Two new books attempt to chart a course through choppy political waters. David Goodhart is unconvincedby David Goodhart / March 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.