On this episode of the Capitalisn’t podcast, Yascha Mounk talks with hosts Kate Waldock and Luigi Zingales about his new book The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. Recorded in front of a live audience, the conversation touches on recent populist uprisings and the extent to which they threaten liberal democracy.
Kate: Hi. I’m Kate Waldock from Georgetown University.
Luigi: And I’m Luigi Zingales from the University of Chicago.
Kate: You’re listening to Capitalisn’t, a podcast about what’s working in capitalism today.
Luigi: And, most importantly, what isn’t.
Kate: We are thrilled to have on our podcast today Yascha Mounk, who is a lecturer at Harvard, a senior fellow at New America, an executive director at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, and the host of The Good Fightpodcast, which I highly recommend. Welcome, Yascha.
Yascha Mounk: Thank you very much.
Kate: This is also our first live podcast episode. I am personally terrified. You can’t feel my palms right now, but they are just dripping with sweat. Luigi, you’re probably used to this. Are you terrified?
Luigi: I’m not terrified, no.
Kate: That’s what I thought.
Yascha Mounk: What about me? Nobody’s asking me if I’m terrified.
Kate: I just assumed that you’re good at this.
Yascha Mounk: I don’t know. We’ll see, we’ll see.
Kate: All right. So, we’re here to talk about your book entitled The People vs. Democracy, maybe more aptly titled Saving Liberal Democracy. So, to make sure we’re all on the same page, can you start out by telling us about what exactly is liberal democracy, and why is it worth saving?
Yascha Mounk: Sure. So, you know, we usually just talk about democracy. And so, we try to associate everything we like with democracy. But I think the problem is that when you expand one word so much that all of the good things sort of fall under it, you can’t draw careful, conceptual distinctions anymore. You can’t actually understand what’s going on in the world anymore.
So, I think it’s worth remembering with our political system is twofold. It’s a liberal democracy, which doesn’t have anything to do, obviously, with the sort of more political way in which we use the word liberal. So, in the way in which I’m talking about it, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan are about as liberal as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, right? This is not liberal/conservative. But what it means is that there’s two basic values which our political system tries to instantiate.
The first is individual freedom. That we ourselves decide what to say or not say. That we ourselves decide which gods to worship or whether to worship at all. That we decide how to lead our lives. And in order to have that, we don’t just need protections for various unpopular minorities. We also need the rule of law and the separation of powers, because if the president or prime minister can say, “Hey, I don’t like what you just said, I’m going to throw you in prison,” you’re not going to be free. That is the liberal element of our political system.
And then the second is the democratic element. That we want to collectively make our decisions together. That there isn’t a monarch or a military general or a priest who tells us what kind of laws we should have and where we should take our party. It’s all of us deciding those things together. So, to me, liberal democracy simply means a political system that strives and, to some extent, succeeds in instantiating these two basic values.
Luigi: Your book is also called The People vs. Democracy, as if there is an opposition between the two. Maybe it’s because I wasted five years of my young life in learning ancient Greek, but democracycomes from demos, people, so what is this tension? And you said that the notion of a democracy expands to everything that is good, but you seem to dump into populisteverything that is bad. If I may say, there is a bit of a populistic interpretation of the word populist.
Yascha Mounk: I have no idea what that means, but explain it to me down the line. Yes, why is it the people versus democracy? What does that mean? Well, I mean two things by that. One is relatively straightforward, one is a little bit deeper, perhaps. So, the straightforward bit is that back in the years in which everybody thought that democracies in places like Italy and the United States were obviously consolidated and obviously safe and obviously there wasn’t any particular reason to worry about it, I was a little skeptical of that narrative, because I saw lots of data points out there in the world point to various forms of trouble.
The fact that people have very low trust in institutions, that governments were really unpopular, that participation in elections kept going down, that especially in Europe, membership in political parties kept falling. And so, taking all of those things together, I thought that seems like reason to worry.
But most social scientists at the time, and at the time meaning three years ago, didn’t agree with me. And they drew this basic distinction between what we call government legitimacy and what we call regime legitimacy. So, they said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. People are getting more critical of particular governments, but that’s a good thing. That’s healthy. That just means they’re becoming more ambitious when they demand more from the political system. That’s actually healthy. They’re becoming critical citizens. Regime legitimacy, the actual attachment to a political system, is as deep as it has always been.”
And so, I started to look at questions in surveys that actually got specifically at regime legitimacy. And what I found is that that regime legitimacy has been going down, in very worrying ways, quite rapidly. So, in the United States, for example, when you ask older people born in the 1930s and 1940s how important it is to them to live in a democracy, over two-thirds say absolutely important, 10 out of 10. Once you get to younger Americans born since 1980, relatively young Americans, less than ... Thanks for that slight chuckle.
Kate: When were you born?
Yascha Mounk: 1982. Exactly, that’s ... Yeah. Less than one-third of those say that it is absolutely essential to live in a democracy. So, that’s one thing. But there’s lots of other data points, right? So, even when you asked about as extreme an alternative to democracy like army rule, 20 years ago, one in 16 Americans said that was a good idea, and now it’s one in six. Among young and affluent Americans, it’s actually gone from 6 percent to 35 percent.
So, that’s one of the senses of the people versus democracy. The people, it turns out, are sort of turning against democracy. A majority still likes it in some kind of general way, but they don’t have a commitment to it that they once did.
There’s also a deeper sense which is important to understand, I think. So, you know, if you have these two core elements of our political system, liberalism and democracy, my fear is that these two things have been starting to come apart. And that on the one hand, for a long time, we’ve had what I call rights without democracy, undemocratic liberalism. So, a political system that’s reasonably good, not perfect, but reasonably good at ensuring individual rights, the rule of law, but that doesn’t do a great job of actually translating popular views into public policies.
And then on the other hand, you have the rise of what I would call illiberal democracy or democracy without rights. A bunch of populists ... We’ll get to that. A bunch of populists who come in and basically say, “The only reason why we have political problems is that this corrupt elite that wants to serve itself was in cahoots with those sort of minorities and outsiders and so on. And what we’ve got to do is for somebody like me who really speaks for ordinary people to come in. I alone am the true voice of the people. So, just give me a little bit more power, trust me a little bit, and I’m going to fix everything.” And what happens over the long run, as we’ve seen in countries like Hungary over the last eight or nine years, is that this person, first of all, establishes an illiberal democracy, which is to say that they scapegoat various minorities and restrict their rights and so on.
But once they have also attacked liberal institutions, once they have also put their own loyalists on the Supreme Court, once they have replaced the independence of law enforcement communities, once they have taken over state broadcasters and made it very difficult for private media outlets to do their job, once they control the electoral commission, it no longer is possible to replace a democratically elected government through democratic means. So, at that point, the champion of the people, the populist who claims to speak for the people, who initially might have been very popular, actually turns against democracy. And illiberal democracy slides into straight-out dictatorship.
But since he claims to represent the people, that’s the idea of a populist, and since people have actually voted him into office, there’s this sort of deeper sense in which the people turn against democracy.
Kate: OK. Let me try and reformulate Luigi’s question then. I wasn’t clear in your book what exactly populism meant. And in particular, the examples that you gave were, for the most part, far-right populists. What about people on the far left? So for example, Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders. Would you consider them populists?
Yascha Mounk: So, there are absolutely left-wing populists. I want to say two meanings of populist, right? So, sometimes in America, we just mean the sort of 19th-century agrarian populist and so on. That’s not the way in which I used the term. Right? The way in which, internationally, people use populist is a kind of style of politics, a kind of rhetoric of politics, and it’s precisely the claim to an exclusive representation of the people. That I stand for the real people and, by definition, everybody who disagrees with me does not. Everybody who disagrees with me is illegitimate.
And once you do that, you’re not going to accept the kinds of independent institutions we need to preserve liberal democracy over time. You’re not going to accept that you pass some law and the Supreme Court decides that it’s unconstitutional. That you commit a crime and the police might investigate you for it. That seems illegitimate to those kinds of populists. So that means that it’s not defined by public policy. If you just look at public policy, then populists seem not to have very much in common with each other. You may have noticed, for example, that our dear president, Donald Trump, does not appear to be, let’s say, overly fond of Muslims. When you look at someone like Recep Erdogan, the president of Turkey, he does not appear to be overly fond of anybody who’s not a Muslim.
There’s some populists like Donald Trump, actually in certain ways, who at least in the actions are readily right wing on the economy. Right? Giving tax cuts to billionaires and actually cutting some of the welfare state. There’s others, like Hugo Chavez, who are very left wing on the economy. So that’s not what defines somebody as a populist. What defines them as a populist is a rhetoric in which they say the whole political system is broken, it needs to be replaced. I alone truly represent the people and there’s no real legitimate limits on my power.
Absolutely, people like Hugo Chavez, who are left wing because of economic policies, left wing, fall into that and that’s why I call them populists.
Luigi: But when somebody says, “I’m the 99 percent. I am the people.” So, Bernie Sanders said, “I represent the 99 percent.” Why is he not a populist?
Yascha Mounk: Well, what he’s saying is that he is standing for the economic interests of 99 percent of the US population. I don’t particularly like that slogan for a number of reasons. For one, because if you actually want to do something about economic inequality in this country, it’s not just against the 1 percent that you have to go, but actually it’s the top 10, 20, 25 percent who have huge advantages over the rest of the population. So, as an actual prescription to the kind of policies you need, if you’re serious about remedying economic inequality in this country, I find that slogan quite unhelpful.
But I don’t see anything in Bernie Sanders’s rhetoric which goes beyond that, which actually says, I’m going to shut down media outlets. I think it’s unacceptable for people in the media to criticize me. I think that anyone who disagrees with me isn’t a true American. Those are all things that Donald Trump does all of the time. And those are all things that Hugo Chavez did all of the time. I haven’t seen Bernie Sanders do those things and so, that’s why I wouldn’t call him a populist on my terms.
But let’s talk about your country for a moment, Luigi. You know, how can you explain why in Greece, Cyprus is managing to rule with ANEL, a far-right populist party, and how can we explain that in Italy, the Five Star Movement, which very much has its roots on the political left, even if now it’s more politically amorphous, is able so far to be in a relatively stable government with the League, which is a far-right party? If you just look at the policy proposals, if you just look at where they come from on a left-right spectrum, this doesn’t make any sense.
But when you look at the fact that they’re both populists, that the main driving force behind them is precisely this deep opposition to the existing political system, and this claim that you’re either with us or you’re against us, then I think it starts to make sense. It’s the only way we can explain how these forces have ended up in coalitions and have ended up making it work.
Luigi: Actually, in Italy, it is very simple. It is because the only other alternative was to have a coalition with the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party, run by Renzi, said, never ever. They preferred to be in bed with Berlusconi than to run with the Five Star. So, the Five Star had no alternative except this one. So, it was really, I think, the contempt of the traditional left that forced the Five Star into the hands of the League—
Yascha Mounk: But that might explain how they wound up in bed together. It doesn’t explain why they’re still in bed together and why—
Luigi: After two months?
Yascha Mounk: Seem to be going rather well and ... Well, that’s a long time for an Italian government—
Luigi: That’s true.
Yascha Mounk: By the way, it’s been half a year. So, I’m about to publish a study with a colleague, Jordan Kyle, which shows that, contrary to some expectations, it’s not true that populist governments tend to be less stable or in government for less long than “ordinary governments.” In fact, they’re in government for about twice as long as others on average, which is really striking and shocking.
Luigi: But let’s go back to the term populist. Again, you see everything negative, but even in the history of the United States, of course, Andrew Jackson had a lot of defects, but he did represent some change. For the first time, somebody not from the landed gentry became president, and the existing elite was indeed very corrupt. The people who were supporting the Second Bank of the United States were on the payroll of the Second Bank of the United States. And the United States survived after Andrew Jackson.
So, you have this view that if you have a populist president, necessarily you drift into disaster, but at least, if you look at the US history … and Italian and German history is very different. But if you look at the US history, it seems to be pretty positive.
Yascha Mounk: Look, I mean, the best way of looking at that is comparatively. And obviously, you know, it’s not easy to destroy democracy. And there’s plenty of cases where populists failed to do that. But on average, they do tremendous damage to democracies. Less than 50 percent of the time … A populist who is elected in democratic elections is removed from office through free and fair elections less than 50 percent of the time.
We see that if you want to look at times in which democracy is damaged by a democratically elected government, rather than foreign invasion or something like that, it is 14 times more likely to happen because you’ve elected a populist into office than any other kind of government. And when you look at many countries around the world, you see that economically, at the beginning, it can work relatively well, because the populists tend to be a little bit more immune from the ordinary sort of constraints of politics. And that can lead them to have effective management in the short run.
But in the long run, they tend to fail to modernize their economies. They tend to rely very strongly on short-term economic performance through fossil-fuel sales and so on. And they tend to hugely overspend. And so, in very many cases, 10 or so years into the rule, you get an economic disaster, as we’re seeing at the moment everywhere from Venezuela to Turkey, and so on.
So, sure, you can cherry-pick one particular example and say, “Well, there’s plenty of bad there, but perhaps there were some good things, too.” When you look at it systematically, it becomes very obvious that these governments do real damage.
Kate: Well, I’ll add in another example, which, to be fair, was not the president of the United States. But I think that the McCarthy era was also a period of populism in the sense that McCarthy was bringing to trials people who were considered outsiders and Communists. People who worked in the entertainment industry, people who were homosexual, and doing serious damage to their reputations and to their careers.
But that movement to some extent was diminished, if not completely eradicated, by due process and the rule of law. There were a number of Supreme Court cases that ruled against their unfair methods that pushed people back in the direction of the established rule of order. And I think that there are positive and optimistic lessons to be learned there, in the sense that we can do the same thing now.
For example, Trump was at his lowest point of popularity when the Supreme Court, or not necessarily the Supreme Court, but a number of courts were ruling against his travel ban. And now I think we’re making progress in terms of going after his emoluments or his financial interests. And there’s the case, I think, DC and Maryland have sued him for emoluments and that’s progressing. And I think a few months before that, the same case was dismissed.
And so, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I thought you were a little overly pessimistic about the use of the rule of law to overturn populism when there have been examples, including here in the US, of cases in which due process has made headway in overcoming populism.
Yascha Mounk: So, first of all, I just want to note that the line of attack on me has now shifted, which is good. I want all the lines of attack. So, it’s no longer—
Kate: Did you think we were going to play good cop, bad cop, because that’s not how—
Yascha Mounk: No, it’s bad cop, bad cop. But that’s fine. I’m, you know. Welcome to Chicago.
Kate: I’m not from Chicago.
Yascha Mounk: So, the sort of first line of attack was that populism might actually be good. Now, apparently at least for the moment, we’ve conceded that populism is bad. And the question is, but can’t we beat it in the end?
And look, I mean, you know, three years ago, I was going around to people trying to persuade them that our democracy may be under some amount of real threat because of the rise of populism around the world and various things that worried me in the United States. And people, to put it politely, looked at me like I was crazy. They kept calling me Cassandra, by the way, and I always wanted to say, “But Cassandra was right, dammit.”
And so, you know, my argument is not that we’re doomed. My argument is not that there is nothing we can do to defend our institutions, or that I’m swearing to you that two years from now, we’ll all be living under Generalissimo Donald Trump. My argument is that there’s a serious danger. And that when you look at the best historical analyses we have available, they’re imperfect, but the best we have, there’s very real reason to be concerned that often populists prove to be more effective at government, to do much more damage to the institutions, than elites tend to think. We think, that guy? He’s not going to beat us? What on Earth are you talking about?
So, to get to the question, I think some American institutions have been holding up, others have not. It’s striking to me to what extent the Republican Party has become a willing tool of Donald Trump’s latest whim. Whenever he says, “Jump,” and whichever hoop he holds out to them, they try to not to jump through, but jump above and do a little pirouette whilst they’re at it. That’s very concerning to me. People did not predict that two, three years ago. When you look at the extent to which he’s already managed to bring the FBI to heel, that’s very concerning. He has at this moment managed to fire the director of the FBI, the deputy director of the FBI, and three really leading instructing agents and so on.
When you look at the investigation of Brett Kavanaugh, I think there were real questions about whether that political context helped to limit what the FBI actually investigated. And I don’t think it is any longer impossible to believe that Rod Rosenstein will be removed and that the last sort of checks on how the FBI does its work are gone. And that in 2020, for example, you might have a politically motivated prosecution of a Democratic presidential candidate. I’m not saying that’s sure to happen, but I don’t think it’s unimaginable anymore.
When you look at the Supreme Court, I’m starting to worry as well that there is a deeper rot there than I would have anticipated two or three years ago. That’s partially because of the decisions we’ve seen over the course of the past year in which Congressional maps, where there’s evidence on email that they were used to weaken the Democratic Party and discriminate against African-Americans, were ruled to be constitutional. Where a highly dubious voter purge in Ohio was ruled to be constitutional. So that was business as usual though.
Now we have a stronger conservative majority on the court, and the circumstances where the pretense of nonpartisanship has gone out of a window in a really striking way during the Kavanaugh hearings. And in which the nature of conservative partisanship has ceased being a commitment to a set of values and has started to be loyalty to one person. So, you take all of that together and it worries me.
At the same time, you’re right, but certainly the media continue to be very active and that, in part, because we have such a decentralized country, elections for now remain, not entirely fair because of all of the problems of gerrymandering, and so on and so forth, but certainly robustly free.
And so, if the midterms go as some of the polls at least predict, and Democrats manage to regain control of at least one of the branches of government, and if Democrats run a sensible candidate in 2020 and manage to remove Donald Trump from office ... But yes, I think there’s a very good chance that we survive this kind of populist moment, at least in the short run. But we are in danger and we need to recognize that, because otherwise, we’re blind to mistakes we face.
Kate: So, can we briefly talk about some of the solutions that you propose in your book?
Yascha Mounk: Sure. So, look, I mean, I think the first thing to say is that wherever I go, people tell me these very local stories about what went wrong in their particular countries. And since we see the rise of populism across lots of different countries, I think we have to look for causes which are shared. Now I don’t think there’s any one cause that’s exactly the case and the same shape everywhere, but there’s a cluster of four or five causes. And a subsection of them, I think, is jointly sufficient to see the rise of populism.
So, anywhere we see three or four of those five or six causes, you wind up with strong populist movements. The three most important ones that I focus on the book is the stagnation of living standards for ordinary citizens. You know, in United States, from 1945 to 1960, the living standard of an average American doubles. From 1960 to 1985, it doubles again. Since 1985, it’s been roughly stagnant. The same in Europe, you had the Trente Gloriousesin France, the Wirtschaftswunderin Germany. These 20-, 30-year periods at the inception of democracy in many countries in which the living standard of people just fundamentally transformed. And now, for the last 30 or so years, people don’t feel like they’re getting something out of the local system. That fundamentally transforms what they think about politics, how they trust the political system.
The second big topic is culture, immigration, race. So, most democracies in the world upon their founding had a sort of mono-ethnic, monocultural conception of themselves. They said somebody who truly belongs in our country is somebody whose ancestors also came from this place. And we certainly are not from any ethnic minorities. We certainly do not come from other continents and so on and so forth. That has started to change over the last 40 or 50 years, there’s some real change in those self-conceptions. But there’s a big part of the population that isn’t on board with those changes and then rebels against it.
And the United States and Canada on that are both sort of similar and different. They’re similar in the sense that they, too ... They’re different in the sense that they’ve always been countries of immigration. They’ve always been multiethnic societies in a certain kind of way. They’re similar in the sense that they had a very clear racial and religious hierarchy, which gave a lot of advances to one group over others. Here, too, they’ve actually come a long way of overcoming that, but we certainly haven’t overcome it completely. And there’s a lot of people who are rebelling against the relative amount of equality that we’ve managed to achieve.
And then the third thing to me is the rise of digital technology, of the internet and of social media, which makes it harder for political and financial elites to control the Overton window, to control what can be said in politics. And that can be a positive thing. It can allow important formerly marginal voices to enter the political fray. But it can also be quite dangerous when it allows people who want to spread racial hatred, people who want to spread straightforward false information, to have a much bigger voice now in political discourse, particularly at a moment when people are already economically frustrated and a part of the population already is fearful of demographic and cultural change.
So, I think we need to confront those basic drivers. So, I think we need to have an economy that ensures that the fruits of economic growth and globalization actually go to ordinary citizens in a way that they currently don’t, but that also tries to accelerate productivity and economic growth, because we’ve seen that that’s one of the big reasons why living standards have stagnated. I think on the cultural piece, we should resist the temptation that a lot of people on the left have, and that I had for a long time in my life, of trying to leave patriotism and nationalism behind in the 20th century, which it so cruelly shaped.
If we do that, we ignore the fact that nationalism has tremendous force in the world, as the last 20 years have shown, remains the most powerful political motivator in most of our societies. And allow the political right and the worst part of the political right to dominate and exploit that motivating power. And so, instead, advocating fighting for an inclusive notion of patriotism in which we don’t leave that camp to the Steves, Bannon and Miller and so on, but fight to appropriate for it for ourselves. Arguing that, actually, nationalism historically has been a way of expanding the circle of human sympathy beyond our own village, our own family, our own ethnicity, our own religion, so we can feel real solidarity with people who might be 1,000 miles away from us, who might have a different skin color, who might have a different religion, but who we recognize as our fellow citizens.
And finally, on social media and the internet, I don’t think the solution is to censor, as some European governments are now doing. I think the solution is actually in a serious way to fight for our political values. From Plato to Aristotle, from Rousseau to the founding fathers, each set of political thinkers who have thought seriously about how to make a self-governing republic work emphasized the importance of passing our values on from one generation to the next.
I don’t think we take that seriously in the way we educate our children. I don’t think we take that seriously in primary and middle schools and high schools around the country. And I certainly don’t think we take that seriously as one of the core tasks that university professors and academics like us here on the stage have to do every day. And I think if we change that, hopefully it’ll make a little bit of a difference.
Luigi: Is the failure of the elite missing from here? Generally, populism arises, and we see now in Brazil with Bolsonaro, part of it is the economic failure. But part of it is the elite was deeply corrupt. And in the West, with a major failure like a war in Iraq that was fought for no reason, for misleading ... Leaders that misled the American and British people into a war that was a disaster, and I don’t use swear words, but you understand what kind of disaster.
You had a financial crisis. We had no executive going to jail in spite of the massive fraud of that financial crisis. We have an opioid crisis in the United States that is pushed very much by an industry that wants to make money on the face of people and is protected throughout the way and I can keep going.
Yascha Mounk: I mean, one of the things that I say is that when you look at the 2016 election, I think there was a choice between a moderate politics of the status quo and an extremist politics of change. And so, if people voted for Donald Trump, it’s not necessarily that all Americans are extremists, or even, you know, 46 percent or whatever voted for him are extremists, it’s that they really wanted change.
And the best way to fight against that is to create a plausible vision of how we can have quite radical change, of how we can actually shake up our political system and reform some of the ways in which it’s not delivering for people. But without being ideologically extreme, without giving up on the basic founding values of our country and the basic founding ideals of liberal democracy. So that’s the project I try to pursue.
Luigi: And with this, thank you very much. And thank you all for coming.
Kate: Thank you so much.