In ‘The People vs. Democracy,’ Trump Is Just One Populist Among Many

In ‘The People vs. Democracy,’ Trump Is Just One Populist Among Many

Notice how far we’ve gotten without a mention of you-know-who, the chief populist of the United States. He’s included in “The People vs. Democracy,” as he should be, but one of the many things to recommend this clarifying book is its international scope. As much as Donald J. Trump might fancy himself one of a kind, Mounk argues that the American president is part of a global wave. Populist forces are surging in Britain, Germany, Italy and France; in places like Venezuela, Hungary, Turkey and Poland they have already settled in, set up house and gotten around to the next step: gutting institutional safeguards in order to shore up their rule.


Yascha Mounk

Steffen Jaenicke

Political scientists like Mounk talk about norms and institutions with a kind of reverence that can seem puzzling to non-scholars and non-wonks. But institutions are what allow people, whose experiences and interests differ and diverge, to live together in a democratic system. Whether entrusted with regulating banks or protecting civil rights or enforcing term limits, “liberal institutions are, in the long run, needed for democracy to survive.”

Mounk is a clear and often forceful writer, if not an especially stylish one; he favors the step-by-step explication and the tidy formulation. His prose seems to reflect his preferred mode of politics: earnest, respectful and pragmatic.

As necessary as institutions are, Mounk is also attuned to how they can become purveyors of “undemocratic liberalism,” which he defines as “rights without democracy.” In order to address complex problems that aren’t optimally solved by democratic deliberation — interest rates, for instance, or climate change — enormous power gets consolidated in the hands of unelected officials. “Bureaucratic agencies staffed with subject-matter experts began to take on a quasi-legislative role,” Mounk writes about the postwar era, when states faced a number of new, convoluted challenges in a transformed world.

A thread that runs through populist rhetoric the world over is rage at technocratic elites. Mounk doesn’t believe the resentment is necessarily baseless, even if he thinks the demagogues who seize on such anger offer scapegoats instead of solutions. “Some of the most important economic decisions facing countries around the world are now taken by technocrats,” he writes, with little to no allowance for people to voice their dissent.

Even if economic inequality among nations is decreasing, it’s been growing within most countries, including the United States. Elites do democracy no favors, Mounk suggests, when they respond to the public’s fears by ignoring them, or insisting that everything as a whole is getting better while downplaying suffering as mere collateral damage. Addressing those fears, though, shouldn’t mean indulging the populist penchant for racist invective and conspiracy theories.

“The case for taking so many policy decisions out of democratic contestation may be perfectly sound,” Mounk writes, in his typically sober way. But such a case needs to be actively made, rather than offered up as a no-brainer; there’s little a populist demagogue can weaponize more easily than a policy, however sensible, presented by knowing elites as a high-minded fait accompli.

Mounk spends a good deal of his book offering concrete proposals for how to get out of the populist spiral. Pointing to the impeachment last year of South Korea’s spectacularly corrupt president Park Geun-hye, he advocates mass protests in response to blatant abuses of power and the need, however difficult, “to peel off some members of the ruling regime” and get them to change sides. He also suggests some remedies that might sound reasonable to technocratic ears but seem politically wistful, to say the least: tamping down exorbitant housing prices, devoting more resources to enforcing tax regulations, enabling “all working-age adults to take regular sabbaticals to upgrade their skills.”

You can sense Mounk trying to be hopeful, wondering whether the chaos in the White House will “inoculate” Americans against the illiberal siren song, but the norm-watching political scientist in him can’t help being worried. He points to the example of the Roman Republic, which lurched between plebeian and patrician rule for a century, wearing down norms and institutions so that with each blow, they “were a little less capable of containing the assault.” President Trump, with his extensive experience in both real estate and bankruptcy, has probably deployed his demolition crew knowing full well that swinging the wrecking ball is easy; building something is harder.

Source link

About The Author

Related posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *