Donald Trump's bite has proved much milder than his bark. Photo: PA

David Goodhart: Liberals are set on a collision course with democracy

Two new books attempt to chart a course through choppy political waters. David Goodhart is unconvinced
March 18, 2018

Liberals in developed countries have been used to winning almost every argument for economic and cultural openness over the past 30 years. And they have not in the main been reacting calmly to the apparent end to this golden era.

Both these books, one focusing mainly on the United States, the other ranging more widely, capture the new paranoid spirit of a liberalism that had grown complacent and narrow and now seems unable to renew itself.

Yascha Mounk’s The People vs Democracy is the more ambitious in scope and range, and also the more frustrating of the two. This is partly because Mounk himself is often promoted as a big new thinker of the western centre-left, and is head of a unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (a fact he is oddly reticent about in the book blurb).

It is also because much of the book’s diagnosis seems self-flagellatingly honest and accurate, albeit not particularly original, but then the prescription section reads like a rambling Blair speech with exhortations to rethink this or find a better balance for that—“we need to find a new language of inclusive patriotism,” and such like.

Both Mounk and the Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt book How Democracies Die are noisily outraged by Donald Trump, and Mounk has some chilling opinion data about the declining support for democracy in the US. Yet populism is never properly defined by either book and “the people” themselves are a slightly menacing off-stage presence somehow fated to disappoint the hopes of long-suffering liberal professors.

The standard academic definition of populism depends on the notion of demagogic populist leaders who claim to represent a single general will of the “real” people, who are pitted against the elites that control everything. Left populists stress the economic power and corruption of the elite; right populists usually share the economic analysis but add in elite collaboration with the ethnic “other.”

This definition captures some of the rhetoric of populism but not its actual behaviour. Do Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen think in terms of a single, unified “general will”? Surely they think of themselves more as a pressure group for those who feel left behind or unrepresented by the big cultural and economic disruptions of the past 30 years. Farage and the relaunched Front National of Le Pen want different policies from the establishment but don’t want to abolish all individual rights or create a centralised tyranny.

The professors chide the populists for their disregard for pluralism—the idea that there can be many different ways to lead a good life from one of devout religiosity to libertarian hedonism. But populists are well aware of the moral variety in our societies and feel themselves to be victims of one strand of it: a domineering, illiberal liberalism.

Writers like Ivan Krastev, and now Mounk, talk about the two parts of the phrase “liberal democracy” increasingly being at war with each other. And they have invented a new sort of triangulation in which they attack the populists for becoming illiberal and the elites for becoming undemocratic. I think there is more evidence for the latter than the former.

The key concept here is what the former civil servant Ivan Rogers has called technocratic depoliticisation. Technocratic elites tend to agree that we can no longer be effectively governed at the national or local level and are happy to pool sovereignty to make markets and politics work better in a more interdependent world. That means removing more and more things from the national democratic contest.

This is not just about majority voting in the European Union or World Trade Organisation regulations it is also true of domestic politics: think of independent central banks or the much greater legal activism of the judiciary in the era of anti-majoritarian human rights law. So voters can no longer look to their national politicians to control immigration, or decide the balance of risk on new technologies like GM food or support industry with national procurement rules.

All of those things that shrink the democratic space may be justified in their own terms, but you can bet your bottom dollar that when things are removed from the national democratic arena they will be decided according to liberal technocratic priorities of international openness, income maximisation, individualism, diversity and so on.

Moreover, at a personal-psychological level, the liberal technocrats are comfortable with relinquishing sovereignty. They understand the trade-offs—the benefits to be gained in GDP growth or greater co-operation to combat climate change; they may even know a friend of a friend who works at one of the international organisations. They also tend to have quite a high degree of sovereignty in their own personal and professional lives so don’t feel much loss associated with the shrinkage of citizenship sovereignty.

Indeed, these changes are experienced as broadening and empowering by elites and narrowing and disempowering by non-elites. And the non-elite response can mutate into populist rejection. As Ivan Rogers has written: “If you evacuate many domains of public policy of any real element of choice at the citizen level… then the only way to voice opposition becomes to voice opposition to the whole system and to argue that it needs to be demolished rather than changed from within.”

So illiberal populism is the product of elite-led undemocratic liberalism or what I have called (in my book The Road to Somewhere) liberal Anywhere overreach. Anywheres—the large minority of educated, mobile, professionals with confident identities based on educational and career success—have ruled in their own interest and called it the national interest.

And this is not just about the shift to an open, high-immigration, knowledge economy, which tends to benefit the better educated 25 per cent of Anywheres and often disadvantages the more rooted, less well educated, 50 per cent of Somewheres.

Almost the entire policy spectrum is dominated by Anywhere assumptions, at least in the UK: the huge expansion of higher education and relative neglect of technical and vocational education; the way in which cognitive ability has become the gold standard of human esteem; the way in which many forms of group attachment (national, local, ethnic) have been diminished; the declining importance of the private realm of the family and the downplaying of gender roles that many still value.

Mounk understands most of this. And his account of the populist reaction—driven by stagnant living standards, divisive social media and shrinking ethnic majorities—accepts that liberals have overplayed their hand.

Yet his account of the populist reaction itself is exaggerated and unconvincing. Yes, some opposition to the liberal order has been authoritarian and xenophobic, reflecting the views of maybe 3 to 10 per cent of the population in a country like Britain.

But the rise in electoral support for populist parties, many of which have participated in coalition governments around Europe, has not, thankfully, led to any significant change in the liberal-constitutional consensus, in western Europe at least. There has been no consistent attempt to undermine minority rights or subvert the rule of law. European integration (minus Britain) continues, immigration continues too at quite high levels and the initial response to the refugee crisis of 2015 was a welcome one, even if it did subsequently sour.

The proponents of illiberal democracy can point to genuinely worrying constitutional developments in Poland and Hungary but that is a product of the unique post-communist history of central and eastern Europe. There was the burkini ban in France but that fizzled out into a farce. The Swiss have banned new minarets but that is a minor inconvenience to Swiss Muslims.

There will be no return to the 1930s. As the British political writer David Runciman has pointed out, our societies are much richer and older than the societies that generated extreme populism after the First World War, which also had the huge trauma of that war to contend with.

Another reason illiberal democracy has been largely held at bay is because most Somewheres, and many populist voters, rather than conforming to the proto-mob idea of liberal nightmares have a worldview that is best described as decent populism. What that means, in a nutshell, is that most Somewheres (at least those under retirement age) have accepted the “great rights liberalisation” of the last 40 years on race, gender and sexuality.

They are comfortable enough in the modern world but are not liberals and do not embrace the two “masses” that have had such an impact on it: mass higher education and mass immigration.

Their identities, unlike Anywheres, are often strongly rooted in the places and groups they come from and for that reason they often experience change to those places—or the country as a whole—as a loss.

They are generally hostile to mass immigration because it is not in their economic or cultural interests but often friendly to individual immigrants (both books make the usual false elision between hostility to immigration and the immigrant). They feel strongly about people, especially newcomers to a country, conforming to common norms (some have a high attachment to order). They are sensitive to welfare free-riding, put security before liberty and still believe in some kind of gender division of labour.

It is true that open versus closed has in some respects become the new left versus right, but it is a self-serving dualism for pro-openness Anywheres. I have never met anyone who wants to live in a closed society. Yet many Somewheres feel with good reason that the forms of openness that have emerged in the past 30 years do not always benefit them. Just consider the declining status (and relative pay) of so much non-graduate employment.

Mounk, unlike some liberals, even grasps that majorities (not just minorities) have an ethnicity too, a way of life that many want to preserve and fear being unable to do so as whites cease to be a majority in many places.

But he doesn’t go on to ask the next set of questions. Are people from ethnic majorities not justified in wanting a degree of demographic stability? Are there, in other words, legitimate cultural reasons (not just economic ones) for opposing mass immigration? And is it not possible to value a strong attachment to your (national or ethnic) in-group without feeling hostility or contempt for outsiders?

If the answer to those questions is a tentative yes, then it might be possible to try to differentiate the obviously racist and anti-democratic populism of, say, Golden Dawn in Greece, from more legitimate, mainstream varieties, something that neither book attempts.

It might also require taking more seriously the appeals of those populist voters for more protection and slower social change. Mounk’s belief that more majority-minority contact will solve the problem—as in California’s embrace of more pro-diversity attitudes—may be too optimistic. He overlooks the US state’s almost unprecedented demographic switch from a white population of over 80 per cent in 1970 to below 40 per cent now.

*** Mounk expresses a kind of uncurious trepidation about what ordinary people actually believe. But my own more optimistic assumptions are not made up—they are mainly drawn from British Social Attitudes surveys.

Maybe to properly understand populism you need at least a smidgeon of sympathy for it, or at least for the people who are drawn to it—and, as he himself more or less admits, that may be hard for the grandson of a Holocaust survivor raised in Germany surrounded by the ghosts of the past.

Notwithstanding my reservations, especially about his predictable solutions, the book has impressive range and benefits from the author’s ability to move across the political-intellectual life of at least three big countries (and he knows his Roman history, which provides a gruesome subtext to his current anxieties).

Levitsky and Ziblatt mistrust the average voter as much as Mounk and worry too about the fact that there has never been a successful multi-ethnic democracy without an ethnic majority.

Their book is more of an activist primer on how to keep the authoritarians out. They rather ruefully admit that the US Constitution is so far standing up to the beating it is getting from President Donald Trump, and that after one year his bark has been worse than his bite.

But below the legal mechanics of US democracy they really fear the erosion of the unwritten democratic norms of mutual toleration and forebearance—above all the idea that political opponents are rivals, not enemies to be destroyed. And they convincingly argue that the Republicans have been most to blame for this erosion, with Newt Gingrich leading the way in the mid-1990s.

This is partly a story of ethnic polarisation, with the Republicans becoming the party of white Protestants and the Democrats almost everyone else. But it is also the consequence of the parties shifting from the 1960s onwards from broad coalitions of, sometimes conflicting, interest groups to becoming overtly ideological vehicles.

I remain unconvinced by the pessimism of both books. Sure enough, the combination of the absence of a Cold War common enemy, more acute education-driven value divides, stagnating economies and a media that fragments society rather than unites it, have all combined to give western politics an uglier tone.

But the underlying story is one of a legitimate rebalancing after a long period of liberal technocratic domination. The political waters have been made choppier by a post-deferential public but the basic decency of most voters will ensure that the ship does not capsize.

How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is published by Viking, £16.99

The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It is published by by Yascha Mounk Harvard, £21.95