Notes on Commonwealth Club talk on People Vs Democracy

Reading time ~3 minutes

We attended last night’s Commonwealth Club event with Francis Fukuyama interviewing Yascha Mounk, author of The People vs Democracy. (I haven’t read the book.)

Mounk argues that populism threatens democracy around the world, including the US. Turkey, Hungary, and Poland are ahead of the curve. He sees Trump following the play book of these illiberal democracies, but badly: his attacks on the judiciary, press, and political opposition emphasize Trump as the victim rather than “the people.” Mounk views that spreading, nearly pervasive sense of victimization as a major contributor to people longing for a strong leader who will protect them by attacking their persecutors–the elites, the immigrants, and of course those lucky, diversity-favored minorities.

These victims share a certainty that a strong leader gets things done, in contrast to ineffective democracies. Policies attempting to address wicked problems like climate change contribute to the sense of incompetent leadership; the strong leader dismisses such concerns as hoaxes. The demagogue identifies and attacks villains with faces, while their opposition focuses on abstract concerns like inequality.

Fukuyama quickly turned the discussion from problem diagnosis to potential responses, and Mounk rattled off a number of ideas:

  • Address the concerns of people impacted by policies. If free trade provides net benefits make sure those bearing the negative consequences receive meaningful redress in a form that recognizes and respects their dignity (that minimizes their victimization).
  • Improve funding for the legislative function to lessen its dependence on lobbyists for expertise.
  • Improve tax effectiveness, eliminate mechanisms that allow the wealthy to avoid taxation.
  • (Unspecified) support for life long learning.
  • Lower housing costs as one way to provide people more economic cushion.
  • Reform campaign finance to decrease the influence of established interests.
  • Reintroduce civics education. Support for democracy is low in younger populations. Look for methods to help people understand how bad the alternatives are.
  • Promulgate inclusive patriotism, that is, emphasize what unites our various tribal affiliations, demonstrate the strength of solidarity. At the same time respect the challenges of each subgroup (though it’s not clear how to do this without feeding everyone’s victimization narrative).

Back to the ineffectiveness of democracies, I think political leaders need to place more emphasis on running the trains on time. All organizations, public and private, generate waste (are inefficient) and fail to achieve their desired outcomes perfectly (are to some degree ineffective). I’ll grant that governments perform somewhat worse compared to private organizations, but it’s a weak compare–in my experience all human institutions are far from optimal. The good news is small execution improvements in very inefficient organizations make for major performance wins, in the same way going from 10 MPG to 12 MPG decreases your cost per mile more than going from 40 MPG to 50 MPG. In fact, our recent populist presidential contender promised to use his business acumen to make these improvements. Doing it for real could help improve trust in our democratic institutions.

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