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The Best Politics Books of 2020

recommended by Yascha Mounk

The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It by Yascha Mounk

The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It
by Yascha Mounk

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Despite the challenge of authoritarian populism and a new divisiveness in political debate in many countries around the world there are reasons for optimism, argues political scientist Yascha Mounk, author of The People vs. Democracy. He talks us through his selection of the best politics books of 2020.

Interview by Eve Gerber

The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It by Yascha Mounk

The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It
by Yascha Mounk

Read

This year, 2020, will be remembered as a time in politics when the citizens of admired democracies realized that their systems were failing critically and one of your books, The People vs. Democracy, foretold this crisis. Please tell us about it.

Political scientists like me look around the world and see the damage populist politicians inflicted on democracy from Turkey to Venezuela to Hungary. So, when I saw remarkably similar politicians rise in the United States, in Western Europe and in India, I was more worried than many of my colleagues. I suppose I was worried about the threats that populism poses to democracy before it was cool.

The main thesis of the book, that populism is a danger to democracy, was controversial when it was published; it’s now widely accepted. I hope the analysis of the causes of populism and what we can do to beat it back remain as relevant as they were when it was published.

Before we move on to your picks for the five most important books about politics in 2020, what would you name as the five most important political developments of the year?

The first is the pandemic and our collective inability in most countries, excluding East Asian ones, to organize a rational public health response. The second is the extent to which authoritarian governments around the world have been able to use the pandemic as an excuse to expand their power and increase their attacks on democracy. The third is the ongoing consolidation of populist power in many big and strategically important democracies throughout the world, from Poland where a populist president, Andrzej Duda, was reelected to India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accelerated his attacks on the country’s traditional constitutional order. The fourth is Joe Biden’s victory in the primaries, which showed that most people in the United States, and I believe also in many other developed democracies, don’t want to match the anger and divisiveness of authoritarian populists with a perhaps more noble, but also polarizing, form of politics.

“Democracy has been in retreat for the last decade”

Fifth, and most important, Biden’s triumph prepared the path for Donald Trump’s defeat. We’re in a long, drawn-out war against authoritarian populism. As the many millions of votes that Donald Trump gained indicate, the war is not over in the United States or anywhere else. But, nevertheless, the American presidential election has been the most important battle that the opponents of authoritarianism have won so far. That, to me, is ultimately the most heartening, and the most important, development of the year.

Turning to the politics books you’ve selected as your favourites of 2020, let’s begin with Twilight of Democracy.

Although, at this point, there are many books about the attacks on democracy, Anne Applebaum’s stands apart both because she’s a particularly gifted storyteller and because she draws from her personal experience. The book starts with a New Year’s Eve party she organized at the start of this millennium at her countryside home in Poland. She chronicles how half of the people who attended went on to defend democratic institutions and the other half became leading members of the Polish populist regime and its media allies. This serves as a prism to start to understand the ways in which many individuals become complicit in the rise of authoritarian regimes. It’s a short book, it’s a light book. It’s not a systemic book. But, in many ways, it’s the most insightful treatment of what makes it so easy to take over democracy and the stakes of this moment.

Who are these enablers of authoritarianism?

In terms of sociological profile, in terms of identity, and in terms of personal histories, they are, as Anne Applebaum paints them, people who thirst for power, who are driven by relentless ambition, and often people who, in an early period in their career, did not gain the recognition they felt they were owed. So, they decided the way to attain power and recognition was to cast their lot in with a political movement, which in many cases was diametrically opposed to many of the values they supposedly held.

MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and University of Chicago political scientist James Robinson co-wrote Narrow Corridor. Tell us about it.

This is perhaps the most ambitious account of the origins of contemporary democracies since Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. It makes the convincing argument that political liberty depends on a precarious balance between a strong state and a strong society. So rather than thinking, as we often tend to, of state power and civil power as being in conflict with each other, they show that a flourishing society really needs both. There’s a ‘narrow corridor’ in which the state is strong enough to protect the individual from oppressive groups, to maintain order, and to put in place the conditions for economic development, but at the same time, society is strong enough to make sure that the state doesn’t become oppressive and stifling. And for anybody who wants to understand why democracy flourishes in some parts of the world and historically struggled in others, this is a deeply-informed yet extremely readable explanation.

Do Acemoglu and Robinson effectively put to rest the myth that political liberty, once sparked, flourishes like wildfire?

There’s a debate in which I think both poles are simplistic. One pole is the idea that every nation in the world is simply waiting for democracy to come to its shore and if some outside power instituted a democratic constitution, political liberty would immediately flourish. That idea has driven a lot of foreign policy mistakes in the United States and elsewhere over the last several decades and it is wrong. On the other end, there is now a cynical idea, which sometimes dresses itself up as being idealistic, which says that other countries prefer dictatorships or prefer theocracy, that democracy and liberty are not universal values. The picture that emerges from the work of Acemoglu and Robinson is that democratic institutions have tremendous benefits and that many people around the world really do desire them. But the conditions for democracy are difficult to create and they are not easily imposed from the outside.

Let’s turn to the next recommendation on your best politics books of 2020 list. This is The Great Demographic Illusion by Richard Alba. 

There are many wrong ideas about politics that many people on the American right believe and there are many wrong ideas about politics that many people on the American left believe, but there are few thoroughly wrong ideas that both people on the right and the left believe. The most important misapprehension about American politics is the idea of an inevitably rising demographic majority for the Democratic Party. That idea says that nonwhite voters and young people are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. And so as portions of those populations grow, Democrats will gain and retain a natural political majority. The significant movement toward the Republican Party and Donald Trump in the 2020 election shows us that idea is really wrong.

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Richard Alba, who is one of the leading sociologists of demography and ethnic identity in the world, argues that even the idea of a rising nonwhite majority is a mistake. Most likely, a large share of Latinos will start to consider themselves to be white in a larger sense. Alba says there is going to be a new American mainstream, which is much more inclusive than today, and that this will radically change how we think about ethnicity and race relations in the country.

But aren’t activists on the left and right reifying the ethno-racial lines that Alba says will decay?

There is a huge disjunct between how activists, academics and many people in the publishing industry and the think tanks and the media think about American identity and how American identity is actually evolving. This year, we have seen the creation of a separate dorm for Black students at NYU, so students can choose to live in racial separation from others, while each year of the last twenty years we’ve exceeded the record for interracial marriages. What Richard Alba is showing, with a lot of empirical evidence, is that that sociological phenomenon will likely change the way we think about ethnicity and complicate how we conceive of the somewhat lazy catchall ‘people of color.’

That brings us to a memoir by Thomas Chatterton-Williams. Why is Self-Portrait in Black and White so important?

Thomas Chatterton-Williams speaks to many pressing political issues of the moment in a personal way. At a moment when people are encouraged to identify in ethnic terms, Thomas Chatterton-Williams makes the case that we should preserve the ideal of a society in which racial identity matters less. He’s not naive about this. He acknowledges the deep injustices that continue to shape society, but he does defend the idea of creating a more just society where race could become less rather than more important.

I read on Twitter that you and Chatterton-Williams are part of a vast centrist conspiracy.

Many people on Twitter seem to believe that being willing to see the virtues, as well as the vices, of your country is wrong. 2020 has shown us that Twitter is a distorted reflection of reality. I don’t know whether I would embrace the title ‘centrist.’ I’m a Democrat who agrees with most of the positions of the party’s mainstream. But I certainly think that, to paraphrase the Clinton quote which Obama often invokes, the things that are wrong with America can be fixed by what is right about America.

A promising title is your final choice: President Obama’s first volume of his third memoir, A Promised Land.

I was incapable of reading Barack Obama for a few years, because the contrast to the occupant of the White House was just a little bit too painful. Now that Donald Trump is on the way out of the White House, I am enjoying listening to this book. The Promised Land speaks to me particularly because it resonates with arguments that I make in the book I’m writing.

We live in a moment of tremendous pessimism about our ability to build a fair, multi-ethnic democracy. Many people on the ethno-racist right are paranoid about demographic transformations and believe that anybody who is not a white Christian cannot come to be a true American or a true German or a true Italian. Many people on the left believe that their countries have not made any significant improvements over the last 50 years and that the only way to make progress within the next 50 years would be through radical and even revolutionary change.

“2020 has shown us that Twitter is a distorted reflection of reality”

Obama’s memoir confronts the disappointments of his presidency, and the extent to which some of the political backlash against him was due to the fact that he was the first Black man to occupy the Oval Office. Yet Obama retains optimism about America. He makes the case, convincingly, that we are making significant progress, that our democratic institutions and constitutional traditions can accommodate demographic groups that were once excluded, as well as new immigrants and their descendants and that we can slowly build a more just society.

The United States is no longer the beacon for democracy that it once was. Do you see a new beacon on the horizon?

Democracy has been in retreat for the last decade. Authoritarian populists have risen to power in virtually every part of the world. Currently there are competent candidates who might end up in charge in France, in Italy. And we know that populists, once in office, stay in power much longer than other politicians. In view of all that, I take inspiration from the United States. It is very rare for an American incumbent president to lose. And it’s very very rare for a populist to be voted out at the first opportunity. So, for all of the deep divisions in American society at the moment, the fact that Joe Biden will take office as the 46th President of the United States—despite all the attempts by Trump and parts of the Republican Party to subvert the election and overturn its outcome—is a huge relief to me. So, I’d argue that American democracy is still a bit of a beacon.

Part of our best books of 2020 series.

Interview by Eve Gerber

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Yascha Mounk

Yascha Mounk is a political scientist. He is Associate Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, where he holds appointments in both the School of Advanced International Studies and the Agora Institute. He is a Senior Advisor at Protect Democracy, as well as a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, Harvard's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and New York University's Reiss Center on Law and Security.

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Yascha Mounk

Yascha Mounk is a political scientist. He is Associate Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, where he holds appointments in both the School of Advanced International Studies and the Agora Institute. He is a Senior Advisor at Protect Democracy, as well as a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, Harvard's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and New York University's Reiss Center on Law and Security.