If America's Democracy Fails, Can Other Ones Survive?

Yascha Mounk says the rise of populism isn’t over yet.

"NO VOTES" is spray-painted on the ground.
Susana Vera

Almost everyone who writes about challenges to democracy sooner or later encounters the important work of Yascha Mounk. The list of his accomplishments is a long one: The German-born scholar lectures on political theory at Harvard, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Transatlantic Academy of the German Marshall Fund, and is a nonresident fellow at New America's Political Reform Program. He writes a weekly column for Slate, where he also hosts The Good Fight podcast.

His latest book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, will be published on March 5. An excerpt adapted from the book ran in The Atlantic’s March issue. I spoke with Mounk earlier this month about his research, the meaning of populism, and the question of how democratic societies cope with immigration, among other things. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

David Frum: Let’s begin with the research that has made you famous, your cross-country survey of declining faith in democracy among younger people in the advanced countries. Could you describe it?

Yascha Mounk: Political scientists describe wealthy, stable countries as “consolidated democracies.”

Watching the rise of populist parties across Europe, I was a little skeptical of this idea. So with a colleague, Roberto Stefan Foa, I started to look at whether citizens really were as satisfied with democracy as everyone assumed. And the results were pretty shocking. In the United States, for example, over two-thirds of older Americans believed that it was absolutely essential to live in a democracy; among millennials, less than one-third did. Twenty years ago, one in 16 Americans thought that “army rule” was a good system of government. A few years ago one in six did. And the figures are similarly worrying for a whole range of countries in Western Europe.

Frum: Is it possible that different cohorts understood your question in different ways? That younger people hear something different in the word “democracy” than older people?

Mounk: Perhaps. But some of our questions don’t actually use the term “democracy.” And over time there has also been a big loss of support for democracy among all age groups. So, for example, people in Germany, in France, in Britain, and also in the United States are much more likely now than 20 years ago to say that they support “a strongman leader who does not have to bother with politicians or elections.”

Frum: Do you see a connection between expressions of doubt about democracy and voter behavior? I note that except in France, it is older voters who are most likely to cast ballots for authoritarian populists.

Mounk: It’s not only France. The young are more likely to vote for far-right populists in Germany too. And they are much more likely to vote for far-left or ideologically fuzzy populists like Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy. This makes me think that a lot of the anti-system energy among young people simply hasn’t been tapped yet in countries like the United States.

Besides, older voters have become much more critical of democracy over time as well. This is not only a story about the young. People aren’t just unhappy with particular parties or governments; they’re increasingly pissed off at the political system as a whole. That makes them much more open to populists, whose core claim is virtually always that the system is rigged. “The elites don’t care about you,” populists of all stripes say. “They’re in it for themselves. They care more about those people”—who those people are differs from country to country, of course; it can be Muslims in the United States or anybody who’s not a Muslim in Turkey—“than they do about you. So what you need to do now is to vote for someone who can truly speak for the people. That’s me. I am your voice.”

Frum: I’m glad you mention anti-system candidates of the left. What do you make of figures like Bernie Sanders and the U.K.’s Jeremy Corbyn, who reject many “rules of the game,” but who are not themselves authoritarian exactly? (Although Corbyn has long kept company with violent extremists, Irish and Islamic, and surrounds himself with associates who condone Stalinism and celebrate Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.)

Mounk: Well, as you imply, I actually think there’s a big difference between the two figures you mention. Sanders is a critic of American foreign policy, but he has no sympathy for Iran or Russia. He has not made money off hosting a show on Iranian state TV. So the right U.S. counterpart for Corbyn has always struck me as being Jill Stein rather than Bernie Sanders.

But when you look at straightforward left-populists—whether it’s the Chavistas in Venezuela or even Podemos in Spain—I do think there are reasons to worry even though they don’t bill themselves as authoritarian. And that’s because the populist logic ultimately works the same way on the left as it does on the right: Once you’ve said that you alone speak for the whole of the people, any form of opposition to you immediately becomes illegitimate. So once you take power, it becomes very tempting to abolish independent institutions like the courts, to suppress critical voices in the press, and to concentrate more and more power in your own hands.

Frum: How do we recognize who is not a populist in your sense of the term? Jimmy Carter ran a “the people versus the powerful” campaign for president in 1976. You presumably don’t have him in mind? Or the many British Conservatives who have complained for years about remote unelected elites in Brussels that regulate local behaviors without regard for local wishes?

Mounk: The point of democracy is to empower people to hold elites accountable when they aren’t being sufficiently responsive to their interests. So lots of democratic politicians run on saying that elites have become remote and that they plan to serve the forgotten people.

But Carter never painted people who disagreed with him, or who wanted to vote for Gerald Ford, as illegitimate. He never claimed that media organizations who held him to account were traitors. He never said that courts that struck his favored policies down were enemies of the American people. So what defines populists—and makes them dangerous—is the claim that anybody who disagrees with them does not have a legitimate role to play in democratic politics.

Frum: Do you perceive an inflection point in the rise of authoritarian populism? 2010 or 2005? If so, what changed then? Or have pre-existing trends accumulated to the point where they become more noticeable?

Mounk: I wish I did! It would make our life much easier if we could say: Look, this all started around the time of the financial crisis of 2008, so once we’ve managed to recover the losses from the Great Recession, everything will go back to normal. But when you look at the data in Europe, it’s astounding how gradual the rise of populists has been. In 2000, European countries had an average populist vote share of about 8 percent. Now, they are at about 25 percent—and there’s no obvious inflection point along the way.

There are two lessons from this. First, populists don’t yet have majority support in most countries, but they are now within striking distance of winning elections outright in a good number of them. So the fact that populists have not yet taken over in countries like France isn’t a sign that the populist wave has crested; compared to earlier results, populists continue to be on the rise. And second, to understand the rise of populism, we really need to look at factors that are both long-term and cross-national. Any explanation that just talks about what happened in the United States in 2010 or in the Netherlands in 2004 won’t be convincing.

Frum: Let’s dig deeper into the causes of this rise of populism. Two in particular seem to call for extra attention: 1) the increasing remoteness of political authority from local lives, as courts and international organizations displace old-fashioned mass parties; and 2) the disruptive effect of mass immigration from non-developed countries into developed countries. Let’s start with the first. Are we discovering that labor unions were crucial to modern democracy?

Mounk: Developed democracies face what I’ve called a “technocratic dilemma.” The world has become much more complicated over the past 50 years: Economic activity now happens at the global scale. Technology has advanced at a very rapid pace. In order to govern effectively, nearly every democracy has thus established more and more technocratic institutions. Experts figure out how to regulate power plants. Bureaucratic agencies pass many more binding rules than parliaments. International organizations try to coordinate the actions of different states in areas in which the whole world needs to work together. But taken together, the effect of all of these developments has been to make many citizens feel as though their vote doesn’t really matter. And they have a point: It’s really difficult to see, for example, how individual voters can have any meaningful effect on something as vast and complicated as the international response we need to climate change.

Now, some elites want to say that none of this is a problem: So long as these institutions do good work, we shouldn’t worry about them. On the other hand, many populists suggest a simplistic solution: Abolish these institutions, return power to the people, everything will be hunky-dory. The reason I call this a genuine dilemma is that I don’t think either of these views is convincing. We do genuinely need some of these technocratic institutions. But at the same time, they do genuinely disempower the people. This is a fundamental challenge for our political system—and I don’t see an easy way out of it.

Frum: Now the second. You write acutely about the difficulty of achieving democracy within multiethnic states. Yet you seem to take for granted that large-scale immigration flows must and will continue into developed societies. If mass immigration from new ethnic groups is so disruptive to democracy, shouldn’t democracies accept less of it?

Mounk: Nearly all democracies in the world have been founded as monoethnic and monocultural. Decades of immigration have challenged this self-conception. And while a lot of people are very happy to embrace this transformation, others are very resentful about it.

Canada and the United States are less different from this than one might think. They have of course always been more ethnically diverse. But they also had a strict ethnic hierarchy, which has slowly been challenged over the past decades. Neither in North America nor in Western Europe has there ever been a truly equal, multiethnic democracy. So what we’re trying to create right now is a historically unique experiment.

Two convictions flow from this observation. The first is that we need to fight for an inclusive nationalism. This means that we oppose any attempt to identify the nation with a particular ethnic or religious group (as parts of the current U.S. administration consistently do). We must do what we can to protect vulnerable minorities from attacks. But we must also emphasize what we have in common as Americans, rather than scoffing at the need for collective identity or only being willing to celebrate subnational identities like race or religion.

The second conviction gets to the crux of your question. Any genuine liberal democracy will treat all of its citizens the same. But it also lies in the nature of democracies that they get to decide who joins the club. So we need to accept that there can be a legitimate range of opinion about the level of immigration we should have. Decisions about whether, for example, to prioritize family ties or some conception of merit should be made by democratic majorities. We’d need to get into the weeds to see whether we ultimately have the same views on the best kind of immigration policy; but where I suspect we agree is in the broader point that this is a legitimate discussion to have.

Frum: A few moments ago, you offered some comfort: Authoritarian populism may be on the rise, but has not yet taken power in most places. There’s one conspicuous exception of course. If the United States succumbs, can others resist?

Mounk: This is really two questions. The first is about the geopolitical consequences of America abandoning its commitment to liberal democracy. Countries in Western Europe often forget to what extent America has protected them from the ill winds of world politics over the past half century. If the United States evolves toward illiberalism, the consequences would be disastrous. European democracies like France and Germany would become increasingly dependent on Russia. Japan and South Korea would become open to influence from China. This will ultimately put a lot of pressure on their domestic as well as their foreign policy.

The second question is even more important though, and it is about what it would tell us about the stability of other supposedly stable democracies if liberal democracy erodes in the United States. Despite all of America’s specific problems, it is the oldest democracy in the world. With the exception of Canada, it has the deepest experience with trying to make a multiethnic democracy work. If the forces that are pulling us apart are strong enough to make democracy fail in this country, I fear that similar reasons will also prove strong enough to make democracy fail in most other countries in the world.