When we met with Harvard researcher Yascha Mounk in Stockholm, it was clear that the main topic of our conversation would be the field that he is an expert in and that we here at the podcast have been coming back to again and again over the course of the last few months: The question of populism, how to define it and how to fight it.
“We may be in for a rough ride”, this is how Mounk started the conversation while at the same time refusing the claim that he is “the gloomiest guy in the room” – and he continuously worked his way from a rational analysis of this worldwide threat to liberal democracy exemplified by the like of Trump, Modi or Erdogan towards a call for optimism at the end of the one hour-long discussion.
The point of departure was the assumption that different forms of populism or populist politicians don’t have shared values or shared public policies, but that they share a political vocabulary and a moral imagination: The elites are corrupt and self-serving, and all we need to do it to give voice to the real people and solve all of the problems. But once it becomes clear that this is not working, they start to blame other, the press, judges, foreign enemies, for these persistent failures.
As for the drivers of populism or “the populist uprising”, as it is sometimes called, Mounk named three factors: One is economic, the stagnation of the living standard in most of the Western world where the standard of living has doubled between 1945 and 1960 and again between 1960 and 1985 and since then has stagnated; the second is cultural, mainly the fear of immigration in countries founded as mono-ethnic and mono-cultural; the third is social media and the internet, this “architecture for outrage”, as Karin Pettersson put it.
The question at this moment, Mounk claims, is to figure out how to move forward, how to create a sort of inclusive nationalism, re-appropriate a sense of patriotism, “because if we leave it to the right it becomes dangerous”, as he says. “We need to figure out how to build a sense of togetherness.” And as “the nation and the state is what we have”, as Karin Pettersson put it, “we have to work with it”, attacking this void that’s present in the discussion about hyper-globalization for example, addressing the people who feel left behind both economically and in terms of representation.
Democratic stability might have been a really exceptional phase, said Mounk, and it seems to have coincided with economical stability. So what does it take for democracy to be stable? What makes a society work? In his book “The Age of Responsibility”, Mounk offers the version of decline of cohesion, from a a welfare state that is buffering responsibility to one that is tracking responsibility. “We have to look for a new mandate”, he says. “We have the values, we just have to defend them more aggressively. It is only going to work if we instill optimism in people.”