Skip to main content

Yascha Mounk, thank you for joining us. I wanted to begin with Persuasion, your community on Substack. Why do you think it’s important to have this defense of free speech and to build the capacity to have free discussion, and how do you think it can help beat authoritarian populism? How do you see the relationship between keeping this kind of free speech space and the more political aspect of beating authoritarian populism?

The first part of this is that philosophical liberalism, the basic principles of individual rights and freedoms that stand at the core of liberal democracies throughout the world, have for a long time been the operating assumption of establishment institutions in the United States. America has never fully lived up to those principles, but for the past decades in important parts of American public life, it was taken for granted that they should govern themselves by this set of ideas and principles.

And what we have seen in the last decade or two is the emergence of quite significant and deep challenges to those ideas. They are partially from the post-liberal right in the form of demagogues who run for office and sometimes win elections, but also in terms of intellectual challengers who say that conservatives should cease being philosophical liberals, that they should try to impose their idea of a good life on the rest of the citizenry. But we have also seen deep challenges to philosophical liberalism from the left, including a deep tradition of Critical Race Theory, which effectively says that these universal ideals and neutral laws are just fig leaves that try to perpetuate racial domination and need to be rejected root and branch.

And so, as somebody who is a philosophical liberal who believes that these ideals have in fact inspired great progress towards equality over the last sixty to seventy years, I think it is time to start having an intellectual public sphere that actually defends these ideas in an explicit way, that actually explains them, makes the case for them, and responds to criticisms of it. And because so many institutions have taken these ideas for granted, that did not really exist. So, Persuasion is an attempt to build an ideological fighting magazine as well as a broader community of people who are going to stand for and explain and defend these ideas.

Can I ask you to develop a little bit on the leftist, the Critical Race Theory and cancel culture, phenomenon? How do you see that as being opposed to liberalism or asking liberalism to move one step forward in progressing toward its own limitations?

There is a lot of scholarship which has rightly shown and pointed out that American institutions have long made beautiful promises but that they have, in extremely cruel ways, failed to live up to those promises, especially when it came to the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities. This is a point that in a sense Frederick Douglass already made in his famous speech about the 4th of July, and it is an important point which is why his relevance has only deepened. But the question then immediately becomes, what do we do about that? And there are two fundamentally different paths, two fundamentally different responses, you might have to that. The first is to say that the invocation of these universal values and neutral rules has allowed some of the most important progress to happen in the United States. The invocation of the phrase “men are born free” was at the heart of the movement for emancipation in the 19th century.

The invocation of the equal protection clause was at the heart of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. And despite the ongoing injustices in the United States and our democracy today, there has been real progress, and that progress has in part been because it is very hard to answer a fellow citizen who says, “you are claiming I am equal. I am claiming I have these rights. Yet in practice you are discriminating against me. How can this be? Can this be just?”

But there’s also very different response, which is to say that actually these aspirations of universal values and laws are merely fig leaves, that they always had the purpose of perpetuating racial discrimination, and that the right response therefore is to rip them up and put in place a system in which how you are treated is explicitly based on the origin you have, the skin color you have, the group to which you belong.

Both the more sophisticated versions of the Critical Race Theory in the scholarly world from people like Derrick Bell and from Kimberlé Crenshaw, and its sometimes less sophisticated applications in popular culture are premised on a fundamental rejection of the liberal principles that I believe in.

That is at the heart of the scholarly tradition of Critical Race Theory. When you look at Derrick Bell, widely acknowledged as the founder of the theory, he was a civil rights lawyer during the 1960s helping to argue for the desegregation of schools and businesses in the American South for the NAACP. But then he came to think of that as a mistake and he came to think in many ways of Brown vs. Board of Education as a mistake. He came to advocate in some ways for a system that would be separate, but truly equal. He did not believe that the United States had made any progress or was capable of making any progress towards racial equality. And so I do think that both the more sophisticated versions of the Critical Race Theory in the scholarly world from people like Derrick Bell and from Kimberlé Crenshaw, and its sometimes less sophisticated applications in popular culture are premised on a fundamental rejection of the liberal principles that I believe in.

If we move to your own research and your “undemocratic dilemma” article, you raise the distinction between the form and the effect of populist politics. And I think that is really important. Could you walk us through that distinction? Secondly, you make the connection between populism, illiberal democracy, and electoral dictatorship as a chain of continuity. I wanted you to tell us, is this just descriptive, as in we have case studies that show that we went from one to the other? Or do you think there is a conceptual point, that the continuum is always happening and therefore it is not only a descriptive continuity?

Let me put it inside a different language than I often put it in. I think to understand our political system and the ways in which it is currently threatened, it is really helpful to understand that we have two kinds of ambitions. This is implicit in virtually all contexts. The ways of talking about these two ambitions are different in different political contexts and cultures, but the duality of them is recognized by the fact that you nearly always end up with two terms. So political science tends to talk about “liberal democracy.” Conservatives in the United States like to talk about a “democratic republic.” In Germany, people talk about “freiheitlich demokratische rechtsordnung.”

And in each of these two-term phrases, there is one phrase that talks about the aspiration we have to govern ourselves – that we don’t want a king or a dictator or military general to make decisions for us – but that we think that in some way collectively, as a people, we should be able to set the rules that bind us. But the second element is the liberal element, the element that talks about individual freedom because we believe that there are certain rights and certain liberties that we should retain irrespective of what the majority wants. Even if the majority has a preference for you to worship in a different way than you do or to find a partner of a different sex or gender than the one you prefer or to stop saying things that they find annoying, we believe that you should be able to worship as you please, to choose a romantic partner that you’re attracted to, and to say things even if they are inconvenient, even they are unpopular.

Now, if you realize that our political system consists of these two fundamental elements, there are a number of ways in which the political system can go wrong. The first is what I have called a form of undemocratic liberalism. This is a political system in which individual rights are relatively well respected, but in which the preferences of the people are very imperfectly, or not at all, translated into public policies. The second is a form of illiberal democracy in which the preferences of the majority are implemented and listened to, but it is at the expense of our individual liberties and often of the liberties of unpopular ideological or historically marginalized ethnic or sexual minorities.

Each of these systems, I fear, is relatively unstable. When you do not have any democratic control over your system, the temptation to shut up and throw in jail those who criticize you is going to keep growing. And when you have a government that is majoritarian, that claims for itself the liberty to shut people up that it does not like, the temptation to fiddle with the next elections to stop your opponent from having a fair chance of winning them becomes very high as well. And so, either of those systems can, over time, devolve into a form of competitive authoritarianism or outright dictatorship.

If I can continue on that theme, you described this illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism five years ago, how do you judge the five years that we have experienced since, how do you see the situation in the US and in Europe? How do you think these two competing systems have developed, succeeded, or failed?

Well, I think what we have is actually a composite of the two. I think that we have a political party in the United States, certainly, that is more firmly committed than ever to forms of illiberal democracy. We saw that with Donald Trump’s attacks on the rule of law and the separation of powers. We saw an evident disregard for the law when it comes even to things like the case about documents, for which he is now being prosecuted. And we also see it in other parts of the Republican Party, including the laws about what kind of content can be taught at public universities in Florida, as well as in other states where similar laws are pending or has been passed by state legislatures.

At the same time, I think that my friends and colleagues on the left side of the political aisle have gotten even more tempted by a defensive crouch, in which they assume that the majority of our fellow citizens are deeply flawed and possibly irredeemable, in which they try more and more strongly to control the flow of information, and in which there’s the sense that we are the embattled keepers of wisdom and decency and we need to keep the impure hoards at bay. Now what is interesting is that perhaps I have changed my mind slightly about the likelihood that either side is ever going to win a full victory. Though I think in some places like Hungary or Venezuela, one side has won a full victory.

And I certainly would not say that that’s outside the realm of possibility in a place like France or the United States. But I think that the more likely outcome is going to be a form of competitive authoritarianism where there are different spheres of public or political life that are controlled by one faction or the other and in which there are occasional swings where one faction wins an election and becomes more dominant for a period of time, but in which neither fully manages to subdue the other. And that is going to lead to just more and more violent contestation of elections, more and more rule-breaking, more and more derogations from both of the values we should care about, from both the liberal and the democratic elements of our system.

We may see more and more violent contestation of elections, more and more rule breaking, more and more derogations from both of the values we should care about, from both the liberal and the democratic elements of our system.

Moving to your The Great Experiment book, could you tell us more about what you call “minority domination” and “fragmentation,” as elements that contribute to the decline of liberal democracy?

Here I think you are asking about some of the traditional ways in which diverse societies have “gone wrong” historically. One form of this is simply domination, a majority group claims power and mistreats religious or ethnic or cultural or sexual minorities. That has sometimes happened in extremely explicit ways as was the case with chattel slavery in the United States or it sometimes happened in more subtle, less obvious ways. But there are also other kinds of interesting ways in which diverse democracies have gone wrong. And they include fragmentation, societies in which different groups have effectively become so distinct from each other that they have divided responsibility for important areas of public life between them so that the laws to which you are subject on education and marriage and inheritance depend not on you being a citizen of Lebanon, but on you being a Shi’a, or a Sunni, or a Maronite Christian, or a member of one of a number of other groups.

And this was meant to broker a peace in deeply fractured societies, but actually I think its empirical impact has been much more ambiguous. It has frozen lines of conflict and often perpetuated conflicts. And then there have been cases of minority domination, where either a minority group has been in charge from the beginning as was the case with whites in South Africa (who used the power from the colonial origins to dominate society) or it has been the case in circumstances where minorities realized that in democratic elections they would lose and therefore they need to impose their will by force. I think that is one of the mechanisms that has happened in Iraq for a long time. In my book, The Great Experiment, I try to argue that we have made more progress than people sometimes realize on many of these issues. And that in historical comparison, international comparison, our diverse societies are doing reasonably well. But I argue that against the background of being aware of how deeply wrong these kinds of societies have often gone.

That is a really great point. And I like the fact that you are connecting many countries that we usually do not necessarily connect with one other rather than having a Western-centric perspective. The last question is a broader one on the reasons why populist or illiberal movements gain popular support.  We know about the economic feature, we know about the cultural one, we know about the feeling of losing access to power or understanding how politics work, the kind of opacity of politics. We know about communication technologies. How do you think we can articulate all these elements? Because in the literature people tend to be specialized on one or the other. How do we think they can be articulated altogether and what do we do with that? How do we try to come up with policy solutions that would be able to tackle all these different elements, not at the same time, but at least in parallel? That would be the one million dollar question.

There are definitely ways of focusing on different elements of this. You refer to the literature, I think there is a debate at one basic level about whether we should look at the supply side or the demand side, i.e., is the rise of populism owed to the greater ease with which populists can present themselves for office given spread of certain norms that allow populist parties to emulate each other and employ the same strategies and memes and social media presences? Or is it fundamentally about the demand side, is it fundamentally about the preferences of voters?

I tend to focus more on the demand side in part because I am struck by how little a difference different institutional contexts have made to the rise of populism.

I think all of these explanations are important. I tend to focus more on the demand side in part because I am struck by how little a difference different institutional contexts have made to the rise of populism. We have seen populists be very successful in systems of proportional representation like Israel and in systems of majoritarian democracy like the United States. We have seen it in presidential systems and parliamentary systems. We have seen it across all these different contexts. And I think that in my mind that naturally shifts the question to why did people used to vote for more moderate parties until twenty or so years ago and why are they now willing to vote for those more extreme parties? Now, the explanation I gave for those factors in my booklet The People Versus Democracy seven or eight years ago I think remains broadly correct, at least in most geographic contexts.

And it is, first of all, stagnation of living standards, at least in the more affluent and longstanding democracies in which people used to feel that they were doing much better than their parents and they no longer feel that. Secondly, the quick cultural and demographic changes which have turned relatively mono-ethnic and monocultural, relatively hierarchical, societies into much more ethnically and culturally diverse societies with much less steep sexual and gender hierarchies, which is a positive development, but one that elicits fears and in some cases anger or rejection among a proportion of a population.

And then, finally, the rise of social media, which I think has made it easier to spread messages of hate and to organize political parties. I would say this is a factor that mostly falls on the demand side, but partially falls on the supply side within that kind of political science framing. Now, the one thing I would add about this explanation today, especially when it comes to the United States, but also when it comes to some Western European societies, is that the social and cultural elite in many of these countries have become much more divorced from the rest of the population than they had been for much of the 20th century.

Today, the kinds of people who make decisions about what you see on TV, what is considered socially acceptable, what is considered taboo, how really influential institutions – from big corporations to universities to nonprofits – are run, have started to live in a very different cultural world. And as a result, we have often adopted norms and at times tried to impose preferences on the rest of the population that have alienated a lot of people. Now I am a creature of that world and diverse institutions, and I like some of those norms and some of those institutions, others I’m critical of.

The broader ruling elite needs to become much more self-critical about the way in which it has stepped away from the cultural assumptions, the values and ideals, the lived reality of the majority of people.

But I think that here, the broader ruling elite needs to become much more self-critical about the way in which it has stepped away from the cultural assumptions, the values and ideals, the lived reality of the majority of people. And in a democracy when you try to impose ideas on the majority of people that they do not like, they are going to act out. And one of the ways they act out is to vote for anybody who promises to do away with that elite group, even if they are actually very self-interested and misguided and perhaps dangerous in any number of ways.

Yascha Mounk is a professor of practice of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University and a political scientist known for his work on the rise of populism and the crisis of liberal democracy. He is the author of several books, including The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure and the forthcoming The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time. He is also the founder of Persuasion, a community committed to the liberal democratic ideal, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.