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End-Times for Liberal Democracy?

Interviewee: Yascha Mounk, Lecturer on Political Theory, Harvard University
Interviewer: Zachary Laub, Senior Copy Editor/Writer
December 28, 2016

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After years of simmering disenchantment with status quo politics, “2016 was a watershed” for populist parties and movements, says Yascha Mounk, a political theorist at Harvard University. Major democracies have seen movements that challenge democratic norms and institutions score victories at the ballot box amid rising economic anxieties and mass migration. Meanwhile, leaders in Hungary and Russia have modeled an alternative to the liberal democratic order that has predominated since the end of the Cold War, says Mounk, who holds fellowships at the German Marshall Fund and New America Foundation. The trend toward populist politics “is seemingly still accelerating,” he says, as the coming year is set to bring at least three elections in Europe.

Vladimir Putin Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin. (Photo: Yuri Kochetkov/Pool/File Photo/Reuters)

You identified a malaise with liberal democracy and the rise of “democratic illiberalism” several years ago. Do you see 2016 as an inflection point?

People have been growing more and more critical of our political system—not just of particular governments or institutions but of democracy itself—for a long time. It used to be that the average citizen was much wealthier than his or her parents had been. That’s no longer the case. It used to be that people felt that they had a real voice in government and that there were intermediary institutions to help translate their views into public policy. That too is less and less the case. That’s why, over the last twenty years, antisystem parties and movements, especially on the far right, have risen around the world.

Even so, it’s no exaggeration to say that 2016 was a watershed. First, it became obvious that these movements don’t just get 25 or 30 percent in the polls; they can win, as they did with [U.S. President-Elect Donald J.] Trump and Brexit. Second, it became clear that this is not just the problem of particular societies, but one that affects virtually every liberal democracy around the world.

Why does populism seem to be cresting now, so many years removed from the height of the Great Recession?

The attempt to explain the rise of populism by the Great Recession is unconvincing. First, past financial crises led to a rise in the success of far-right movements within the first five or six years. But by year eight or ten, the effect had mostly subsided. We’re now seeing this effect most strongly eight years after the crisis, and it seems to still be accelerating.

What’s more, populist parties and candidates actually began to rise well before 2008. That’s why my hunch is that the financial crisis accelerated the rise of populism but does not explain its rise. Instead, we may be seeing an epochal shift: the beginning of the end of the extraordinary period of democratic stability, which we came to take for granted over the last fifty years.

Many parties globally have campaigned on nationalism and anti-immigration sentiment. Do migration and sporadic terrorist attacks—and the difficulty governments have imposing order—account for this rhetoric?

It’s more fundamental than that. Countries in Western Europe were founded as monoethnic and monocultural. It’s not a coincidence that democracy took hold in places like Germany at the very point when they were most homogeneous. Now they have to reinvent themselves. They have to start imagining that somebody who is the child of Turkish “guest workers,” or who immigrated from Africa, Asia, or Syria, may be a fellow citizen who is just as German as they are.

“We may be seeing an epochal shift.”

There’s a similar rebellion against multiethnic democracy in the United States. White Americans had thought of blacks as their fellow citizens, but not as equal citizens. Here, there’s a rebellion not against pluralism itself, but rather against the fact that African-Americans want to be considered equals—that they might accede to the presidency or to the Supreme Court, or that they might be your boss.

That’s why the recent debate over whether Trump’s election should be explained by economic forces or by questions of identity, race, and immigration is so confused: People are more racially tolerant when they feel economically optimistic, secure, and prosperous. They are less tolerant and more willing to distinguish between their in-group and out-groups in a violent way when they feel economic anxiety or think that they haven’t been treated fairly. Trump’s victory isn’t explained by economics or identity—it’s explained by the confluence between the two.

Analysts have identified democratic backsliding in countries throughout the world. Do you see what’s happening in, say, India or Turkey as part of the same phenomenon you’ve identified in Western Europe and the United States?

A turn toward increasingly illiberal attitudes pervades countries as different as Australia, the United States, Sweden, Germany, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Russia, India, and even China, so any explanation that focuses on a particular country is going to fail.

Three causes are present in most of the countries where far-right populists have stormed the political stage. Those are economic anxiety—a lot of people now feel that they haven’t experienced any real economic improvement over the course of their lives, or fear that their children may be worse off than they are; anger in rural areas, which have not performed as well economically as urban areas, feel more culturally isolated than they used to, and now find it easier to mobilize against the center, in part because of the rise of social media; and rebellion against ethnic pluralism and equality—anger among people who are afraid that they might be asked to accept people who don’t stem from their ethnic group as fellow citizens, or as equal citizens.

When these antisystemic parties come to power, do they tend to fulfill their campaign promises?

They often promise to make their supporters wealthier, cut taxes, and improve the welfare state at the same time. And they usually fail spectacularly in delivering on those promises. But they don’t necessarily become more moderate once in power. [Prime Minister] Viktor Orban in Hungary, [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in Turkey, and [leader of the governing Law and Justice party Jaroslaw] Kaczynski in Poland, for example, have often governed at least as radically as they intimated in their campaigns, and yet they’ve managed to remain popular—in part by inciting hatred against ethnic and religious minorities, and by ratcheting up external tensions.

Do those cases offer some lessons on the resiliency of institutions that would check executive power? Do they ensure the rule of law, or are they prone to being co-opted?

No country with as deep a democratic history or as fervent an attachment to the legal and constitutional system as the United States has ever been captured by these parties before. So we can’t straightforwardly apply those lessons to America. The best we can do is to look at the closest precedents, knowing that they aren’t perfectly analogous—and the picture that emerges is very worrying.

Take Hungary: Though the country is a member of the European Union, Orban has managed to undermine the neutrality of state institutions, capture the electoral commission, and make the Supreme Court a rubber stamp for his government over the course of five years. There’s a real question about whether Hungarians will ever again enjoy free and fair elections. Poland, copying Hungary’s playbook, has managed to achieve the same feat in about a year.

Are illiberal politicians and states more effective messengers than their liberal counterparts?

“Liberal democracy once again has an ideological competitor.”

It’s always easier in politics to be critical than to be constructive. But the establishment has to take this as a serious wake-up call, and they face a difficult task. They have to communicate clearly that many things about how the political system has functioned for the last twenty-five years need to change, and to be a credible messenger on this, they have to show that they really are dismayed with the status quo. At the same time, they need to combine this criticism with a positive vision for what measures they want to enact to improve people’s lives, and to make a passionate case for what about the current system needs to be preserved—liberal norms like the separation of powers or the insistence on treating all citizens equally.

We’ve seen a lot of cross-border connections among these parties, like Brexit leader Nigel Farage campaigning for Trump in Mississippi. How are these parties and candidates linked?

First are the empirical linkages. Russia is financially supporting a lot of radical parties in the West, both on the far left and far right. And of course Russia’s email hacks helped get Trump elected.

But that matters less than what sociologists would call diffusion. Five years ago, I was already worried about people falling out of love with democracy. But what gave me succor was that there wasn’t a clear ideological alternative. Where else were people going to go? Very few places in the world were going to emulate the Chinese or Iranian models.

That’s now changed. Putin and Orban have built models of illiberal democracy that can be emulated: They believe in channeling the popular will, but they also think that it shouldn’t be constrained by the rights of unpopular minorities or by the interference of countervailing institutions like independent courts or international organizations. So liberal democracy once again has an ideological competitor, as it did with fascism in the 1930s and communism in the 1950s.

We will see a United Nations Security Council next year that’s led by Trump, Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and potentially National Front nominee Marine Le Pen, from France. What will that mean for international diplomacy and conflict resolution?

This year has gone as well for Vladimir Putin as it possibly could have. Even if [Republican Party nominee] Francois Fillon wins rather than Le Pen, Russia’s position is likely to be strengthened further by the French presidential elections.

But Russia is ultimately only a small part of this. The election of Donald Trump raises the specter that, for the first time in fifty years, the most powerful country in the world may no longer be committed to spreading liberal democratic values or protecting liberal democracies abroad.

“We’re now in a world of radical political uncertainty, and it’s difficult to predict the outcome of any of these elections.”

This is going to set in motion a slow drift of America’s traditional Western allies toward new partners. It will undermine the prestige of liberal democracy, which will embolden autocratic forces and weaken democratic ones in fledgling democracies or soft dictatorships from the Philippines to Ukraine. Emboldened autocrats will realize that the United States believes in spheres of influence and, as long as they let America do what it wants in its sphere of influence, it will be happy to let them do what they want in their spheres of influence. The first results of all of this can already be seen in Syria, where Russia has stepped up its aggression in Aleppo and elsewhere since the election.

France, Germany, and the Netherlands are all holding elections next year in which populist parties are expected to make a strong showing. Italy may as well. What indicators will you be looking for?

It’s looking likely that Angela Merkel will still be chancellor of Germany after the elections. That’s significant, since she is one of the few political leaders left standing who defends the Western liberal order. But at the same time, it would be naive to think that Germany can step into America’s footsteps and play the lead in upholding the Western liberal order. Germany doesn’t have the size, strength, or will for that—not even within Europe, let alone in the rest of the world. So if it isn’t crazy to say that Merkel is now, in some ways, the leader of the free world, then that just shows how weak the free world has become.

More broadly, we’re now in a world of radical political uncertainty, and it’s difficult to predict the outcomes of any of these elections. We have to learn to be a lot more modest about our ability to predict what will happen next year—or tomorrow.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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