Zombie Liberalism

Despite the appeal to pragmatism, Mounk’s political vision is utopian, his ideal polity a kind of liberal sublime. In a distant place far outside of history, virtuous trustees of public reason skillfully mobilize the best of nationalism while fending off its “dangerous excesses.” Entranced, Mounk sees in nationalism a muscular tool for legitimizing the political-economic order: “Nationalism is like a half-wild beast. As long as it remains under our control, it can be of tremendous use.” Who is the “beast,” and who is the “us” into which Mounk places the reader?

A plea for liberal nationalism ignores what it has looked like in practice.

Yascha Mounk (right) at a New America foundation event, April 2017.

Yascha Mounk. The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It. Harvard University Press, 2018.

In February, US Citizenship and Immigration Services deleted language from its mission statement that described the country as a “nation of immigrants.” It was yet another sign that a belief pervasive in the Trump White House—that arrivals from Latin America, Asia and Africa posed a threat to an American identity truly rooted in European culture—was spreading to other institutions of government. Last year, Trump invoked Blut-und-Boden nationalism before an audience in Warsaw. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump said. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

European countries appear to have taken up Trump’s challenge with vigor. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party has potentially made it a criminal offense to assert that ordinary Poles murdered their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. In Italy, the right-wing Northern League has dropped northern from its name, ditching its denigration of Southern Italians for an anti-immigrant demagoguery pitched to xenophobes up and down the peninsula. In Germany, where the far-right Alternative For Germany is now the largest opposition party, one leading public intellectual criticized Merkel’s refugee policy, on the grounds that “no society has the moral obligation to self-destruct.” In France, where the specter of the National Front still looms, another intellectual warns that “peoples, civilizations, religions—and especially when these religions are themselves civilizations, types of society, almost States—cannot and cannot even want to . . . blend into other peoples, other civilizations.”

All of these developments have spooked the liberal establishment, who grieve the loss of familiar moorings, and who have no clear way to steer the ship back to safe cold war harbors. How can one find a new way back to the securities of the old world? Yascha Mounk, a lecturer at Harvard who has emerged as a kind of expert on the vogueish “crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism” (he has also written for this magazine), has hit upon what he believes is a novel idea for achieving “a kind of society for which there is no clear precedent”—that is, a liberal democracy in a multiethnic country that was for a long time either monoethnic or subject to a racial hierarchy. In his new book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, the executive director at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change’s “Renewing the Centre team” argues that a revitalized liberalism is the answer.

In Mounk’s account, “the views of the people are tending illiberal and the preferences of the elites are turning undemocratic,” and that as a result “liberalism and democracy are starting to clash,” leading to “the rise of illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, and  undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy.” According to Mounk, the component parts of liberal democracy enjoyed a long century of symbiosis, but today they are rapidly devolving into mutual antagonism.

To save the system from cannibalistic self-destruction requires understanding the arc of its rise and fall. Unexpectedly for an avid defender of liberal democracy, Mounk offers a cynical account of the regime’s origins. For Mounk, liberal democracy is a compromise between elites and the masses. He uses a vignette of Prussian peasants getting duped into a fake exercise of popular sovereignty to show that the terms have always been starkly unequal: the many get the illusion of self-rule while the few “continued to get their way on the most important issues.” The architects of the first liberal republics—the US among them—constitutionally codified the limited nature of democracy.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, the franchise expanded to include the propertyless masses; over the course of the twentieth, more and more of the excluded were given the rights of citizenship. Among the industrialized powers, the expansion of democracy required “a contingent set of technological, economic, and cultural preconditions”: the domination of a limited number of mass media outlets; a rising standard of living (and, importantly, inter-generational upward mobility); and either ethnic homogeneity (in Europe) or racial hierarchy (in the US). Today these are threatened by social media, economic precarity, and increasing migration and diversity.

Mounk’s sociological realism should not be confused with critique. His treatise is inspired neither by anti-elite animus nor the radical promise of democracy. It is instead a view from above, or perhaps something like a system-eye view of itself, in which stability is an unquestioned good. Attempting to bring the reader alongside him, Mounk writes often of an unspecified “we” and “us,” evoking a collective liberal mind on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The People vs. Democracy is a map for elites who no longer recognize the world they created, and whose subjects are no longer duped by the myth of popular sovereignty. This is where Mounk enters, stage center-left, posing as a guide out of the present crisis.

When did liberalism go astray? Mounk’s assessment of the failings of Hillary Clinton and her class is that “politicians have found it increasingly difficult to sell the message that things are complicated.” Thus does the weakening grip of liberalism on the minds of the masses open the way for the demon of populism. According to Mounk, “populists are unwilling to admit that the real world might be complicated—that solutions might prove elusive even for people with good intentions.” As a result, “they need somebody to blame. And blame they do.” Liberals, by contrast, are, despite their failings, well-intentioned and gifted with the powers to diagnose problems and devise policy solutions. The tragedy is that they struggle to convey this truth clearly to the people, who have grown restless, disenchanted by claims to expertise, and enchanted by Manichean simplifications. What is to be done?

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Mounk summed up the case made at length in his book: that to fight the far-right, liberals should reclaim a more inclusive nationalism. Admirably swallowing his personal distaste, Mounk offers his solution as a concession: we are helpless before nationalism, and simply have to deal with it. Would-be critics must either embrace it or make one of two mistakes: “celebrate more narrow forms of collective identity, such as race or religion,” or “forgo the need for any form of collective identity.” With so many falsehoods setting fire to straw men, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Who are these people that argue for eschewing all collective identity? Even in its blandest form—“Stronger Together”—some invocation of the people seems to be an imperative in mass politics. And even though race and religion can indeed be pernicious grounds for group cohesion, what does he mean by arguing that they are more “narrow” than nationalism? An estimated 1.2 billion Catholics are alive today, compared to roughly 330 million Americans. In empirical terms, Mounk’s point is nonsensical. 

Despite the appeal to pragmatism, Mounk’s political vision is utopian, his ideal polity a kind of liberal sublime. In a distant place far outside of history, virtuous trustees of public reason skillfully mobilize the best of nationalism while fending off its “dangerous excesses.” Entranced, Mounk sees in nationalism a muscular tool for legitimizing the political-economic order: “Nationalism is like a half-wild beast. As long as it remains under our control, it can be of tremendous use.” Who is the “beast,” and who is the “us” into which Mounk places the reader? 

Mounk’s colorblind, Whiggish, “inclusive” nationalism is nothing new. As Aziz Rana has argued in these pages, it long served as an entirely conventional and cold war liberal form of identity politics. And it has always played handmaiden to the state’s policing functions, whether to discipline rebellious movements at home, or obliterate those deemed existential threats abroad. It’s telling that the two heroes of Mounk’s beloved “inclusive nationalism”—Obama and Macron—are exemplars on both counts. He cites Macron’s embrace of diversity in his campaign, but characteristically fails to note that once in office Macron decided to placate the far-right by cracking down on asylum seekers. This isn’t the sort of thing that concerns Mounk. As he sums up in his vacuous, marketing-speak appraisal of Macron: “Rhetoric matters.” The repetition-compulsion with which Mounk and company “discover” old ideas suggests that they suffer from a diurnal amnesia. They wake up with “new” proposals to persuade people that the liberal order is just, realize by bedtime that they won’t be listened to, and by morning come up with the same proposals again.

Which is also to say that this isn’t the first time that intellectuals have worried over the fate of national identity in a globalizing world. In the 1990s, neoconservatives exuded melancholy following the collapse of the Soviet Union: the country’s mission, forged in martial certitude, had evaporated, and a flat world, rampant consumerism and the end of history failed to take its place. As Corey Robin writes in The Reactionary Mind, people across the political spectrum—from liberals to the right were thrilled by September 11th’s nationalist frisson: “Writers repeatedly welcomed the galvanizing moral electricity through the body politic. A pulsing energy of public resolve and civic commitment, which would restore trust in government . . . and bring about a culture of patriotism and connection. . . . With its shocking spectacle of fear and death, 9/11 offered a dead or dying culture the chance to live again.” But the energy of neoconservative idealism crumbled under the grind of permanent, asymmetrical and unconventional conflict, which was then seized upon by Trump, who has governed with a terrifying agenda to intensify state violence—whether at the border or abroad—with a naked appeal to national self-interest.

Mounk, however, seems to think that he can resuscitate liberal nationalism through elite calls for the mass, emotional labor of nation-loving. This isn’t desirable or plausible. Nationalism has never come out of sheer, voluntary enthusiasm. Remembering for a moment his realist impulses, Mounk argues that “citizens have built up loyalty to their political system because it kept the peace and swelled their pocketbooks, not because they hold a deep commitment to its most fundamental principles.” But he then goes on to insist that liberal elites can build a new national identity by way of forceful rhetoric, somehow transcending a class conflict in which they are belligerents. Mounk re-animates a familiar brand of liberal elitism masquerading as solidarity: “At a time when many minority groups are under attack, it is, of course, crucial to defend them against discrimination.” Not only are affluent white people the unmarked audience for this exhortation, in paternalistic fashion he assumes that beneficent elites, rather than the oppressed themselves, are the protagonists in the struggle to defend the oppressed.

Mounk pairs his woke noblesse oblige with a distorted picture of the present, in which “African Americans are better represented in business and government than ever in American history,” according to his op-ed. Better still: “the day on which neither race nor creed would undermine somebody’s claim to be a true American seemed considerably closer than it once had. Then came Donald Trump.” This may be technically correct, given the historical baselines of chattel slavery and Jim Crow. But Mounk has nothing to say about racialized mass incarceration (by 2015 there were more black men under some form of correctional control than enslaved in 1850), nor the decimation of black wealth in the wake of the financial crisis. Untroubled by these issues, Mounk spends pages analyzing overhyped controversies over campus speech and cultural appropriation, often in a manner so flat-footed that it is breathtaking: “Since dreadlocks were depicted as far back as Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt, for example, a case could be made that African Americans are themselves engaging in a form of cultural appropriation when they are sporting this hairstyle.”

We will refrain from an exhaustive catalog of the book’s inaccuracies, but Mounk tellingly gets many of his few concrete references to American history wrong. He writes that “the end of segregation was brought about not by the will of the American people but rather by an institution that had the constitutional power to override it.” Mounk is apparently referring to cases like Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled de jure school segregation unconstitutional. This version of history not only elides the role played by popular mobilization in shaping court decisions, but it also ignores legislative accomplishments like the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which unlike the Brown decision led to substantive and widespread school desegregation measures—and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, propelled forth by black activists enduring police violence in the South, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, passed in the wake of urban uprising and protest against ghettoization. Mounk’s endeavor to cast the unelected judiciary as an unrivaled civil rights hero requires him ignoring this history and much more—including the fact that the Supreme Court has in recent years gutted both the Voting Rights Act and school desegregation initiatives.

Mounk’s portrait of American immigration history offers similar platitudes with the same confidence. He writes that the United States “had thought of itself as a country of immigration since its founding” —a cliche that scholarship has debunked. For much of early American history, Americans conceived itself as a nation of settlers. It was only in the late 19th century, amidst the closing of the frontier, the rise of industrial capitalism and the influx of people from Italy and Russia, and from East Asia, that newcomers began to be viewed largely as immigrants (often negatively). Only in the mid-20th century did many whites began to reimagine the country as a “nation of immigrants” amidst the black civil rights struggle, the rising fortunes of so-called white ethnics under the New Deal, and the cold war.

If Mounk understood the remarkable contingency and relatively short life of this “nation of immigrants,” he might have hesitated before warning liberals not to “disregard fears about ineffective border controls or dismiss the degree of public anger about current levels of immigration.” Liberals ought to know this quite well, since they played a central role in militarizing the border and fomenting anti-immigrant sentiment in a futile crusade to placate the far right while also pleasing big business.

Yet Mounk persists, and calls for for intensified immigration enforcement on pragmatic grounds. He argues that “secure borders can help to win popular support for more generous immigration policies.” Precisely the opposite is true: in recent years, the US built roughly 650 miles of fencing along the southern border and increased the size of the Border Patrol from 4,100 agents in 1992 to more than 19,000 today. These paved the way not for more generous immigration policies, but for Donald Trump. Mounk contends that “a streamlined process for identifying and removing immigrants who pose a security threat will help to calm, rather than to fan, ethnic tensions.” Doing precisely that was the centerpiece of Obama’s immigration agenda. Obama’s program—which provided local police fingerprints to ICE—made the country’s criminal justice system the front door to its deportation pipeline. He deported massive numbers of immigrants convicted of no serious crime, and the system he built provided Trump with the infrastructure to facilitate his own crackdown. Mounk is blind to the fact that the American far right’s fanatical demands are often for maximalist positions that the liberal order has already delivered. Liberal complicity with border security and immigration enforcement have only galvanized the far right to demand more.

In The People vs. Democracy, Mounk distills social science research to (in the language of his website) “create a bold policy agenda capable of solving the biggest challenges of the coming decades.” In addition to “Domesticating Nationalism,” Mounk’s prescriptions include “Fixing the Economy” and “Renewing Civic Faith.” All three remedies for an ailing body politic follow from the same set of basic assumptions: the world is “increasingly complex” and policy-making requires “considerable technical expertise.” But the people are attracted to populist leaders who offer “glib and facile” solutions; after all, “Voters do not like to think that the world is complicated” and often the policies needed for liberalism and democracy to symbiotically flourish again are “far from popular.” The people, in other words, don’t know what’s best for them. Elites more often do, but their messaging and rhetoric fails them. Whence the seeming intractability of the crisis, and the need for a scholarly courtier.

Although Mounk invokes technocracy as a more nuanced approach to complexity, his task is to render the world simple and intelligible to elites who live increasingly rarified lives. From such a distance, what does the world look like? Reminiscent of the populism he dreads, there is a Manichean logic to Mounk’s text. The “defenders of liberal democracy” (that pesky “we”) have a clear enemy: the populists. It doesn’t much matter whether these are right or left in ideology (populism is so promiscuous): what unites them is their distaste for liberal rights, penchant for authoritarianism, and rhetorical tropes of the beleaguered people. Although he acknowledges distinct shades of the populist threat, and even alludes to the fact that reactionary populism has enjoyed a more rapid ascent than its left-wing counterpart, he would rather class Corbyn and Erdogan and Trump and Chávez together (they all “sing from the same songbook”) than go to the trouble enumerating the obvious differences among them.

On occasion, Mounk feels compelled to explain why his technocratic account is superior to the left’s. When he does so, he resorts to caricature and neglects to include much in the way of citations. He compares Trump and Jill Stein and, even more bizarrely, Steve Bannon and Naomi Klein. The left he describes is one that we find unrecognizable. “It is the left that chants, ‘No Trump, No Wall, no USA at all!’,” Mounk writes. Having never heard this chant we looked up the citation. It turned out to be from a YouTube video of what appear to be anarchist Black Bloc protesters, with fewer than 400 views, posted by what seems to be a right-wing account.

It is one of many examples in which Mounk shows himself to be an unreliable guide to post-Trump American political landscape. He accuses “many members of #TheResistance” of being “so hostile to the Democratic party [sic] that they do not see it as a priority to help the opposition win back Congress in 2018 or take the White House in 2020.” This is an attempted shot at the left that misfires twice. The “Resistance” refers to precisely those liberals who, like Mounk, are profoundly wedded to the Democratic Party. Furthermore he fails to understand that the broad support on the left for Bernie Sanders (who is unmentioned in the book) was historically notable precisely because it marked an unusual engagement with the Democratic Party among people who often supported third party candidacies or avoided electoral politics altogether.

The lack of serious engagement with leftist movements is symptomatic: for Mounk, the people only appear as a demonic or feckless collectivity. Despite his avowed commitment to democracy, and his perfunctory nod to “grassroots opposition groups” in his conclusion, there is no substantive discussion of protest or social movements in the book. Labor unions are absent from his account of postwar affluence as they are apparently unnecessary for the transition to a more equal capitalism; the black freedom struggle is only mentioned so as to be downplayed in the discussions of civil rights—save for quotations of contemporary politicians quoting civil rights heroes. This is a vision of management more than a vision of politics, and it is already being eaten alive by the half-wild beast it’s meant to tame.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author