The People vs. Democracy | Yascha Mounk

Summary of: The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It
By: Yascha Mounk


In this summary of Yascha Mounk’s ‘The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It’, you will explore the inherent risks posed to liberal democracy by the increasingly popular trend of populism. Discover the historical challenges faced by democracy, the reasons for the recent rise of illiberalism, and the impact of the digital age on politics. Learn about how economic struggles, anti-establishment sentiment, and nationalistic ideals can contribute to the erosion of liberal values, and gain valuable insights on how to safeguard liberal democracy’s core principles.

Minaret Ban: A Question of Democracy and Individual Rights

The Swiss 2009 referendum that banned the construction of minarets sparked worldwide criticism for its violation of religious freedom. The book explores the difference between democracy and liberal democracy and how the latter protects individual rights and minorities.

In Switzerland, Ali Erdoğan sought permission to build a minaret, arguing for the freedom of religion. The Swiss Supreme Court granted permission, but the popular referendum in 2009 banned the construction of minarets, seeing them as a threat to Swiss identity. This move was criticized for its undemocratic nature, but it raised a fundamental question: What exactly is democracy?

The book distinguishes between democracy and liberal democracy, stating that democracy can lead to the tyranny of the majority and the suppression of individual rights. This is where liberal institutions come into play, supporting the protection of individual rights and the rule of law. Leaders like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush are viewed as liberal because they supported checks and balances.

Unlike pure democracy, liberal democracy balances the rule of law, protection of individual rights, and the popular will. It’s a system that has helped maintain peace while enriching citizens, particularly minorities. The minaret ban was viewed by many as a violation of religious freedom, but the book proposes that liberal democracy may be the key to reconciling democracy and individual rights.

The Threats to Liberal Democracy

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s seemed to prove that democracy was the superior form of government, but recent changes in society have put liberal democracies at risk. Francis Fukuyama’s idea of democracy being the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution is being challenged due to the rise of the internet, declining living standards, and increased diversity. Countries that once moved towards democracy are now reversing the trend by adopting illiberalism. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party have undermined democratic norms by flooding the judiciary with party loyalists, controlling the media, and curbing the right of assembly. Populist leaders ignoring or changing the basic norms governing politics are presenting an existential threat to liberal democracy.

Populism and the Exclusionary Nature of Democracy

The exclusion of certain groups, including women, slaves, immigrants, and descendants of immigrants, has been a persistent feature of democracy throughout history. This idealization of a perfect ethnic and territorial union has created exclusionary democracies that limit participation to those who are considered “true” citizens. Populist politicians have harnessed fears about immigration and amplified ethnic tensions to exploit the anxiety of citizens who see politics as a zero-sum game. While claiming to represent the legitimate voice of the people, populist leaders exclude minorities who do not share the in-group’s identity and blame socioeconomic problems on outsiders. They offer simplistic solutions that involve limiting trade or prohibiting immigration of people of certain ethnicities or religions and disregard liberal institutions that preserve individual rights and limit any one party’s power.

Economic Anxiety and the Rise of Populism

Over the centuries, the economy has experienced significant growth, yet the improved quality of life from one generation to the next has dwindled. For example, only 50% of Americans born in 1980 can expect to be wealthier than their parents. The younger generation, particularly those born after 1980, is increasingly disillusioned with democracy. Polls suggest that nearly 44% of young Americans are open to a “strong leader” who doesn’t rely upon Congress or elections. It’s impossible to understand current politics without recognizing the transformative nature of the Internet. Today’s economic anxiety makes people more likely to vote for leaders who disregard liberal democratic norms, as seen in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump was often preferred by people living in areas where unemployment increased due to globalization or automation.

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