Populist turn exposed brittle consensus on liberal democracy


Reaction to the French presidential election result demonstrates just how low our standards have sunk. Anything short of outright triumph by the enemies of liberal democracy is now interpreted as a major success, Harvard’s Yascha Mounk writes for Slate:

More broadly, this triumphalist narrative is in danger of blinding us to the radical transformation of politics that is taking place right in front of our eyes. One sign of this is the shocking degree to which the populists triumphed among the young Sunday: Among older voters, fewer than 1 in 5 supported Mélenchon or Le Pen. Among younger voters, more than 1 in 2 did. 

Another sign of the radical transformation of Western politics is the rapid decline of establishment parties, Mounk adds:

In the 1960s, Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan made a striking observation: The party systems of most democracies in North America and Western Europe seemed to have “frozen.” While the government changed hands from time to time, the main participants in the political system remained the same.

Over the last years, as populist parties celebrated unprecedented successes across the world, I pointed out that the party system was rapidly thawing. In countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece, parties that cumulatively attracted about 4 in 5 votes a decade earlier were winning the allegiance of less than half the electorate. If the party system has long been thawing, it is now reaching boiling point.

Mounk was sounding the alarm on the populist turn before many other commentators. Sifting through mounds of public-opinion data, he argued that the consensus around liberal democracy was more brittle than we thought, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

Writing in The New York Times in September 2015, Mounk and his co-author, Roberto Foa, now a lecturer in political science at the University of Melbourne, reported that survey trends showed a “deep disillusionment with democracy.” They found that “citizens over the last three decades have become less likely to endorse the importance of democracy; less likely to express trust in democratic institutions; and less likely to reject nondemocratic alternatives.” The upshot: There was an opening for antidemocratic demagogues. 

That op-ed was a preview of findings they published in July in the [National Endowment for Democracy’s] Journal of Democracy, already considered an influential paper in the field. Mounk and Foa challenged a longstanding assumption in the literature: that a democracy, once stable and wealthy, will remain so. “People looked at me pretty skeptically, like I might be a bit of crank,” Mounk says of the initial reaction to their work.

This spring sees the release of Mounk’s first academic book, The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State (Harvard University Press), the Chronicle adds:

Mounk says that the transformation of the concept of responsibility helps to describe how we arrived at this political moment. “One way of thinking about what’s happened to responsibility is that both parts of the discourse” — the right and the left — “have been really quite patronizing to people who are struggling.”


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