Does the Political Scientist Who Foresaw the Trump Era Still Believe Democracy Has a Future?

Forget the nostalgia for 21st-century social democracy, says Harvard political scientist Yascha Mounk. Nationalism is here to stay.

"Flags 1," by Jasper Johns (1973).
Matt Dunham/AP

Yascha Mounk admits that his current notoriety in academic and media circles makes him feel a bit as if he is “an attorney for a serial killer.”

Since the victory of Donald Trump last November, the political theorist at Harvard – who has dedicated his last few years of work to trying to convince his peers that the continuing progress of liberal democracy across the world is not a preordained conclusion – has become the go-to guy on the subject of the rise of nationalism and populism.

Mounk, 35, challenges the orthodoxy, as he describes it, that holds that “if a country has an annual GDP of over $15,000 and two elections which turned out the serving government, then you don’t have to worry about democracy there. That’s enough. It’s a one-way street.”

No one needs proof of that anymore, but before Trump and Brexit and current fears in Europe of a far-right tidal wave sweeping Marine Le Pen into the lysée Palace in Paris, Mounk was already arguing his case and had the numbers to back himself up. 

Together with his co-researcher, Roberto Foa of the University of Melbourne, he has been analyzing data on voter turnout across the Western world, and conducting polls on public attitudes toward democratic and national institutes and on economic markers. They created a set of three main indicators of the health of democracies: support by the public for the continuation of democracy in their country, public openness to alternative nondemocratic systems, and the success in elections of political parties and candidates that rail against the legitimacy of their existing system of government. 

Harvard political theorist Yascha Mounk, who is also head of the “anti-populism” program at the new, London-based Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, March 2017.
Steffen Jänickeg

Based on this data, Mounk and Foa have been claiming for over two years that the world is facing an epidemic of populism and nationalism – or as some political scientists call it, “illiberal democracy”: a style of governance whereby the leader may base his authority on a democratic mandate, but the government has scant regard for civil rights and seeks to delegitimize its opponents. 

Less than two years ago, with Barack Obama in office, with the U.S. Supreme Court voting in favor of gay marriage and polls in Britain predicting a solid majority in favor of remaining within the European Union – led by the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – the fears of such contagion seemed grossly overblown. It was happening in places like Recep Tayyep Erdogan’s Turkey, but liberal democracy still seemed strong. Now it is clear that not only “recently democratic” countries in Eastern Europe like Poland and Hungary are in danger, where nationalist governments are busy whittling away the power of the courts and civil society, but even bastions of civil rights in the West.

The signs of what Mounk defines as key indicators of illiberal democracy – that is, “majorities setting themselves against minority rights, Muslims in Europe and Muslims and Latinos in the U.S.” – aren't the only ones found in abundance. Another long-established orthodoxy, which supports the idea that demographic changes – and, in particular, younger groups who have grown up in more "liberal" times – will shift Western electorates irreversibly leftward, is foundering on the rocks of a plummeting turnout among young voters.

On a short visit to Israel last week, during which Mounk gave a lecture at Molad, the Center for Renewal of Israeli Democracy in Jerusalem, Haaretz asked him about the future of democracy: Does society have any prescription for the malaise of democracy, or will we see a long-term trend away from liberalism? 

Appointed head of the “anti-populism” program at the new, London-based Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, Mounk will try to come up with those prescriptions. But, for now at least, he admits that there are no simple answers. One thing that is clear, however, is that a return to the status quo is not in the cards.

Domesticating nationalism

Mounk warns against any warm, fuzzy nostalgia for late-20th-century social democracy. The first step toward finding a way out of the populist present and future is to recognize that things have changed. Nationalism, he says, is back and here to stay. The new Western economy has seen to that.  

“Less people today have other identities from [those engendered by] their workplace. People used to be coal miners or union members, that was an identity,” Mounk says. “But fewer people work in mines or are members of unions nowadays. Twenty-first-century work doesn’t give you that kind of identity and that means people are falling back on their descriptive identity, which is their ethnic or nationalistic origin. And when our identity is descriptive, we get angrier at what we see as injustice in distribution of wealth.”

Globalized economy did away with the old workplace. But do we want to give up on globalization?

“Today, we face a trilemma of nationalism, democracy and globalization. You have to find a way to make those three work together because you can’t get away from nationalism and you don’t want to give up democracy and globalization.”

The key, says Mounk with an ironic smile, is in the slogan often used by populists, also popular among Brexit supporters: “to give people a feeling they have a control over their lives and that your own nation has control over its destiny.” In order for people to feel that, they have to be convinced that they can live in a multi-ethnic and democratic society and still be better off materially and the liberal camp must learn how to embrace nationalism.

“The idea used to be that we can get away from nationalism and substitute it with other things like social justice, and somehow people will learn to live without it. But when nationalism and democracy clash, nationalism wins. Therefore, we have to try and domesticate nationalism by filling it with our own meaning that makes it compatible with an open and liberal society and harnesses globalization.”

To do that, argues Mounk, liberals who like to think of their values as universal and therefore applicable in the same way to every country, must learn to appreciate national differences. As an example, he cites the country of his birth, Germany, and the country in which he has lived and worked for the last 12 years and where he has recently become a citizen, the United States.

“The U.S., despite Trump’s victory, still has a big advantage,” he explains. “There is a better chance of the majority of Americans embracing a multi-ethnic identity because they already have such a society. But for multi-ethnic democracy to survive in the U.S., some tactical retreat on immigration may be necessary. In Germany, on the other hand, we have polls from 30 years ago showing that two-thirds of Germans think an ethnic Turk who was born and raised in Germany is still a Turk. Recent polls show that two-thirds of Germans still think that.”

The answer for Germany and other European countries is to build a new national narrative, Mounk says. 

Much of his interest in nationalism is rooted in his experiences of growing up in Germany as the son of Polish-Jewish parents: “In Germany, the left is concerned by nationalism for obvious historical reasons. But when you don’t give people a common narrative about what Germany can be, they find more nationalist right-wing narratives instead.”

The left, argues Mounk, must look for more positive options for a future German nationalism rather than denying the entire concept.

“Part of [this process] is about education and culture and also being economically nationalist – not in the form of isolationism and protectionism. But, for example, we should put more emphasis on territory and citizenship in an economic sense. If you are a citizen of a country or if a corporation has its headquarters based on your territory, then both individuals and corporations should pay their taxes there. That could be a big issue.” 

Israeli 'complexity'

On only his second, short visit to Israel, Mounk admits that he knows very little about the country and that as a political scientist, he prefers not to analyze the Israeli situation with the same tools he employs to analyze other countries.

“In any discussion in which it is mentioned, Israel takes over. Once you mention Israel, you can’t just do so in passing,” he says. “It can’t just be another example. There is such a complexity and so many emotions when dealing with Israel that either you write 20 pages or nothing at all. For a political scientist who is not an expert on Israel, the best option is nothing at all.”

One problem that Israel does share with other countries, he notes, is that its history tends to bog down any conversation about its present and future. When confronting populism and nationalism, “dealing with history is problematic. Especially as the migrant citizens don’t have the same history,” Mounk says.

One solution may be dwelling a little less on history. “To change the narrative,” he says, “we have to be talking about the present and future of our national identities.”