Cover of 'The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It', by Yascha Mounk, published on 5 March 2018. Graphic: Harvard University Press

By Ganesh Sitaraman
17 March 2018

(The Guardian) – Over the past few years, I have frequently been reminded of David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005. Wallace began with the story of two fish swimming together, when an older fish swims by and says “Morning boys, how’s the water?” After the old fish swims away, one says to the other, “What the hell is water?”

Over the last year or two, there’s been a lot of discussion about what drove Trump voters and Brexit voters to the polls. There’s been concern as specific constitutional and political norms break down. But with so many people running from tweet-storm to tweet-storm, there has been comparatively less attention to what happened to the water – to the root causes of the global crisis of democracy. [For more on the global trend toward autocracy, see my collection of posts on fascism. –Des]

Yascha Mounk’s extraordinary new book, The People versus Democracy, provides a clear, concise, persuasive, and insightful account of the conditions that made liberal democracy work – and how the breakdown in those conditions is the source of the current crisis of democracy around the world. He reveals the water in which liberal democracy has been swimming unthinkingly all these years.

The success and stability of liberal democracy, Mounk argues, was premised on three assumptions about social life. […]

The consequence, Mounk argues, is that liberal democracy is coming apart. On the one side, we see the rise of “illiberal democracies” – governments that claim to represent the “real” people of the nation, but have little regard for individual rights or constitutional norms. Many refer to these movements as populist. At the same time, others flirt with what Mounk calls “undemocratic liberalism,” a style of governance which preserves rights but at the expense of democratic engagement and accountability. Think of this as government by elite technocrats who have little faith in ordinary people.

What is so troubling is that these two responses might be mutually reinforcing. Mounk, a lecturer at Harvard University, doesn’t make much of this point, but it is worth resting on for a moment. When populists gain power, their opponents are likely to see the virtues of undemocratic liberalism. When undemocratic liberalism gains steam, many ordinary people will feel locked out and that public policies are unresponsive to their demands – pushing them to want to overthrow the elites. In the ensuing cycle, the loser is liberal democracy, which is assaulted for both its liberalism and its democracy. [more]

The three crises of liberal democracy


  1. rpauli said...

    This post is painfully important. Thank you so much.  


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