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Yascha Mounk’s new book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, is perhaps the year’s scariest read. In it, Mounk argues that “liberal democracy, the unique mix of individual rights and popular rule that has long characterized most governments in North America and Western Europe, is coming apart at its seams. In its stead, we are seeing the rise of illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, and undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy.”
It’s an excellent book. But reading it left me wondering: Was America really such a textbook liberal democracy before? I have no qualms with Mounk’s concerns about our present, but as I've dived deeper into the declinist literature on American democracy, I have come to wonder whether it relies on an overly nostalgic view of our past.
So I had Mounk — this podcast’s first three-peat guest! — back on the show to argue his case. We discuss whether America was really a democracy in the 20th century, if voters prefer institutions they can control over those they can’t, whether Trump’s illiberalism reflects broader currents in American society, the ways racial progress has long destabilized American politics, and what the currents of today portend for our future.
I recognize the positions I take in this episode may come back to haunt me when Trump fires Robert Mueller and Congress names him sun-god and confirms Michael Cohen as attorney general. But I think for all of us wrapped up in this era, it’s important to question our assumptions, and to contextualize this period within America’s real history rather than our imagined past. And Yascha, who is perhaps the most persuasive champion of the case for alarm, was the perfect guest with which to do it.
As always, you can email me with feedback, thoughts, and guest ideas at email@example.com.