Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi at a television taping in Rome on Feb. 14. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)
Opinion writer

Yascha Mounk, the author of The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It, is among the most insightful scholars examining the beating that Western democracies are taking from both the left and right. This is the second half of conversation. (Part one of our conversation can be found here):

Does America have any assets that allow us to be more successful in pushing back against the forces of intolerance and authoritarianism?

For all of the deep racial injustices in American history — and for all of the ways in which minorities still suffer discrimination — America has always thought of itself as a country of immigrants. That is why I ultimately remain more optimistic that the United States will ultimately be able to build a successful multiethnic democracy than I am about, say, Greece.

One of the great advantages we have, for example, is that the language of what I call “inclusive patriotism” has a much greater resonance here. In Europe, the right has historically insisted that citizenship should depend on ethnic and religious considerations while the left has rejected nationalism altogether. In North America, both of these traditions exist as well. But there is also a great number of people who proudly fly the flag while insisting that it stands for all Americans, regardless of color or creed. And that does give me real hope for the future.

Is this a matter of delivering on economic prosperity, or do democratic governments need to make the case for democracy?

To win people back, we need to give them a realistic hope for a better future. In my mind, the 2016 elections were a competition between an extremist politics of change and a moderate politics of the status quo. Under those circumstances, the extremists can win. And that’s not because most Americans are extremists; it’s because they really want change.

Now, I do think that moderate politicians can deliver on that desire for tangible improvements. Despite automation and globalization, they can help people take real control over their own lives. They can force big companies and rich individuals to pay their fair share of tax. They can make much bigger investments in education to raise productivity. And they can ensure that the bulk of Americans get to share in the fruits of free trade.

At the same time, it is also absolutely essential to make the case for democracy. If young people give much less importance to living in a democracy, and are even more open to extreme alternatives like army rule, part of the reason is that they don’t really know what’s at stake. Like the fish described by David Foster Wallace, they take the water in which they swim for granted. So it’s the task of all of us to remind our fellow citizens of the great benefits our political system gives us, from the freedom to live our own lives as we choose to the ability to determine our political fate collectively. And it’s also the task of the educational system to point out that, for all of our flaws, it is much better to be a citizen of the United States than one of, say, Iran or China or Russia or Venezuela.

In the United States, we have an independent judiciary, a free press, a federalist system, etc., that make it harder for an authoritarian to seize power. But what else as a policy matter or political matter should we consider national service? Civic education? Electoral reforms?

The Constitution establishes a very strict set of checks and balances. There are a ton of veto powers in our system, from the House to the Senate to the Supreme Court. But the Constitution cannot defend itself. In the end, a polity that is so riven by partisanship that people value being in power more than they value preserving the political system is always going to be in mortal danger. So we now need to embark on the incredibly cumbersome task of trying to understand, or at least to tolerate, each other across the partisan divide. Policy initiatives like national service can help on this. But it will take a much larger social and cultural movement to effect this unlikely transformation.

There is a certain buffoonish quality to figures like Trump and European fascists who tend to disguise their potency. Can we count on their foolishness or ineptitude to save us?

Benito Mussolini seemed like a hapless buffoon to his critics. When Hugo Chávez was elected, his opponents kept pointing at him and going: “Really? This guy? Are you serious?” Once Silvio Berlusconi was hounded from office in 2011, thousands of people came out to the streets to celebrate his departure, and chanted “Buffone! Buffone!” But Mussolini ruled his country for a dozen years. Chávez has utterly destroyed democracy in Venezuela. And after last Sunday’s election, Berlusconi is once again kingmaker in Italy.

So we need to take Trump seriously. But at the same time, I do think that he has failed to do three crucial things that have allowed more successful authoritarian populists, from Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to Viktor Orban in Hungary, to concentrate a ton of power in their own hands: He has been far less effective in handing tangible improvements to his core supporters. He has been far less strategic in cultivating cronies and destroying independent institutions. And he is far less disciplined in weaponizing his noxious rhetoric to suggest that it is the survival of the nation, rather than of himself, that is at stake.

A year or so into Trump are you more or less optimistic that America can revive the anti-bodies to fight off ethno-nationalism? 

I’m more optimistic in the short run. Trump makes so many unforced errors on such a consistent basis that the chance of him losing election in 2020 remains very high. But I’m also more pessimistic in the long run. Given how incompetent Trump has proven, it’s mind-boggling how much damage he has already done: The Republican Party is now completely in his control. A lot of the American public has turned against the Department of Justice and the FBI.

So it’s not enough to beat Trump. Anybody who wants to revitalize American democracy actually needs to combat the drivers of populism. In the book, I outline a broad set of strategies for how to do that. But this will require a ton of work and commitment.

If all of us do what we can to save liberal democracy, I still think we can succeed. But I can’t promise anyone a happy end.