THERE IS A time in the lives of academics, the fortunate ones at least, when the topic of their research aligns with events taking place on the mean streets beyond the ivory tower. Such has been the lucky lot of democracy theorists in the age of Donald Trump. A small industry of democracy-is-doomed prophets is now proliferating on the nation's bookshelves, from David Runciman's How Democracy Ends (Basic Books) to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's How Democracies Die (Crown). Now joining this morose mix is Yascha Mounk, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School and a senior fellow at the think tank New America, whose apocalyptic stew is titled The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It.
Underscoring the millenarian mood of the moment, Mounk tells us that there are ordinary times and extraordinary times. In the former, "partisans on both sides of the political battle agree on the rules of the game" and on the legitimacy of the electoral process--the political version of allowing the other kids at the playground to have a go at the swings when it's their turn.
But we don't live in ordinary times, Mounk warns. Americans' faith in the fairness and perpetuity of taking turns is fast eroding. Bullies have appeared on the global playground: Trumps, Farages, Orbans, and Erdogans are elbowing out anyone still putting their stock in rules and fairness. Their arrival shows that the basic contours of "politics and society are being renegotiated." There is name-calling and vilification and a fear that the bullies, once they get on the swings, may never leave. If the erosion of democratic norms that Trump has begotten continues, then the "virus of authoritarianism could ravage the body politic without meeting much resistance."
Despair not, for Mounk intends to tell us "what we can do to rescue what is truly valuable in our imperiled social and political order." A new and recalibrated flavor of liberal democracy is needed, he says--one erected on "inclusive patriotism."
This big idea turns out to be a lot less useful than promised. For all his passionate arguments that we live in an extraordinary time, Mounk fails to offer an extraordinary solution.
GETTING TO THAT part of the book requires a lot of wading first. There is, for example, the business of definitions, which come after some chatty opening salvos featuring far-right rallies in Germany. Democracy, Mounk says, is a set of binding electoral institutions that translate...