The Chronicle Review

Can Yascha Mounk Save Liberal Democracy?

A political theorist joins the resistance.

Steffen Jänicke

April 23, 2017

I t hasn’t escaped Yascha Mounk’s notice that the decline of liberal democracy has been good for his career.

"It’s a very bittersweet moment," Mounk says over coffee at a Washington, D.C., cafe. "I’d much rather that my work continue to be obscure and we didn’t have Donald Trump in the White House."

But the American electorate had other ideas, as did electorates the world over. From the Philippines to Turkey to the United States, populist parties and candidates have taken a sledgehammer to the political establish­ment, upsetting a global order that has held sway for decades.

Mounk, a lecturer in political theory at Harvard, was sounding the alarm on this populist turn more than a year before Trump’s victory. Sifting through mounds of public-opinion data, he argued that the consensus around liberal democracy was more brittle than we thought. Writing in The New York Times in September 2015, Mounk and his co-author, Roberto Foa, now a lecturer in political science at the University of Melbourne, reported that survey trends showed a "deep disillusionment with democracy." They found that "citizens over the last three decades have become less likely to endorse the importance of democracy; less likely to express trust in democratic institutions; and less likely to reject nondemocratic alternatives." The upshot: There was an opening for antidemocratic demagogues.

That op-ed was a preview of findings they published in July in the Journal of Democracy, already considered an influential paper in the field. Mounk and Foa challenged a longstanding assumption in the literature: that a democracy, once stable and wealthy, will remain so. "People looked at me pretty skeptically, like I might be a bit of crank," Mounk says of the initial reaction to their work.

Events have since validated their thesis — and presented Mounk with a new mission. Since Trump’s election, Mounk has been seemingly everywhere, with op-eds in major newspapers, a weekly column in Slate called "The Good Fight," a podcast of the same name, and frequent citations in stories about the Trumpian moment.

Events have since validated Mounk's thesis -- and presented him with a new mission.
The increased prominence comes at a propitious time. This spring sees the release of Mounk’s first academic book, The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State (Harvard University Press). Based on Mounk’s Harvard dissertation under the supervision of Michael Sandel, the book traces our evolving definition of responsibility. "Whereas responsibility had once appealed to a citizen’s concern for others," Mounk writes, "it now primarily refers to the obligation to look after oneself." That shifting meaning has in turn affected the way Western governments have constructed — and reformed — the welfare state.

Since the 1980s, he writes, there has been greater "emphasis on the individual and his or her responsibilities." The conservative belief that one’s status is a product of one’s choices has come to dominate political culture. Meanwhile, in political theory and philosophy, the rise of so-called "luck egalitarianism" also marked a turn toward responsibility from the left. Luck egalitarianism basically argues that "individuals should be compensated for material inequalities that are unchosen" — meaning the social safety net should catch victims of bad luck and circumstance. But this outlook, Mounk contends, ends up buying into the responsibility framework by accepting that injustice resulting from an individual’s choices doesn’t rise to the same level of social concern.

Mounk says that the transformation of the concept of responsibility helps to describe how we arrived at this political moment. "One way of thinking about what’s happened to responsibility is that both parts of the discourse" — the right and the left — "have been really quite patronizing to people who are struggling." What Trump has done is tell people that "he doesn’t judge them, he doesn’t patronize them." Thus has the age of responsibility led to the age of Trump.

S ince the election, Mounk’s work has veered into something close to activism. His essays in the immediate wake of Trump’s victory read like rallying cries; a Slate column the day after the election was framed as a movement manual (title: "What We Do Now"), with a 10-point list on "what we can do to preserve liberalism in the face of such peril."

This stage of Mounk’s career seems only the logical extension of his interest in doing more public work. The Age of Responsibility may be his first academic book, but he had an earlier book, Stranger in My Own Country (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), a memoir of growing up Jewish in Germany that mixed personal recollection with socio-political critique.

The book was generally well reviewed, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of thing a graduate student neck-deep in his dissertation would be expected to do. "Growing up in Germany, I always did know that I wanted to be — and I’m deeply aware that it’s a horrible term — a sort of ‘public intellectual,’" he says.

After receiving his Ph.D. in 2015, Mounk intensified his work for magazines and think tanks. He speculates that this may have hurt him on the job market. While his advisers were nothing less than encouraging of his nonacademic work, "they alerted me to the trade-offs ... they were certainly aware as most people are that writing things for a wider audience can hurt you."

For scholars, it’s a dilemma that will become only more acute in the Trump years. "There is a sense among some political scientists at least that this is a moment in which we have a public duty to speak to people," Mounk says. "What’s not changing is the basic incentives. The great paradox is that a lot of people in the academy admire public-facing work, think it’s important. They just don’t think that they should give anybody a job who’s doing these things."

For his part, Mounk has weighed the trade-offs — and made his choice. This summer, he will begin a new job as director of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a project aimed at battling the rise of authoritarian populism and renewing liberal democracy. He will stay on as a lecturer at Harvard (as well as a senior fellow at New America, a public-policy think tank), but the move marks yet another step away from the insulated world of traditional scholarship.

As if to underscore his growing sense of mission, Mounk assumed yet one more responsibility this March: He took the oath and became an American citizen.

Elbert Ventura is an associate editor at The Chronicle Review.