A Flawed Theory but Some Interesting Observations.

Author:Lee, Dwight R.
Position:The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It - Book review

The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It

By Yascha Mounk

400 pp.; Harvard University Press, 2018

Yascha Mounk, a Harvard University lecturer on government and a senior fellow in the political reform program at the center-left think tank New America, believes liberal democracy is in crisis as "authoritarian populists are on the rise around the world, from America to Europe, and from Asia to Australia." The result, he argues in The People vs. Democracy, is that "liberal democracy is coming apart," separating into "two new regime forms." One of those forms he refers to as illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, and the other as undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy" (Mounk's emphasis).

He provides the following definitions:

* A liberal democracy is a political system that is both liberal and democratic.

* Liberal institutions effectively protect the rule of law and guarantee individual rights such as freedom of speech, worship, press, and association to all citizens (including ethnic and religious minorities).

* Democracy is a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translate popular views into public policy.

Mounk develops his theoretical basis for his pessimism in the book's first two chapters. Though I share in this pessimism, I think his arguments in those chapters are unconvincing. Despite that, I think he makes some important observations throughout the balance of his book.

Democracy without rights / He begins his first chapter, "Democracy without Rights," by recalling the 1989 protests in his native East Germany. Protesters chanted, "We-not the secret police, not the party elites--are the people." Beginning in 2015, there has been a new chant in these same cities: "We--not those foreigners who are flooding Germany, nor the politicians who are in cahoots with them--are the people." Protesters' anger is now directed at immigrants and ethnic minorities and mistrust is directed at the press and "fake news," and "perhaps more than anything else, the hankering is for someone who would speak in the name of the people." Italy, Greece, Spain, France, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, and more recently the United States, have seen populists (both right and left) achieve unexpected electoral success by claiming to support the people.

Mounk summaries his explanation of how this populism can lead to democracy without rights as follows:

To understand the nature of populism, we must understand that it is both democratic and illiberal--that it both seeks to express the frustrations of the people and to undermine liberal institutions. And to understand its likely effect, we must bear in mind that these liberal institutions are, in the long run, needed for democracy to survive: once populist leaders have done away with all the liberal road-blocks that impede the expression of the popular will, it becomes very easy for them to disregard the people when its preferences start to come in conflict with their own. (Mounk's emphasis.)

There are clear historical examples of populists being elected and doing away with institutions that protected the rights of the people, and then being rewarded with reelection. This...

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