [Alberto] Fujimori is currently doing in Peru.
“Even when they finally fall from grace, populist energy often mutates and other politicians and movements can use it for their own purposes, as we are seeing in Italy . . . and then we would be facing a much deeper challenge than we do now.”
Here is a full transcript and video of Mounk’s remarks.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.