Expressing a popular sentiment does not make you a democrat

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by Hans Dembowski

Yascha Mounk’s assessment of the rise of populist leaders

Yascha Mounk’s book “The people vs. democracy” is a forceful appeal to fight populism and defend the established principles of constitutional democracies. Mounk does a great job of elaborating the many ways in which democracy is currently at risk, but his use of the term “democracy” is superficial. If we reduce it to the rule of a temporary majority or – worse – maroritarianism in the sense of big population groups deserving privileges, we ultimately play into the hands of irresponsible populists.

According to Mounk, liberal democracy is in a deep crisis. The rise of Donald Trump to the US presidency is the example he refers to most. Having grown up in Germany, he is also well aware of the growing influence of right wing populist forces in Europe, however. In line with other political scientists, Mounk worries about two trends:

  • On the one hand, leaders of authoritarian leanings are mobilising people against “the establishment” which they claim no longer represents the people.
  • On the other hand, voters’ influence on their nation’s fate has been dwindling because of the ever-growing relevance of multilateral agreements, technocratic bureaucracies and review by the courts. The background is not only that complex global challenges (including issues such as trade, climate change, migration and others) cannot be dealt with by national governments acting on their own. It also matters that many issues such as technology or environmental protection have become so complex that their management requires expert knowledge. Whether judges’ ruling against government decisions hurt or protect democracy, moreover, would be worth extensive debate.

As the Harvard lecturer convincingly argues, constitutional democracy is deconsolidating in many countries. An increasing number of citizens long for strongman rule and vote for populist leaders. These leaders benefit from identity politics, economic frustration and disinformation. To stem this dangerous tide, Mounk wants liberal democracies to domesticate nationalism, fix the economy and renew civic faith. In his eyes, it is too early to say whether the populist movements or liberal democracy will prevail. He leaves no doubt that we must not take democracy for granted. We must fight for our convictions.

I agree with most of Mounk’s elaborations. His book is worth reading. However, I disagree with the way he uses the word “democracy”. In his assessment, populist movements are “democratic” in the sense of expressing real popular sentiments. He emphasises, moreover, that contemporary populist parties like the AFD in Germany, for example, keep accusing the existing order of being undemocratic, whereas right-wing parties in Europe traditionally railed against democracy. In a similar vein, he points out that the Brexiteers won the referendum on EU membership in Britain and that a majority of Swiss citizens voted for banning minarets in their country.

Yes, it is disturbing that elections have become less important in view of increased relevance of international rule-making, technocratic expertise and judicial review. It is true, moreover, that populists are exploiting frustrations that arise from these trends. It is not true, however, that doing so makes them forces of or for democracy.

Mounk’s own assessment is actually ambiguous in this regard. He reiterates several times that populists show little respect for democratic norms and institutions, and that, once they are in power, they start manipulating electoral laws, intimidate the media and attack the courts in ways to ensure that they will not ever lose power again. Mounk points out correctly that populists show little respect for civil rights and human rights. He adds that democracy is not just about giving a momentary majority what it wants, but just as much about ensuring that future elections (or referenda) will still be fair and free. In this sense, he does argue that populists are antidemocratic. Nonetheless, he considers it a democratic virtue that they articulate inconvenient views that are common among constituents.

In my eyes, the Brexit referendum did not convincingly reveal the people’s will concerning a very complex question. Every opinion pollster will tell you that the way the question is phrased as an impact on the answer. British voters were simply asked: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Not quite 52 % voted for “leave”.

The result would probably have been quite different if the question had been: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union and keep the border to Ireland open or leave the European Union and invalidate the Good Friday Peace Agreement for Northern Ireland?” Put this way, it would have been just as accurate because the two questions are intricately linked. If the border stays open, Britain cannot strike trade deals as it pleases regardless of EU rules. It will need some kind of free-trade agreement with the EU which will mean adopting most of the EU's rules. If, on the hand, but if the border becomes a hard border, a precondition of the peace agreement is not longer fulfilled. The issue is too complex to be resolved in a yes-or-no referendem.

In Switzerland, the constitution’s clause on religious freedom is now inconsistent. Mounk clearly points out that its current phrasing is absurd: “Freedom of religion and conscience is guaranteed ... The construction of minarets is prohibited”. Freedom of religion includes the freedom of worship and the freedom of expressing one's faith. Mosques serve both purposes, and minarets are an important item of mosque architecture. Quite obviously, most Swiss citizens would not consider a predominantly Muslim nation to live up to the principle of religious freedom if it banned churches' steeples. In my eyes, a garbled Constitution is certainly not a democratic achievement.

To make sense, a referendum has to be designed very carefully. Nonetheless, Mounk seems to see referenda in general as a valid way of discovering the people’s will.

Mounk also fails to delve deeply enough into challenges of representative democracy. When populists first rise to power, they only rarely win an outright majority of vote. Donald Trump’s share famously was a mere 46 %. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte became president with 39 % of the votes. In Poland, the right-wing PIS won more than half of the seats in parliament with less than 40 % of the votes. In India, the Hindu-chauvinist BJP even managed to win a majority in parliament with a mere 31 % of the ballots cast in its favour.

If you look closely, populist forces that rise to public office often benefit from quirks in the electoral law or from the support of mainstream parties. Sometimes they benefit from both. While they claim to speak for “the” people, they also feel free to define who “the” people are, excluding – and hounding – minorities and anyone who disagrees with them. To deserve the sobriquet “democratic” one needs to respect the other side’s democratic rights – which is typically not what populists do. I think Mounk should have used the word more carefully.


Yascha Mounk, 2018: The people vs. democracy: why our freedom is in danger and how to save it. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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