Totalitarian Politics Are Local

By Benjamin CunninghamJune 6, 2018

Totalitarian Politics Are Local

The People vs. Democracy by Yascha Mounk

THINKERS HAVE LONG FEARED the coming populist upheaval. Sometimes they were even justified.

“The masses are advancing,” Hegel reportedly worried just a few years after the American and French revolutions.

“[W]e are witnessing the triumph of a hyperdemocracy in which the mass acts directly, outside the law,” José Ortega y Gasset wrote in 1929, before a civil war led to four decades of fascist dictatorship in Spain.

Amid Trump tweets and Brexit talks, with authoritarian populists gaining power in places as diverse as Central Europe, India, the Philippines, and Turkey, now feels like another appropriate time to fret. Among the worriers is the Harvard lecturer and Slate columnist Yascha Mounk, whose new book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger & How to Save It, issues a stark warning: “If we want to preserve both peace and prosperity, both popular rule and individual rights, we need to recognize that these are no ordinary times — and go to extraordinary lengths to defend our values.”

Mounk is among the more active scholars in the burgeoning field of populism studies. Like many of the interesting writers on populism today — Cas Mudde, Jan-Werner Mueller, Paul Taggart, Nadia Urbinati, and Ivan Krastev — Mounk is originally from Europe. This, in theory, means he brings more historical context to a topic that can be otherwise overwhelmed by talk of trysts with porn stars or debates about the merits of arming homeroom teachers. The People vs. Democracy represents an ambitious attempt to lay out a grand theory of populism — a notoriously slippery term.

Mounk begins with a convincing flood-tide of data showing how public attitudes have changed on fundamental issues. One poll notes that while 84 percent of Americans born in the 1930s claim an interest in politics, just 41 percent of those born in the 1980s do the same. Similarly, 71 percent of respondents born in the 1930s believe it “essential” to live in a democracy, as compared to just 29 percent of those born in the 1980s.

Young people in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Australia, and Japan are only marginally more enthusiastic for the old ways, and a bevy of other alarming statistics follow, showing clear trends. To take one more, in 1995 one in 16 Americans supported the idea of military rule. By 2011, one in six did — a proportion comparable to the Algerian and Yemeni publics.

Amid the data, Mounk makes a substantive argument differentiating “democracy without rights” and “rights without democracy.” This amounts to an explanation of the inherent tensions between liberalism (the commitment to values like free speech, the separation of powers, and protection of individual rights) and democracy (a set of binding electoral institutions that translates popular views into public policy). The two forces are decoupling, Mounk argues.

In general, liberalism in the form of moderating institutions like judicial review, international treaties, professional technocrats, central banks, and international organizations have pushed the social pendulum toward the “rights without democracy.” Now, Mounk argues, there is a countervailing reaction pushing “democracy without rights” where, for example, majoritarian voting risks trampling heterodox interests. This is authoritarian populism, whereby leaders tend to invoke the name of the true populi on their way to dismantling moderating institutions and consolidating power.

Though Mounk’s arguments in this section are not totally original, they are clear, reasoned, and backed by empirical research demonstrating both the breadth and depth of today’s populist threat. While most mainstream work in populism studies tends to use anecdotes, he proves it with numbers.

But as we enter the book’s second tertile, Mounk’s explanation for populism begins outrunning his evidence. He writes that “the rise of populism is a global phenomenon,” adding that “we should look for causes that are common to most countries where populism has spread in the past years.” He wants to differentiate his work from “analysts [who] have told stories about their local context.” What first seems mere enthusiasm is soon exposed as an a priori dismissal of inconvenient examples — and there are many — that fall outside his grand theory.

Mounk attributes populism to anxieties bred by economic, technological, and cultural change. More specifically, he blames anger at stagnating wealth and fears about future economic prospects (especially for the working class), communications allowing outsiders to bypass media gatekeepers to reach large audiences (social media and the internet), and unease about changing national identity (those immigrants sure seem to be coming fast). In the context of the Brexit and Trump, this looks like a decent explanation, but Mounk claims to be writing a defining book about populism generally, and “local context” be damned.

When it comes to “most countries” where populism is surfacing, all three of Mounk’s contentions are problematic, but the most flawed is his contention that populist voters are reacting to stagnating salaries and limited work opportunities. Actually, in Hungary and Poland — places Mounk and others hold up as the vanguard of today’s insurgency and archetypal authoritarian populist regimes — wealth and living standards have exploded since the collapse of communism in 1989. Salaries continue to grow rapidly, including for industrial workers. In Hungary, per capita GDP increased 534 percent since 1989. Unemployment is 3.9 percent as compared to 12.1 percent in 1993. Wages rose 11.6 percent on average between the third quarters of 2016 and 2017. Put bluntly, these are not the same problems confronting ex-GM assembly line workers in Saginaw, Michigan.

While Mounk would surely chalk all this up to Central European “local context,” these examples are not outliers. In India, where the economy has grown 2,216 percent since 1991 and the country has moved to dismantle its rigid caste system, populist Narendra Modi is in charge. Indian real wage growth is forecast at 4.8 percent this year. In 2017, in the Philippines, now administered via the violent stylings of populist Rodrigo Duterte, salaries rose five percent, and similar growth was seen in Turkey, the domain of authoritarian populist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In these places too, it is difficult to see parallels to the plight of out-of-work pipe fitters in Youngstown, Ohio, or Newcastle, England. No doubt there are economic anxieties in Central Europe, Turkey, and elsewhere, and it is true that the gap between rich and poor is growing (it is growing in Canada, for that matter), but there is no prevailing feeling that opportunity has left, never to return. At some point, an accumulation of local contexts is just context.

In fact, Mounk’s enmity for local conditions is telling. In over-relying on a select group of Western European countries and (especially) the United States, Mounk is guilty of the very thing he claims to be against. While a few chapters begin with anecdotes from his native Germany, and he sprinkles in cherry-picked international data throughout (including exaggerated public opinion data taken in Europe in 2016, amid the worst of the refugee crisis, as evidence of general European sentiment on immigration), they are mostly window-dressing for analysis of the United States that is then extrapolated to everywhere else. Fairly quickly, the book ceases to be about populism as a general phenomenon and mostly a book about Trumpism.

There is at least one egregious omission too. Though Mounk briefly discusses campaign finance in the United States, he mostly ignores what, between 1980 and 2016, was demonstrably the single biggest driver of votes for right-wing authoritarian populists — heightened perceptions of corruption. [1] In the United States, this was embodied by Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra and the animus for “Crooked Hillary” (that predatory plutocrat in a pantsuit) that was the single biggest branding exercise of the 2016 election. Elsewhere, perceived corruption was also the key to the rise of authoritarian populists.

In 2010, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party gained a two-thirds majority in parliament amid corruption by the rival Socialists and fallout from a scandal that saw Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány caught on tape admitting he lied to voters. With enough parliamentary support to change the constitution, Orbán dismantled checks and balances and has kept power ever since. In the 2015 Polish elections, the illiberal Law and Justice party rode discontent from the so-called “Waitergate” scandal — in which incumbent Civic Platform party politicians came off as corrupt after servers recorded discussions over meals at posh restaurants — to become the first party since 1989 to form a government without coalition partners. Law and Justice used the recordings to create the picture that “the whole political and economic elite is corrupted, sucking out the blood of the nation,” Łukasz Lipiński, with Warsaw-based think tank Polityka Insight, recently told me.

Meanwhile, Duterte in the Philippines and Modi in India both ran on anti-corruption platforms. In Turkey, Erdoğan’s AKP party first won elections in 2002 (two years before Facebook was founded), when the key issue was corruption in the previous government that lead to a stock market crash.

But even as Mounk’s effort to map the root causes of populism makes some wrong turns, all is not lost. The explication remains thought-provoking and illuminating, and the same goes for the final section of the book. Here, Mounk takes on the impossible task of proposing solutions to our many political predicaments.

Dislodging authoritarian populists grows more difficult by the day. Given their penchant to use power to transform society — à la Orbán, who was recently reelected in an election widely deemed free but not fair — they become increasingly difficult to defeat at the ballot box. Mounk’s “remedies” are necessarily diverse, but he breaks them down into three broad categories: domesticating nationalism, making the economy more equitable, and renewing civic faith.

Mounk’s ideas are as varied as regulating social media (to distinguish between real people and robots), reforming tax policy to limit money laundering (encouraging other countries to require, as the United States does, that all citizens file tax returns no matter where they live), and rethinking how legislators are paid (to weaken the influence of lobbyists). And again, Mounk makes his case with a healthy dose of data.

In a section arguing for increased education spending, he notes that California spends more on prisons each year than on universities. Here, Mounk’s passion for the cause of liberal democracy is palpable in a good way. And yet, Mounk insists on reaffirming his puzzling hostility toward context — a flaw that runs through the book like a crack in the car windshield. “Though pundits sometimes like to focus on local factors, [populist] triumphs aren’t primarily explained by the peculiarities of particular countries, or even the (lacking) political acumen of particular candidates,” he writes in an assertion bordering on the absurd.

Not only is it clear that Hillary Clinton’s fundamental deficiencies as a candidate were essential to Donald Trump’s election victory, but is there any real doubt that, had he wished or been able to pursue a hypothetical third term, Barack Obama would have mopped the floor with Trump? If Obama would have won, and Clinton lost, what else to attribute this to but the difference in “political acumen of particular candidates”?

France’s Emmanuel Macron bulldozed populist Marine Le Pen in 2017, taking two-thirds of the vote. This is a concrete example of individual political skills overwhelming populist zeal. Mounk’s umpteenth attempt to eviscerate nuance here is all the more puzzling as he goes on to use Obama and Macron — two exceptional political communicators — as exemplars of liberals who were able to domesticate nationalism (one of his three big remedies to populism). Mounk praises their skilled conveyance of “inclusive patriotism” to subvert the appeal of extreme nationalist, xenophobic, or racist instincts. In other words, details don’t matter, except when they do.

All told, Mounk does conclusively demonstrate that political attitudes are shifting in a dangerous way. He is also perceptive in describing the structural degradation of most democratic systems. Though his explanations for why populists succeed are both blurred and narrow and his aversion “local context” mars his grand theory, the book is nevertheless a spirited call to arms.


Benjamin Cunningham divides his time between Prague and Barcelona. He writes for The Economist, Le Monde Diplomatique, and is an opinion columnist for the Slovak daily SME.


[1] See Rohac, D., Kumar, S., and Johansson Heinö, A. (2017) The wisdom of demagogues: institutions, corruption and support for authoritarian populists. Economic Affairs, 37: 382–396.

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Cunningham divides his time between Prague and Barcelona. He writes for The Economist, Le Monde Diplomatique, and is an opinion columnist for the Slovak daily SME.


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