Mounk, author of the recent book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It, talks to ProMarket about populist authoritarians and undemocratic liberalism.



Yascha Mounk

Latin America’s largest democracy became the latest country to be lured by a populist authoritarian on Sunday, as far-right populist candidate Jair Bolsonaro won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. With 46 percent of the vote, Bolsonaro fell short of the 50 percent needed to win the presidency outright, but was still far ahed of his closest rival, the left-wing academic and former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad (who won 29 percent of the votes), and is the favorite to win the runoff election between the two on October 28. 


Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has made no secret of his authoritarian aspirations and often waxes nostalgic about the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil until 1985. Nevertheless, his extremely conservative, homophobic “law and order” agenda has found a receptive audience in Brazil, where support for democracy has fallen rapidly in recent years as the country struggles to recover from its worst ever economic crisis, a skyrocketing murder rate, and numerous scandals that lair bare the corruption of its political elite.


Bolsonaro’s rise is just the latest reminder of the “democratic recession” that has swept through liberal democracies in recent years. “As Larry Diamond has shown, for each of the past 13 years, more countries have moved away from democracy than towards it,”  political scientist and author Yascha Mounk recently told ProMarket.  “What we have in aggregate is an overall move away from democracy around the world.” 


Mounk, a lecturer on government at Harvard and the author of the recent book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It, was among the first scholars to recognize the global threat facing liberal democracy. Brazil’s spectacular deterioration may be an extreme example, but what recent years have shown is that almost no country is safe, no matter how rich or economically stable.


“We used to have a basic assumption about the world, which was that there’s a certain set of countries, mostly in North America and Western Europe, that were safe,” says Mounk. “We believed that once a country had at least a couple of changes of government in free and fair elections and $40,000 in GDP per capita, we didn’t have to worry about whether it would continue being a democracy. And what we’ve seen in the last few years is that there’s now acute reason to doubt that assumption.”


Mounk, who is also a senior fellow at New America’s Political Reform Program and the host of The Good Fight podcast, will arrive at the Stigler Center on Monday for a talk with Luigi Zingales and Kate Waldock (details here). Ahead of his visit, we interviewed him about the reasons for the rise of authoritarians and how to combat it.


The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity:


Q: You discuss two threats to liberal democracy: one from democratically-elected far-right authoritarians (“illiberal democracy”) and the other from technocratic elitism (undemocratic liberalism).” How much did the latter contribute to the rise of the former?


The main causes of the rise of populism are deeper structural trends: the stagnation in the living standards of ordinary citizens, the powerful changes that most democracies have experienced over the last 50 or 60 years, and the rise of new communication technologies. But I do think that an important role was also played by what I call “rights without democracy,” or undemocratic liberalism. First, by the fact that money now plays an outsized role in our political system, which makes legislators less responsive to popular preferences than they would otherwise be; and secondly, by the rise of a whole set of technocratic, expert-led institutions that have treated many issues outside of democratic consultation. What it adds up to is the feeling that nobody listens to me anyway, and a desire to elect somebody, anybody, who promises to actually stand for me and break some stuff. That, I think, does have a lot to do with the form the problem takes and with what makes someone like Trump attractive.


Q: In the book, you cover a wide range of countries that experienced a rise of populist politics. Those countries all have vastly different political cultures and economic conditions and yet, when you hear people like Trump, or Erdogan, or Viktor Orban, the shared enemy they all rail about is liberal technocratic elite.


The enemies of different populists vary in certain respects and are similar in other respects. For Trump, it’s anybody who’s a Muslim. For Erdogan, it’s anybody who’s not a Muslim. There’s a variety of populists for which enemies are always an ethnic minority group or a religious minority, and then there’s also left-wing populists for whom [the enemy] tends to be big corporations. What they have in common, though, is a claim that the existing elite is corrupt, it’s self-serving, it’s in cahoots with various outsiders, and that what we need to do is to “drain the swamp,” send the casta politica packing. The supposed members of the elite vary from place to place—in the case of Poland and Hungary, it’s the communists who supposedly still make all the decisions in the country—but the kind of rhetoric about them, the kind of hatred against them, is similar.


Q: There’s some truth to the populist critique, though. In the US and in much of Europe, politics has become oligarchic. As you said, money is playing an outsized role in our politics, and politicians are less responsive to what voters want. 


A stopped clock is right twice a day, and populists tend to be right 3-4 times a day—more often in the analysis than in the solution that they pretend to have. But absolutely, populism has deep and real causes. It’s not a random and unmotivated phenomenon. It latches onto real things and problems, and the way to fight it is empowered by actually remedying those shortcomings.


Q: Populism has become such a catchall term these days that it is often used to describe leaders of various ideological stripes. Is it time to retire the term and instead discuss “illiberal authoritarians,” or something of that sort?


I have no strong feelings about what particular word you want to choose for it, but I think that what’s important is that there is a coherent category here. It does include people with very different ideological views about the economy, for example, from the left and the right. It includes people whose enemies are very different. But they do have important commonalities, and that is a particular way of thinking about politics in which you sort the “pure” people—whom you exclusively represent—from anybody else, promising that as soon as [you], a spokesman for true people, come to power, most of our problems will be answered.


One of the indications for why it’s a bigger category is because otherwise it would be difficult to explain the fact that political parties that are ideologically different from each other can work together quite effectively. How is it that Syriza and ANEL, left-wing and right-wing populists in Greece, work together? How is it that Italy’s Northern League, which is a far-right party, can work so well with the Five Star Movement, which has its roots in the political left? Well, first, they are both populists, and so their enmity to existing institutions binds them sufficiently that they can govern together.


Q: How much does all this stem from a backlash against globalization?


To me, what’s clear is that the stagnation of living standards for ordinary citizens is a huge part. As long as you feel that you’re doing twice as good as your parents, and your kids are going to do a lot better than [you], you have residual trust in the global system. You might not like politicians, you might not think that they are islands of moral virtue, but you tell yourself, “They seem to be delivering for me, so there is something for me in the system.” If most of your life experiences have been that you’re not really doing any better economically, and you have justified fears that the future will be much worse, you have much more reason to say, “Let’s shake things up, how bad can things get?”


It’s worth remembering that there are nondemocratic countries that are capitalist, but there has never been a democracy in a country that hasn’t been capitalist. So it’s not about dismantling capitalism or globalization, it is about making sure that we have enough control of our democratic institutions that we can ensure that the huge benefits that free trade and globalization create actually arrive in the pockets of ordinary citizens.


Q: The book is pretty silent on progressive populism. Bernie Sanders, for instance, isn’t mentioned at all. Wouldn’t the best solution to authoritarian far-right populism be what your Harvard colleague Dani Rodrik calls “economic populism,” a populism that confronts concentrations of wealth and power and gives everyone a stake?


It depends on what you mean by economic populism. In the way I use it, I define populists as people who attack the liberal democratic system and paint the opposition as illegitimate. There are certainly some people who are economic populists in that sense, like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. There are also other people who I would not call populists who have a robustly left-wing economic message. Elizabeth Warren would fall under that category—she is certainly not a danger to the democratic institutions of the United States.


On the substantive question, I think that there are some things that these politicians get right, in particular the anger toward the ability of the super-rich and big corporations to hide their money in international tax havens, which is absolutely right. Then there are other areas in which I have real disagreements with them. For instance housing, where I think regulation and ambitions to build more social housing are part of the solution, but a bigger part of the solution is simply to make it easier to build a lot more housing units in the big metropolitan centers.


Q: You offer a number of remedies in the book, among them raising taxes on the rich, making multinational corporations pay domestic taxes, and restoring parts of the welfare state. Many people, in particular young people, are flocking toward either the far-right or the far-left because they’ve lost faith in the ability to affect change within the system as is.


What I can say is that a lot of people in the United States are now insistent on calling themselves democratic socialists. I think one question is about the political wisdom of that. I am a little skeptical that the best way to win over the House and the Senate is to run democratic socialists up and down the country, but that’s an empirical question and my skepticism might be overcome.


On the substantive question, it really depends on what you mean by [democratic socialism]. If you’re essentially saying that you’re a kind of European social democrat, which is what a lot of those people seem to mean by that, then that’s a radical change. It would change the character of the United States quite a lot to build a social democratic society. If you mean what had traditionally been meant by socialism, collective ownership of the means of production, I can only say I have yet to see a society in history that has managed to sustain that without falling into a deeply repressive dictatorship. So I think there are robust measures we can take in that direction that don’t require us to abolish capitalism or be blind to the incredible generative power of markets.


Q: Would you say that first of all, before doing that, we have to confront the control of big money over our political system?


I think that’s a very important thing to do and it’s probably going to be difficult. I don’t know that I would say it’s obviously more important than all the other things. I think we have to push for all those things together. Realistically, real progress will come from a political moment in which we realize how close we are to the brink and actually manage to make substantive progress on a number of fronts at the same time.


Q: Sure, but can anything be achieved without first confronting concentrations of power and wealth and undemocratic liberalism?


No. I guess not.


For more, watch Yascha Mounk‘s talk with Luigi Zingales and Kate Waldock: 



[Note: this post has been updated to reflect the results of Brazil’s presidential election.] 


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