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22 October 2018updated 02 Sep 2021 5:26pm

Yascha Mounk: “I thought democracy was in crisis before it was cool”

The Harvard academic and author on how to defeat “illiberal democracy” and “undemocratic liberalism”. 

By George Eaton

Progressives once believed that the retreat of liberal democracy would be akin to water flowing uphill. History, they assumed, was irrevocably on their side. But from the US to Russia, Turkey to Poland, and Hungary to Italy, an Illiberal International is now advancing.

One of the first to sound the alarm was Yascha Mounk, the author of The People vs Democracy (2018) and a lecturer on government at Harvard University. “I started to joke that I was a ‘democracy crisis hipster,’” the 36-year-old recalled when we met recently in a café in central London. “I thought democracy was in crisis before it was cool and people didn’t take that point seriously.”

When Mounk visited his native Germany in 2014 and warned of the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, he was assured by senior politicians that: “it can’t happen here”. The AfD, with 92 MPs, is now Germany’s largest opposition party.

In his book, Mounk charts the rise of illiberal democracy (or “democracy without rights”) and undemocratic liberalism (or “rights without democracy”). He cites the EU, and its imposition of austerity on southern Europe, as an exemplar of the latter. “We’ve been less and less effective at translating popular views into public policies,” Mounk warned.

The 2008 financial crisis is typically identified as the origin of the populist revolt. But Yascha Mounk emphasises three long-term global factors: the stagnation of average living standards, the “slow transformation” of mono-ethnic countries into multi-ethnic ones, and the rise of social media, which has gifted political insurgents a new means of communication.

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Mounk spoke as a liberal who had been mugged by reality. “Partly for biographical reasons, I was quite tempted by the thought that we might be able to overcome nationalism as an important force in our politics.”

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His Jewish grandparents evaded the Holocaust by fleeing to the Soviet Union and later settled in Poland, before emigrating after the Stalinist regime’s anti-Semitic turn. Mounk’s family “scattered all over Europe to Sweden, Denmark and Germany” (where Mounk was born in Munich in 1982).

As a history undergraduate at Cambridge University, Mounk arrived in 2000 believing that “there weren’t really any deep differences between Germany and England”. He was later stunned to be described by his peers as an “overseas student”. “I’m not from overseas,” Mounk would reply. “In German, übersee means Australia or New Zealand.” He had underestimated the UK’s enduring island mentality.

Mounk told me that Brexit was “not an existential threat to the EU” but that “what’s happening in Poland and Hungary is”. He added: “That’s a problem of democratic legitimacy… Why should I share my sovereignty with a Hungarian dictator?”

Mounk is alarmed by what he calls the “populistification” of the centre right: the Conservative Party, the Republican Party, the Austrian People’s Party, and the German Christian Social Union.

Does he believe that European free movement can survive? “I would distinguish between Schengen [the EU’s borderless travel area] and free movement. The only country in which free movement is a very controversial political issue is actually the UK. I don’t see a groundswell of implacable opposition to Romanians and Bulgarians being able to move to Germany or Italy.”

In 2015, Mounk resigned from the German Social Democratic Party in protest at the coalition government’s draconian treatment of Greece and its wider intellectual torpor. As the executive director of the “Renewing the Centre” project at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, he now advocates a reformist rather than a radical approach: aggressive action against tax evasion and avoidance, greater investment in productivity and education, expanded citizenship teaching, and the promotion of an “inclusive nationalism”.

He explained: “I’ve now come to the conclusion that if we [the left] want to win political battles, we need to fight for the interpretation of what nationalism should look like, rather than running away from nationalism altogether.”

In a polarised era, Mounk’s proposals cannot help but appear blandly technocratic. But he insisted they represent the only viable alternative. “With a few exceptions in history, when we’ve seen fascism fight communism, or right populism fight left populism, it has virtually always been the right that’s won”.

Mounk is less troubled than some by Donald Trump’s presidency. “He is not a very disciplined or talented populist. I always joke that if there was a populist Olympiad, Trump would not make medal-rank. He remains quite unpopular; it is perfectly possible that he will win in 2020, but probably more likely that he will lose.”

He warned, however: “We have to be very worried about the possibility that others will come after him. If American democracy does collapse, it is more likely that future historians will write about Trump in chapter one than chapter ten of the book.”

Like Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Mounk used to believe that “there was no coherent alternative to liberal democracy”. But confronted by the illiberal democracies of Hungary and Poland, he now laments: “When populists get elected they have a good chance of dismantling democracy reasonably quickly – because they have a playbook.”