Review, Top Stories

Is Democracy Doomed?

A review of The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save it by Yascha Mounk, Harvard University Press (2018), 393 pages

The great Austrian-American political economist Joseph Schumpeter once asked, “[c]an capitalism survive?” He answered this question in the negative, believing that markets undermine themselves because they perform too well. The market’s emphasis on innovation and disruption make it difficult for people to recognize how essential they are to rising standards of living. In Schumpeter’s view, capitalism’s downfall will be due to its success.

Schumpeter agreed with Marx that socialism (or something like it) would eventually emerge in capitalism’s place, but he believed it would happen gradually. Willing majorities, buttressed by the anti-capitalist mentality of the intelligentsia, would snuff out entrepreneurs through legislation with large welfare states and burdensome regulations. Schumpeter didn’t live to see the collapse of socialism around the world. Nor did he witness the rise of social democracy in Europe, where states provide generous social safety nets while maintaining liberal economic policies in other areas such as international trade.

In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, political scientist Francis Fukuyama proffered that we may be at the “end of history,” where liberal democracy and open markets represent the end of mankind’s political evolution. For many, Fukuyama’s rosy optimism about the future, which was originally articulated in a 1989 essay in The National Interest, was shattered by the American presidential election in 2016. Donald Trump, an uncivil, bigoted man who acts as a wannabe despot – a “despot’s apprentice,” according to Brian Klass of the London School of Economics – rises to the most powerful office in the world by promising to build border walls, jail his political opponent, and ban immigrants to the US on the basis of their religion. To say that most seasoned political commentators were shocked by this string of events would be an understatement.

Political scientists are now asking themselves the same question about liberal democracy that Schumpeter asked about markets. Across the Western world, populist candidates of the far-Right and far-Left who openly flout accepted norms of civility and the orthodox tenets of a liberal order have experienced unusual amounts of electoral success, most notably in the form of President Trump.

While many are fearful of what the rest of Donald Trump’s first term – and the prospect of a second term – may bring, there is general agreement that we haven’t reached a point of no return. “America’s institutions are where democracy has proven most resilient. So far at least, our system of checks and balances is working,” writes Vox’s Sean Illing.

Harvard’s Yascha Mounk shares this optimism. Even though the current trends are frightening, it’s not too late to course-correct. This is the case he makes in his timely new book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It. I’m much more bearish on liberal democracy’s prospects than Mounk, but his argument is insightful and powerfully made and warrants significant consideration, nonetheless.

The book is an overview of Mounk’s research into this question of democratic consolidation, and now deconsolidation. Scholars previously assumed that once a country transitioned into democracy and obtained a certain amount of wealth, democratic political institutions become consolidated. They essentially are the only game in town. The United States may send illiberal people to Washington, but there has never been much of a concern about sliding into authoritarianism. Mounk and his colleague Roberto Stefan Foa have begun to shine some light on this assumption, showing that, in fact, support for liberal democracy is in decline across the Western world, and that democracy is in the process of deconsolidation.

Mounk measures this by using survey responses from the World Values Survey as a proxy for attitudes about democracy, examining changes over the course of the last 25 years or so. According to this data, “a quarter of a century ago, most citizens were proud to live in a liberal democracy and strongly rejected authoritarian alternatives; now, many are growing increasingly hostile to democracy.”

This trend is particularly present in younger generations. Less than one-third of American millennials see it as “essential to live in a democracy.” One in four of this same group think that democracy is a “bad way of running a country.” These trends holds true for younger citizens of other long standing democracies.

It’s not just youth that are a cause for worry, though. Americans of all ages are more likely to support a populist strongman than they were twenty years ago: 32 percent say that a leader that ignores Congress would be either a good thing or a very good thing. That’s up from 24 percent in 1995. When asked about the desirability of a military junta, the answer’s favorability has doubled from 1995 to 2011. According to what Mounk says, support for military rule is “about as high in the United States as it is in countries with such turbulent histories of civil-military relations as Algeria [and] Yemen.”

These numbers in and of themselves don’t necessarily signal the decline of democracy. But, Mounk also points to the erosion of democratic norms as another sign that democracy is deconsolidating. The current climate of hyper-partisanship is chipping away at democracy’s unwritten rules of mutual tolerance amongst rivals. Waves of populism over the last several decades have led politicians to forsake the idea that “winning an important election or passing an urgent law is less important than preserving the system; and that democratic politics must never degenerate into all-out war.” It has become all about delivering red meat to an increasingly polarized base.

Mounk points to three things driving these trends: social media, economic stagnation, and an identity and demographic anxiety in countries with high levels of immigration. Social media closes a technological gap that long existed between establishment insiders and outsiders, and lowers the transaction costs for political newcomers. Economic stagnation has caused many people, particularly in rural areas, to lose faith in the idea of social mobility. They worry their children will not have a better life than they have had. Thus, they turn to candidates like Donald Trump who promises to work magic to save entire industries. And increased immigration to places such as suburban and exurban Michigan has caused rapid changes that inspires resentment.

These arguments necessarily inspire the usual question: what can we do to fix it? Professor Mounk provides a list of policy prescriptions that he argues could stem this anti-democratic tide. He proposes higher taxation to lower levels of economic inequality, liberalized housing policies in major urban areas so as to not lock people out of greater economic opportunity, a redesigned welfare state that “decouple[s] social benefits from traditional employment,” renewed interest in civics education, and other things he considers commonsense recommendations.

This is where the professor and I differ. His argument for democracy in crisis is convincing. I’m unsure of a policy fix for it. For instance, I fully support Mounk’s proposal for housing reform in America’s major cities. But rural and exurban residents prone to populist narratives won’t automatically move to an urban center and join the ranks of liberal cosmopolitanism. Rural residents who live in areas with fewer good paying jobs are less likely to move than other demographics. They tend to place higher values on family and social ties. Liberal urban policies would make life immensely better for the the young and poor who already live there, which is a good thing in and of itself. But Trump voters are not going to pack it up and head to the city.

If part of the problem is economic outcomes, certain policies such as housing reform would benefit young people, but it won’t necessarily endear them to liberal democracy. They have ill-informed views about the nature of wealth creation. One reason previous generations were willing to give politicians the benefit of the doubt, Mounk says, is because the system seemed to be working. But when hard times hit, they began to lose their faith. This implies they believed politicians hand-deliver growth, which doesn’t bode well for democracy in an economy that naturally goes boom and bust, sometimes drastically. As economist Peter Boettke has said, “economists are not responsible for the wealth of nations, but they can be responsible for [their] poverty.” The same can be said of politicians. The incredible support from young people for Bernie Sanders – whose campaign, like any good populist, was premised on simple policy proposals – shows that the youth aren’t immune from this thinking. I’m skeptical that increased taxation aimed at eliminating economic inequality, or progressive welfare reforms, which may be useful policies in their own right, would do much to alleviate this.

Also, young people’s sympathy for socialism further shows they don’t really believe in scarcity or trade offs, and that good economic outcomes are simply a matter of political will. Both young and old have simplistic views of government. Populists exploit this with bold yet superficial promises, and will certainly continue to do so.

I think Mounk is right that social media plays a role in this story – there are certainly enormous benefits to it, but there are enormous costs as well. Because sites like Twitter allow us to curate our own sources of news and information, we have effectively segregated ourselves online. As Mounk and other critics note, the increased ease with which we can communicate with anybody in the world has led us to communicate less with political opponents, and political opponents are the people with whom a healthy liberal democracy requires us to communicate.

This political seclusion contributes to polarization. Polling from Pew in 2017 shows that 45 percent of Republicans have a “very unfavorable view” of Democrats. Democrats responding the same about Republicans clocks in at 44 percent. In 1994, those numbers were 17 percent and 16 percent. This polarization began before the advent of social media. Social media has simply exacerbated an existing problem, which it will take more than banning hate speech or fake news to abate.

The great Scottish moral philosopher and political economist Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that humans are endowed with natural sympathy for one another. Social media seems to be robbing us of this sympathy. The impartial spectator Smith posits as a guide for our emotions and actions towards other people is turned into a totally partial spectator that harkens to the worst angels of our nature when operating online in an anonymous echo chamber.

So, no, I’m not terribly optimistic about liberal democracy’s prospects. Most people don’t like to be wrong, but in this case, I would welcome it. Mounk’s book is an unshrinking and badly needed defense of liberalism, even though I ultimately remain skeptical of his policy prescriptions.

 

Jerrod A. Laber is a writer and Free Society Fellow with Young Voices. He is a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and his other work can be found in Real Clear Defense, Planetizen, the American Conservative, and the Columbus Dispatch, among others. You can find him on Twitter @JerrodALaber

Filed under: Review, Top Stories

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Jerrod A. Laber is a writer and Free Society Fellow with Young Voices. He is a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and his other work can be found in Real Clear Defense, Planetizen, The American Conservative, and the Columbus Dispatch, among others.

12 Comments

  1. Compared to Uri Harris, that’s a lot better.

    It is the nature of a democracy to eventually elect representatives who look like their constituents.

    1992: Putting People First, but hey, I’m Bill, so Ladies first!
    1996: Let’s repeal Glass-Steagall and stuff ourselves like pigs.
    2000: The axis of Evil, God speaks to me.
    2004: The Wealthy are my base.
    2008: The Naive Hope, because I’m worth it.
    2012: I’ll be nice to everyone who loves me. Let’s send drones too.
    2016: Hillary or Trump. 70 yo each. Formative years during the Cold War. That’s a ‘F*ck you’
    2017: Let’s bomb Iran why not?
    2018: Wakanda is my home.

    Do you see the pattern? No?

    It’s been two years now that libtards in US universities have declared ‘open season’ on anything not Bernie Sanders. Classical liberals are praying everyday in group therapies like scared puppies, that somehow, through the magic of *reason* everything will go back to the golden days of ‘I don’t know where or when’. In the mean time, the religion of peace tells us it’s ok to hate jews, and to put women in bags. Mind you, those air-heads are even asking for it.

    And nobody says a god darn thing about it.

    My point is, looking at the pattern 1992 – 2016 (24 f**ing years, with 16 y of war !!), how could we be so wrong for so long?

    Quillette, I beg you, get a hold of someone working at the logistics dept. of a big supply chain company, and ask her “what does it take to land a bucket of crap, everyday, to the doorstep of 300 million Americans?”

    I mean, by the look of it, if you can do that, you will be President.

    • Peter Kriens says

      It is always quite trivial to find things wrong. Since I was born in 1958 an immense amount of good happened. I still recall the horrible pictures of Biafra where millions died of hunger. Let’s not pretend there has not been a lot of progress in the world.

      That said, I do believe that we’re in a troubling age where we’ve put the individual so long on a pedestal that too many have forgotten that it prospers, and can only prosper, because it is a member of a larger group. We’ve rightfully abdicated religion but not replaced its role to provide a common value system in a society. What we’re seeing I think is [the young] searching to put meaning on life and then escaping in singular causes not realising what the societal consequences of their solutions will be.

      Fairly sure dumping crap on everybody’s doorstep will not help in this struggle.

  2. Korakys says

    When every party favours liberalism how can one tell if people are disenchanted with liberalism or democracy? After all some nationalist parties are starting to emerge now, are they getting votes because they are against democracy or because they are against liberalism?

    I believe democracy is doomed if only one real choice is provided, offer alternatives to liberalism and people will make the right choice whether it is for democratic socialism, democratic liberalism, or democratic nationalism.

    When the only choice is between various types of democratic liberalism and authoritarian nationalism or authoritarian socialism, well, that is a recipe for disaster.

  3. Cluebat says

    Pretty sure we are doomed.
    The Constitution has failed to preserve our Republic, and our liberty is forfeit.
    Universal suffrage has ensured that the wolves will be having mutton for dinner.
    We had a pretty good run. With any luck Mars will take the torch.

  4. Gerhard says

    When one of my academic colleagues returned to the United States a few years ago, after more than a decade working abroad, he was shocked to see that America had become an oppressive place where people “can’t speak their mind anymore”. In a country where college administrators and corporate managers enforce politically correct speech codes, people no longer see the difference between democracy, military dictatorship, and Chinese-style one-party rule. The difference between America, China and Iran is merely in the kind of ideology that the elites impose on everyone. There no longer is a difference in the sense of living in a “free” country.

  5. Terrence says

    All very arcane, but seems to miss one hypothesis that has potential application through a large part of the West: the welfare state has expanded to such an extent that more people ‘vote for a living’ (ie are net benefit recipients and/or are employed by government) than ‘work for a living’ (ie are net taxpayers and work in the private sector, creating rather than redistributing wealth).
    Once that tipping point is passed, an ever-expanding majority of beneficiaries form ever-shifting coalitions to extract wealth from ever-diminishing numbers of net tax payers who generate wealth. Having miseducated youth who know nothing of history but have a strongly cultivated sense fo grievance helps the process along.
    As Bastiat observed, “The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.” More pointedly, Alexander Fraser Tytler is said to have argued: ‘A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.’
    If these views from 200 years ago have force in explaining what is going on today, higher taxation and further separating welfare from work are only going to accelerate the collapse.

    • Terrance,

      Voting at the government level has become voting for student council president. To even admit you voted for the candidate you felt best — if that candidate were not the pre-ordained Media favorite gets you chastised or banished. There is no freedom of speech unless you are speaking the talking points of the Party, komrade. That’s what many of the past 24 years worth of elections became. Vote for the guy who said “Free Pizza and Soda!” on a flyer for student council president! I mean, they blast Trump for having no foreign policy experience, but did they say that for Obama and his reset button with Russia or appeasement of Iran/North Korea? I actually appreciated that Obama had none so might try something new (and did..didn’t work, but at least he tried) but when Trump suggests the same OMGOMGOMG! Trump is a fascist! say the “antifa” mob who use force to stifle any speech counter to their point (they should change their name to antius).

  6. I think that real questions seem to be whether Democracy and Liberalism are, now, even desirable.
    Democracy gives people the opportunity to vote for the other heads of the Hydra and the original Liberalism depends too much on a shrinking group, that allows for more individual freedoms and capitalism. These two political systems depend on the IQ, impulse control and out-group altruism of the population, I won’t put my hopes in a welfare state and immigration policies that would rush the dysgenic trends.
    No one seems to wonder if the hysterical reactions of the intelligentsia, the press and bureaucrats are the real threats to a functioning nation, whether or not the blaming of social media for the decentralization of information or candidates for new political proposals or citizens for simply making use of their freedom to associate and suspicious of housing schemes that attempt to break down voting majorities, are symptoms of just an increasingly broken immune system that self-coordinates, like a headless Cerberus, to purge wrongthink.
    The ” checks and balances” are compose by interest groups that preach but do not expose themselves to the Gospel of Democracy all while proselytizing the beauties of Liberalism and then go around to point at hate speech and bigotry as the source of decadence. If the system is in crisis it is because the system works, to paraphrase Deneen, and to think that more of it or trying to go back to the past like modern Conservatives, who might be considered the left-wing radicals of the previous century, propose is just postponing a needed revision of what good governance means and preservation of the status quo, for lack of a better term, is not the answer, we should see this “crisis” as an opportunity for new political thought to flourish from its ashes, not as cracked building to put back with tape, I don’t know which between a controlled demolition or leaving society to the corroding entropy of Liberalized Democracy is the best way, but just like in economics nothing is “too big to fail” so should be in politics or we would still live under the rule of a monarch.
    Every time someone describes Trump as a fascist or a “wannabe dictator” and his voters as a plague to freedom is important to remember that he has yet to put political opponents in jail under charges of corruption, the judges that try to stop his policies are free and no new war to spread the American Way seems to be on horizon and his voters didn’t have a nation wide tantrum after the election. Looking at the evidences Trump is no Xi Jinping. I can write and voice these words of condemnation toward the system under which I live and like, considering myself moderately liberal, without be imprisoned so no one should forget the freedoms afforded by North American and Western European societies and how to keep them.
    We are left with many questions: those who hold a piece of political power, citizens included, seem to be sure of the benefits of the division and fragmentation of power, but is it possible that Montesquieu was wrong? Does the separation of power and the requirement that they they keep each other hostage hurt society? Is democracy just like meritocracy, works for one generation and the rest is a feedback loop? Since we know of the polluting effect that politics in science, and assuming that such problem can go both ways, how much the institutions of education and politics should be kept away from each other? Nothing last forever so when is the time to part ways for citizens with different interests reached? After the clear failure of globalism does the nation-state still represent a viable solution? The Identity politics of the Left and the Right have been maligned for causing the degradation of political discourse, is true and are these movements equally wrong in their claims? Individualism needs moderation otherwise becomes subjective selfishness, and individualism works as long as everybody does it, so how does one convince someone of it while keeping in mind the “tragedy of the commons”? Does the “end of history” represent an “arms race” to develop new way to address old and new problems? If it is so how is big the risk to see the success of the CCP?
    Of course questions abound on how to devise new monetary policies, reforms of the banking system in many European countries, not to talk about the military and prisons, even the need of new currencies, energy production and how can we avoid the folly of Germany following the advice of environmentalists, who gloss over the decreasing temperatures, and the “green renewable energies” that are totally unreliable.
    We shouldn’t focus too much on the theory and forget to start looking for practical solutions.

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