Ideas

The People vs Democracy

Authoritarian populists have won elections across a large swath of western liberal democracies. Populist leaders have formed government through free and (mostly) fair elections by riding a wave of popular disaffection with the status quo. But once in power, these governments have gone on to dismantle the very institutions and conventions that help keep liberal democratic principles in place. So how are we to confront this paradox wherein liberal democracy serves a growing and undemocratic illiberalism?
Yascha Mounk says Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, illustrates the problem with populists with his skewing of the political process and turning media into propaganda outlets. (Reuters/Bernadett Szabo)

Authoritarian populists have won elections across a large swath of western liberal democracies. Populist leaders have formed government through free and (mostly) fair elections by riding a wave of popular disaffection with the status quo. But once in power, these governments have gone on to dismantle the very institutions and conventions that help keep liberal democratic principles in place.

So how are we to confront this paradox wherein liberal democracy serves a growing and undemocratic illiberalism? How do we strike a balance between the rights of individuals and the popular will? And if we can't figure this out, are the best days of the liberal democratic tradition long gone?

This episode features political scientist Yascha Mounk in conversation with IDEAS producer Naheed Mustafa and excerpts from a talk he gave at the Aspen Ideas Festival

Yascha Mounk is a political scientist and a lecturer on government at Harvard University. 1:40

In the early 1990s, populism in Europe was mostly a vestige of a bygone era of authoritarianism. It went largely unnoticed and rarely figured into broader conversations about political futures. But in the last ten years, there's been a resurgence of populists, and that resurgence is upending a widely-shared belief among political scientists that at some point a democracy becomes stable enough that we can count on a nation never sliding back into a less open system.

Political scientist, Yascha Mounk, has studied the shifting interest in favour of authoritarian, less-democratic governance — not only in Europe, but in the United States as well. He says among Americans born in the 1930s and 1940s, over two-thirds believe that living in a democracy is absolutely central. But that figure drops to one-third among Americans born in the 1980s.

He points to a similar trend throughout Europe, and says the trends threaten not only democratic institutions but push at the very heart of liberal values.

"It is survival of a democratic system itself because you wind up getting to a place as we have gotten to in Venezuela, and in Hungary, and in Turkey, and in Russia, and in many different places around the world, in which it is no longer possible to replace a democratically-elected leader through democratic means precisely because the courts are no longer independent, the media is no longer free... and so people who are populists do wind up destroying democracy."

Yascha Mounk, is a lecturer on government at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at New America, a columnist at Slate, and the host of the The Good Fight podcast. His book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It is published by Harvard University Press, (2018).

Watch: How to Save Democracy, a Ted Talk by Yascha Mounk 



**This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

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