The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, with Yascha Mounk

Apr 23, 2018

Harvard's Yascha Mounk argues that liberalism and democracy are coming apart, creating new forms of illiberal democracy (democracy without rights) and undemocratic liberalism (rights without democracy). Populist leaders are flourishing; indeed, Hungary is on the verge of descending into dictatorship, with shamefully little criticism from the Europe or the U.S. What are the causes of this phenomenon? What can we do about it?

JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you for joining us.

Our speaker today is Yascha Mounk. He is the author of the widely acclaimed The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, and this is also the focus of his discussion. Yascha currently lectures on government at Harvard, and his list of accomplishments are many, as you will note from reading his bio. Still, I would like to call to your attention one more hat he wears, and that is as the executive director of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. You could easily say after reading his bio that he has a full plate, and we are delighted to welcome him here to this Public Affairs program.

If the world seems more like a swirling tempest than usual and everywhere you look you see uncertainty and change, then one shouldn't be too surprised that in this insecure environment so many books, articles, columns, and editorials are devoted to trying to understand the reasons for this uneasiness around the world. Earlier this year, Freedom House released its annual report revealing that democracy is facing its most serious crisis in decades as its basic principles, including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of press, and the rule of law, have come under attack around the world.

Seventy-one countries have suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties with only 35 registering gains; 2017 marked the twelfth consecutive year of decline in global freedom. With the values and institutions of liberal democracies facing such greater threats than at any time in recent history, one could argue that the bleakest development of all is the collapse of America's moral authority as the world's champion of democracy.

In The People vs. Democracy Yascha argues that liberalism and democracy are coming apart, creating new forms of both illiberal democracy (or democracy without rights) and undemocratic liberalism (or rights without democracy). I'll say that one more time: democracy without rights or rights without democracy. He tells us why trust in politics is dwindling and liberal democracy, that unique blend of individual rights and popular rule, is wilting away. In a clear and insightful analysis, he tries to make sense of this new political landscape and explains the roots of this crisis. In the end he suggests what we can do to rescue what is truly valuable in our imperiled social and political order.

To shed light on this predicament in which we now find ourselves, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to Yascha Mounk. Thank you for joining us.

YASCHA MOUNK: Thank you so much for having me. It's really a pleasure and an honor. I love the introduction as "widely acclaimed." I think that's how I'm going to introduce myself to people from now on. "Hi, I'm widely acclaimed author, Yascha." That's great.

When I was growing up in Germany—my parents are from Poland originally—they always told these jokes about life in socialist Poland around the kitchen table, and I didn't really understand those jokes. I didn't understand what particular politicians they were referencing, and I also didn't understand the sense of sort of gloom and powerlessness that they conveyed and fed on. But I've been thinking back to one of those jokes a lot over the last couple of years, and it's very straightforward, so I am going to tell it.

A man in the Soviet Union is walking home from work late at night, and he's nearly at home when he sees a guy in the distance visibly completely drunk, throwing up into the gutter. As soon as he sees him, his face just lights up. He smiles. He walks over to the guy, he puts a hand on his shoulder, and he says, "I completely agree with your political analysis, comrade." [Laughter]

That is how I have been feeling for the last couple of years for reasons you can understand. I think that we are really in a moment of very deep significance in which some of our most fundamental assumptions about the world are being called into question.

When I was growing up, I understood that there were some democracies which were fledgling and potentially unstable. It doesn't surprise me that an important country like Kenya is struggling for its democracy to survive right now. It is worrying, it is saddening, but it is not so surprising. It wouldn't have surprised me to see that some volatile countries seem to be reasonably stable, but democracy is not about to enter China so far as we can tell. But we would have assumed that there is a set of countries that have been democratic for a long time, that are relatively affluent which are stable, which are safe. This is an assumption that I think ordinary citizens made, that I made when I was in high school, and when I started to do my Ph.D., I realized the extent to which the political science literature agreed on that as well.

In a famous paper in 1997, Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi argued that once a country had changed governments with free and fair elections a couple of times, once it had reached a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of about $14,000 in today's terms, a country was safe, democracy there had consolidated, democracy had become the only game in town. Well, as I argue in my book, and as I began to argue before Donald Trump and before Brexit, there are good signs that democracy is no longer the only game in town in that kind of way.

A growing number of citizens are falling out of love with democracy. In the United States over two-thirds of Americans born in the 1930s and the 1940s say that it is absolutely essential to live in a democracy. Among younger Americans born since 1980, less than one third do. Twenty years ago, about one in 16 Americans said army rule was a good system of government. Now it is one in six. You see similar data in many European countries. In Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, the number of people who say that a strong leader who doesn't have to bother with parliament and elections is a good thing has roughly doubled over the course of the past 20 years. It now stands at 50 percent in both France and the United Kingdom.

Now, it might be difficult to interpret exactly what people mean. It is difficult to infer from what people say to weird social scientists in random surveys to how they actually act in the world, but we see that the same development is happening in the voting booth as well. In the year 2000 the average vote share of a populist party in Europe was 8 percent. Now it is 25 percent.

All of you remember Winston Churchill's famous speech [when he said that] from Stettin in the north of the continent to Trieste, an iron curtain is descending across Europe. Well, today there is a populist belt that goes from Stettin in the Baltic Sea all the way south to Athens in the Aegean. You can drive thousands of miles without ever leaving a country ruled by populists. So the idea that this is a fringe phenomenon is by now outdated.

So what I tried to do in this book is to understand the nature of the development we are facing at the moment, to analyze some of its causes, and to start thinking about some of the things we might be able to do about it.

Let me start with what is actually going on. I think in order to do that we have to remember that our political system has two core aspirations: it has the aspiration of giving us individual freedom, of putting us in a position to decide ourselves autonomously how we lead our lives; and it's meant to give us collective self-rule so that we together decide on our politics rather than having a monarch or a priest or a dictator tell us what to do.

The best way of rendering that is when we live in liberal democracies. "Liberal" here obviously doesn't mean liberal and conservative, in the sense that I'm talking about George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, who were as liberal as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The liberal element requires that we have individual rights, the rule of law, and the separation of powers, because those things are needed for individuals to actually be able to determine their own lives freely.

Now, once you have defined the liberal elements separately, you can define democracy in a much more straightforward way than we usually do, and I think that helps the clarity of our thinking. Democracy in the original Greek means the rule of the demos, the rule of a people. I think to be democratic a country actually has to translate popular views into public policies to some real extent.

What I fear is happening is that these two co-elements of our political system are slowly drifting apart. But actually for a long time we have had systems which I would call rights without democracy or un-democratic liberalism. It is not a very pretty phrase.

The idea is that the parliaments were supposed to translate our views into policy, but when you look at Congress for example, it is not very responsive to the views of ordinary citizens. That has a ton of reasons. It's because of the big role that money and campaign finance plays in our politics. It's because of a revolving door between lobbyists and legislators. It is because when you have to spend up to 50 percent of your time fundraising, as many congressmen do, you have a much more vivid sense of the interests and preferences of a small class of people than your actual constituents. So by the time it comes up for a vote on the floor of the House, you don't have to be a sort of immoral villain from a cartoon who votes down the law that you know is good for the country, you have taken on a view of it which favors certain groups over others because you understand those people better than others.

It goes beyond that, though. In principle, it is easy to think about how to get money out of politics. It is difficult to get it done, but it is not hard to think of some of the rules and regulations we would need in order to improve our situation. At the same time, though, you've seen not just parliaments becoming less good at translating our views into policy, Congress becoming less responsive, you've also seen a lot of political issues taken out of democratic contestation altogether because of the rise of a whole set of expert-led technocratic institutions.

The role of the Supreme Court in the United States has grown over the past 50 or 100 years, and the development is even more stark in other countries where there didn't used to be forms of judicial review and now there are. Central banks have become both more powerful and more independent. You have a rise of independent agencies that take some of the most decisions in our countries now, whether it's the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the United States or the European Commission in Europe. You have the rise of trade treaties and of international organizations. When you take all of those things together, a lot of issues are taken out of democratic contestation. We can't have direct control over them.

Now, this is a little bit more—I can use the word "normative" here because it's a council on ethics—it's more normatively complicated. It's more difficult to know what to think about it because some of these institutions do very good work. I wouldn't want to abolish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I wouldn't want to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. I think they do good and important work.

If you think about how to deal with climate change, you will need vast international cooperation to do that. That's just in the nature of a problem. But it's very hard to think about how you and me—and I know we even have a couple of ambassadors and so on among us today—even they can have a real sense that they are actually influencing what happens in that complex negotiation, and that, if they change their mind about what their country should do, they will actually be able to amend it in the way they want. So how do you deal with climate change but preserve our sense that we collectively determine our political fate? I think it is a much deeper paradox than people want to admit.

So, in part, in rebellion against the system of rights of our democracy, you then get the rise of the populists. I think a way to understand them is as wanting to institute in the first instance a system of democracy without rights, or illiberal democracy.

There has been some debate about whether the term "illiberal democracy" is the right term to use. I think it is. Let me give you an example of that. About eight years ago, Switzerland had a vote—a popular referendum in fact—on the building of minarets, the towers adjacent to mosques that are used to call to prayer. Fifty-eight percent of the Swiss constitution voted to ban the building of minarets, as a result of which the Swiss constitution now reads, and I quote, "There's freedom of religion in Switzerland. The building of minarets is forbidden." It doesn't make a ton of sense.

A lot of people in Switzerland and other European countries and the United States derided this vote as un-democratic. But when you think about it, that doesn't make much sense. When a clear majority of a people vote in a popular referendum for something, it's hard to call it un-democratic. It just makes the term too complicated. What it was is illiberal in a way that I personally found intolerable. It infringed on the rights of the most important religious minority in Switzerland, and we can absolutely condemn that. But what it is is illiberal rather than undemocratic.

Now the people who are pushing forward forms of illiberal democracy are the populists, and that is another term that sometimes is in contention. People say, "Well, is populism actually a coherent term?" Look at how different some of the people we call populists are from each other: Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Erdoğan in Turkey, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. What do they actually have in common?

You may have noticed that our president here doesn't appear to be overly fond of Muslims. Recep Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, doesn't appear to be overly fond of anybody who isn't a Muslim. They don't have that in common.

You have some populists who are quite right wing economically, who want to cut down on the welfare state and hand out presents to special interests and to corporations. You have other populists, like Hugo Chávez, who attack business in extreme ways and, to some degree, try to expand the welfare state. So they don't have that in common.

Why call all of them populists? Well, I think there is an answer to that, which is that populists share a political imagination and a political vocabulary. They all say that politics at its heart is relatively simple, that the only reason why we have any real problems in the world is that the politicians are self-serving and corrupt, that they care more about special interests or certain minority groups than they do about "real people" like you and me. So the core populist promise is that they will give voice to the real people, to common sense, that they will embody the true nation. "I am your voice," Donald Trump said at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.

Now, the problem with that is that they don't just say, "I give voice to your grievances"—that is a normal political tactic. They say, "I alone do that, and anybody who disagrees with me is by their very nature illegitimate. Because I perfectly encapsulate the nation, anybody who disagrees with me doesn't just have a different political view, isn't just wrong. They are illegitimate. They are dangerous. They are un-American." We see that rhetoric in every country where populism is at work.

Now, once they are in power, the problem is that they find it hard to deliver. They say things like, "Who knew that things could be so complicated? Who knew that health care could be so complicated?" I have a sense that in a couple of weeks our president might say, "Who knew that negotiating with Kim Jong-un might turn out to be complicated?" [Laughter]

But of course they don't want to admit that they sold you a false bill of goods, and so instead they start to blame. They blame the opposition for being traitors. They blame independent media outlets for spreading fake news and say they need to be regulated or they need to register as lobbyists. They say that independent institutions, like the FBI or the Department of Justice or courts and judges, are enemies of the people. So they start to take on more and more power.

That process is now close to completion in Hungary. That is a development whose importance we cannot understate. Since taking office in 2010, Viktor Orbán, who got his start in life in great part due to the generosity of a man who lives a couple of blocks from here—that's right—was once a liberal democratic firebrand.

I was at an event with Adam Michnik yesterday. We were doing an event together at Brooklyn Public Library. Adam Michnik, a great hero of Polish history, was recalling what a courageous and liberal-minded man Viktor Orbán was in the late 1980s.

Well, that has changed. He has now turned state media into propaganda outlets. He has forced the sale of most private media institutions in Hungary to his allies. He has stacked the supreme court and other courts with his loyalists. He has reformed the electoral commission to make it a partisan institution. He has threatened non-governmental organizations and independent academic institutions, like Central European University, with closure. He has changed the electoral system to benefit him hugely. As a result, most independent observers and most academics, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), believe that the election in Hungary was mostly free but barely fair, which is to say that after passing through a stage of illiberal democracy, of democracy without rights, at this point I would not call democracy a democracy at all anymore.

Once you started to attack independent institutions, once you started to get rid of the balance of powers, you will eventually descend into dictatorship, and Hungary is now at that point.

This is why a small election in a small country in Europe, the third time the government was reelected, has what my parents and grandparents who were schooled in socialist Poland would have called world historical significance. It disproves the theory I was talking about early on. It is the first country on record which had had a couple of changeovers of government with free and fair elections, which has a GDP per capita of over $14,000, which political scientists had assumed were safe a couple of years ago, and which has now descended into dictatorship.

Just to say a word about this, so far the political reaction in Europe and the United States has been shameful. Not only has the United States not protested nearly enough about the loss of democracy in Hungary and the extreme and rampant anti-Semitism that the Hungarian government is spreading, but the most important European officials have congratulated Viktor Orbán on his electoral victory, just as Trump has congratulated Putin. Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, and Manfred Weber, the head of the European People's Party congratulated him. Angela Merkel has not said a word of criticism.

As a result, we now not only have a dictatorship in the heart of Europe, which is calling in doubt the very nature of the European Union, but the party of that strongman continues to be allied in the European Parliament with the European People's Party, which is the standard center-right coalition which includes parties like Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.

Before I talk myself into a rage, let me tell a joke.

So how can we explain all of these events? How is it that democracy was stable for so long and now it appears to be a lot less stable?

To answer that question, let me tell you a story about a chicken. It's the kind of chicken that you would all like to eat for dinner around these parts, which is to say that it's local and organic and had a very happy life, all those kinds of things. It lives on this nice farm and is enjoying its life. But all the other animals on the farm say, "Be careful. The farmer only seems nice. One day he is going to kill you." The chicken says, "What are you talking about? Every day he comes and feeds me. Every day he mutters some encouraging words. Why should things suddenly be so different?"

Well, as Bertrand Russell, who I'm stealing this story from, says in his nice, dry, British wit, one day the farmer does come to wring the chicken's neck, showing that more sophisticated views as to the uniformity of causation would have been to the chicken's benefit. What does he mean by that? Well, what he means by that is we have scope conditions in the social world, that as long as the chicken was too thin for the market, the farmer had a reason to keep fattening it up, once it was fat enough to fetch a good price, he had reason to kill it.

If you want to understand the discontinuity in what our democracies are doing, we have to ask the chicken question. We have to say, "What was true for 50 years of democratic stability that no longer appears to be true?" I would suggest there are three obvious big reasons here.

The first is the stagnation of living standards for ordinary citizens. So from 1945 to 1960 the living standard of the average American doubled, from 1960 to 1985 it doubled again, since 1985 it has been flat, it has been stagnant. That really changes how people think about politics. They never used to think of politicians as paradigms of moral virtue, they never trusted them completely. We used to say, "You know what? In the end, they seem to be sticking to their end of a deal. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt."

Look, now people say, "I've worked really hard all my life. I don't have much to show for it. My children are going to do worse than me. Let's throw some shit against the wall and see what sticks. How bad could things get?"

Now, there has been some argument in the last couple of years about whether economics really has anything to do with this, and the obvious counterargument that is not necessarily true that poorer people voted in greater numbers for Donald Trump than richer people, knowing somebody's income doesn't allow you to predict easily who they voted for. That is all true, but there is a very clear geographic pattern to populist support. That is true in the United States, in Austria, in Sweden, in Poland, in Hungary, even in countries like India and Turkey.

Donald Trump won two-thirds of American counties but only a little more than one-third of America's GDP. He did much better in parts of the country where there has been less recent economic investment, where there are fewer highly qualified people, even where the share of jobs that might be automated away in the coming decades is higher. That's the first reason.

The second reason has to do with culture and identity. If you go back to 1960, in most democracies the question "who really belongs in this country?" would have had a very straightforward answer. In Sweden and Germany and Italy, people would have said, "Well, somebody who descends from the same ethnic stock, somebody who's ethnically Swedish or German or Italian." Over the last 50 or 60 years, that has started to change. In Germany, the country where I grew up, it was impossible to become a German citizen by immigrating to the country. It was only by either descent or because you married somebody who is German. Well, that has changed now. You can come and immigrate to the country, and if you have lived here for a number of years, you can apply for a passport. That's a legal change.

There is a cultural change as well. More and more Germans embrace, and even celebrate, the fact that obviously some of their compatriots might be brown or black, that they might be Muslim or Hindu.

But there is also a big rebellion against that, and in a way that shouldn't surprise us. Imagine somebody who is not the most affluent guy in the country, not the most educated guy in the country, doesn't perhaps command the greatest social respect. It was very tempting for that person to say, "Well, at least I'm German rather than Italian, and at least I'm part of the majority rather than one of those Turkish guest workers." Well, that Turkish guest worker or his son or grandson might now be your boss, he might now represent you in parliament. It shouldn't surprise us that some people feel like something that was important to them, some kind of positional social good, is being taken away from them because of that.

The situation in the United States and in Canada is both similar and different. It is different in that these societies have always been multiethnic in various ways. But it is similar in that there has been always a strict racial and religious hierarchy and that some people have had great advantages over others by dint of that.

Now, we should remember how far we have come in overcoming that. There is no doubt that it is better to be a member of just about any minority in this country today than it would have been 20 or 40 or 60 years ago—perhaps not two years ago but definitely 20 or 40 or 60 years ago—and we should celebrate that. But it shouldn't surprise us that some of people have something to lose from that transformation. They have to give up some of their unearned advantages. They may not be so happy about that.

The process of transforming monoethnic, monocultural societies into multiethnic ones, especially equal multiethnic ones, is historically unique, we haven't yet done it anywhere, and so we shouldn't get disheartened by the fact that it is a more complicated process than we might perhaps wish. Now, if you have economic grievances from economic stagnation, a sense of economic unfairness, fueling distrust in our politicians and our institutions, that often takes the form of a kind of cultural backlash, of rising tensions between different ethnic and religious groups.

Social media is the last addition to this mix that really makes the cocktail explode. Twenty-five years ago, you had a system of communication that was in some ways not so different from what would have been the case 200 or 300 years earlier. It seems that could be acclaimed because you had CNN broadcasting pictures and sound live from around the world—that certainly wasn't possible in 1800—but there was an important commonality, which was that the structure of communication was one-to-many. You had a few centers and they would broadcast out into the rest of the world. So in order to have a real voice in our society, you had to own a television station, a radio station, a newspaper, or a publishing house, or at least be one of the people invited to use and share in that platform.

Over the last 25 years, we first had the invention of the Internet, which made it possible for anybody to engage in one-to-many communication. You could put up a website very cheaply or free of charge, and anybody could come to it. That is a real transformation. But it was still difficult for people to find those websites—"Why should I go to rather than"

Now if you take a particularly cute video of your dog or you sit on a United Airlines flight and somebody decides to re-accommodate you, and you share that video with 100 followers on Twitter, if 10 percent of them retweet it and 10 percent of them retweet it and 10 percent of them retweet it, millions of people might see it in the course of an hour or two. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It allows your position on dictatorships, to point out some of the shortcomings of a regime. It even empowers some important voices in our own societies that might otherwise not have broken through in the same way. Think of some of the brave kids in Parkland, Florida, who have become a real part of our national conversation in the last few months.

But it also makes it much easier for people who are extremists and want to connect with each other, for people who have hateful views, for people who want to spread fake news, to connect and organize. And coming on top of the frustrations about the economy are the fears about cultural change. That makes a very dangerous mix.

Most books of this sort have what editors call "a chapter 10 problem," which is to say that they have nine chapters of great analysis and then one rushed chapter that sort of vaguely waves at some possible solutions. I feel that my talk today has a chapter 10 problem because I'm running out of time.

I assure you the book has at most a chapter seven-to-nine problem, which is to say I do have a whole part in which I lay out some of the things we can do to respond to that which are both short-term and tactical (how do you actually stand up to populists and stop them from taking over?) and more long-term and strategic (how do you fight against some of those structural reasons that I have outlined to make sure that populists don't just keep rising and rising and rising?).

I'd be happy to talk about that more in the Q&A, but for now I'll shut up.


QUESTION: Anthony Faillace.

What ought to be the response of the Europeans to the changes in Hungary at this point? I mean, obviously you derided what they have done so far, but what should they do?

YASCHA MOUNK: First of all, actually I should single out for praise one European, Emmanuel Macron, who in a very clear speech in the European Parliament a couple of days ago talked about—that is not necessarily what I would use—essentially an impending European civil war over the nature of its political institutions, and made very clear that this is an age in which democratic institutions are imperiled.

The first thing that Europeans need to do is to speak the truth—and not for tactical reasons, to say, "I'm [not] going to pretend that what is clearly going on is not going on." That's the first step.

The second thing is that, without a doubt, Fidesz needs to be expelled from the European People's Party. You cannot have a political faction or mainstream movement that claims to be committed to human rights—and, for that matter, Christian values—and have a xenophobic dictator as part of that coalition.

And then there are the larger questions: Can you stop monetary payments to Hungary? Can you even expel Hungary from the European Union?

There is a tactical question here, where some people say, "No, no, no. Once we do that, Viktor Orbán is going to be able to vilify the European Union and say that we are all against him." He does that anyway, and he does it effectively anyway. It is time for him to pay some of the price. It is insane that he—and, for that matter, the Polish government—live large on the money of other European countries while completely ignoring their values and railing against them.

So I think that we should cut funding to Hungary in various forms, and I think we should initiate Article 7 proceedings which would expel Hungary from the European Union. Now, most likely you need unanimity for that, and Poland would veto it. Put Poland on record as being the only country to veto Hungary's expulsion from the European Union, and, if developments in Poland continue as they are, put Hungary on record as being the only country that is vetoing the expulsion of Poland.

This is ultimately about the nature of the European Union. The European Union is only legitimate if it is a club of values. That doesn't mean we have to agree on everything, it doesn't even mean we have to agree on refugee policy, but it does mean we have to agree on the rule of law and the separation of powers. If we tolerate within the European Union in good standing a country that violates those things so profusely, then the European Union has become nothing more than a regional trade bloc that advocates for the interests of one random part of the world. But as that it has very little legitimacy.

JOANNE MYERS: Let me ask you a question. What do you attribute to the fact that millennials don't want to embrace democracy anymore? How do you explain that?

YASCHA MOUNK: Yes. I mean, I think that there is a number of reasons for that. One of them is that, frankly, in many places democracies haven't served them very well. When you look at the stagnation of living standards, it is especially among younger people. Forty years ago, nine in 10 Americans by the time they were 30 years old could say, "I make more money than my parents did when they were my age." Now only one in two Americans do.

Another way of putting that is that 40 or 50 years ago only 10 percent of Americans had the experience that "Things aren't better than they were in my childhood." Now 50 percent can say, "Hey, things were much better than they are now." That's a real transformation.

That's because of some of the political choices we have made. It is in this country, for example, because we have had artificially limited the building of housing stock, which means that if you already own a nice home that you bought, if you are lucky, in New York, let's say in 1973 or somewhere around then, you can live in a beautiful home. Even if your child or grandchild has a pretty good job, they can't ever hope to live in an equivalent kind of situation.

In European countries it has a lot to do with insider-outsider economics, in which if you got a decent job in Italy 20 or 30 years ago, you have a pretty decent salary, you have a pretty decent pension. You're probably not rich—it's not that affluent a country—but you can lead a pretty good life. But, because the pension system has been reformed and because the labor market is so inflexible, hiring somebody young is both so risky because you can never get rid of them, and it is so expensive because so much goes not just to their wage but to basically propping up the pension of parents, that there are far too few jobs for young people.

So there's a vast class of young people, many of whom have done what they're supposed to, many of whom have finished university degrees, who just cannot find a job. I'm not surprised when they say, "Hey, what do I have out of democracy?"

The second thing, of course, is the passing of a certain historical memory. For a lot of older people, the memory of them or their parents fighting against fascism or understanding the threat of fascism, certainly an understanding of what dictatorship and totalitarianism meant in a county like the Soviet Union, is life, and for a lot of young people it is not. So when they say, "Hey, how important is democracy?" it's in part because they don't really have a life understanding of how horrific the alternatives to it are.

QUESTION: John Hirsch.

I want to take a little bit of exception to what you're saying, rather than just everybody waving the flag and saying, "You're absolutely right."

Hillary Clinton won the majority of the votes in the United States. [Editor's note: Secretary Clinton did receive nearly 3 million more votes than Trump in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, but she received less than a majority of the total votes cast, 48.2 percent to Trump's 46.1 percent.] It was a fact of the electoral college system that Donald Trump became the president. So, therefore, it's not true that in the United States most people voted for Donald Trump.

Also, it is not true, or it is not clear, that everybody is going to keep the current political parties in the same relationship at the midterm election. So I think it's kind of really open here what is going to happen, and I think that may be true in other countries as well.

My second point has to do with the appearance here three or four weeks ago of Timothy Snyder and the book that he wrote that you probably have read, called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, which very much mirrors some of what you are saying. His big theme in that book is that Hitler, Mussolini, all these people, came to power by elections but everybody went along afterward. So his big theme is people should not just go along, they should speak out immediately and say, "No, no, we don't agree with this, we don't agree with that," sort of protecting free press in particular.

So I think there are options here, rather than just kind of wringing our hands about this, to not have this deterioration take place. I'd like your comment on that.

YASCHA MOUNK: Sure. First of all, look, I agree that Donald Trump did not win a majority of the American vote. That is obviously true. It is true of many other people as well, by the way. The Polish government got 38 percent of the vote and, for various quirks of the electoral system, ended up with a narrow majority in parliament. It was also true, as Tim Snyder would point out, of some of the rather worrying figures in history who never got more than 50 percent of the vote in democratic elections. So I'm not sure how reassuring that is.

More broadly, I think it is easy to focus on those 90,000 votes that stood between Donald Trump being president and sanity. By the way, it is also easy to talk about Russia and its influence on the election, which may have accounted for those 90,000 votes for all we know. But in a functioning political system, in a political system in which we didn't have deep flaws, somebody like Donald Trump would not come within striking distance of a presidency.

I am less interested in why it is that Donald Trump had the extra 90,000 votes. I am interested in why it is that he was a viable candidate in the first place. I think to understand that you have to look at some of the deeper structural reasons. Now, I agree with you that there are things we can do. It wasn't strategic to leave that part out, I really was just running out of time. But since I'm now left with a lot of material, I can go on ad infinitum. No, I will be very brief.

One of the things is economic. I mean, we need to be able to show people that yes, globalization is a good thing, and it's inevitable anyway; yes, free trade is something we can all benefit from, that we can actually take all the economic steps that ensure that people will in fact benefit from them.

There I think we need a very broad set of radical measures that aren't necessarily ideologically extreme—some of them may sound more left wing and some of them may sound more right wing—that are real changes to the status quo. They go from making sure that we actually tax people appropriately—that, for example, we are much harsher on people who hide their money in tax havens, much harsher on corporations that hide their money, that we stop the charade, for example, in the United States where you can incorporate in Delaware and not pay taxes as a corporation, or around the country or around the world, that whether your nominal headquarters is in Dublin or Luxembourg on the one hand, or in Paris or Berlin on the other hand, should make a difference.

We also need to do a lot of things to boost productivity. The Obama White House had a great study that shows that if we were now at the inequality levels of 1960, the living standard of the average American would be 25 percent higher—that's a lot—but if we had had the productivity growth over the last 20 or 40 years that we had in the post-war period, we would now have living standards that are 100 percent higher, twice as high as they are. And we can do a lot more to invest in education, life-long learning, and all kinds of other things that help to boost productivity.

Third, we need to make sure that people don't spend most of their money on life's necessities. Right now, when you look at pre-tax income, it is a relatively bleak picture. When you look at post-tax income, it is actually a little bit better because we do actually have quite good mechanisms for redistribution. But when you look at disposable income, the money that people have left after they have spent what they have to for education, for health, and especially for housing, it has actually often gone down for a majority of the population. There are things we can do to change that, including massive housing building programs. So that's one thing.

And then there are changes that are more cultural in how we talk about things. I think we need to fight for what I call "inclusive patriotism." As somebody who is Jewish and who grew up in Germany, it is tempting to me to think, Let's leave nationalism behind in the 20th century which it so cruelly shaped. There is now a big temptation on parts of the left to say, "Let's give nationalism up in all ways because the nation has always done evil and has always perpetrated injustice, so let's celebrate every identity group at the sub-national level, but let's not embrace nationalism in any way."

Both of those things are a mistake. First of all, because nationalism can actually be a great font of solidarity. If somebody experiences a flood in Houston, or for that matter in Puerto Rico, I'm only going to care about that if I feel like I have something in common with them.

Secondly, because if you vacate the space of nationalism, the worst kinds of people are going to come. Some think of nationalism as a half-wild beast and, if we leave it to its own devices, the worst kinds of people are going to come and stoke it and bait it until it runs wild. A lot of them will quote Steves, by the way—Steve Bannon, Steve Miller [sic]. Sorry to all the Steves in the audience. [Laughter]

Instead, I think that we need to fight for what nationalism means and fight for an inclusive nationalism that says, "Obviously, without a question mark, without footnotes, we are going to stand up for all the minority groups that are now under attack." That is a very real thing that is going on, and there can be no moderation in defending them, no calculation in defending them.

But we also need to empathize what unites rather than what divides us across those racial and religious and ethnic lines. I think actually Obama did that very well, including his wonderful speech in Selma in which he acknowledged American injustice but also made the case for retaining faith in a better future together in America, one that is rooted in American symbolism.

But—and I promise it's a coincidence I'm mentioning this for a second time—Macron did that very well in a campaign speech as well in Marseilles where he said, "When I look into the audience here, I see people from the Ivory Coast and from Mali and from Italy and from Poland, but what do I see? I see the people of Marseilles. What do I see? I see the people of France. Look here, ladies and gentleman from the Front national, this is what it means to be proud to be French." That's a form of inclusive nationalism that I can get onboard with.

Finally—and I promise I won't go on too long—I think it's a matter of actually fighting for our civic values. From Plato to Aristotle and from Rousseau to the Founding Fathers, each set of thinkers who thought seriously about how to make a self-governing republic work realized that the most important task was to transmit our values from one generation to the next. We don't take that task nearly seriously enough.

I can tell you that my faculty colleagues at Harvard don't think of that as part of their job. While it's fine to point out all the things that are wrong in our societies and to think seriously about how to try to fix those—that it is part of what academics should do—we also need to emphasize to our students why, for all of our flaws, it is better to be a citizen today of the United States or of Sweden or of Germany or of Japan than it is to be a citizen of Venezuela or Turkey or Russia or China. We don't do that enough.

QUESTION: My name is Oksana.

As Ukraine is trying to democratize, all the other democracies seem to crumble around the world. Yes, Ukraine needs to implement stricter anti-corruption measures. However, we cannot make any change if Europe is not on our side.

So what do you think the future of European help would look like for Ukraine, or will the European Union pull back to concentrate on their internal issues?

YASCHA MOUNK: Look, I wish I could give you an optimistic answer. I really do wish so, but I don't think I can.

QUESTION [Oksana]: Give me a real answer.


Look, I am struggling to understand how someone like Angela Merkel can look at what is going on in Hungary and just ignore it. Frankly, I think part of it is a certain kind of Western European snobbism. But if this was happening in Sweden, even if this was happening in Austria, I think the reaction would be a little different. But in the end, you know, "Poland and Hungary, you know, they are only semi-civilized anyway." I think there's a little bit of an element of that.

I am afraid to say that I think that attitude is even stronger toward Ukraine. So I think that the willingness of Western European countries to actually expend real resources, let alone to run a military risk, in order to defend democracy in Ukraine is nonexistent, and that the rise of political movements across Western Europe that are strongly allied with Russia only makes this much more difficult.

You now have, for example, elections in Italy in which both the Five Star Movement, which is normally centrist or perhaps kind of left wing or not entirely clear, is strongly allied with Russia, and the strongest populist party on the right, the Northern League is also strongly allied with Russia. It is the one thing they have in common. That obviously makes it much more difficult for the European Union to actually act on Russian aggression.

So I'm afraid you're going to have to do it on your own, which is not easy.

QUESTION: Hee Chae Woo of the Korean Mission.

I have two questions. One is: despite all the criticism against Mr. Trump, according to a recent poll, his approval rating is 50 percent. I want to know what do you make of this?

Second, you said Mr. Trump finds that the meeting with Kim Jong-un will be much more complicated than anticipated, and then after that, if something goes wrong, he is going to put some blame on someone. Who do you think he is going to put the blame on?

YASCHA MOUNK: South Korea. [Laughter] No.

On the polls, I think the 50 percent poll was a poll by Rasmussen, which is not a very reputable pollster. I think it is worth looking at the average of the polls. I think the best way of tracking them is to go to, where they have this page where they track all the polls, weight them by their past accuracy, and on that he is at 42 percent, which is also shocking, right? [Edit's note: According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump is at 40.4 percent approval, as of April 20, 2018.] But I don't think he is at 50 percent.

Why is he so high? Well, because what populists do very effectively is politicize everything, right? I mean, you start off with an institution like the FBI that actually is independent and that enjoys some real legitimacy, and you attack it so long that the former head of the FBI comes out and attacks you, and so on and so forth, and what you say becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. At some point, the FBI isn't neutral toward you because you have attacked it in unfair ways for so long that an institution has to react. By that process over time you have no real independent institutions left.

The problem is that a lot of Americans don't trust anybody. So when The New York Times, and The Washington Post, and CNN report about some of the very worrying dealings that Trump's personal lawyer had with various people, they just blank it out. It doesn't cut fruit.

I am not surprised by that in the sense that it was the same in Italy with Silvio Berlusconi, it was the same in Venezuela with Hugo Chávez. We've seen that movie before.

Populists have much more longevity than we would like to believe. Even though they usually have a terrible record in government, they often stay in power for a long time. They often make surprising comebacks, like Berlusconi did in Italy and like Fujimori is currently doing in Peru. Even when they finally fall from grace, populist energy often mutates and other politicians and movements can use it for their own purposes, as we are seeing in Italy with the Northern League and with Five Stars.

So I am not that surprised that Trump is at 42 percent. I actually think we are lucky. If it was a populist Olympiad, Donald Trump would not make medal rank. Orbán, Kaczyński, Erdoğan, they are all much more disciplined, much more strategic, much more ideological. If Trump avoided some of his controversies, if he hadn't paid $130,000 to one Stormy Daniels, I think he might actually be at 50 percent in the approval rating or 55 percent in the approval rating, and then we would be facing a much deeper challenge than we do now.

To go back to your question earlier, the most optimistic scenario here is that we have been given a weak form of a virus which might need a vaccine. If we manage to get rid of him and if we then manage to heal our divisions, we might get through this. The next time it comes back, it is not going to be the inoculation version, it is going to be somebody who is smarter and more strategic, and then we're going to be in real trouble.

Who is he going to blame? Well, I think one possibility is that he will blame Kim Jong-un, and that he will go from a slightly adventurous peace mission to a very adventurous war mission.

My worry about Vladimir Putin all along has been twofold. It has been (1) that for all we know, Russia may hold all kinds of forms of leverage over our president, which is a very scary thought; but (2) that once whatever relationship they have breaks, whether it is because Trump grows resentful for being under the thumb of Russia because they have some information on him, or whether it is just because he tries to get along and eventually they don't, it might turn to hostility. When you think of two slightly impulsive bros going into a bar together to get drunk, they might come out as best friends or they might end up in a fist fight. My fear both for Putin, and for that matter North Korea, is that both of those possibilities are real.

JOANNE MYERS: You mentioned the word "luck" earlier, so I think that on behalf of everyone, I can say we were the lucky ones having you as our speaker today. Thank you so much.

Yascha's book is available for you to purchase. Thank you. That was great.

YASCHA MOUNK: Thank you so much.

JOANNE MYERS: You have new fans.

You may also like

JUN 17, 2024 Podcast

Linguistics, Automated Systems, & the Power of AI, with Emily M. Bender

In this episode, guest host Dr. Kobi Leins & University of Washington’s Dr. Emily Bender discuss why language matters in the development of technological systems.

JUN 14, 2024 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Sophie Flint

This interview series profiles members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort. This discussion features Sophie Flint, a a project manager for Strategic Resource Group.

Left to Right: Nikolas Gvosdev, Tatiana Serafin, Peter Goodman. CREDIT: Noha Mahmoud.

JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation