Is Democracy Dying Before Our Eyes?

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This is a transcript originally recorded by The Policy Shop in 2018 and was spoken by Dr Yashca Mounk and Professor Glyn Davis.


Glyn Davis
G’day. I’m Glyn Davis and welcome to The Policy Shop, a place where we think about policy choices.

Democracy. In the West, we make a colossal mistake - taking it for granted. We see democracy, not as the most fragile of flowers that it really is, but we see it as part of our society’s furniture. We tend to think of it as an intransient given. We mistakenly believe that capitalism begets, inevitably, democracy. It doesn’t. 

If you listen to what both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders on the right and the left have been saying, it’s all about interest groups. It’s all about the dominance of elites that have done very well from globalisation being able to use the political system and to rig it for their benefit, and the problem is that there is something to this. 

In this election cycle so far, 400 families have given half the money in the election contributions and contributions to Super PACs so far. 400 families. That’s not American democracy. That is banana republic democracy. 

You see the image of a polar bear on a shrinking ice flow. You see the image of a three-year-old face down on a beach, dead, attempting to seek asylum, and we despair, and we’re filled with grief, but we don’t know how to act on it. When my children say to me, you didn’t fix climate change, you’ve destroyed the planet, I say that’s true. We had the knowledge, but we didn’t have political power. 

Glyn Davis
We live in the most peaceful and prosperous era of human history, yet there’s a discontent with liberal democracy around the world. From India to Turkey, from Poland to the United States, authoritarian populists are challenging power as the rule of law and respect for democratic institutions and processes becomes ever more frayed. Is the survival of liberal democracy, the very system that helps spread peace and prosperity, at risk? My next guest thinks so. 

Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in Political Theory at Harvard University, in his new book, The People Versus Democracy, Why our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save it, illustrates the uniqueness of our present political environment, explores how democracy is wilting away and, importantly, asks what we can do to reverse this worrying trend. He’s on the phone from New York. Yascha, welcome to the podcast. 

Yascha Mounk
Thank you so much. 

Glyn Davis
So, liberal democracy has faced moments of crisis before, but you believe today is unique, and that we are living in an extraordinary time. Why?

Yascha Mounk
Well, it’s absolutely right that democracy has been in crisis before. After the very rapid economic growth of the post-war era, there is a moment in the 1970s where there is a big boom in a crisis of democracy literature. But when you look at the state of the political system at the time, it was a lot less concerning. A few more radical parties crept up in the polls. In Germany, where I grew up, for example, there were some far-right parties that managed to get into a few state parliaments, but their success was very brief, and they never really had political representation at the national level. 

What we see now is the rapid rise of populist movements that reject some of the most basic rules and norms for our political system in lots of different countries at the same time. So, in Europe, for example, the average vote share of populist parties was eight per cent in the year 2000 and is now well over 25 per cent. Just a couple of months ago, we had elections in Italy in which populist forces took nearly two thirds of the vote, and it now looks as though we’re going to have, for the first time in a major Western European country, a populist government in which a far-right populist party is ruling with a populist party whose origins were actually on the left. 

So, you know, we are seeing a very fundamental transformation in our politics, which I think is quite unlike anything we’ve seen in the 1970s, or frankly before. 

Glyn Davis
So, some people have responded by saying we’ve had populist movements in the past, we’ve had moments where liberal democracy faith has been dented. Are we just confused by the noise of Trump, and that what we’re seeing is a cycle rather than a fundamental change?

Yascha Mounk
It’s easy to think about Donald Trump and get transfixed by the spectacle he creates but look at a country like Hungary. One of the core assumptions that political scientists had for many decades - not just Francis Fukuyama with his famous thesis of the end of history, but people who ran numbers in political science for a living - was that democracies were safe once they have a GDP per capita of $14,000 in today’s terms, and they changed governments, free and fair elections, at least a couple of times. 

So, most scholars of central Europe, five or 10 years ago, would have pointed to Hungary and said, democracy in this country is now consolidating. We really don’t have to worry about what it will look like in the future any more. 

Well, you look at Hungary now. We have elections there too a few months ago, elections which were somewhat free, but barely fair, in which the government had really put a lot of pressure on the free press, turning state media into propaganda outputs, and forcing the sale of critical private media entities, in which it had taken control of the whole judicial system, used its control over the electoral commission to fine opposition parties vast sums of money, gerrymandered the electoral system in extreme ways, and I would, therefore, say that Hungary is no longer a true democracy, but is on a rapid path towards dictatorship. 

Hungary has had those changes of government, free and fair elections. It does have, now, a GDP per capita of $14,000. So, one of the most fundamental ideas that political scientists held to for the last decade, the stability of a certain class of rich, developed democracy, no longer seems to hold. 

Glyn Davis
So, Hungary is a disturbing case. Fukuyama, you mentioned, gave us a very heady optimism that the end of history was here because democracies would endure. In retrospect, does it turn out that the apparent stability of Hungary and other democracies was made possible by conditions that are no longer in place?

Yascha Mounk
So, I think to understand what has changed, we have to ask about the scope conditions under which liberal democracy is stable, and I would say there are at least three ways in which we may have breached the scope conditions of liberal democracy.

The first is that, all through the history of democratic stability, we saw a very rapid increase of living standards from one generation to the next, so from 1925 to 1960, the living standards of the average American doubled. From 1960 to 1985 it doubled again, and since 1985 it’s been flat, and that’s true of lots of other countries around the world as well. 

The second thing I would point to is the quite deep social and economic and cultural changes that are happening in different countries. So, most democracies, including Australia, including most countries in Europe, were founded in many ways as mono-ethnic, monocultural countries, or at least ones which had a conception of themselves as being homogeneous in that way, and after decades of immigration, they have turned into multi-ethnic countries. 

Many of their citizens celebrate and embrace that fact, but it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that there’s also some parts of the population that have something to lose from that, if only because they can no longer say that there’s something special to them, because they’re in the majority, and they [unclear] other people, and they rebel against it. They’re quite angry about that. That’s certainly one of the drivers of populism. 

The third thing is the rise of social media, which draws on the kind of anger that a lot of people have about economic stagnation, the kind of anxieties they have about the cultural change that might eventually put them in a minority in the country, and makes it much easier to mobilise this kind of anger politically, makes it much harder for gatekeepers to keep control of what can be said in a political system. 

Glyn Davis
So, your book provides remarkable cross-country surveys of declining faith in democracies. Can you take us through the differences that you’re finding?

Yascha Mounk
Yeah, of course, and I should mention, by the way, that all of this work was done in conjunction with my friend and colleague Roberto Stefan Foa, who teaches at the University of Melbourne. So, we looked at particularly two things, which is how do people relate to their democracies, and how do they relate to authoritarian alternatives to democracy, and what we’ve found was quite worrying on that. 

You know, whereas, for example, over two thirds of older Americans - born in the 1930s, 1940s - said that it’s absolutely essential to them to live in a democracy, less than one third of younger Americans - born since 1980 - do, and we saw similar declines in a good number of other countries, including, I believe, in Australia. 

What’s even more striking in some ways is that more people are coming to be open to authoritarian alternatives to democracy. So, ask people about something even as extreme as army rule. 20 years ago, one in 16 Americans said that they were open to army rule, that that was a good system of government. Now, it’s one in six. You have striking findings in other countries on similar questions as well. 

So, when you ask people, would you like to have a strong ruler who doesn’t have to bother with parliament or elections, the number of people who agree with that has roughly doubled in most European countries. It’s now at 50 per cent in places like France and the United Kingdom.

Glyn Davis
Scary. I was relieved to see that Australians are not much interested in army rule, and are positively hostile to the strong ruler approach, but that doesn’t make them very typical of the world. 

Yascha Mounk
Yeah, perhaps you have it better in Australia, and of course, you know, while you certainly experienced the arrival of social media, and the change in, certainly, the same degree of the demographic composition of Australia and the self-conception, you have had a much more successful economic story than some of these other countries, and that may help to explain why you obviously see the rise of Pauline Hanson, and there are elements of populism in Australia just as much as in other countries, but it hasn’t yet broken through in the way it has in virtually any other democracy I can think of. 

Glyn Davis
Yeah, I think that’s a very fair call. You state in the book that liberal democracy is decomposing into its constituent parts, and you talk about the notion of illiberal democracy on the one side, and undemocratic liberalism on the other. Can you explain these ideas?

Yascha Mounk
For quite a long time now, we’ve had a system that you might call undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy, a political system in which we’re reasonably good at respecting individual rights, at giving us the freedom to lead our lives as we wish, but people - for good reason - no longer feel that politicians really listen to them. 

That’s partly because of the role of money in politics, because of the way in which politicians have become a sort of class, a milieu that’s a little bit apart from the rest of society, but it’s also because of a rise of a whole set of technocratic institutions and international institutions that have taken a set of important decisions out of democratic consultation. 

Some of the most important economic decisions are now taken by independent central banks. Some of the most important laws are now set by constitutional courts, and some of the most important questions of trade and special finance are ruled on by everything from trade treaties to the IMF. 

Some of these institutions actually do a very important job, I think, to simply claim that all of them are illegitimate, but we still have to face up to the ways in which we constrain the formation of a democratic will.

Glyn Davis
Your book goes on to look at a number of these institutions, and I’d just like to walk you through a couple of them. You’ve mentioned some of them but let me pick on a small number. One is the legislature, and you note that the people who make up legislatures in many countries now are less and less similar to the people they represent. They have fewer ties to their community. Can you expand on why this is a problem for democracy?

Yascha Mounk
I do worry that, when you look at many countries now, there’s a way in which they’ve lost touch with the views and interests of ordinary people. When I think of a social democratic party in Europe, for example, you know, 40 years ago, a lot of their representatives would have had working-class roots themselves. They might have made their way up through trade unions, and so they had a real understanding of the kind of struggles and problems that ordinary citizens faced. 

Today, they’re much more likely to have gone to universities in the big cities than in the country, and that shapes the world. When people think about ways in which there might be, you know, what social scientists would call 'elite capture' in the political system, I think we’re tempted to think that it’s a process of relatively straightforward corruption and bribery, that there's a congressman in the United States who has to cast the decisive vote on a particular bill, and he thinks, well, if I vote for this bill it’s good for the world, it’s good for my constituents, but the guy who gives me campaign contributions is going to get really upset, so I’m going to vote no because I care more about getting re-elected than about doing the right thing. 

I think that’s a little bit too simple a model of what the world looks like, of how things usually work. I think most representatives now spend so much time fundraising, they spend so much time around lobbyists and donors, and they actually, even in terms of [eradication], have become so far removed from people of average income, of the sort of problems that a lot of citizens have, that they simply have a more lively understanding of the legitimate interests that certain businessmen, certain industries, certain other donors might have, and they don’t have a similarly lively understanding of the interests of the bulk of the population. 

So, when they vote on this bill, it’s not that they’re being corrupt. It’s not that they knowingly go against what is right. It’s that their background, their education, and the way they spend their time now that they’re politicians is mis-shaping what policy should be.

Glyn Davis
In the book, you outlined that over the last 15 years, expenditure on lobbying in the United States has doubled from $1.6 billion to $3.2 billion a year. 

Yascha Mounk
The average congressman in the United States, according to what one congressman themselves said, spends about 50 per cent of their time either at fundraising functions or sitting in a little room that both parties - the Democrats and the Republicans respectively - rent, close to the Congress, because you can’t do it in the building itself. That’s illegal, thankfully. 

So, they go across the street, into a basement, and sit in a room full of cubicles, along with the other congressmen, and spend up to six hours a day cold-calling different donors around the country for cash. You know, every rich person in the country has a lot of time, a lot of leisure, to tell them all of the problems they face, and average constituents can’t make their voices heard in the same way. That’s going to influence what kind of topics Congress actually deals with, and how the congressmen are going to vote. 

Glyn Davis
You move from analysis to prescription. You start thinking aloud about some of the changes that might be necessary to make liberal democracy viable. Can I invite you to say a little bit about the program you have in mind?

Yascha Mounk
The striking think about liberal democracy is that it isn’t necessarily a stable system over time. Eventually, it becomes very hard to remove a democratically elected head of government by democratic means, and we’re now nearing this place in lots of parts of the world, and that’s quite a scary thought. 

So, what do we do to stand up to that? Well, the first thing is to make sure that we actually oppose them in our political system, that we support more moderate political parties that stand against them, that where we are already in power, we do what we can to beat them when they are first up for re-election, because there are quite a few examples in which the opposition still had a decent, reasonably free and fair chance of getting populists out of office when they were first up for re-election, but by the time they were up for re-election the second, or third, or fourth time, as we are seeing in Russia, and in Turkey, and in Hungary, the opposition no longer really had a fair chance.

So, all of that is crucial, but it’s not going to be enough, because the rise of populism has this long-term structural reason, and so we can’t just beat it through a good election campaign, or a charismatic candidate. We actually need to do three things. 

We need to ensure that ordinary citizens once again experience an increase in their living standards and some amount of confidence in their economic future, and I think that there’s a whole host of policy measures that I go through in the book that we can do in order to promise that, which includes making sure that rich individuals and the corporations actually pay the fair share of tax, but it also includes measures that are designed to increase the productivity of average citizens, and to make sure that, for example, when people do have good jobs, they can actually have a decent life.

That is a big problem in many of the centres of economic opportunity around the world. That, I know, is a big problem in Australia as well, that if you’re 25, 30, and you have a great job in Melbourne, or in Sydney, you may nevertheless be doubtful about whether you’re ever going to ascend to the standards of living of your parents, because you now have to pay such an insane amount of money in order to find a decent place to live. 

The second thing is about helping us transition to that multi-ethnic society, and that, I think, is to embrace a sense of what I call inclusive patriotism, inclusive nationalism. There’s a temptation, I believe, among many people - and I felt that temptation myself growing up - to say, let us leave nationalism behind in the 20th Century which it so crudely shaped. Why should we think that there’s anything special about having solidarity with other people in our country? 

But I think that this both underplays how significant patriotism has historically been in overcoming smaller forms of allegiance and solidarity towards your own kin and family and village. It’s actually expanded the circle of human sympathy in a way that we should appreciate. 

Secondly, I think it underestimates how powerful a force nationalism is. If you run away from it, it’s not going to go away, and instead, the worst kinds of people are going to stoke and provoke the national beast until it runs wild. 

So, I think we should embrace the idea that there is something honourable in the nation, something honourable in having a form of national solidarity, but obviously fight for an inclusive understanding of this, which insists that people who live in our countries, who may have a different skin colour from the majority, a different religion from the majority, who may not have been born in that country, who have roots in different parts of the world, can nevertheless be full members of our society, and be part of that inclusive patriotism. 

Then finally, you know, people have become cynical about our political system, and part of the reason for that is that we don’t spend enough time explaining and championing our political system. 

From Plato to Aristotle, and from Rousseau to the American founding fathers, each set of thinkers thought about how to make a self-governing republic work. Actually, emphasised the importance of transmitting our values from one generation to the next. Neither in high schools, nor, frankly, in universities, do we spend a lot of time doing that. 

So, I think telling people about the values of our political system, and showing them not just the big human disasters that authoritarian systems have wrought in the past, but also the big human disasters that populist governments are wreaking in the present in places like Turkey, and Russia, and Hungary, and Venezuela, can hopefully help to recommit citizens to those fundamental values, to individual rights and individual liberty on the one hand, and collective self-rule on the other hand, which I think can retain a lot of their appeal. 

Glyn Davis
Does that leave you as an optimist or a pessimist as you finish this book?

Yascha Mounk
It’s a mix. I think that we grew up in very optimistic circumstances, in which the assumption - and not just Francis Fukuyama’s assumption - the assumption of most political scientists, most journalists, most ordinary citizens, was that you know, we can be sure that democracy will still be around in 20 or 30 years, but our political system isn’t in danger in that sort of way. 

So, by comparison to that baseline, I’m a pessimist. I do think that our political systems are now in mortal danger and that it’s incredibly important that we face up to that fact. 

I’m also an optimist in two senses. First of all, in that I think that once people realise what it is like to live in dictatorial regimes, once they see the damage that it can wreak even in neighbouring countries, in developed political systems, they’re going to be quite horrified by it, and they’re going to rediscover how important some of the things they take for granted are. I still believe that people are committed, at some basic level. They take it for granted, but they are still committed to living in a country in which they have freedom, and in which they determine their own fate. 

The other thing that makes me optimistic is that, unlike the citizens of Russia, and of Turkey, and recently of Hungary, and certainly of Venezuela, we still have the freedom of action to fight for our values. So, while I can’t promise anybody a happy end, I know that it’s up to us, and that, in a way, is inspiring, because it means that, for all of the challenges we face, our future is still in our hands. So, I think we should better go and try to shape it. 

Glyn Davis
Thank you, and that’s just an inspiring message to finish on. It’s been a great privilege to talk with my guest Yascha Mounk, Lecturer on political theory at Harvard University, and the author of a clear and insightful book, The People Versus Democracy. Yascha, thank you for being a guest on the policy show. 

Yascha Mounk
Thank you, it was a pleasure.

The Policy Shop is produced by Eoin Hahessy, with audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer, and is recorded at the Horwood Studio at the University of Melbourne. The Policy Shop is produced under Creative Commons, copyright the University of Melbourne, 2018.