Yascha Mounk – The People vs. Democracy

There is a growing literature on the decline of democratic governance. Larry Diamond declared the world was in a democratic recession years ago and Freedom House has confirmed a long-term decline in democratic governance in their annual assessments. Of course, the literature has warned about a crisis of democracy in the past. Samuel Huntington cowrote a work titled The Crisis of Democracy in 1975. About fifteen years later, Huntington wrote the landmark Third Wave of Democratization which conveyed growing optimism in the prospects of democracy.

The current democratic recession is likely to reverse. In its wake, there will be another wave of democratization with the corresponding growth of optimism at the prospects of democracy around the globe. In the current edition of Foreign Affairs Yascha Mounk penned an article titled “The Dictators Last Stand” where he predicts the next decade will reverse the autocratic trends of the past fifteen years. The challenge to produce legitimization for authoritarian leaders will face its own crisis especially within nations who have experienced democratic governance.

Mounk’s most recent book focuses on the challenges within liberal democratic governments to establish its own legitimacy. He makes a clear break with Fukuyama’s End of History thesis. During a period of democratic pessimism, it’s not surprising to find the brightest young minds reject Fukuyama’s idealistic optimism. Yet Mounk goes farther and rejects Fukuyama’s most critical premise. He accepts liberal democracy has its own internal contradictions.

In many ways Ljiphart resolved the contradictions within liberal democracy that Dahl was unable to explain. The consensual model of democracy transformed liberalism into an element of democratic governance. Mounk reestablished liberalism and democracy as two distinct ideas. For example, central bank independence was a component of consensual democracy for Ljiphart. But Mounk reinterprets it as an obstacle to democratic governance. Polarization throws a wrench into the consensual model. Fukuyama has referred to the United States as a Vetocracy, yet the constitutional elements which drive this criticism are elements of Ljiphart’s consensual model of democracy. Mounk does not make an explicit critique of Ljiphart nor is it obvious he would accept this conclusion, but his version of democracy does revert to a more majoritarian definition of democracy.

Instead, Mounk’s majoritarian democracy is reminiscent of Robert Dahl. Yet Dahl had an idealistic view of majoritarian governance. Because Dahl’s Preface to Democratic Theory was written in 1956, he provided unique insights which have been lost to history. He notes how the Supreme Court had a miserable record in civil rights cases. Indeed, the courts were more likely to restrict human rights than to expand them. Since then the court has been defined by landmark civil rights cases. Nonetheless, electoral majorities favored an expanded suffrage and equal rights long before the law changed to reflect its attitudes. Dahl argued political institutions designed to limit the tyranny of the majority more often imposed a tyranny of a minority which was generally composed of the rich and powerful.

Yet Mounk lacks the optimism of Dahl. He accepts the majoritarian conception of democracy with trepidation. There is a dark pessimism in which he seems to accept democracy may bring about policies he deems abhorrent. But the failure to allow these suboptimal outcomes brings about a populist backlash which leaders use to undermine democratic governance. Still, Mounk implies people are not so much frustrated with democracy as they are disenchanted with liberalism. There are similarities in his critique with Patrick Deneen’s work Why Liberalism Failed. The difference is Mounk is an advocate for liberal democratic outcomes whereas Deneen is a conservative. Yet they both seem to accept liberal institutions must be dialed back to preserve democratic governance long-term.

This is a short book. I essentially read it on an airplane on a business trip. It’s also available as an audiobook. It’s written for the intellectual public, so it is easily accessible. Indeed, it is easy to overlook the sophistication of Mounk’s political ideas without proper context. The book belongs to a small subgenre of texts written about the decline of democracy. But these books ask penetrating questions about the nature and substance of democratic governance. They force readers to question the ideas writers like Dahl and Ljiphart essentally take for granted. Dahl challenged himself to overcome objections in his 1989 book Democracy and its Critics. But Mounk deals with the more significant demons of polarization and populism. It is impossible to come to any sense of democratic theory without engaging with these ideas.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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