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This Is How American Democracy Could End

We asked a leading political scientist about his terrifying new book.
Right-wing protesters in New York City on May Day, 2016. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty

If you are worried about the world becoming less and less stable with each passing month, about democracies around the world coming under assault from strongmen and would-be strongmen, about society succumbing to its worst impulses, do not read the new book from political scientist Yascha Mounk, The People Vs. Democracy. It will scare the hell out of you.

Mounk, who grew up in Germany in the 80s and 90s, attracted attention in late 2016 for co-authoring an article that found people in the West—and young people in particular—are less enamored with democracy and more open to autocracy than ever. Coverage of the study was criticized for being alarmist, but it is true that in countries ranging from Hungary to Poland to India liberal democratic institutions have come under attack; extremist right-wing parties have also come dangerously close to gaining power in places like Austria and France. And thanks to Donald Trump, Americans have reason to believe their own democracy could erode with frightening speed.


The People Vs. Democracy is obviously a book intended to alarm (its subtitle is “Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It”) but it also offers a compelling way to look at several trends afflicting the world. The chief problem Mounk identifies is that “liberal democracy,” the system guaranteeing a wide range of individual rights as well as elected governments, seems to be splitting apart. On one hand, you have “rights without democracy,” situations where the rule of law is intact but the people are ruled by unelected bureaucrats and elites who aren’t in tune with the popular will (Mounk cites the EU as his prime example). On the other hand are “illiberal democracies,” where populist leaders take take advantage of anger and resentment to damage institutions and civil liberties, and even wind up establishing outright dictatorships. Mounk also delves into the causes of the West’s vulnerability to these demagogues—in his telling, decades of economic stagnation and relatively sudden demographic changes via immigration have made many people unhappy with their lot in life and prone to xenophobia. Meanwhile, social media provides fringe groups platforms that gatekeepers had once denied them.

In other words, society is fracturing along several axes at once and in ways that benefit strongmen, racists, and other forces that liberal democracy was supposed to keep at bay. Before the book dropped this week, I asked Mounk if there was anything we could do about it.


VICE: Is there an easy or succinct explanation for why so many people seem to be turning against liberalism?
Yascha Mounk: One way in which a lot of people are turning against liberalism is that they are frustrated with the constraint ­on the popular will, and that takes on a couple of forms. The first is that they feel like the political system hasn’t always been very good at listening to the people and translating popular views into public policy. And often, they’re right about that—there are ways in which our political system hasn’t been efficiently responsive. And that makes them quite open to politicians who say, “You know what, all of those things that are supposedly needed to guarantee the rule of law, to guarantee individual rights, really aren’t necessary. We should get rid of independent institutions like the FBI, we should get rid of courts that can meddle with our decisions. We don’t need to respect the rights of immigrants, refugees, or even citizens in our own country who hail from some kind of ethnic or religious minority.”

The other reason is that it’s always easier for countries to rule themselves collectively when they feel that they have a lot in common. In the history of democracies, most of them have been built in countries that are reasonably homogeneous. As countries have become more heterogeneous, there’s a lot of people who resent that, who say, "Why should I let these other people who are from a different ethnic group, who come from a different part of the world, who might have different religious ideas—why should I let them participate in the collective we?"


How much do you blame elites for the problems you discuss?
It’s quite clear to me, especially in the United States, that both the political and the financial elites have used their power to extract what political scientists and economists call rents. Which is to say, they rig the rules in such a way that they benefit while everybody else is harmed. I think one obvious example is that it used to be that capital income, from investments, for example, was taxed much more than active income from going to work and getting a paycheck. Now capital gains are taxed at a much, much lower rate than going to work for a living. And even if you have reasonably conservative values, even if you think that we shouldn’t do too much redistribution but we should reward people’s effort, that is a very strange system. Obviously this is only one small example of myriad ways in which we’ve set up the system in such a way that relatively few people manage to capture a vast share of the gains from economic growth.

To me a populist is somebody who doesn’t accept that people’s different political points of view are legitimate, who doesn’t accept that the world is complex.

I think we need to go beyond this as well, though. From 1985 to today, average incomes have been flat. Part of that is because so much more of recent economic gains have gone to the very top. But part of it is also because there have been fewer economic gains to go around. So to me, the fundamental question here is about whether the stable democracies that we’ve come to know and expect were dependent on economic background conditions that simply aren’t there anymore.


When you talk about the economic problems, it reminds me of things that left-wing economic populists say, and it made me wonder—I know there are some left-wing populist parties in Europe that have gained some power, but it seems that the far right is just way more powerful than the far left at the moment. Why do you think that is?
First of all, let me say a word about what I mean by “populism,” because it’s a word that’s confusing and lots of people use it in lots of different ways. To me a populist is somebody who doesn’t accept that people’s different political points of view are legitimate, who doesn’t accept that the world is complex. [Populists] claim that the only thing that we need to do in order to face up to the challenges we have today is to get somebody who has common sense—who channels the true nature of the people—in power and sweep aside all of the elite. Then everything will be great.

And of course what happens is that they can never actually deliver on those false promises, because the world is more complicated than that. So at that point, they start to blame everybody. They say, “The reason why I haven’t delivered is that the opposition are traitors. The reason why I haven’t delivered is that the press are enemies of the people.” And a lot of that rhetoric can consist of excluding and vilifying everybody who is Muslim, or black, from the “true people.”

It can direct itself from a political right against people who are un-American because they’re socialists who want to redistribute money. Or it can come from the left, as in Venezuela, and direct itself against capitalists. Now, why is it that left populists are often unsuccessful? There are some countries where they are pretty strong, where they might well take power in the coming years. But you’re right that certainly in North America, certainly in most parts of Northern Europe, certainly in Central and Eastern Europe, right-wing populists tend to be stronger. And I think that that is a) because immigration and fears about cultural change play in those countries, and b) because in the end, when you have a clash between left populism and right populism, I think right populism always has an easier time winning. It is easier to scapegoat foreigners, minorities, people of different religious beliefs, than it is to scapegoat corporations, or capitalism, or Wall Street, which are abstract concepts. Unfortunately, I think it’s much easier to incite hatred against people rather than a system.


What do you think people who do oppose right-wing populists can learn from how quickly their ideas have spread and how they’ve managed to gain a surprising amount of power?
One thing that I think we should learn is that we mustn’t cede ground, we mustn’t make some topics taboo in such a way that only the right gets to talk about it. So, for example, I’m Jewish, my grandparents survived the Holocaust, I grew up in Germany, and so to me it was always obvious that we should try and leave nationalism behind in the century that it so cruelly shaped. And 15 years ago, that didn’t seem to be such an unrealistic hope. But I fear that actually disengaging from the space of patriotism and nationalism has allowed the right to colonize it, to take it over, to say, “If you care about America, if you care about Germany, if you care about the national flag or the national anthem, then really, you’re with us.” And because nationalist sentiment and symbolism retains a very deep power, I think that that makes it much easier for them to win and exploit those symbols in the worst possible way.

I think of nationalism as a half-domesticated animal. I think what we need to do is try and domesticate it. And the way to do that is to emphasize that, yes, we are proud to be Americans, yes, it’s important to us to be a member of a nation—including all of the mutual solidarity that that entails, and also the mutual pride that it entails. And naturally, anybody who is a citizen, whether they are white, or brown, or black, or they are Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or of no faith, or whatever, need to be valued equally as a member of our club. And by the way, people who may not have a US passport but are clearly American in every other sense because they were brought here as children and have never known any other country need to be treated as equals as well.


The most likely scenario is what I call the Roman scenario.

How do you think the anti-Trump resistance movement is doing in that respect?
I think there’s a big range there. There are people who speak very movingly, for example, about Dreamers as Americans, and I think that’s the right path to take. And then sometimes I see people saying the history of this country is so racist that there’s no aspect of it which we should claim and celebrate. I’m deeply aware of the deep injustice in our history and also in our present. I think that that’s the wrong path to take. I think what we should do is—as President Obama did, consistently and very powerfully—claim the best things in our history and use them in order to both acknowledge the ways in which we still fall short of those ideals and to motivate the fight for their realization.

In 50 years, do you think the US political system will be the same as it is today, or will it be drastically different?
I roughly think of it as three different scenarios to what might happen now. The first is that the United States turns out to be more similar to Hungary than we care to believe. Although it doesn’t look right now that Donald Trump is doing deep damage to our institutions in the United States 18 months in, the same was true for [Hungarian leader] Viktor Orban a year and a half into his time in office, the same was true of Vladimir Putin a year and a half into office, the same was true of Recep Erdogan in Turkey a year and a half into office. The process of dissolution of democracy is slow, and there’s no one single measure that looks like the obvious point of crossing the Rubicon. And so we need to stay very attentive. But I think it’s rather unlikely.


The second scenario is the optimistic one: that Donald Trump will mobilize such opposition and such a renewed commitment to our political system that when he leaves office in disgrace there will be such a moment of political reckoning that we can go forward with a new kind of political unity and fix our politics. There’s some reason for hope there—I don’t think that this is entirely unimaginable. But if you look at the fact that, as of the time of this conversation, Trump actually does have 42 percent of approval in the country, if you look at the depth of the reason for the populist rise, not just in the United States but around the world, if you look at the bitterness of our politics, it’s quite difficult for me to envisage the populist momentum simply evaporating and everything returning to normal.

And so I think the most likely scenario is what I call the Roman scenario. We might resemble the Roman Republic, where a populist by the name of Tiberius Gracchus won power late in the second century BC riding on a wave of discontent about economic stagnation and a rigged political system. He was eventually removed from office, violently as it happened, and for a few years things returned to normal. But then somebody else used the fact that the underlying problems hadn’t been resolved to gain office on a similar message. And conflict broke out again. There was a cycle of this, from high moments of political tension and drama to moments of relative normality for some 50, 100 years. And over time, the Roman Republic withered away. I could imagine that we are now at the beginning of a cycle, and 50 years from now we might be at any point of it, including the terminal one.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The People Vs. Democracy is out now from Harvard University Press.

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