Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Book Reviews

There Are Only Alternatives

On squaring a goal of system preservation with the truth that the same system is responsible for present instability.

Ajay Singh Chaudhary

The English Radical group known as the Diggers.

There was once a liberal dream: “A free society of equals, based on the proliferation of opportunities for individuals to lead lives characterized by personal independence from the domination of others,” as Elizabeth Anderson writes of the Levellers during the English Civil War. In Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, the liberal dream, limited as it might have been, has noticeably narrowed.

Mounk, a lecturer on Government at Harvard University, takes as his subject the now ubiquitous crisis of liberal democracy. A nebulous we are suddenly faced with illiberal democracies and undemocratic liberalism. Mounk sets out to guide our economic-political elite to a better understanding of the grievances of “the people.” Elites must learn to hear the dissatisfaction of the people and also become better messengers who can communicate the fundamental goodness of the existing order in the people’s language. In turn, “the people” must learn their natural limitations. Some issues—trade, regulatory environments, and climate change, for instance—are too complex for “the people” to understand. Here, they must defer to expert opinion. Mounk and similar noble-minded intellectuals are there to help both sides understand their proper place and role.

But all their careful work is being undone by “the populists,” who offer “simplistic” solutions to “complex” problems. They divide the world into the good “us’s” and the evil “them’s.” But worst of all, the populists introduce the people as demos, as participants, even as rulers in their societies, and so upset the efforts of elites-whisperers like Mounk to provide the missing connective tissue between natural rulers and ruled. In Manichaean terms worthy of Star Wars, agents of chaos, hucksters of hatred, and merchants of mendacity face off against the forces for order. In this epic battle, there is no time for antiquated concepts like left and right, no difference between the Front Nationale and Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump.

Indeed, Mounk excoriates ungrateful intellectuals who “for decades…have enjoyed the freedom to write whatever they want. Instead of cherishing this privilege, all too many secretly wished for a time in which their freedom would be more embattled.” Now is the opportunity to rise to this challenge: “to return to the boredom of times in which the stakes of politics were, at most, medium-high.” The implication is clear: Anyone who associates the prelude to what a few of my colleagues and I have taken to calling “the Long Now” with anything other than (moderate) prelapsarian bliss is clearly an agent of chaos.

Although the text is structured in three overarching sections, Mounk essentially lays out his political theory in a six-point argument. First, he asserts that the people are incapable, unwilling, and unable to rule; second, he commits to a set of claims about norms and institutions; third, he reveals an understanding of democracy as deceptive marketing; fourth, he propounds a mode of economic thought best described as market naturalism; fifth, he asks for a return to Cold War–style liberal nationalism; and sixth, he delivers a paean to a strange form of technocracy.

The book is riddled with factual errors, historical amnesia, cliché, and questionable argumentation, and—like so many similar books, particularly those written in the United States since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump—is clinically incapable of squaring its goal of fundamental system preservation with the truth that its prized system is an underlying cause of so much of the present instability. Which is to say, there is much to learn from The People vs. Democracy—but almost none of it to be found in the actual arguments.

For Mounk, as noted above, the people are invariably stupid, apathetic, and uninterested. He writes that “voters do not like to think that the world is complicated,” that “today’s citizens are no more inclined to vote and deliberate than were the citizens of 1960 or those of 1830,” and even that “today’s citizens may not be as invested in the outcome of debates on public policy as they are in who gets voted out of the Big Brother house.” These are bizarre, ahistorical claims. Not only is there no evidence that broad-based popular participation undermines either liberalism or democracy, the opposite is almost certainly the case. Mounk asserts that for younger generations raised on “Twitter and Facebook…Big Brother and American Idol,” political institutions are cumbersome. (There does not appear to be any credible study linking American Idol, Twitter, and respect for “political institutions.”) Justice and democratic order come, rather, from benevolent institutions on high: For example, readers learn that “the Supreme Court ended segregation in schools and universities” in 1954. Although Mounk eventually comes around to the stubborn fact that Brown v. Board of Education did not, in fact, end segregation, completely absent from his discussion is the mass mobilization of African Americans and a multiracial coalition of supporters. He also ignores that this Supreme Court victory literally had to be enforced at gunpoint because a mobilized people demanded it. 

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).