The first two books of the week offered critical perspectives on and diagnoses of contemporary liberalism–one by a political theorist and another by a law professor. This book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (Harvard University Press), by the political scientist Yascha Mounk, also offers a diagnosis for what he sees as deep and growing pathologies within secular liberal states, but Mounk does so in a salvific spirit. Mark has discussed some of Mounk’s research before; here Mounk offers an extended treatment of the problem and proposes solutions.
The world is in turmoil. From India to Turkey and from Poland to the United States, authoritarian populists have seized power. As a result, Yascha Mounk shows, democracy itself may now be at risk.
Two core components of liberal democracy—individual rights and the popular will—are increasingly at war with each other. As the role of money in politics soared and important issues were taken out of public contestation, a system of “rights without democracy” took hold. Populists who rail against this say they want to return power to the people. But in practice they create something just as bad: a system of “democracy without rights.”
The consequence, Mounk shows in The People vs. Democracy, is that trust in politics is dwindling. Citizens are falling out of love with their political system. Democracy is wilting away. Drawing on vivid stories and original research, Mounk identifies three key drivers of voters’ discontent: stagnating living standards, fears of multiethnic democracy, and the rise of social media. To reverse the trend, politicians need to enact radical reforms that benefit the many, not the few.
The People vs. Democracy is the first book to go beyond a mere description of the rise of populism. In plain language, it describes both how we got here and where we need to go. For those unwilling to give up on either individual rights or the popular will, Mounk shows, there is little time to waste: this may be our last chance to save democracy.