Saturday, June 09, 2018

two different reviews at LARB about Yascha Mounk's The People vs Democracy

Seeing as Mounck has a book out and is arguing that populism has become dangerously antidemocratic
On Aug. 23, 1939, the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and the Third Reich secretly met in Moscow to sign a treaty of non-aggression. The infamous “red-brown pact” paved the way for the Nazis’ conquest of large swathes of central Europe. It also caused a deep crisis of conscience for activists, including my grandparents, who had been attracted to communism in part because of its promises to free the world from sectarianism and racial injustice.
In the end, most communists found some way of reconciling their conscience with the unconscionable. They invoked strategy or necessity, the evil of bourgeois capitalism or the wisdom of Joseph Stalin (or denied the existence of the pact altogether). In one way or the other, they contrived to recover the certitude that they were on the side of the angels—and that this could, at times, justify an alliance with the devil.
and that the far left and the far right can agree on goals, it's about time to check out some discussions of Mounck's ideas.  I've read a few interviews he's given discussing his ideas and I am just not entirely convinced that when he says people are turning against democracy that they are necessarily turning against liberalism or democracy.  People may be getting angry about and upset over internationalism and globalism but that's not exactly the same thing.  Disquiet over those trends could even explain why the far right and far left have paradoxically had some goals in common--if people believe that internationalist globalism has damaged regional economic and cultural life and that what's called neoliberal globalism seems to have been the catalyzing problem over the last forty years it would make sense that the left and right might bargain to fight those trends. 
What if, spitballing here, the unifying opposition is against Atlanticist internationalism as the dynamic that governs the global economy?  Having lived my whole life on what is sometimes caustically referred to as "the left coast" what if the power balance has been shifting in the last half century away from an Atlantic seat of power to a Pacific seat of power?  Couldn't the recently reported news about Facebook and companies in China at least invite this as a consideration?  What if the forces opposed to the status quo are not necessarily against either liberalism or democracy in Mounck's taxonomy but against attempts to maintain the viability of Atlanticist internationalism, in a phrase the idea that a consortium of American and European influences would govern the course of the global economy.  What if there's a future in which a steadily declining United States finds it easier to be in league with China, India and tethers its economic interests there? 
If Europe spirals down into decline, perhaps even eventually the point of becoming Second World in some future centuries from now, that doesn' tmean the world will end. 
So, with that speculation in mind ... here's a few reviews of Mounck's book from LA Review of Books.
Apocalyptic visions are in vogue, it seems: Mounk’s book on contemporary threats to liberal democracy, subtitled “Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It,” might easily be sold as part of a millenarian package deal with Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, and Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West.

What distinguishes Mounk’s contribution to the genre, for good and ill, is what we might call its fundamental Voxiness — its currency in the cafe society of liberal Washington. At the level of form, Voxiness combines a seemingly insatiable desire to convey the latest social science with a correspondingly steadfast refusal of wide-ranging normative argument. This is what generates its astonishing capacity, at the level of content, to somehow both overturn conventional wisdom and affirm the preexisting beliefs of reasonable people. [emphasis added]
Scalpel at the ready, Mounk approaches our ailing body politic with a comprehensive vision in three parts: diagnosis, etiology, and therapy. The diagnosis, which forms the longest section in the book, is that liberal democracy has been pulled apart — not only in places like Venezuela or Hungary, but also in Western Europe and the United States — by the forces of populist authoritarianism on the one hand and oligarchic technocracy on the other. The etiology and the therapy are more complicated: among the sources of our woes are stagnating living standards, newfound ethnic pluralism, relentless globalization, changing technology, and growing skepticism about core liberal-democratic values, and the remedies lie in multifarious prescriptions for bolstering productivity, rehabilitating national identity, recovering national sovereignty, taming social media, renewing civic education, and so on. That is a lot to swallow, but in Mounk’s opinion a complex problem requires a complex solution
One of the most important moves in The People vs. Democracy comes right at the beginning, when Mounk insists that a definition of liberal democracy should distinguish its two components so that we can track their fortunes separately. A democracy, he says, is “a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy.” Liberal institutions, meanwhile, are those that “effectively protect the rule of law and guarantee individual rights […] to all citizens.” It follows that a society counts as a liberal democracy if it combines democratic and liberal institutions. It also follows that some societies might be democratic but not liberal or liberal but not democratic.

Some will object to these definitions. The Ancient Greeks, for example, saw election as an aristocratic mechanism that would inevitably benefit existing elites or produce new ones. And socialists have long claimed that genuine democracy requires the collective shaping of the whole of life, including the economy. But Mounk’s approach has the virtue of being uncontroversial relative to standard political discourse while nevertheless pointing to some of the aspirations behind liberalism (protecting or respecting individuals) and democracy (shaping the world together). [emphases added]

Keeping liberalism and democracy apart from a conceptual perspective allows Mounk to make his signature claim, which is that the two have begun to come apart empirically as well. In some areas, he says, we are seeing democracy without rights; in others, we are seeing rights without democracy. This is a neat idea, perfectly formed for an op-ed or a book jacket or an elevator speech, but it turns out to fit awkwardly with the messy phenomena that Mounk wants to uncover in connection with the rise of populism.
The essence of populism, he says, is a propensity to offer “glib, facile solutions” to complex problems: Voters do not like to think that the world is complicated. They certainly do not like to be told that there is no immediate answer to their problems. Faced with politicians who seem to be less and less able to govern an increasingly complex world, many are increasingly willing to vote for anybody who promises a simple solution.

That could make a person wonder whether Mounck's own explication of the problem traffics in the very populism he's trying to warn us against, when it's put that way.

Once a simple solution has been formulated (“Build a wall!”) the slippery slope to illiberalism begins. For if the answer is so obvious, the question becomes why it hasn’t been implemented already, and the answer to that must lie in a conspiracy to thwart the will of the people — that is, a conspiracy by enemies of the people, whether corrupt politicians (“Lock her up!”) or foreign interests (“Obama is the founder of ISIS!”). The only remedy is to empower an honest leader (“He tells it like it is!”) to shake things up (“Drain the swamp!”) and thereby allow the authentic demos (“real America”) to take back control of the state (“America First!”). Once in power, however, the people’s spokesman (“I am your voice!”) gets frustrated by the institutional roadblocks of a liberal society, from the media to the judiciary to the civil service, and therefore begins to delegitimize those roadblocks (“fake news,” “the deep state,” et cetera) and undermine them wherever possible (“I expect loyalty”). And so it comes to pass that democracy becomes severed from liberalism.

There is certainly a thrill in coming to recognize this pattern, especially given Mounk’s enviable ability to assemble examples from Italy, Spain, Greece, France, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Venezuela, South Korea, and Switzerland. Conceptually speaking, however, there is an obvious problem with the notion of “illiberal democracy”: those who undermine liberal institutions tend to also undermine democratic ones. Mounk claims that while the typical effect of populism is to threaten democracy, its fundamental nature is democratic, inasmuch as it expresses the will to restore power to the people. But as Jan-Werner Mueller has argued, the strategy of characterizing rival political parties as enemies of the people already signifies contempt for the democratic project of discovering the real will of the people.

The brittleness of Mounk’s conceptual framework is even more apparent when we turn to his examination of “undemocratic liberalism.” He provides a compelling argument that technocracy is on the rise in liberal democracies, pointing especially to growing numbers of civil servants, bureaucratic rules, trade treaties, independent central banks, and judicial review procedures, all of which involve entrusting a professional elite with decisions that might otherwise be the subject of political contestation. [1] Few will need persuading that liberal democracies are becoming increasingly oligarchic, but Mounk does an excellent job of pressing home the point. In the United States, he observes, the amount of money spent lobbying politicians doubled from $1.5 billion in 2000 to $3.2 billion in 2015; and in 2013 it was revealed that members of Congress (whose median net worth is over 10 times as high as that of an average American) are urged to spend around half their working hours seeking campaign contributions. [2] The situation is less dramatic in Europe, but even there politicians have grown more and more insulated from their constituents, with working-class backgrounds a rarity among representatives.

When the trend toward technocracy is combined with the trend toward oligarchy, the influence of ordinary voters starts to seem marginal at best: either an issue is taken out of the democratic arena altogether, to be handled by allegedly neutral experts drawn almost exclusively from the upper middle class, or it is debated by those who have a structural incentive to please the super-rich.

Mounk is surely right that the mixture of oligarchy and technocracy provides fertile ground for populism — it is precisely because the people really have lost their voice that the populist can claim to restore it to them. But what this has to do with “undemocratic liberalism” or “rights without democracy” is unclear. Neither oligarchy nor technocracy is naturally understood as resulting from any kind of emphasis on citizens’ rights; technocracy subordinates the individual’s right to self-determination to the expert’s decision regarding her best interests, while oligarchy privileges the rights of the few as against those of the many.

So there is nothing particularly liberal about “undemocratic liberalism.” [emphasis added] Nor is it necessarily undemocratic, at least in its technocratic dimension, since as Mounk himself points out, democratic decisions need to be carried out by public bodies and hence by officials who inevitably have some degree of autonomy. In the end, then, Mounk’s diagnosis seems faulty: liberal democracy may well be under strain, and perhaps even under threat, but the categories of illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism mostly serve to obscure the phenomena at hand.

This is not simply pedantry, for if we picture the threats to liberal democracy as in some way symmetrical and hence on a par, we may fail to see that populist authoritarianism is typically a reaction to oligarchy and technocracy. And if we fail to see that, we may end up treating the symptoms rather than the disease.

And at this point I'd interject that the fuzziness that may come about with a term like "undemocratic liberalism" is that we might want to ask which demographics of a population to which such a liberalism could apply.  To invoke Hollywood and the arts worlds, you could be as LGBTQ as you want and still not do anything significant for the working class.  A battle over land zoning and art space in Boyle Heights comes to mind.  People in the neighborhood came to believe that the promotion of an LGBTQ friendly arts venue was actually in conflict with the interests of the long-time residents of the neighborhood and that part o what made the venue dubious was that it ostensibly promoted art by people of color when the gentrification process at work marginalized the economic interests of longtime residents in favor of an arts scene. 

So another way to put that is that "undemocratic liberalism" looks like the liberalism typical of aristocrats and autocrats for millennia.  In Baroque era operas princes and counts and kings could bask in stories about their kind generously making life better for select members of the lower castes.  We may arguably be in a new feudal age where the powers are corporate juggernauts and the royalty sit in board rooms but because the monarchy isn't official ... it's not any kind of new Counter Reformation era Baroque period.  ...
For a book that is in large part a reflection on the election of Donald Trump, The People vs. Democracy is strangely silent about Bernie Sanders, who receives no mention at all. This bespeaks a more general refusal to consider left-populism as a phenomenon distinct, both analytically and normatively, from the populism of the far right. Mounk claims all forms of populism offer simple solutions to complex problems and then asserts that anyone resisting those solutions must be an enemy of the people. It follows that left-populism is distinguished from right-populism only by its choice of simple solution and cartoon villain: the people are pictured as needing to wrest power from a wealthy elite as opposed to a cosmopolitan one, basically. From Mounk’s perspective the appropriate response to left-populism and right-populism is therefore the same: reasonable people need to insist that our problems are too complex to be addressed by panaceas and then advocate more nuanced policy proposals.

There is therefore a sense in which the whole book can be summed up by the following passage: “There are no easy solutions. And yet, a principled compromise is possible.” The posture is that of the adult in the room, the millennial who despairs of his own generation’s flirtation with populism (there is a section entitled “The Young Won’t Save Us”) but hopes to exhort them toward mature reasonableness. It’s easy to poke fun at this stance, especially given Mounk’s awkward prose — an electronic search yields 76 entries for the “And yet,” formula at the start of sentences — but in the era of Twitter politics there is something refreshing about Mounk’s refusal to paint himself as more radical than he actually is.
Taken by themselves, Mounk’s proposals for bolstering liberal democracy seem perfectly sensible. Citizens should vote against populists, stick together to protest populist authoritarianism, not get distracted by the personal foibles of an authoritarian leader, and, above all, remind one another of the merits of liberal democracy. Politicians should speak the idiom of ordinary people, have a positive message, respect institutional norms, promote an inclusive form of national identity, and avoid the political extremes without appearing wedded to the status quo. Policymakers should desegregate schools, raise taxes on the well off, restore welfare-state provisions while decoupling benefits from employment, invest in infrastructure, research, education, and health care, make transnational individuals and corporations pay taxes domestically, increase the housing supply, fund continuing education, find ways to give gig workers a sense of professional pride, encourage social media companies to nudge their users in responsible ways, diminish the influence of lobbyists by increasing budgets for parliamentary staffers, and improve civic education in both schools and universities.

This certainly qualifies as a complex package of proposals. But if Mounk were to ask himself why the various policies that he suggests have not already been implemented, the answer would most often seem decidedly simple: our political systems have grown increasingly oligarchic over the last few decades and turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. For Mounk’s proposals to pass, the balance of power in society would have to alter first. And since this cannot be achieved simply by appealing to the conscience of existing elites, it will require large-scale mobilization of the rest of the population — or, to put it another way, left-populism.

The same conclusion can be reached if we focus on Mounk’s recommendation that citizens remind one another of the merits of liberal democracy. Why would people do this if the system is as unresponsive to their interests as Mounk suggests? In an egregious passage, Mounk vocalizes the kind of thing that a citizen from a group whose life prospects have stagnated over the last few decades — that is, most of the population, since the average American household is no richer now than it was 30 years ago — might have said to themselves during the last election: “‘I’ve worked hard all my life […] and I don’t have much to show for it. My kids are probably going to have it worse. So let’s throw some shit against the wall and see what sticks.’” If we can get past the Clintonite cyborg aspect of this exercise in sympathetic imagination, the point that Mounk is making is that oligarchic regimes are unlikely to inspire true loyalty. For ordinary citizens to want to protect liberal democracy, in other words, they must be given a genuine stake in it. And that is precisely what left-populism proposes to give them.

Mounk is not some kind of crypto-neoliberal. If anything, he seems to be a European-style social democrat, which puts him way to the left of most American Democrats. The point is just that his desire to defend the complexity of the reasonable center against the simplicity of the crazy extremes blinds him to the logic of his own argument. No doubt it would be a mistake, both practically and theoretically, to assume that curtailing oligarchy will solve all our problems. But it does seem plausible that the interests of ordinary citizens are unlikely to be served by a political system in which you basically have to be rich to get elected — including at the local level — and even then you have to spend half your time sucking up to other rich people.

As a result, it also seems plausible to say that in the United States, at least, wresting back popular control of political institutions is a sine qua non of stabilizing liberal democracy. So if a politician such as Sanders were to make that the guiding thread of a campaign, that need not imply any simple-mindedness — only a sense of where the most pressing problems really lie.

The People vs. Democracy almost raises this question, but doesn’t quite follow it all the way through. “If we want to preserve both peace and prosperity, both popular rule and individual rights,” writes Mounk in the introduction, “we need to recognize that these are no ordinary times — and go to extraordinary lengths to defend our values.” But what are these lengths? In the conclusion, Mounk glosses the “courage to stand up for what we hold dear” as involving a readiness to attend public protests, to remind fellow citizens of “the virtues of both freedom and self-government,” and to push political parties to bolster liberal democracy in the ways already described. But this seems a remarkably irenic response to the apocalypse that is allegedly upon us, not least given that Mounk himself says that in “extraordinary times, when the basic contours of politics and society are being renegotiated” the existential stakes of politics seem to justify departures from the rules of the game. Might we not need to bend or break the rules of liberal democracy in order to defend it for the long term, as Lincoln famously did when he suspended habeas corpus during the American Civil War? This is what the authoritarian left-populist will claim.

To provide a compelling answer to this challenge, Mounk would have to show why people should care about liberal-democratic institutions in the first place — why the rule of law is valuable, why individual rights should be considered inviolable in certain respects, why norms of civility are important, why popular views should be translated into public policy, and so on — and then make the case that these reasons do not collapse with the onset of oligarchy. That would be a different book, of course, but it would be one that treated those attracted by populism as susceptible to rational argument. Without that, all we are given is reasonableness without reasons. [emphasis added]
"Reasonableness without reasons" aptly sums up the problem with what Mounck seems to be striving for.  But I have also gotten a strong sense, in reading what Mounck has had to say, he's ultimately worried about the demise of what I'd have to call Atlanticism, the idea that the First World powers united by the Atlantic ocean and some kind of shared Euro-American legacy of Western civilization constitute the sum of both liberalism and democracy.  Maybe we need to be cut loose from the postmillennialist style master narratives endemic to Marxist and dominionist/theocratic Social Gospel legacies for Euro-American colonial imagination.  Certainly there's no inherent reason a Christian should assume that such a regime of thought is actually biblically defensible or desirable.  In this sense the fundamentalist is probably better off than either the evangelical or the mainliner but here is not the place to burrow into that--the proposal is that the Atlantic age is already coming to an end and perhaps that's as should be.  The question of whether or not liberalism and democracy as we've known them can survive the demise of Atlanticism seems to not be on the table.  The possibility that human life will go on without either liberalism or democracy seems to be unthinkable to journalists and thinkers in the West at this point.  The sun set on the English empire generations ago and if it is still twilight for the empire that's because of how closely it has been tethered to American interests. 
So, on to the next review 
But as we enter the book’s second tertile, Mounk’s explanation for populism begins outrunning his evidence. He writes that “the rise of populism is a global phenomenon,” adding that “we should look for causes that are common to most countries where populism has spread in the past years.” He wants to differentiate his work from “analysts [who] have told stories about their local context.” What first seems mere enthusiasm is soon exposed as an a priori dismissal of inconvenient examples — and there are many — that fall outside his grand theory. [emphasis added]

Mounk attributes populism to anxieties bred by economic, technological, and cultural change. More specifically, he blames anger at stagnating wealth and fears about future economic prospects (especially for the working class), communications allowing outsiders to bypass media gatekeepers to reach large audiences (social media and the internet), and unease about changing national identity (those immigrants sure seem to be coming fast). In the context of the Brexit and Trump, this looks like a decent explanation, but Mounk claims to be writing a defining book about populism generally, and “local context” be damned.

When it comes to “most countries” where populism is surfacing, all three of Mounk’s contentions are problematic, but the most flawed is his contention that populist voters are reacting to stagnating salaries and limited work opportunities. Actually, in Hungary and Poland — places Mounk and others hold up as the vanguard of today’s insurgency and archetypal authoritarian populist regimes — wealth and living standards have exploded since the collapse of communism in 1989. Salaries continue to grow rapidly, including for industrial workers. In Hungary, per capita GDP increased 534 percent since 1989. Unemployment is 3.9 percent as compared to 12.1 percent in 1993. Wages rose 11.6 percent on average between the third quarters of 2016 and 2017. Put bluntly, these are not the same problems confronting ex-GM assembly line workers in Saginaw, Michigan.

While Mounk would surely chalk all this up to Central European “local context,” these examples are not outliers. In India, where the economy has grown 2,216 percent since 1991 and the country has moved to dismantle its rigid caste system, populist Narendra Modi is in charge. Indian real wage growth is forecast at 4.8 percent this year. In 2017, in the Philippines, now administered via the violent stylings of populist Rodrigo Duterte, salaries rose five percent, and similar growth was seen in Turkey, the domain of authoritarian populist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In these places too, it is difficult to see parallels to the plight of out-of-work pipe fitters in Youngstown, Ohio, or Newcastle, England. No doubt there are economic anxieties in Central Europe, Turkey, and elsewhere, and it is true that the gap between rich and poor is growing (it is growing in Canada, for that matter), but there is no prevailing feeling that opportunity has left, never to return. At some point, an accumulation of local contexts is just context.
In fact, Mounk’s enmity for local conditions is telling. In over-relying on a select group of Western European countries and (especially) the United States, Mounk is guilty of the very thing he claims to be against. While a few chapters begin with anecdotes from his native Germany, and he sprinkles in cherry-picked international data throughout (including exaggerated public opinion data taken in Europe in 2016, amid the worst of the refugee crisis, as evidence of general European sentiment on immigration), they are mostly window-dressing for analysis of the United States that is then extrapolated to everywhere else. Fairly quickly, the book ceases to be about populism as a general phenomenon and mostly a book about Trumpism. [emphasis added]

There is at least one egregious omission too. Though Mounk briefly discusses campaign finance in the United States, he mostly ignores what, between 1980 and 2016, was demonstrably the single biggest driver of votes for right-wing authoritarian populists — heightened perceptions of corruption. [1] In the United States, this was embodied by Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra and the animus for “Crooked Hillary” (that predatory plutocrat in a pantsuit) that was the single biggest branding exercise of the 2016 election. Elsewhere, perceived corruption was also the key to the rise of authoritarian populists.

In 2010, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party gained a two-thirds majority in parliament amid corruption by the rival Socialists and fallout from a scandal that saw Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány caught on tape admitting he lied to voters. With enough parliamentary support to change the constitution, Orbán dismantled checks and balances and has kept power ever since. In the 2015 Polish elections, the illiberal Law and Justice party rode discontent from the so-called “Waitergate” scandal — in which incumbent Civic Platform party politicians came off as corrupt after servers recorded discussions over meals at posh restaurants — to become the first party since 1989 to form a government without coalition partners. Law and Justice used the recordings to create the picture that “the whole political and economic elite is corrupted, sucking out the blood of the nation,” Łukasz Lipiński, with Warsaw-based think tank Polityka Insight, recently told me.

Meanwhile, Duterte in the Philippines and Modi in India both ran on anti-corruption platforms. In Turkey, Erdoğan’s AKP party first won elections in 2002 (two years before Facebook was founded), when the key issue was corruption in the previous government that lead to a stock market crash.

But even as Mounk’s effort to map the root causes of populism makes some wrong turns, all is not lost. The explication remains thought-provoking and illuminating, and the same goes for the final section of the book. Here, Mounk takes on the impossible task of proposing solutions to our many political predicaments.


These reviews, I must admit, have tended to confirm my already forming impression that Mounck's case is probably better understood not as a worry that liberalism and democracy are at odds as much as that the cumulative dominance of Atlanticist internationalism is slipping away rapidly.  The less legitimate the United States is seen as the "leader of the free world" the more precarious the influence of Western global liberal or neoliberal influence may be seen as being.  Factor in ecological concerns and one might ask whether there even "should" be a liberal or a democratic response to global climate change concerns.  Wouldn't a totalitarian response be faster and more efficient?  Nobody in the West would advocate for a totalitarian response, of course, not officially, but if the world is in as much peril as Hollywood films are apt to make it seem then perhaps the best thing that could happen to the world is for the entire First World Western-based system to crash.   Who in the Third World already unable to access the amenities and luxuries of the First World that we take for granted would miss us? 

First World imagination looking at the end of human civilization in the wake of our own hubris is a common thread.  Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind ran with the idea that humanity refined technology to the point where seven days of fire reduced the world to an ecological decimated wasteland but that, paradoxically, humanity had mastered gene manipulation and biological engineering to a degree that allowed them to create a kind of ecological reboot disk in the form of the ecological world Nausicaa found herself living in.  Her decision at the end of the manga to destroy the shrine that would allow the earlier humanity that engineered a solution to the seven days of fire was motivated by a belief that life itself must life, not at the behest of technocratic engineering and manipulation on the part of humanity.  She is aware, though, that in doing this she may have doomed all life on the planet to eventual extinction but decides she must trust that life will go on. 

So a crisis in the First World about a sense that the First World has cultivated a lifestyle that ultimately damns the entire human race to extinction is not really a new motif. 

What may feel temporarily new is a belief that the stakes are easier to recognize in our era than they were half a century ago.   When the system crashes how many hundreds of millions of people in urban centers will suffer and die as a result?  For as dismissive as so many people can be of religious writings in general and of apocalyptic writing in particular it's fascinating how strong a pull apocalyptic and eschatological writing still has in catalyzing thoughts about just how much longer we can ride this civilizational train before it derails. 

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