In many countries, authoritarian populism is on the rise and liberal democracy is in decline. Citizens are turning away from their political systems and increasingly heeding the siren song of the populists. In his new book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It, Yascha Mounk analyses the reasons behind these developments and the key challenges posed to liberal democracy in our time.

Roderick Kefferpütz: In your latest book you describe the demise of liberal democracy and how liberalism and democracy are actually at war with each other. Can you explain that?

Yascha Mounk: I believe that liberalism and democracy are two fundamental elements that go together; in some ways they need each other. But my fear is that they are falling apart, creating two malformed systems. On the one hand we have ‘rights without democracy’: political systems that are strong on individual rights, with independent institutions and a very effective separation of powers, but which are insufficiently responsive to the popular will and actually pursue policies contrary to this.

And on the other, partly in reaction to this, we are seeing the emergence of political systems in which populist politicians claim that they alone represent the popular will, in which minorities are victimised, and independent institutions such as courts are undermined. Here we have ‘democracy without rights’.

Liberal democracy means maintaining individual rights while also being able to respond to the popular will. The question at the heart of the challenge we are currently facing is how to maintain this balance.

What are the reasons behind this?

It’s partially a product of elite capture. Over the years we have seen money becoming increasingly important in politics, and the development of a revolving door between lobbying and legislating. Special interests have become too powerful, and politicians have become too disconnected from ordinary citizens.

This disconnection is, in part, a consequence of the way we deal with the numerous challenges we face. Just think about climate change. To tackle this issue, you obviously need cooperation between hundreds of countries around the world; you need international agreements and international institutions. But this takes a lot of decisions out of the hands of ordinary people.

The result is that people feel alienated because their interests aren’t being taken into account. And then come the populists who want to abolish institutions such as central banks, international organisations, trade treaties, and so on.

That’s what elections are for, so that citizens can make their views heard.

Sure, and they can elect politicians who are more responsive to their views. The issue, however, is that the challenges we are facing are so complex that we need expertise in decision-making and cooperation between multiple stakeholders on an international level. But at the same time, this level is too far removed from ordinary people.

The author Parag Khanna argues that there is actually too much democracy and that in fact what we need is more experts and technocracy.

This is what I call the ‘technocratic dilemma’. Parag Khanna is partially right. The world has become much more complicated and therefore we need expertise and technical institutions. There are certainly some areas in which a more technocratic approach might lead to better results, but there are many others in which technocracy is delivering poor results. Why? Because the actors involved, expert as they may be, do not necessarily have the interests of ordinary people at heart. This means that the people’s views are not taken into consideration when public policy is shaped, breaking the core promise of our political system – to respond to the popular will. People won’t stand for that for too long.

We’re now finding ourselves in a situation in which people have also changed their views on certain issues. That’s one of the points in your book, that people have become less liberal.

Yes, that’s part of both the rise and the danger of a democracy without rights. If you want to uphold the democratic and the liberal elements of the political system then a majority of people have to vote for liberal rights. Otherwise you can’t solve the riddle. The fact is that the views of a lot of people in Europe have become less tolerant. Let’s take Switzerland as an example. When the majority of the Swiss people vote to ban the construction of minarets on mosques, then you are forced to either violate the liberal element of our political system, which is the right to worship, or the democratic element, which keeps the system responsive to what people want.

The only way to solve this problem is to convince a majority of the electorate to actually embrace and vote for liberal policies.

But how does this work for forced migration, for example? In his latest book, Ivan Krastev argues that the refugee movement is the biggest existential threat faced by the EU.

I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the biggest. There are too many to choose from. But I agree that Europe needs to develop a clear vision of the nature of its refugee system. It needs to show that it’s in control of the process. The public would feel more comfortable knowing there’s a system in place that works.

We have both a humanitarian commitment and the responsibility to reassure citizens that there is an orderly, functioning process in operation. That’s the challenge. If politicians give their citizens the impression that there’s an open door and that no-one is controlling who comes into their country, then this will also put pressure on liberal attitudes within the EU.

But how do you convince voters to vote for liberal policies? Is it a question of leadership, or of arguments, or of an emotional connection?

It’s a question of leadership, and of policy. The gap between politicians and ordinary citizens is too wide, and their policies are failing to deliver in key areas such as the aspiration for a better material future. During the Cold War period, living standards increased rapidly. Now we find ourselves in a situation in which that type of material future can no longer be guaranteed.

Emmanuel Macron is one of the few politicians who has put forth an optimistic vision for his country. This has allowed him to persuade people – to some extent at least – that politicians can actually deliver for them. You can only fight populism with an optimistic vision of how the future is going to be better. If all you can offer is the status quo, or if voters remain pessimistic, then you aren’t going to win. Whether or not Macron is actually going to deliver on some of his promises, however, is a different question.

In Hungary and Poland we see the rise of illiberal democracies, and institutions such as the European Commission are struggling to rein this in. How does your answer work there?

If illiberal actions are without consequence, the populists will just carry on. If Europe wants to be an example to the world and uphold liberal democracy, it needs to make it very clear that Hungary cannot remain a member of the EU if it maintains its current government. At present, Hungary would never meet the criteria for EU membership. So why is there no attempt to suspend its membership, or to limit the generous payments it gets from the EU? Most shameful of all is how Chancellor Angela Merkel, a member of the European People’s Party alongside Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has remained silent on Orbán’s openly anti-semitic campaign.

Orbán cites Putin as a role model, and we see how liberal democracy is increasingly coming under pressure from outside actors such as Russia. How can we defend liberal democracy in the world? Do we need to reconsider John McCain’s proposal of an international ‘League of Democratic States’?

The problem with the League of Democratic States is that it’s impossible to say how many countries would be left in 50 years’ time.

What’s clear is that liberal democratic countries and governments need to be much more willing to fight for their values and to develop long-term strategies. Take Germany, for example. In response to the Skripal poisoning in the United Kingdom, the Germans joined the UK and others in expelling Russian diplomats. A couple of days later, however, they approved the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will make Western Europe even more dependent on Russian gas for many decades to come. This will allow Putin to continue to bully Russia’s Western neighbours. Germany effectively kicked out a few diplomats but helped the Russian regime to build its geopolitical dominance. That’s not a coherent strategy.

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