Populism in the Social Media Era

A Review of
The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Author: Yascha Mounk)

Yascha Mounk explains that elites have too much power, and the populists are trying to oppose it by all possible means, even if it might mean authoritarian government and sweeping away of minority rights.

He enumerates modern decision-making institutions that exclude voter input:

  • bureaucratic agencies
  • central banks
  • the courts
  • international organizations/treaties

Mounk acknowledges that voters do not even remotely have the expertise or information to sensibly make decisions delegated to these institutions.  He takes great pains, though, to try to state the populists’ complaint fairly, which I suppose is laudable.  Average citizens really do not have much say in these areas.

Though, have they ever? And, should we wring our hands or feel some kind of collective guilt about it? Before these institutions evolved to their current state, often no one was evaluating and making decisions—let us not forget to celebrate what they have been achieving.  It is easy for conservatives to raise the sinister-sounding specter of a “deep state,” but these institutions are accomplishing things that the people and its direct representatives never could.  (Whether this could ever be adequately explained to voters is an interesting question.)

To his credit, Mounk does criticize populist calls for abolishing or shrinking these institutions. He asks, what—realistically—are their alternatives? But his conclusion is a bit weak:

If we are to preserve the liberal elements of the system, it won’t do to constrain the influence of the populists by putting all the important decisions in the hands of experts; instead, we need to persuade voters to defeat them at the polls. Similarly, if we are to preserve the democratic elements of the system, it won’t do to abolish institutions that help to stabilize the economy and to address some of the world’s most urgent problems; instead, we need to find ways of reforming these institutions to strike a better balance between expertise and responsiveness to the popular will.

It’s not obvious and not stated what these institutions are doing wrong, or what the benefit of voter input into their decisions would be.  Some agencies might indeed be overstaffed, inefficient, or unfocused, and such cases should be addressed.   But the problem really has more to do with public attitudes towards government generally, and with legislative paralysis.  People elect legislators, not agency directors, and legislators are supposed to carry out the people’s will.  They need to accomplish more.  They need to take care of business.

Also, marginalizing populists by “defeating them at the polls” should not be considered the only possible solution.  Moderating their views through education and dialogue should at least be part of the solution.  As should implementation—wherever possible—of policies and programs that address the sources of their resentment and anger.  (Aside: it is worth noting that populists generally do not call themselves populists; the term often has a pejorative connotation.  I use the term here simply as Mounk does.)

The more valid concern of populist voters is the degree to which money controls politics. Mounk cites a study looking at which groups influence policy; the study found that economic elites and narrow interest groups were the most influential, while the views of ordinary citizens had virtually no independent impact at all. So, voters are right to be concerned. The current administration, though, does not in fact appear to be reducing the power of rich donors, Wall Street, or corporations; and one wonders whether the populist voters who gave it power will take notice of this or not.

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me in this book are Mounk’s suggested solutions to the challenge of populism. His first suggestion is that elites should scale back on their progressive agendas, in the interest of a more manageable rate of change for our society.  In view of many progressives’ disregard for the feelings and concerns for conservative citizens, this suggestion has clear merit.

The second involves civics education. Mounk argues that we should teach college students to appreciate the innovations of Western civilization, and to avoid teaching them that it is fundamentally oppressive. My initial reaction was, Mounk is a denizen of academia, and his desire that all voters should respect Enlightenment ideals is out of touch: most voters couldn’t ever be made to care, and you’d be hard-pressed to even have a coherent conversation with them about the topic. And of course many citizens will never even go to a four-year college.  Scholarly expositions about representative government will never change the attitudes of ordinary voters—at best it would be regarded as high-handed lecturing. American voters generally aren’t against representative government or civil rights, they just are just uneasy and unsure what elites are up to, and confused about the issues.

It is true, of course, that college kids are the ones who will eventually teach the Civics classes in high school. Even so, however, while Civics classes are useful for learning the terminology of governance, they have limited impact on young students’ beliefs, and are unlikely to determine the ideologies or political parties they’ll embrace later as adults.   And, regardless, focusing on the college education of teachers as an indirect way of elevating the perspectives of populists is far too indirect.  The right way, I’d argue, is to appeal to the populist voters now, and directly, and in terms that they’ll understand and that will feel relevant to their concerns. This task should not be left to populist demagogues.

The advent of social media lends an urgency to this endeavor. Mounk explains that social media undermines the traditional power of elites to shape (and sometimes filter) the public discussion, and speeds up the pace of change. Populists have exploited the opportunity:

Unfettered by the constraints of the old media system, they have been willing and able to say anything it takes to get elected— to lie, to obfuscate, and to incite hatred against their fellow citizens.

Short of curtailing free speech, what, practically, can be done about this except to try to teach citizens to be more discerning and skeptical?  Given the pace of change in the social media era, we should initiate this kind of voter education with all due haste.

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