Tuesday, June 12, 2018

What if democracy and individual freedom seem incompatible?

How to begin describing political scientist Yascha Mounk's The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It? On the one hand, many US readers will have to work to adjust to unfamiliar uses of familiar words which are at the core of Mounk's argument. On the other hand, once we get the definitions down, this is a very clearly written and highly accessible survey of trends all over the world that certainly seem hostile to polities that value human freedom. So -- here are Mounk's core definitions:

  • a democracy is a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translate popular views into public policy
  • Liberal institutions effectively protect the rule of law and individual rights such as freedom of speech, etc ...
  • a liberal democracy is simply a political system that is both liberal and democratic -- one that both protects individual rights and translates popular views into public policy

One additional definition is necessary to understand Mounk's book: by populism he means movements that see legitimacy and power as emanating solely from majorities of the people. These movements have no respect for the technocratic, legal, and institutionalist organizational forms that elites (and majorities in less fraught times) uphold. Populism can refer to movements either loosely of the left or vaguely of the right. In US history (not much discussed by Mounk who is a newly naturalized US citizen, formerly German) western farmers rebelling against the banks and gold standard in the 1890s were lefty populists -- as were the followers of demagogic Louisiana governor Huey Long during the Depression of the 1930s. Donald Trump is a right populist in our familiar categories.

In this book, the author demonstrates that liberal democracy loses legitimacy all over the world because, for many people, the democratic part of the equation -- voting, parties and candidates -- don't seem to deliver what they promise: much impact on outcomes people want in their daily lives. What populists -- like Donald Trump -- do is weaponize people's frustration with the failures of the system against the very institutions that make democracy liberal: higher education, regulatory bodies, science, courts, lawyers, etc.. Populist pols substitute the One True Leader for all those complex social mechanisms and claim "I alone can fix it."Hence

"an honest leader -- one who shares the pure outlook of the people and is willing to fight on their behalf -- needs to win high office ... once this honest leader is charge, he needs to abolish the institutional roadblocks that might stop him from carrying out the will of the people."

For the populist, the institutional roadblocks are the political system of law and justice itself. I find this description of what US democracy is up against in the Trump regime clear, compelling, and chilling. Mounk provides readable documentation from survey research and electoral examples all over the world.

So what would be necessary for liberal democracy to satisfy the people, thereby defanging the populist menace? Mounk suggests three areas where he sees contemporary democratic failure. Unconstrained economic elites are seizing for themselves more and more of the wealth of the nation and mature economies offer very little in the way of "trickle down." Increasing racial and national diversity among the people is easily blamed for the specter of scarcity. Promoting the notion of racial, cultural, or even gender "enemies" serves to divide minorities from the "real" citizens. And modern communication media lend themselves to obfuscation, conspiracy theories, and lies.

"Once upon a time, liberal democracies could assure their citizens of a very rapid increase in their living standards. Now, they no longer can. Once upon a time, political elites controlled the most important means of a communication, and could effectively exclude radical views from the public sphere. Now, political outsiders can spread lies and hatred with abandon. And once upon a time, the homogeneity of their citizens -- or at least a steep racial hierarchy -- was a big part of what held liberal democracies together. Now, citizens have to learn to live in a much more equal and diverse democracy.

I found Mounk utterly convincing on the economic aspects of the democratic predicament. He is not steeped in the history of workers' movements; but he is a European social democrat and he knows economic theft when he sees it.

On "fake news" I resist thinking this is a technological problem; every communication advance (think printing Bibles in the vernacular for example!) has eventually been absorbed by its culture without overthrowing all access to truth -- though the process can be long, violent, and fraught.

And I found Mounk a little shallow on race, immigration, and culture; on this, a perspective grounded in consciousness of white supremacy as the US national original sin needs to be front and center to combat Trump's xenophobic nationalism. Like so many academics, his appreciation of this feels a little less heartfelt than his economic analysis.

So what does Mounk propose to people who want to defeat contemporary populism? He's got quite a catalogue. First and foremost, and somewhat unexpectedly for an academic, he says we have to be ready to go out in the streets. He cites the example of South Korea whose current government is one that was elected because the people demanded the ouster of a corrupt predecessor. Resistance can work.

... while the work of resistance is undoubtedly cumbersome, most political scientists do believe it can make life difficult for populist governments: the painstaking work of opposition can call attention to unpopular policies; slow the progress of pending legislation; embolden judges to strike down unconstitutional laws; provide support to embattled media outlets; change the calculus for moderates within the regime; and force international governments and organizations to put pressure on a would-be dictator.

He urges as much unity as possible in opposition; when facing a populist demagogue, we can't afford nonessential divisions. Of course discriminating among unlikely allies is not easy. He points to currents in contemporary civic education that he says we can't afford right now:

... an exclusive focus on today's injustices is no more intellectually honest than an unthinking exhortation of the greatness of western civilization.

He thinks we have to make peace with some kind of patriotism; the ugly sort of nationalism might be softened with more respect for the value of attachments to history and place. He applauds Obama's address at the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march as an example.

I hope I have not made this book seem dry or academic. Though thoroughly documented and impressively broad ranging, it is well written and easy to read. I don't agree entirely with a lot in it, but I found it even more useful for thinking about our democratic predicament than I had hoped.

Mounk's work against demagogic populism is readily available at two other venues. He writes a regular column at Slate, The Good Fight. The article I've linked to describes growing populism in Canada. And he produces a podcast of the same name, some episodes of which are better than others.

5 comments:

Rain Trueax said...

The problem the left and right have today is what they want freedom about is different. So liberals on campuses want to shut down speakers with whom they disagree. So conservatives want a hardware store to be able to deny service to gays. I suspect that the more people you end up with, the less freedom is really possible and then the question is who gets to define what individual freedoms will be...

janinsanfran said...

Rain -- I think you are on to something in that a country can simply be too large for accessible governance. We don't know how to do it so that people feel and are heard at the scale we are attempting it.

Rain Trueax said...

it would help if we had good, responsible local governments. They are more accessible, but as you have pointed out here many times, a lot of our local governments are not honest or doing the right things. I've heard it also from businessmen who had to deal with corrupt city halls to get building permits, etc. We seem to overlook our local governments as if they don't matter.

Brandon said...

Off-topic, but here's a post on political ads in Hawaii. One of the commenters thinks "Hawaii would be such a hoot with more SF-style politics."



janinsanfran said...

Brandon -- thanks for the link. :-)

To you both: I recently read someone trying, not for the first time, to explain why most statewide office holders in California come from the San Francisco area, even though most people live elsewhere, especially LA. This idea was that San Francisco has such intense, participatory, highly developed, local politics that pols who come up here simply become very good, for better and worse, at working a democratic system. I found this an interesting idea.

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