As populist leaders test the limits of their power, the warnings from historians and political scientists are growing louder
Could democracy die in the US? Is a new wave of authoritarianism sweeping the world? Is the west about to be engulfed by civil conflict? Questions such as these would have seemed hysterical as recently as 2015. But they are now the subject of mainstream political discussion. The three books under review here come from academics based at some of the most prestigious universities and think-tanks in the US. They all start from the belief that the democratic system in America is under threat — and that this is part of a broader global crisis.
Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Harvard University, subtitles his book “why our freedom is in danger” and places Donald Trump at the centre of his story. “For the first time in its history, the oldest and most powerful democracy in the world has elected a president who openly disdains basic constitutional norms,” he writes. “Even if Trump should eventually be constrained by the checks on his power, the willingness of the American people to elect a would-be authoritarian to the highest office in the land is a very bad omen.” Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, ends The Road to Unfreedom with a warning that “American democracy will come to a close” unless it can solve the racial and economic tensions that he believes have driven the rise of Trump. William Galston of the Brookings Institution defines his subject as “the populist threat to liberal democracy”.
Although their starting points are similar, the three authors have distinct takes on the subject. Mounk, who writes with great verve and clarity, makes good use of survey data to illustrate the declining support for democracy across the west. He pours cold water on the idea that idealistic young people will prove to be the saviours of democracy. On the contrary, less than a third of millennials in America believe that it is extremely important to live in a democracy, compared to over two-thirds of older Americans. In 1995, just one in 16 Americans favoured military rule over democracy. By 2011, this had risen to one in six — with young, wealthy Americans particularly likely to favour this option. As Mounk notes, this is not a uniquely American trend. Surveys suggest that support for the idea of military rule has also been rising in other established democracies such as the UK, India and Germany.
The central theme of Mounk’s book is that there is now a “slow divergence of liberalism and democracy”. Populism in Europe and the US is driven by an impulse that stresses the democratic rights of the majority, but has little patience with the rights of minorities that are central to liberalism. However, Mounk also acknowledges that populist complaints that the democratic will is thwarted by elite institutions have some validity. He cites one striking piece of recent research that traces the relative influence on legislation of the views of ordinary people, elite opinion and organised lobby groups. The researchers concluded that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy”.
Yet Mounk also understands that there can be good, as well as bad, reasons why “the preferences of the average American” cannot be directly translated into public policy. Those preferences can be unconstitutional or contrary to international law. Many policy areas are complex and demand technocratic solutions that are resistant to folk wisdom. And the populist instinct to enact the “will of the people” quickly translates into an impatience with institutions that seem to stand in the way — whether it is the free press or “state institutions that are not under the direct sway of the populist government”. Trump’s frequent attacks on the “fake media” and the FBI illustrate the point.
While Mounk’s analysis of the strains within liberal democracy is acute and revealing, he seems to be slightly stuck for solutions. On a couple of occasions, he asserts that both liberalism and democracy are “non-negotiable” values — which may be true, but is not so helpful when the two principles clash.
He is also clearly more comfortable discussing the kinds of economic policies that might assuage populist discontents, rather than considering how to address another key element in the populist pitch — resentment of immigration and fear of Islam. The People vs. Democracy contains a vivid and chilling account of a Pegida rally in Germany (Pegida stands for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident”). But Mounk does not do much to examine Angela Merkel’s decision to admit more than 1m refugees into Germany in 2015.
This feels like a missed opportunity, or even an evasion, because the Merkel refugee policy illustrates many of the tensions that Mounk is concerned with. Although Merkel’s open-door policy was driven by sound liberal principles — such as respect for international law and for individual rights — it has also helped to spark a populist backlash within Germany. Largely as a consequence, the far-right Alternative for Germany party (described as Nazis by Sigmar Gabriel, the former SPD leader) is now the official opposition in the German parliament. Populists and nationalists around the world have united in condemnation of Merkel, with Trump calling her refugee policies “insane”. For liberals, Merkel has become a hero — hailed by some as the “leader of the free world”. But many will also acknowledge that, faced with a similar crisis, a future German government would probably have to behave differently.
In Anti-Pluralism, William Galston is more willing to contemplate compromising with the nationalist component of the populist backlash. As he puts it: “When I began writing about the travails of liberal democracy a few years ago, I believed economics represented the heart of the matter.” But, more recently, Galston has become convinced that economic inequality is only part of the story. Another key element is that the US, the UK and the EU “failed to deal with waves of immigration in ways that commanded public support”. This kind of failure, Galston argues, often comes from the elite’s tendency to understand the public interest “through the prism of their own class interests and biases”.
Following this logic, Galston takes a few cautious steps towards the arguments put forward by Trump and the European populists. Democratic leaders, he writes, “are not obligated to support policies that weaken their working and middle classes, even if those policies improve the lot of citizens in developing countries. They are certainly not obligated to open their doors to all newcomers, whatever the consequences for their citizenry.” The same thought has been expressed rather more succinctly by Trump — “America First”.
Galston’s argument is that if liberals do not face the immigration issue directly, they will merely stoke the populist fire: “Unmodulated internationalism will breed — is breeding — its antithesis, an increasingly unbridled nationalism.” In US policy terms this means that “shifting away from family reunification and towards economic contribution as the main criterion for immigration would make sense politically as well as economically”.
This willingness to recommend difficult shifts in policy is brave. But the reality is that his proposals would outrage many liberals, while failing to satisfy most populists. The mass deportation of illegal immigrants, advocated by Trump’s most ardent supporters, would require a brutality that Galston and most liberals rightly shy away from. When a democratic government truly follows popular instincts on refugees, it can end up in a fairly alarming place — witness the offshore detention centres that Australia has set up for asylum seekers.
Snyder’s book differs from those of Galston and Mounk because it is mostly about Russia, Ukraine and central Europe (his areas of specialism) rather than the west. But Snyder argues passionately that the “the road to unfreedom” in the US begins in Russia.
Snyder makes the case that Russia’s now infamous intervention in the US election drew on techniques that had been pioneered in Russia and Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin’s motive, in Snyder’s view, is to secure his own position inside Russia, by discrediting the democratic model of the west: “If Russia could not become the west, let the west become Russia. If the flaws of American democracy could be exploited to elect a Russian client, then Putin could prove that the world outside is no better than Russia.”
In pursuit of this strategy, the Putin government has set about supporting nationalist and illiberal politicians in the US and Europe. It also portrays the west as sick and decadent (gay rights are a particular obsession) and all western opposition to Putin as the product of Russophobia.
Snyder warns that “what has already happened in Russia is what might happen in America and Europe: the stabilisation of massive inequality, the displacement of policy by propaganda . . . ”. He is interesting on the way in which the Putin regime uses lies that are simultaneously meant to be believed and not believed. Thus, when Russian troops invaded parts of Ukraine, “propaganda worked at two levels . . . No war was taking place and it was thoroughly justified.” People in Britain, baffled by the official Russian line on the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal, may find this kind of argumentation oddly familiar.
Snyder’s horror at what has happened in Russia — and at the risks to the US and Europe — gives his writing energy and passion. He is unsparing in his indictment of Putin’s Russia, which he unhesitatingly labels as “fascist”. But he is also clear-eyed about the weaknesses of American society that have made the US vulnerable to Russian intervention and domestic populism. The problems of gerrymandering, drug addiction and inequality are familiar. But the statistics that Snyder quotes still startle. In 2015, some 95m Americans (or more than one in four) took prescription painkillers. In Florida in 2016 some 23 per cent of African-Americans were denied the vote as convicted felons.
By connecting events in the US to events in Russia, Snyder helpfully places the west’s democratic malaise in a wider international context. Political developments in Russia, as he demonstrates, are now intimately connected to the politics of the US and the EU.
But beyond Europe and North America, there is an even broader international context that all three books largely neglect. The counterpoint to a crisis in the west is the rise of the east — and, in particular, China. The crisis of confidence in both Europe and America is closely connected to a sometimes inchoate sense that centuries of western domination of the global order are coming to a close. Trump, with his unerring instinct for giving voice to the fears of the masses, has played on this fear of western decline — with his pledge to get tough with China, and his nostalgic promise to “Make America Great Again”. But, as Snyder, Mounk and Galston all illustrate in their different ways, Trump is actually a direct threat to many of the values and achievements that have truly made America great.