Democracy is under assault, not only in the United States but also around the world. Populists on the right and left have challenged traditional parties, while faith in democratic government has declined. Yascha Mounk, author of “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It,” found many of the same factors we saw play out in the election of President Trump show up in Western democracies in the past couple of years. Here is Part 1 of our conversation:
All across the West traditional parties have collapsed. Is this a result of economic phenomena or cultural factors or both?
Both. In the last years, I’ve seen all of these articles saying: “It’s all about economic anxiety!” Or: “It’s obviously due to racism!” Both of these approaches are silly because nearly all of the interesting phenomena in the world have more than one cause.
From 1935 to 1960, the living standard of the average American doubled. From 1960 to 1985, it doubled again. Since 1985, it’s essentially been stagnant. This makes a huge difference in how people think about politics. They didn’t love politicians in the past; but in the end, they gave them the benefit of the doubt. Now, they are saying: I’ve worked hard all of my life, and I don’t have much to show for it. So it must be the fault of those politicians. Let’s try something new.
This doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the poor who vote for populists. But in virtually every country–in India and Turkey and Poland and France as well as in the United States–populists find the strongest support in less economically successful regions. Here in America, for example, Trump won big in parts of the country that are less affluent, that have attracted less investment in recent years, and that have a greater share of jobs that might be lost to automation. So while it’s not necessarily the worst off who vote for populists, it is the people who have good reason to fear the future.
Now, cultural factors obviously play a big role as well. Most countries still pretended to be mono-ethnic and mono-cultural when democracy took hold there. In 1960, it was (supposedly) clear what a “true” Greek or German or Swede looked like. In North America, society has always been multi-ethnic, but here there was, in some ways, an even stricter racial hierarchy.
Over the past decades, we have made tremendous progress towards building an equal, multi-ethnic society on both sides of the Atlantic. And it’s worth stopping for a second to celebrate that. But there has obviously been a tremendous backlash against that. I find that deeply depressing. But I don’t think it’s that surprising: after all, members of the majority group are having to give up some real advantages, both of relative status and of relative economic standing.
To make things worse, the economic and the cultural factor actually reinforce each other. When people feel that they’re doing great economically, for example, they are also likely to be more generous towards others. When they feel economic frustration, by contrast, they’re also much more likely to blame newcomers for their woes.
We in America thought we were immune to many of the anti-democratic forces afflicting Europe. Why haven’t core American beliefs insulated us from the dangers of ethno-nationalism?
Not so long ago, it seemed as though democracy gave you all the good things at the same time: Democracies were the most powerful countries in the world. They were the most affluent. And they were also the most free. Under those circumstances, it was easy to tell ourselves that most people believed in democracy for the most noble of reasons. Even if it cost us dearly, we told ourselves, we would obviously choose democracy over the alternatives.
Well, the evidence of the past years seems to suggest that popular support for democracy has always depended on what political scientists call “performance legitimacy”–the ability of a political system to deliver the goods–to a much greater extent than we realized. So as people have grown frustrated with the ability of the democratic system to give them what they want, they have rapidly changed their attitudes about the system. That helps to explain why, as I show in the book, a lot of people around the world are giving less importance to living in a democracy, and becoming more receptive to authoritarian alternatives to democracy.
I’ll post Part 2 of our conversation on Thursday.