Yascha Mounk

Democrats vs. Authoritarians

Air Date: April 7, 2018

Scholar Yascha Mounk discusses his book “The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today we continue our examination of the deepening battle between democrats and Authoritarians with a leading scholar of government Yascha Mounk. He’s a lecturer on government at Harvard University, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. A columnist at Slate and the host of “The Good Fight” podcast, Mounk studies the rise of populism and the ascent of illiberal democracies. “The People vs. Democracy” his new book “provides an acute analysis of the rise of these nationalist movements, and the challenges to our democracy.” That’s the review of Francis Fukuyama. And while he may have redeemed himself in a string of mea-culpas, we’re counting three decades ago, when Fukuyama tragically predicted, maybe naively predicted the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution as western liberal democracy, a final form of human government. Not so, as Mounk and I are here to discuss, a pleasure being with you Sir.

MOUNK: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: Is it that the democrats in effect have embraced totalitarianism?

MOUNK: Well what we are seeing is that people are much less committed to the form of government than they used to be. I think in the period in which there was really rapid increase of living standards for average people, in which democracies were the most powerful, the most prestigious countries in the world. It was very tempting to think, well people have this very deep commitment to the ideals of our political system, two individual rides, two collective selves rule, and we’re never going to deviate from that. Well what we’ve seen over the past decades is a really rapid change in that. So what I show in my research and in the book is that actually people give much less importance to living in a democracy than we once did. In the United States, over two thirds of Americans used to say it’s absolutely crucial to me to live in a democracy, now less than one third do. And they’re even becoming more open to authoritarian alternatives to democracy. So twenty years ago, one in 16 Americans said they were open to army-rule. Now it’s one in six.

HEFFNER: Those are consistent surveys that you’ve found in America. In other western democracies as well, or is this a specific American phenomenon?

MOUNK: So this isn’t happening in every single country in the world, but it is happening in most of them. When you ask a question like, what do you think of a strongman ruler who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections? A pretty clear alternative to democracy. You have, Germany. Where 20 years ago, 16 percent were in favor of such a system, and now it’s 33 percent. You have France and the United Kingdom, where twenty years ago 25 percent of people were in favor of this, and now it’s one in two, it’s 50 percent. Now look, it’s difficult to know how to interpret those surveys. Right, who knows what people say about them, The fact they have changed over time is worrying, but it’s difficult to know exactly what they mean. But it goes beyond that. You see the rise of political parties that actually break with the most basic rules and norms of a democratic system. Politicians who say, I’m gonna leave you in suspense about whether I’ll accept the outcome of this election. I think my adversary should be sent to jail. I think judges are enemies of the American people, in your position are traitors. You may know who I’m referring to here in this country, but there’s very similar forces on the rise in many countries in Western Europe and Eastern Europe and Asia. So just looking at Europe, the average virtue of a populist party in the year 2000 was 8 percent. Now it’s 25 percent, so it’s…

HEFFNER: You document a worrisome trend. And you allude to the American President. We hope that the public opinion that shows the President at a historically low approval is an indication, is emblematic of the fact that he is testing democratic norms, or violating democratic norms in a way that the public recognizes and ultimately there may be a test of that in these 2018 midterm elections.

MOUNK: So perhaps so, I personally hope so, but I think it’s important to recognize how much more norm breaking, how much more rule breaking politicians can apparently do, while getting away with it. So despite all of his breaking of democratic norms, Donald Trump was electing President of this country. And when you look at the reasons why he’s now unpopular, and by the way he’s not as unpopular as we sometimes like to believe, he’s quite unpopular but not crazy unpopular, his approval ratings at the moment on aggregates below about 40 percent. When we look at why he’s popular it’s partially because it’s an incredibly chaotic administration, he has actually delivered for his base. He’s not been very consistent in his rhetoric. When we look at authoritarian populists like Vicktor Orban in Hungary, like Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, like Recep Erdoğan in Turkey, like Narendra Modi in India, they have broken democratic norms as well, but because they are smart, disciplined, political leaders who know how to build their base and expand it, they are very very popular at this point. So I think if Trump had followed in their footsteps more carefully, which in some ways thankfully he hasn’t, he might’ve gotten away with a lot more than he has.

HEFFNER: Yascha, what happened? There was this consensus, and Fukuyama writes about it, but it was broader than Fukuyama that liberal democracy was the answer, and liberal democracy did not actually have a particular attachment to what we traditionally conceive of as a liberal or conservative agenda in this country. And now you mention Hungary, Turkey, there is a wave of not only acceptance of illiberal democracy, but almost asserting that illiberal democracy is still democracy. How did we get here?

MOUNK: Yeah. Well first of all I want to defend Francis Fukuyama a little bit because it sometimes, well first of all people misread the title of his book and think that Fukuyama thought there would no longer be any political revolutions, any wars, that’s never what he said. And secondly I think that he really encapsulated in the most brilliant way, a view that was much, much more widespread. So political scientists who would never have used the term ‘the end of history’, nevertheless believed that democracies would’ve changed governments with free and fair elections a couple of times and, but it would rarely be affluent, but have more than about 14 thousand dollars two people capita, are safe, but we don’t have to worry about their fate. That turned out to be wrong in in a tragic way and we have to understand why. Now my guide to this is a very silly story by a philosopher called Bertrand Russell, which he told a hundred years ago. And Russell said, picture a chicken on a farm. It’s a nice kind of chicken, you know of a kind of organic chicken we’d like to find now, it runs around in the farm, talks to the other animals. The other animals are saying, be careful. The farm owner only seems nice, one day he’s gonna come and kill you. Chicken says, what—what are you talking about? Says well he’s nice to me, he always gives me food, he mutters some encouraging words. But Russell points out, one day the farmer does come and wring the chickens neck, showing that more sophisticated views as to the uniformity of causation would’ve been to a chickens benefit. Now, what does he mean by that? What he means is that there are background conditions to political developments. For democracy it was stable as long as lots of things were true. Just as the farmer had a reason to feed the chicken as long as it was too think for the market. Once its background conditions change, once the chicken is fat enough for the market, the behavior changes. So we need to ask a chicken question: how is the past different from the current conditions of democracy? And I think there’s at least three important ways in which that is now true. The first is, that there’s always been a very rapid increase in living standards for every citizens in the stable democracies of the world. From 1945 to 1960, the living standard for the average American doubled. From 1960 to 1985, it doubled again. Well, since 1985 it’s essentially been flat, it’s been stagnant. That really makes a big difference in how people think about the politics. They used to say, I don’t know if I love politicians, I don’t know if I trust them completely, but in the end, you know what, I’m twice as rich as my parents were, kids are gonna be twice as rich as me, let’s give ’em the benefit of a doubt. Now a lot of ’em are saying, I worked really hard all my life, I don’t have much to show for it, let’s try something new. How bad can things get? Now, a second reason I think has to do with a cultural transformation. Most democracies when they were founded, were either thinking of themselves as mono-ethnic, mono-cultural countries, which it was very clear that somebody who’s black somebody who’s Latino, somebody who’s Muslim or Hindu could not be quote-unquote a true German or Italian or Swede. Well after decades of immigration we’ve thankfully changed that conception, overcome some of those notions, a lot of people embrace that transformation, as do I, but it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s also people who feel like that change is what, how they thought of their own nation, it challenges the advantages we used to have over others, and so they’re upset about it. In the United States, we’ve always had a multiethnic country, but it’s always been a multi-ethnic country with a strict racial hierarchy. And so as we’re starting to challenge that and overcome that, this country is a much better place for minorities to live than twenty or forty years ago, thank god. There’s also a massive resistance against it from the people who have something to lose in this process.

HEFFNER: Ultimately, Yascha, there seems to be a willful amnesia on the part of some of our elected office holders, who refuse to acknowledge that earlier era of totalitarianism or authoritarianism. That’s gonna cost us, we’re not sure how much yet.


HEFFNER: Do you have an estimation…


HEFFNER: Of how much it will?

MOUNK: Well I mean…

HEFFNER: I’m talking about Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan in particular in this country, and those leaders in the countries you mentioned, who have abstained in effect…


HEFFNER: As they see democracy torn apart.

MOUNK: Look the Constitution gives us all of the tools we need in order to defend our political institutions, but the Constitution can’t defend itself, it’s a sheet of paper. And it relies on flesh and blood human beings to bring it to life. And one of the shocking things of the past two years is the number of flesh and blood human beings, who against their convictions in many cases, against their better knowledge, have proven to be cowards, who are willing to put the powers and interest of some you don’t even particularly like over the interests of the country. And that is very, very concerning. Now, I mean part of this is because we failed to talk enough about the importance of our political institutions. Political thinkers from Plato to Aristotle and from Machiavelli to the Founding Fathers have always emphasized the importance of passing our political ideals from one generation to the next. And we’ve neglected to do that in a serious way. We barely teach civics in high schools these days. When we do it’s mostly learning facts off by heart or criticizing all of the things that are wrong with our country. Of which there is many things, and it’s fine to talk about them, but we also have to talk about what’s worthwhile about our ideals. As a result people have barely any knowledge of their own political system. They don’t understand what values are at stake, and they certainly don’t have an imagination as our parents and grandparents did of what it would mean to live under communism, to live under fascism, of what life today looks like in Venezuela, in Russia, in Iran, in China.

HEFFNER: You write “for the foreseeable future, nationalism is likely to remain a defining,” or I might argue “the defining force,” and you argued in this New York Times op-ed which is from the book that liberals, or those who advocate liberal democracy have to take ownership of nationalism. I thought that was such an important expression. Because nationalism is not nativism. And you can be nationalist without being nativist, expound please.

MOUNK: Yeah, so look I think what we see at the moment is a very strong ethnic nationalism in Europe, or a white nationalism in the United States that says what it is to be a true American is to be descended you know broadly speaking from the pilgrims, right? Is to be white, is to be Christian. And you see a very similar movement in Europe, which is saying people who are coming from Turkey, from Syria, from Africa, they certainly will never belong to our country. Our country is defined ethnically, by descent from one ethnic group. Now, I think we have to fight against that, and fight for inclusion of people of different colors and creeds in our country. But the temptation is to say well that’s what the right is pushing, that’s what the nationalism that is politically potent at the moment looks like. But let’s overcome nationalism. And there’s two ways of overcoming nationalism. One which is something that I was quite tempted by when I was growing up, is to say let’s give up the need for collective forms of identity altogether. Let’s become cosmopolitans, let’s become people who care as much about the suffering of people five thousand miles away as about your neighbors. And while I still find something quite appealing about that at a certain philosophical level, I don’t think that human beings are made that way. Most people don’t manage to become saints of that stripe. And so if we want to motivate people to have solidarity with each other. To create for conditions in which you can have things like welfare state, things like toleration beyond your immediate group, I think you need to build a form of nationalism.


MOUNK: The second response has been to just celebrate collective groups at the subnational level, religious groups, sexual groups, ethnic groups, but never the national one. And while I absolutely believe that we need to defend these groups against attack with everything we have, I also think that we need to emphasize what unites us across religious and ethnic and so-on lines in the United States, rather than what divides us. And so what I argue for in the book is an inclusive patriotism. I have many political differences with the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, but I think he expressed the spirit of that very nicely in a campaign speech in Marseilles about a year ago. He said, when I look into this room, you know we’re in a city with two thousand years of immigration, and what do I see? I see people from the Ivory Coast, from Mali, from Algeria, from Morocco, from Italy, from Poland. But what do I see? I see the people of Marseilles. What do I see? I see the people of France. And then referring to a far right nationalist, Marine Le Pen, he says, look here ladies and gentleman from the Frente Nacional, this is what it looks like to be proud to be French. That’s a kind of inclusive patriotism that I can get on board with.

HEFFNER: Someone will challenge President Trump with that authority and reveal his nationalism or patriotism to be un-American, ultimately, to be unrepresentative of the majority or the plurality depending upon how you see it. That is the linguistic and cultural and historical framing of a successful nominee for president in 2020.

MOUNK: I agree, and that’s what Barack Obama did brilliantly, both on the campaign trail in 2008 but also as president.

HEFFNER: To my mind, it’s not only reclaiming nationalism, it’s reclaiming the architecture of the Constitution, and you refer to the civic institutions here being deprived of a learned constituency that will partake in our American government.

MOUNK: No it’s absolutely important to understand, is that we sometimes picture the threat to democracy as emanating from, you know fascists in you know black boots, carrying torches. And there are cases of that, but much more often, democracies perish because voters are willing to put up with politicians who violate the most basic constitutional rules and norms. So when we look at what’s been happening in Hungary for the past years, they’ve been happy to go with a prime minister who has vilified the opposition, who has undermined the independence of the press, who has reformed the judiciary in a way to give him much more political control, and who has staffed the electoral commission with his own supporters. Now he did all of that claiming that it was in the service of democracy. It was in the service of him being better able to speak for the people, represent them in politics. But what’s happened over time is that democratically elected prime minister has taken on so many powers, that it’s now impossible to throw him out of office through democratic means, or at least it’s very difficult. Because of a playing field between the government and the opposition is no longer even. So we need to spread the word about the Constitution, not just because it’s nice and it’s you know it’s beautiful for Fourth of July speech and so on, but because we need to understand how important those rules and norms are. How important the defense of a Constitution is, in order to preserve things that we really care about like our individual freedom, like our ability to rule ourselves collectively.

HEFFNER: And we need to really do a forensic analysis and inspection of those critical documents, to assert that in that war of the people vs. democracy, ultimately the people have to have conviction in those documents. And they have to not just have conviction but understand how they are represented faithfully. Yascha, you know in the minutes we have remaining, what is really…

MOUNK: I was only just getting started. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: I know, right, so… the most malignant influence that is pulling us, pulling the seams apart of the democratic order. It’s not so simple to say Russia, but is it?

MOUNK: Well look,

HEFFNER: At least in so far as those former Soviet territories and countries and that part of the world are concerned.

MOUNK: Yeah, I mean, you know one way of framing this question is whether or not Russia determined the outcome of the 2016 elections, and I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that in a functioning political system, somebody who breaks its most basic rules of the road, should not have been within striking distance of winning the presidency. Now there’s a good chance that Russian interference made the difference. It was 80 thousand votes between Trump winning and losing. I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that in a healthy political system, he wouldn’t have been anywhere close to winning. He wouldn’t have been the Republican nominee in the first place. And so we can’t, so we have to do two things. We have to become much more assertive and much more self-confident about defending our political order against authoritarian adversaries who have an interest in subverting it. And that at the very least means reforming our electoral system to make it much more difficult to hack into voting machines and falsify elections. To recommit people to our constitutional ideals, to make it much harder for outside money to advertise in our political campaigns, which also means by the way cleaning out the campaign system as a whole, because when you have billions flowing in, it’s easy to hide millions from the outside as well. So we have to do all of, all of those things. But we also have to do something more fundamental. Which is that we need to show people that the government can actually deliver for them. And we need to overcome the deep and poisonous partisanship in our country. Because it is that which authoritarian powers, at the moment, are exploiting. And by the way now that Russia has shown how much chaos you can sow from the outside, one of my fears is that other authoritarian powers will start to copy, start to take a page out of the same playbook. Why would Iran, why would China, why would other countries, some of which have even more money, even more state capacity than Russia, sit on the sidelines when we see how easy it is to mess with us by exploiting our divisions.

HEFFNER: And the inherent democratic quality of a nation that you alluded to before, depends on fairness and an economic climate that is conducive to livelihood.

MOUNK: Yeah, I actually think that the slogan of the Brexiteers, of a people who wanted to take the United Kingdom out of Europe was very smart. They said take back control. People want to feel like I have control over my own life, if I work hard, if I turn up to work, if I get a decent education, I’m actually gonna have a good life. And we want to feel that my nation can stand up for itself in the age of globalization and make sure that rich individuals, corporations, and so on are actually taxed, at an effective rate. Now there are things we can do in order to give people that. We can invest much more in education including lifelong learning, we can do much more to raise productivity, we can reform the tax code in order to help ordinary Americans rather than billionaires and some of the biggest corporations in the country as we unfortunately have done a few months ago. And we can also show that the United States, and other countries for that matter, can go after people who hide their money in tax havens. Can ensure that corporations pay a reasonable share of taxes, whether they have a normal headquarters in Delaware or in California, and in you know the United States or in Luxembourg or Ireland. So there’s a lot of things we can do there, and it’s up to politicians now to understand the urgency of doing that. Not just because it matters for economic justice, also because it matters for political stability.

HEFFNER: When is your hope realized that the people will wake up to the populists, and their, the reality that they don’t represent their economic interests.

MOUNK: Well there’s a temptation to think that populism is a self-correcting mechanism. That populists often are driven by real frustrations, their analysis is not always completely off, but their solutions are nearly always wrong. And so the temptation is to say…

HEFFNER: Well they’re and they’re sometimes opposite. You know they wanna further exacerbate the problems.

MOUNK: Right. They claim they’re gonna help steel workers in Michigan, and actually they don’t.


MOUNK: So, the temptation is to say that populists turn up in the political system and as a result more established political parties, more moderate politicians become more responsive to the frustrations that are driving this. They fix some of the problems, and everything starts being stable again. I think there’s a chance of that. There’s also a danger, though, that people get really frustrated with the political system, populists rise, they actually exacerbate the problems as we’ve been talking about, or they make the system ungovernable because there’s so much chaos as in Italy now after the last elections, that actually the frustration keeps growing, and you get a vicious cycle, and my—my fear is that we’re in that. But I wanna, end if I may on a,

HEFFNER: Yes, please.

MOUNK: On a more positive note. Look, I came of age politically at a time when there was a lot of important political battles, but it didn’t seem like the very future of our most fundamental ideals was at stake. Now it is. And that’s scary. And it’s depressing. But it’s also inspiring. Because it means that what we do now really matters. The great writer Amos Oz has a nice metaphor for this, he says that there’s a huge fire burning. And it can feel hopeless to do something about that. You and me, you know we each have a little cup, might look like there’s tea or coffee in it, it’s actually water. And how are we going to extinguish a fire. What’s, what’ are we gonna, you know how much effect can we have. But you know what, there’s a ton of people with a little bit of water in there, in their cup. There’s a ton of people watching this, and if all of us together go and pour our little piece of water on the fire, then together we might be able to extinguish it. Now I can’t promise you a happy end. I can’t tell you a fire is definitely gonna go out. But you know what you have some water in your hand, the fire is over there. Don’t ask what the result is gonna be, go do it. Go fight for your ideals.

HEFFNER: Thank you Yascha.

MOUNK: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an Open Mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.com/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.