The People Vs. Democracy

The People Vs. Democracy

Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It

Book - 2018
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From India to Turkey, from Poland to the United States, authoritarian populists have seized power. Two core components of liberal democracy--individual rights and the popular will--are at war, putting democracy itself at risk. In plain language, Yascha Mounk describes how we got here, where we need to go, and why there is little time left to waste.--
Publisher: Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 2018
Copyright Date: ©2018
ISBN: 9780674976825
Branch Call Number: 321.8 M862P 2018
Characteristics: 393 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Alternative Title: People versus democracy


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Oct 02, 2020

The thesis of this book is that liberal democracies are deconsolidating, evolving into either democracies without rights or societies with rights but no democracy. This simple scheme, set out in the Introduction, does not quite work out so neatly in the rest of the book. 

The first part of the book spins out that deconsolidation, using examples from the United States, Western, Northern and Eastern Europe and sometimes a few other countries.

Part two of the book probes the origins of these worrisome developments. Mounk identifies three: social media have weakened traditional gatekeepers of the public discourse; economic stagnation over the last several decades has increased inequality and brought fear of future hardship; and nations are no longer dominated by one ethnic group.

The last part deals with potential remedies. He calls for a revalidation of nationalism ("inclusive patriotism") lest the vacuum be filled by nasty populists.  The economy needs fixing and defenders of liberal democracy "urgently need to develop a bold plan for a better future." The welfare state needs to be redesigned "in a radical way." Trust in politics needs to be rebuilt; civic education (which has virtually disappeared in schools) needs to be more vigorously pursued, featuring both injustices and achievements of liberal democracies.

Anyone who has a fair sense of the history of Western civilization and stays abreast of political developments at home and abroad will find little new in this book. Its strength lies in the compilation of events and trends rather than any original analysis.

Much of the discussion is about the United States even while arguing throughout that US developments are in line with what is transpiring in Western Europe and elsewhere.  Written in the second year of Trump's presidency, the strong focus on the Trump phenomenon makes various sections hopelessly out of date.  In his concluding chapter he sketches both an optimistic and a pessimistic scenario for the US and writes: "If Trump winds up flaming out, his brief presidency might help to inoculate the United States against illiberal democracy" but warns that, even then, "the Trump presidency will, most likely, be no more than the opening salvo to a much more protracted fight."

Though at times put in the context of the author's personal history, the text conveys an overall sense of aloofness from on-the-ground developments. When calling for a radical change in the welfare state's benefits system, the words "basic income guarantee" or equivalent are not mentioned. In the call for a bold new plan to fix the economy, there is no reference to the Green New Deal.  Governments' inaction to counter climate change is not seen as a major source of disillusion, especially by the young (it is brought up mainly as an example of the need for international cooperation).  In discussing the loss of power of elected assemblies he does not mention the concentration of power in the executive branch of government.

With regard to immigration and ethnicity issues, Mounk fails to discuss Canada's experience with multiculturalism and integration of immigrants – only many pages later does he note that Canada may have found a way to be both welcoming and tough-minded v-à-v newcomers.

Some of his observations are puzzling. He sees fascists having seized power in much of Europe in the late 1930s.  Post World War II, he sees much of the continent having been ethnically cleansed and that only at that point democracy triumphed across much of the continent (both statements on p164). This will come as a surprise to many!

Jun 23, 2019

This book examines the current success of populist politicians around the world and the threat they pose to the system of liberal democracy built in North American and Western Europe in the seven decades since World War II. The author describes the current state of affairs, its origins and possible remedies. Autocrats such as Donald Trump are not the cause of populism; rather, they are the symptom. The three primary causes analyzed in detail are social media, economic stagnation and inequality, and the social, economic and cultural fears created by the increasing transformation of mono-ethnic or ethnically hierarchical societies into multi-ethnic ones.

The author walks the line between pessimism and optimism. He presents possible remedies to the three conditions identified as the causes of the swing to populism, with a strong emphasis on the need for the revival of thorough citizen education in civics.

The book is well-organized and well-written and easily readable. The content is very interesting and thought-provoking. The one small omission, to my mind, occurs in the discussion of the need for the reform of the taxation and welfare systems. An analysis of the potential benefits of a Guaranteed Basic Income System would have been very interesting.

The primary lesson in this book, as in other current books in a similar vein, is that our liberal democracy is a fragile institution requiring an informed, active and vigilant citizenry. Highly recommended.

Apr 23, 2019

Necessary reading for all interested in the current crisis in democracy. The rise of 'illiberal democracy' (majority rule with no securement of individual rights - Hungary as an example) and 'undemocratic liberalism' (individual rights with no input from average citizen - US as an example).
An international survey is provided of democracies (i.e. South Korea, Turkey, Russia, etc) with Poland and Hungary as stark examples of how quickly democratic institutions can be eliminated and/or circumvented.
Author demonstrates how limited the impact of the average voter is (even in aggregate) as the decisions that executive and legislative institutions do not match up to what the people want (think topics like tax cuts, health care, gun control, etc). The desires and goals of lobbies and elites match up more to what these decisions are which indicates that they are successful in guiding 'democratic' institutions.
There is little hope of this condition improving as those who are elected to office end up with twice the wealth of those who seek office unsuccessfully (often serving lobbies and other wealthy interests after their time in office)
Author notes the increase in number and power of independent agencies (i.e. central banks, environmental agencies, EU, etc.) that are appointed undemocratically. The independence of these agencies can be necessary (government used to manipulate currencies and interest rates prior to an election to temporarily improve economic conditions (i.e. Nixon) without regard to long term results. Independence of central banks limits this aspect. The point of the author is to indicate how increasing amounts of critical decision making is made without input of average voter.
Author indicates the following changes are straining democratic institutions: (1) lack of media gatekeepers have diluted the dialogue and increased conspiratorial thinking. (2) citizens hope in the future... the 2008 financial crisis and stagnation in real wages since the 80's have caused people to question the current systems in place. (3) Most nations began their democracies with 'monoethnic' populations or a single dominant majority ethnicity. Increases in migration and declines in current citizens' birthrates have altered this arrangement and have stoked nationalistic thoughts. The combination of these stresses have caused people to question the legitimacy of democracy and its necessity as never before.

Mar 10, 2019

Platitudes, exhortations and vacuous bromides. Apparently some Harvard professors will write almost anything if it means they can get a book published.


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