"I Thought Democracy Was in Crisis before It Was Cool": Yascha Mounk on How to Save Liberalism from Populism

By Eaton, George | New Statesman (1996), August 17, 2018 | Go to article overview

"I Thought Democracy Was in Crisis before It Was Cool": Yascha Mounk on How to Save Liberalism from Populism


Eaton, George, New Statesman (1996)


Progressives once believed that the retreat of liberal democracy would be akin to water flowing uphill. History, they assumed, was irrevocably on their side. But from the US to Russia, Turkey to Poland, and Hungary to Italy, an Illiberal International is now advancing.

One of the first to sound the alarm was Yascha Mounk, the author of The People vs Democracy (2018) and a lecturer on government at Harvard University. "I started to joke that I was a 'democracy crisis hipster,'" the 36-year-old recalled when we met recently in a cafe in central London. "I thought democracy was in crisis before it was cool and people didn't take that point seriously."

When Mounk visited his native Germany in 2014 and warned of the rise of the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland, he was assured by senior politicians that: "it can't happen here". The AfD, with 92 MPs, is now Germany's largest opposition party.

In his book, Mounk charts the rise of illiberal democracy (or "democracy without rights") and undemocratic liberalism (or "rights without democracy"). He cites the EU, and its imposition of austerity on southern Europe, as an exemplar of the latter. "We've been less and less effective at translating popular views into public policies," Mounk warned.

The 2008 financial crisis is typically identified as the origin of the populist revolt. But Yascha Mounk emphasises three long-term global factors: the stagnation of average living standards, the "slow transformation" of monoethnic countries into multiethnic ones, and the rise of social media, which has gifted political insurgents a new means of communication.

Mounk spoke as a liberal who had been mugged by reality. "Partly for biographical reasons, I was quite tempted by the thought that we might be able to overcome nationalism as an important force in our politics."

His Jewish grandparents evaded the Holocaust by fleeing to the Soviet Union and later settled in Poland, before emigrating after the Stalinist regime's anti-Semitic turn. Mounk's family "scattered all over Europe to Sweden, Denmark and Germany" (where Mounk was born in Munich in 1982).

As a history undergraduate at Cambridge University, Mounk arrived in 2000 believing that "there weren't really any deep differences between Germany and England". He was later stunned to be described by his peers as an "overseas student". "I'm not from overseas," Mounk would reply. "In German, Ubersee means Australia or New Zealand." He had underestimated the UK's enduring island mentality.

Mounk told me that Brexit was "not an existential threat to the EU" but that "what's happening in Poland and Hungary is". He added: "That's a problem of democratic legitimacy. …

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