Democracy Is in Trouble

Yashcha Mounk’s The People vs Democracy does a great job of explaining the problem. Now to solve it.

The words ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy’ have always been used together. A democracy is supposed to be liberal. But that is how things were up until now. Now the times are changing.

This is the core idea at the heart of Yascha Mounk’s The People vs Democracy.

Mounk defines a liberal democracy as “one that protects individual rights and translates popular views into public policy.” A democracy is a true democracy only if it achieves both these aims. Or so the thinking has been up until now.

In his book, Mounk explains that we are now entering an era where this is no longer true. As he writes: “Democracies can be illiberal. This is especially likely to happen in places where most people favour subordinating independent institutions to the whims of the executive or curtailing the rights of minorities they dislike.”

On the flip side, liberal regimes can be undemocratic despite the fact that they have regular competitive elections. “This is especially likely to happen where the political system is so skewed in favour of the elite that elections rarely serve to translate popular views into public policy.”

The fact that democracies are becoming illiberal has been primarily on account of the rise of populist strongman leaders who claim that only they embody the will of the people. This is happening across the world, from the United States to Venezuela to Turkey to Hungary to Poland to India. The populist leaders are impatient to reshape the country in their own image. In the process they are more than happy to undermine the liberal institutions which are necessary to keep a democracy going.

Nevertheless, these leaders have been elected by the people. They did not seize power on their own. So what is it that has helped them get elected? The reason for this lies in the fact that over the last couple of decades, democracy hasn’t delivered growth, in large parts of the Western world, and in other parts of the world as well.

Mounk feels that this has happened primarily because of a shift from manufacturing to services and the rise of the digital economy allowing massive economies of scale. Also, the rise of the digital economy has led to channeling of vast fortunes to a few corporations and highly skilled workers.

The World Inequality Report 2018 points out: “Since 1980, income inequality has increased rapidly in North America, China, India, and Russia. Inequality has grown moderately in Europe.”

Given this, large parts of the population in large parts of the world have felt left out. And populist leaders have cashed in on this by offering glib and facile solutions that do not take the complexity of the issues at hand into consideration.

A great example of this is Donald Trump. In the run up to the American presidential elections of 2016, he offered to build a wall along the American border with Mexico, to prevent immigrants from crossing over, once he was elected. Of course, the experts pointed out how ridiculous the idea was. But that did not help. The idea caught the imagination of people.

Along similar lines, Narendra Modi’s election slogan during the 2014 Lok Sabha election in India was “Acche din aane waale hain (happy days are about to come”). Modi made no effort to explain how he planned to bring happy days for Indians. The slogan, like any slogan, was catchy and high on emotion, but short on detail. But it didn’t matter.

As Mounk writes: “Voters do not like to think that the world is complicated. They certainly do not like to be told that there is no immediate answer to their problems. Faced with politicians who seem to be less and less able to govern an increasingly complex world, many are increasingly willing to vote for anybody who promises a simple solution.”

The Hilary Clinton-Donald Trump face off in 2016 American presidential election is an excellent example of this. Clinton policy proposals were fairly detailed, and dealt with issues as varied as preschool education to the battle against Alzheimer’s.

On the other hand, Trump had a long history of conning people. Still his glib and facile solutions went down well with people. The lack of detail helped.

Over the longer term this hurts the country even more because people get used to politicians offering glib solutions to their problems and then have tendency to turn to other populist leaders. The history of South America has many such examples.

On the flip side, there are also liberal countries which aren’t democratic enough. As Mounk writes: “People who make up the legislature have in many countries become less and less similar to the people they are meant to represent; nowadays, few of them have strong ties to their local communities.”

And this is not because of any elite conspiracy but that is how the democratic system in many countries in the Western world has evolved. One reason for this is what we can call bureaucratic capture. “Government agencies have become increasingly influential in the design of laws passed by parliaments… They have increasingly taken on the role of quasi-legislatures, gaining the authority to design and implement broad rules in key areas like financial or environmental regulation.”

Take the case of Great Britain. This bureaucratic capture is best explained by the number of national bureaucrats going up from 1,00,000 in 1930 to 4,00,000 in 2015.

A major reason for this bureaucratic capture is the fact that the world is much more globalised now than it was in the past. In 1960, only about one-fourth of the global gross domestic product (GDP) was bound up in foreign trade. By 2000, over half of the global GDP was generated through cross-border trade.

In this scenario, it is but natural that nations cannot remain in control of their economic policies. Also, given the complicated nature of many issues, bureaucrats, who tend to be specialists, have taken over from the politicians, who are generalists. Also, institutions like the European Union and their need to create a single market has had a huge impact on the autonomy of the member countries.

To conclude, Mounk does a great job of explaining the issues that have made the world and are still making the world, less democratic. Nevertheless, the book falters in offering solutions to these problems, which is not really the author’s fault.

The trouble is that it is assumed that if a writer writes about a problem, he needs to offer a solution as well.

The question though is, does everything have a solution? If systems have evolved in a certain way, how can you unravel everything that is happening because of that? The larger point being that readers do not just like the idea of an author highlighting problems, but they want solutions as well. That’s the closure they are looking for, at least while reading a book. But the trouble is everything does not have a solution.

In the recent past there have been a spate of books on democracy being under a threat. Of those books, if there is just one book that you can read, then it must definitely be Yascha Mounk’s The People vs Democracy.

About the author

Vivek Kaul

Vivek Kaul is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) and The Economic Times. His latest book India’s Big Government—The Intrusive State and How It Is Hurting Us, has just been published. He is also the author of the Easy Money trilogy.