Yascha Mounk’s ‘The People vs. Democracy’ describes an America on the brink

Then-candidate Donald Trump campaigning in the traditionally Democratic town of Ambridge, Pennsylvania in October 2016.
(Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

It was an exciting time. The Cold War was over, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a worldwide flourishing of peace and freedom. On Jan. 29, 1991, speaking to a joint session of Congress, then-President George H.W. Bush described “a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind — peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.” He hailed “the triumph of democratic ideas in Eastern Europe and Latin America.” Eleven months later, on Dec. 26, 1991, the Soviet Union disappeared entirely; in its place stood 15 emerging democracies.

It was during that optimistic time that I organized a congressional Republican retreat in Princeton, N.J., where we featured a conversation with a young scholar named Francis Fukuyama, who had just published “The End of History and the Last Man.” The arc, or line, of history, he argued, could not sustain tyrannies; ultimately, it would be free democracies that would win, and were winning, the long struggle among competing governing ideologies. Sure enough, Vladimir Putin's never-in-doubt "reelection" as the unquestioned leader of post-Soviet Russia shows that today, even oligarchs feel the need to wrap their strongman rule in a cloak of democratic legitimacy.

But as Fukuyama knew, it’s a bit more complicated. Fifteen years after “The End of History,” Fareed Zakaria published “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad”; the goal, Zakaria cautioned, was not democracy per se but “liberal” democracy, meaning not only free and fair elections but also “the rule of law, separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.” And, he argued, “this latter bundle of freedoms — what might be termed constitutional liberalism — is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy.”

Yascha Mounk’s brilliant new book, “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It” is the latest point on the continuum, and it’s a scary ride, coming at a time when both Fukuyama’s predicted multiplication of democracies and the truth of Zakaria’s warnings have come to pass. Where we Americans have long since come to imagine democracy and constitutional liberalism as essentially a single entity, Mounk — born and raised in Germany, having lived in England, France and Italy before coming to the United States — brings an outsider's perspective and sees instead a battle between democracy without rights (what the Founders called a tyranny of the majority) and rights without democracy. Both are problematic. Given the ability to shape society without the constraints of effective mediating institutions, the masses might well use that power to eliminate the rights of nonmajorities (ironically, doing so by turning to authoritarians, whose attacks on any who would dare to stand in the way of “the people” — independent courts, a free press — would be freed to consolidate power and effectively do away with meaningful democracy).

Among white voters below age 30, Donald Trump won by five points in 2016.

But a system of rights without democracy is equally a threat. As Mounk notes, more and more of the important policy decisions that affect citizens’ lives are outside the scope of electoral influence. Unelected judges rewrite or reject policies enacted by the men and women the voters have selected for that purpose. Federal bureaucracies wield enormous power. Both the wealthy and narrow-interest activist groups have a magnified influence over government decision-making and the public will matters less and less. International treaties place important issues outside the reach of elected legislators. Those who complain that their voice is not heard are not without justification in thinking so. The problem is on both sides: The voters have become more illiberal and the elites have become less responsive.

In addition, the America of today is a far cry from that which older citizens can recall. In the past, Mounk notes, the dominance of the mass media limited the distribution of extreme ideas, created a set of shared facts and values, and slowed the spread of fake news. Now those gatekeepers have been significantly weakened by the emergence of the internet and social media. In addition, for decades, most Americans could expect improved living standards for themselves and their children; now, many citizens are “treading water” and their economic futures looks bleak. Finally, he observes, whereas nearly all stable democracies, including our own, were either mono-ethnic or ones in which a single ethnicity dominated, that pattern is being challenged. In the ’60s, one in 20 Americans was foreign-born; today, it’s one in seven, identical to the massive immigration period that lasted from 1860 to 1920 and created the melting pot America that shaped the nation for the rest of the 20th century. For many, culturally, socially and economically, the ground is shifting uncomfortably beneath their feet, giving rise to anxiety and a search for someone strong enough to restore the comforting past.

“This is deeply worrying,” Mounk writes, because “liberalism and democracy are both nonnegotiable values. If we have to give up on either individual rights or the popular will, we are being asked to make an impossible choice.”

As this superb book makes clear, we need both the liberal framework and the democracy, and bringing them back together is the greatest challenge of our time.

Mounk’s concerns are rooted in an understanding of the world he occupies in 2018, as opposed to the one Fukuyama was writing in a quarter-century earlier. Today, nearly one-fourth of millennials (the cohort that will soon dominate public elections) think democracy is a bad way to run the country, according to data Mounk compiled from the World Values Survey, Gallup polls and other research resources. By 2011, fully 44% of Americans ages 18 to 24 felt that a political system with a strong leader who did not have to bother with Congress or elections was a good idea or a very good idea. At the same time, one in six Americans said they were in favor of military rule. Over time, young Americans have become more and more attracted to political extremes. Among white voters below age 30, Donald Trump won by five points in 2016. It is not hyperbole to suggest that there are things to worry about.

Mounk’s argument takes us back full circle to the trepidations of the Founders, who empowered the people to select their own leaders but whose ultimate authority would be mediated and constrained by independent forces within a constitutional framework. As this superb book makes clear, we need both the liberal framework and the democracy, and bringing them back together is the greatest challenge of our time. The last 68 pages describe what we can do to pull ourselves back from the brink; they are familiar remedies — he didn’t invent them — but when you read those final pages, you should takes notes and start your to-do list. It’s important.

Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years. He later taught at Harvard and Princeton and is currently a vice president of the Aspen Institute. He is the author of “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans."

Book jacket for Yascha Mounk's 'The People vs. Democracy'. CREDIT: Harvard University Press
(Harvard University Press / Harvard University Press)

Yascha Mounk

Harvard University Press: 400 pp., $29.95