Democracy and its discontents

In 2005, Ali Erdogan, president of the small Turkish community in Wan gen bei Olten municipality of northern Switzerland, thought it would be a good idea to have a modest, 20-foot high, minaret in the cultural centre. To his surprise, though, the locals protested, showing reservations — some obliquely claimed the minaret would curtail their view; others more directly objected to an out-and-out Islamic symbol. Under pressure, the local planning authorities denied permission. However, Mr Erdogan persisted and the matter was settled in his favour by the Federal Supreme Court. A minaret did come up. But this small victory for the rights of the Turkish community led to massive rebellion against the rights of religious minorities in the whole country. Led by far-right activists and the Swiss People’s Party, in 2009, the Swiss public, through a referendum, decided to ban the erection of minarets and abridged Muslims’ right to worship freely in the country. 

How would you describe this development? Most people are likely to call it “undemocratic”. But, is it undemocratic? With 57.7 per cent voting in favour of the ban, this was as democratic as it gets. But, of course, it is downright illiberal — precisely the reason the courts in Switzerland had ruled against such a move. However, “democracy” and “liberalism” are two different things, as the author Yascha Mounk, who teaches at Harvard, points out — a difference one often forgets. The reason these two choices tend to be seen as part and parcel of the single deal is that, in the recent past, as far as political systems go, this combination seems to have become “the only game in town”. 

Mr Mounk cites several such examples to make his central point. Liberal democracies are decomposing into either countries that are illiberal democracies where populist leaders are enforcing popular will in the name of democracy but violating some of the fundamental tenets of liberalism — think Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or Viktor Orban in Hungary or, indeed, Narendra Modi in India —or those afflicted by undemocratic liberalism — a political system where people’s choices are severely curtailed by undemocratic institutions, which are run by so-called experts, who, in turn, are driven more by rules of liberalism instead of the people’s wishes. 

In the Swiss example, the courts’ decision was exactly against the people’s wishes and yet, short of a national outcry and referendum, it would have dominated the policy on religious rights, not the views (no matter how illiberal) of an average Swiss citizen. There is no dearth of examples in the daily functioning of many democracies, including many in the West such as the US, where the expert institutions, such as the central banks, and national and international treaties, such as the one on climate change, tend to undermine the views of the locals in favour of some global mandate that the citizens may not be terribly interested in adopting. Should the US give up on cheap and easily available coal resources that can boost local employment and growth or follow the Paris accord to the detriment of domestic concerns?

Mr Mounk argues that countries weaving towards unbridled liberalism without democracy tend to provoke a vicious surge of populism that refuses to recognise liberal principles. In essence, he questions the two basic assumptions, which many who are unhappy with the way democracies are shaping across the world today often have, about the liberal democratic order in the post-war phase. One, that liberalism — i.e. a system wherein institutions effectively protect the rule of law and guarantee individual rights — and democracy — i.e. a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translate popular views into public policy — naturally go together. The author spends a great deal of effort, by citing examples and studies from across the world, to bring out that this is not necessarily true. 

The second basic assumption that the author questions concerns the idea that achieving a liberal democracy is difficult but once a country becomes affluent, such a political system becomes impossible to dislodge. But the populist surge in some of richest countries of Europe and in the US defies such a notion. Indeed, a lot of research shows democracy is “deconsolidating” — i.e. more and more people, especially the young, do not look at democracy in a favourable light; a worrying proportion does not mind more authoritarian regimes.

What’s the way forward? There are no easy outs, claims the author. Liberal democracy does not enjoy a moral superiority over other political systems. If it has to survive, it must work for everyone, including, and especially, in terms of economic well being. 

In the blurb of the book, noted political theorist Francis Fukuyama — who famously announced at the end of the Cold War “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” — writes “if you’ve not heard of Yascha Mounk before, you definitely will in the future”. This reviewer agrees wholeheartedly — lately, there has been a flurry of books on democracy but few are as pithy, readable, well-researched and thought-provoking as this one. 

The People Vs Democracy
Why our freedom is in danger and 
how to save it
Yascha Mounk
Harvard University Press
393 pages; Rs 699

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