Author Yascha Mounk Discusses Democracy at Convocation

Political scientist Yascha Mounk recently engaged with Loomis Chaffee Head of School Sheila Culbert in a conversation about current threats to democracies and the rise of populism around the world for a video convocation geared toward juniors and seniors.

Students discussed the convocation and Mr. Mounk’s ideas in advisory groups on Thursday, October 22.

Mr. Mounk is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. His book The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom is In Danger and How to Save It was published in 2018.

Sheila said the observations Mr. Mounk makes in the book can serve as conversation starters about the American ideal of democracy during this fall election season. She asked the author to illuminate some of his ideas.     

When he was in graduate school, the prevailing view was that democracies in affluent, long-established countries like the United States were stable and not at risk for collapse, he said. He tested this assumption in his subsequent study of democratic governments and populist movements. Mr. Mounk’s scholarship has pointed to the rise in power of populist leaders in places like the United States and other established democracies, and he expressed concern that these populist movements could lead to a decline in the self-determination and individual freedoms that people living in democratic systems believe will never erode.

“[What] strikes me about democratic values is that when you have them, they are easy to take for granted, but when you lose them, they become really appealing,” he said.

Mr. Mounk defined the term “liberal democracy” as a system of self-governance and self-determination by and for the population. While democracy, narrowly defined, means majority rule through voting and elections, liberal democracy also includes the protection of certain individual freedoms. In a liberal democracy, for instance, the majority does not decide where, how, or even whether people must observe a religion, he explained.  

If even stable democracies are threatened around the world, why, Sheila asked, are they worth saving?

Mr. Mounk replied that liberal democracies around the world, including the United States, have many problems and injustices, but compared to other political systems though history and in existence now, liberal democracies have the best record for treating people with dignity and tolerance, affording them a degree of prosperity, and allowing them to think and say what they want. People from every part of the world with every skin color and from every religion can relate to these democratic ideals, he added.     

During the discussion Mr. Mounk pointed to several contributing factors in the decline of democratic political systems that have created fertile ground for populist movements — people who often feel disenfranchised by existing political governance — and fueled their ability to reach broad audiences and gain influence. Among the contribution factors in the United States that he cited were a growing mistrust of institutions; young people’s lack of opportunity, sense of powerlessness, and limited ability achieve a better living standard than previous generations; a declining population of people who have lived under communist or fascist regimes; and a trend since 1985 in which many people feel they are losing ground socio-economically.

Social media and digital communications can pose a threat to liberal democracies because anyone can reach a wide audience quickly and inexpensively to exploit anger and frustration in order to challenge those in political power, he said.

Even if populist movements recede from power, Mr. Mounk said he believes people should continue to work to preserve democracy and make needed reforms in the United States. 

We need to consider, he said, how we re-establish a sense of tolerance and mutual respect for the legitimacy of opposing political groups so that we can robustly disagree and celebrate democracy’s ability to arbitrate.

For more about Mr. Mounk’s political science writings, connect to his professional website.

One of several convocations at Loomis Chaffee addressing issues of democracy and citizenship this election season, Mr. Mounk’s visit was part of the Hubbard Speakers Series, made possible by a gift from Robert P. Hubbard ’47.

photo credit Steffen Jnicke.