Perverted Democracies

The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It Yascha Mounk, Harvard University Press 2018

In the age of a global democratic recession, we cannot get enough of scholarly work on how contemporary liberal democracies are being challenged by populism. Yascha Mounk’s book entitled “The People vs. Democracy” is one of the latest in this series and is an interesting exercise in political sociology.

The author had a truly ambitious goal—not only coming to terms with populism and trying to fine-tune the gap between the phenomena and democratic backsliding but also to find solutions in global terms. His contribution—split into three main themes, diagnosis, etiology and therapy—is nonetheless a huge added value to comprehending the complexity of these patterns by trying to connect the dots between the United States, Europe and Asia. Readers from Central/Eastern Europe may, however, have a certain feeling that various parts of his critical diagnosis seem to be based mainly on American pressure points.

First, Mounk’s basic assumption is that even if the idea of a global democratic recession was largely a myth before 2016, with the victory of Donald Trump—together with the multiple crises of the EU—it became a reality. He is rightfully claiming that democracy no longer appears to be the only game in town. What makes Mounk’s approach debatable is that, according to him, the process of democratic consolidation really has been a one-way street up until recently. It is worth bearing in mind the argument of Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way who claimed that while the end of the Cold War triggered a wave of democratization, it also triggered a wave of hybridization. Hence, this is not a phenomenon that prevailed mainly after 2010, and one of the regional examples of a hybrid regime, inhabiting the grey zone between an established democracy and a dictatorship, was Slovakia after the democratic transition.

His main thesis is that liberalism and democracy—the essences of which in his account are rule of law and the popular will—are starting to be at odds with each other, meaning that liberal democracy is also being undermined by a tendency to emphasize “liberal” at the expense of “democracy.” While Mounk highlights that “the legitimacy of judicial review is a necessary safeguard” (…) he also claims that “the simple truth is that it makes many issues on which ordinary people have strong opinions out of political contestation”.

It resembles the concept of Koen Abts and Stefan Rummens, who argued that “that the anonymous rule of law is not as innocent as it seems.” In their study entitled “Populism versus Democracy” the authors have high-lighted the paradoxical concept of constitutional democracy, where “the law usually institutes and conceals the dominance of particular groups in society such as, for instance, white, male, property owners.” Therefore, as they put it, political legitimacy requires that supreme authority resides not with the law but with the people.

According to Mounk, liberal democracies might be perverted in two ways: illiberal democracy (democracy without rights) and undemocratic liberalism (rights without democracy).

Illiberal Democracy and Undemocratic Liberalism

Mounk notes that our political regimes are no longer functioning like liberal democracies and increasingly look like “undemocratic liberalism”, but the logic of his argument regarding rule of law seems to be rather twisted from a Central/Eastern European perspective. This is especially so given the volume of constitutional political developments in Poland, where Law and Justice (PiS) could manage a judiciary overhaul by amplifying impatience with liberal constraints on the government with checks and balances viewed as obstacles of getting things done for the people. Given that rule of law has been undermined by the Polish and the Hungarian governments, and various global democracy indexes have highlighted that these democracies have seen the most widespread democratic erosion in the past 5 years, the respective governments are under Article 7 procedures for the first time in the history of the EU.

According to Mounk, liberal democracies might be perverted in two ways: illiberal democracy (democracy without rights) and undemocratic liberalism (rights without democracy). Conceptually speaking, his notion of “illiberal democracy” is an oxymoron as the liberal pillars of democracy are indispensable to the democratic process itself. As Wojciech Sadurski has rightly put it: if the very liberal rights that are part of the guarantees of democracy are eroded of substance, the system loses guarantees of self-protection and democracy become merely formal.

In Mounk’s understanding, “undemocratic liberalism” is being embodied by the European Union; he argues that one reason why our system has become less strictly democratic is that many important topics have been taken out of political contestation, which merged with the growing pressure of technocratization and oligarchization. It is not clear, however, how the conceptual framework of “undemocratic liberalism” is particularly liberal, as Mounk himself also emphasizes that democratic decisions need to be carried out by public bodies who have some degree of autonomy.

Political State Capture

Furthermore, his diagnosis of the growing power of unelected institutions within the EU seems to be exaggerated in light of new intergovernmentalism. In terms of decision-making, intergovernmental platforms such as the European Council and the Eurogroup remain the most important EU institutions. Nonetheless, this intergovernmentalism fits into his argument about the democratic deficit, not only because the negotiations are being prepared by the technocratic elites, but because of the “there is no alternative” sort of approach that prevailed throughout the Eurozone crisis.

Also, while he is highlighting the significant role of money in the political system, by mainly focusing on the explosion of the lobbying industry, he did not actually elaborate on the issue of political state capture and systemic corruption, partly financed by the EU throughout generous subsidies. To put it more blatantly, he did an excellent job of pressing home (the US) the point, but missed the opportunity to underline a key feature of illiberal system-transformation in CEE.

Another provocative argument of Mounk’s book is that “to understand the nature of populism, we must recognize that it is democratic and illiberal”. He claims that populism’s fundamental nature is democratic inasmuch as it expresses the will to restore power to the people. By referring to leading analysts of populism who have refused to acknowledge this drive, he is referring to Jan-Werner Müller who identified populism as anti-pluralism, making a claim to exclusive moral representation of the “real people. What makes his conceptualization a paradox is that while Mounk shares Jan-Werner Müller‘s concern at the democratic damage already done by anti-pluralist, therefore anti-democratic populists, he still insists that “there is something democratic to the energy that drives” them. Ironically, to describe populists’ democratic commitment, Mounk quotes Viktor Orbán who celebrated Donald Trump’s victory by saying that it marked America’s transition from ‘liberal non-democracy’ to ‘real democracy’.

How did we get there?

While the larger part of the book is focused on the populist rise of Donald Trump, Mounk is aiming to connect the dots between the US president and his European counterparts. He emphasizes the classic approach about elites that are corrupt and working on behalf of outside interests—their slogan is “I am your voice and everyone else is a traitor.” He identifies three major developments that have been driving the contemporary instability of democracy.

Firstly, he claims that in the past citizens built up loyalty to their political system because it kept the peace and swelled their pocketbooks. One of the gravest pressure points was that in contrast to the period after the Second World War, liberal democracies could no longer guarantee their citizens a very rapid increase in their living standards.

Secondly, empowering outsiders, digital technology destabilizes governing establishment all over the world and spreads up and speeds up the pace of change. As a result, political outsiders can spread lies and hatred without abandon. On top of that, populists have been able to successfully exploit the new technology most efficiently, undermining the basic element of liberal democracy. While he is mainly focused on Trump, the analysis fails to identify other relevant pressure points such as media capture, state-led manipulation and subversive Russian disinformation that amplifies democratic deterioration and the success of populists in CEE.

Thirdly, he highlights identity-based fears regarding the increasing level of xenophobia now that citizens have to learn how to live in a more equal and diverse democracy, stressing that demographics are key pressure points both for North America and Europe.

One reason why our system has become less strictly democratic is that many important topics have been taken out of political contestation, which merged with the growing pressure of technocratization and oligarchization.

What Should be Done?

Mounk admits that meeting all of these challenges is going to be extremely difficult, and yet he tries to provide global solutions to a many-faced monster. Having a look at his suggestions about how to fix the economy, a decent European-style social democrat narrative prevails.

From diagnosis and etiology, he moves to extensive recommendations, with a threefold approach. In order to stop the rise of populism, economic policy must be fixed by responding to complex fears and envisioning a better tomorrow with the basic elements of the welfare state to be restored. He suggests, among other things, that the state could do much more to ensure that those who have been most heavily impacted by automatization will be able to obtain a life of material dignity. Speaking about a new tax system, he claims that governments should change the behavior of the super-rich by stepping up criminal punishment for big-time tax evaders.

While he is rightfully encouraging democratic opposition to stand up proactively, stressing that this kind of “joint rebellion” can make the lives of populist governments difficult in practice, he’s wrong by claiming that in Hungary mass protest may have helped convince Viktor Orbán to allow Central European University to keep operating even after he passed a law to disband it.

Although it may be fashionable for an activist to campaign for the mainstream party, he emphasises that it is often the only way to stand up for democracy. In a nutshell, he is proposing a forward-looking strategy that helps them win the next elections to implement meaningful improvements once they form the government. It is especially relevant in Poland and Hungary where the opposition can only stand a chance if they join forces due to the uneven playing political field.

Instead of the radical leftist rejection of the nation, he suggests embracing inclusiveness by forging a new language of inclusive patriotism. “Nationalism is like a wild half domesticated animal. As long as it remains under control, it can be of tremendous use and genuinely enrich our lives but it is always threatening to break free of the cost training put on it and when it does it can be deadly.” The first step would be to educate them together: in Germany, that would mean rethinking the three-tier school system and make it much easier for immigrant children to attend university. In the US it would mean a renewed focus on desegregated schools.

Populism’s fundamental nature is democratic inasmuch as it expresses the will to restore power to the people.

With regards to the hate speech prevailing on social media, he warns not throw the baby out with the bathwater, claiming that any sort of censorship would ultimately undermine the very foundation of liberal democracy and politicians like Trump would gain the right to censor whatever they dislike. By highlighting the importance of renewing civic faith and rebuilding trust in politics, he is stressing that opposition politicians have an incentive to uncover gross forms of misconduct and state corruption.

The author has nevertheless delved into a heroic endeavor to identify silver bullets to all those who are concerned about liberal democracy. Given his anxiety, however, about people falling out of love with democracy, he should have provided at least a couple of points regarding how rule of law is valuable and why individual rights should be considered inviolable. This is especially because—as we have also learned from his book—there is a very low level of trust within democratic institutions providing a favorable background for authoritarian populist backsliding not only in Central Eastern Europe but also in the United States.

Edit Zgut

is a Hungarian political scientist based in Warsaw. She is a guest lecturer at the University of Warsaw, Centre for Europe. She is a PhD student at IFIS, in the Polish Academy of Sciences. Her main field of research is illiberalism in Central Europe and the constraining role of the EU. Edit Zgut previously worked at Political Capital Research and Consultancy Institute in Budapest as a foreign policy analyst. She has also been teaching International Relations at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Hungary.

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