Reviewed by Ajay Singh Chaudhary in The Hedgehog Review:
There was once a liberal dream: “A free society of equals, based on the proliferation of opportunities for individuals to lead lives characterized by personal independence from the domination of others,” as Elizabeth Anderson writes of the Levellers during the English Civil War. In Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, the liberal dream, limited as it might have been, has noticeably narrowed.
Mounk, a lecturer on Government at Harvard University, takes as his subject the now ubiquitous crisis of liberal democracy. A nebulous we are suddenly faced with illiberal democracies and undemocratic liberalism. Mounk sets out to guide our economic-political elite to a better understanding of the grievances of “the people.” Elites must learn to hear the dissatisfaction of the people and also become better messengers who can communicate the fundamental goodness of the existing order in the people’s language. In turn, “the people” must learn their natural limitations. Some issues—trade, regulatory environments, and climate change, for instance—are too complex for “the people” to understand. Here, they must defer to expert opinion. Mounk and similar noble-minded intellectuals are there to help both sides understand their proper place and role.
But all their careful work is being undone by “the populists,” who offer “simplistic” solutions to “complex” problems. They divide the world into the good “us’s” and the evil “them’s.” But worst of all, “the populists” introduce the people as demos, as participants, even as rulers in their societies, and so upset the efforts of elites-whisperers like Mounk to provide the missing connective tissue between natural rulers and ruled.