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Liberalism or Democracy: A Choice, Best to avoid making?

4 mins read

We are living in interesting times, where nothing can be taken for guaranteed, even if it is liberal democracy that has been existing in the country for long. The type of leaders emerging within democracies across the world, the tenure and content public discourse and the everyday challenges made to the established engagement norms, all point towards winds of change.

It is this phenomenon that Mounk very lucidly and comprehensively explains in this book- explaining the emerging trend, the reasons behind these trends and what possible remedies to arrest shifts in the political systems prevailing in consolidated liberal democracies. Bigger question is that whether Liberalism (protection of individual rights) and Democracy (supremacy of popular will) can continue to go together or their independent existence (either liberal or democratic) may present a more appealing and likely futuristic political set-up.

Author uses his academic astuteness and global experiences, mainly from North America and Western European Countries, to explain the threats to liberal democracies in a way, which is easy for layman with no political science background to not only understand fully, but pause to deliberate upon.

Mounk presents several supporting surveys and trends to underline the declining appeal of Democracy: Young are less interested in politics, growing appeal for strong leaders (2017: 33%-Germany, 48% France & 50% Britain) who may not bother about congress or elections, and living in democracy is not essential for large part of populace instead there is growing acceptance of army rule. The reasons for this democracy recession could be disappointment with present situation and also limited understanding of what it means to live in authoritarian society, among the younger population.

In this context, there has been rise of Populist leaders, who present themselves as strong leaders, with scant regard to democratic norms and institutions, and claim to be true nationalists. Once in power, these Populists can take society away from being a liberal democracy to illiberal democracy and finally authoritarian rule, following almost a predictable trajectory.

Mounk has almost presented almost a handbook, which explains the Populists winning behaviors and strategies, after studying across rise of Populist leaders across America and Western European countries (Turkey. Poland, Hungry, France, Germany, Italy, Greece eg.). It includes almost predictable narratives being used to get elected and similarly predictable actions post being elected as a leader. The underline game is to present oneself as true nationalist and representative of common man and anyone who questions the elected leader is a traitor.

Mounk presents three reasons for the growing appeal of Populist strongman type leaders-prevailing economic and demographic anxiety among the majority of the populace and coupled with advent of social media. He further goes on to suggest some remedies, which not only includes resisting the power groping actions of Populists, but also seeking opponents to present more appealing and viable alternate development and growth agenda, explained in common language.

There can be debate on the exhaustiveness or the relative significance of the three reasons for the decline of liberal democracies, and also the applicability of proposed remedies in all contexts. But there is convincing case made against the growing appeal of Populists and threat to Liberal Democracy, and hence the need for the concerned populace to actively work towards arresting and possibly reversing the trend.

Choosing to live between “Democracy without Rights” or “Rights without Democracy” is not an easy one, especially those who have lived better part of their lives in Liberal Democratic system.

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