Yascha Mounk tells people what they want to hear

The academic-turned-pundit may fashion himself a doomsayer, but his message merely comforts the powerful.

Yascha Mounk tells people what they want to hear

The academic-turned-pundit may fashion himself a doomsayer, but his message merely comforts the powerful.

Amid the whirl of Trump-era charlatans and grifters, the tweet-threaders, reply guys, and newly minted “op-sec” experts, I’ve developed a useful heuristic: Any ostensible liberal who appears to have benefited significantly — financially or professionally — from the Trump presidency deserves at least some scrutiny.

Don’t get me wrong. We all have a hustle. And we can’t all afford to quit it, take to the hills, and learn basic artillery skills. We adapt to circumstances. We sell what will be bought. Kate McKinnon sings Leonard Cohen in a Hillary Clinton costume. Knitting shop owners stock up on pink yarn. Historians go on Twitter.

Some of the new “thought leaders” we’ve met since 2016 — their authoritative-sounding tweets appearing in our feeds frequently enough that we’re inspired to ask, “so wait, who is this person exactly?” — are innocuous. Some even happen to know useful stuff; the career benefit of knowing the right stuff at the right time is a happy accident. And yes, of course, the right-wing opportunists, those gormless heirs of unearned privilege, are worse.

Leave them aside. Instead, let us focus on the proud, anti-Trump voices who lament the assault on our norms, who condemn the administration’s hideous crimes, and who have managed to leverage their principled outrage into huge platforms. Most are easily spotted. The ham-handed opportunism of a Krassenstein brother or an Eric Garland activates a part of our lizard brain that knows when we’re about to be taken in, whether or not we choose to listen to it.

But another sort of Trump-era opportunist isn’t so graceless in his execution. Yascha Mounk, the 36-year-old political scientist specializing in the “crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of populism,” is quite graceful. A picture of continental politesse, Mounk’s German-accented voice has become part of the soundtrack of public-intellectual life in the era of Trump. Turn on BBC or NPR or the Vox-y podcast of your choice; there’s a good chance you’ll hear Mounk explaining the latest Trumpian transgression or right-wing parliamentary coup with a keenly calibrated mix of gallows humor and sobriety.

Mounk’s popularity as a diagnostician of the West’s civilizational woes isn’t surprising. He’s a charming speaker, his writing is clear and clean, and he dramatizes the conflicts of our time in sweeping historical terms, welcoming the reader to join him in righteous battle to defend our twin inheritances of liberty and democracy. But Mounk’s rapid rise to international prominence has also depended on two other factors: junk social science and a penchant for prescribing solutions that flatter and reassure the rich and powerful.

“Growing up in Germany, I always did know that I wanted to be — and I’m deeply aware that it’s a horrible term — a sort of ‘public intellectual,’” Mounk said in a 2017 interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. Born in Munich, Mounk graduated from Cambridge University and received his Ph.D in government from Harvard. Late last year, he was hired by Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies as an associate professor of the practice of International Affairs. Before that, he was a lecturer at Harvard.

But unlike similarly pedigreed scholars, Mounk hasn’t spent the past few years toiling in academic obscurity and churning out peer-reviewed monographs. Since December 2016, he has written a weekly column for Slate called “The Good Fight,” and he hosts a podcast by the same name. In 2018, he had bylines in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Politico, and The Atlantic. He tours the lucrative lecture circuit from Aspen to Cupertino to Think Tank Row. As the political scientist Francis Fukuyama put it in a blurb for Mounk’s latest book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, “If you’ve not heard of Yascha Mounk before, you definitely will in the future.”

And if you still haven’t heard of him, you’ve perhaps osmotically absorbed his thesis, which practically runs in the water of liberal public discourse. Mounk is among a cohort of scholars who’ve found success lamenting a global decline in democracy — not just in Hungary, Venezuela, and Brazil but in France, the UK, and North America too. These doomsayers fashion themselves latter-day Cassandras, speaking discomfiting truths that Americans and Western Europeans are loath to believe.

Like the out-of-touch elites whom he passingly criticizes, Mounk envisions a return to the status quo ante: warmed-over neoliberalism combined with high-school civics.

“It’s a very bittersweet moment," Mounk told the Chronicle in 2017. “I’d much rather that my work continue to be obscure and we didn’t have Donald Trump in the White House.”

Mounk jokingly calls himself a “democracy-crisis hipster.” “I thought democracy was in crisis before it was cool,” he told the New Statesman last year. And it’s true he was early to the beat. In a 2015 Times article, Mounk and Roberto Foa, a political science professor at the University of Melbourne, wrote that survey trends revealed a “deep disillusionment with democracy,” especially among younger Americans. While 72 percent of citizens born before World War II said living in a democracy was essential to them, Mounk and Foa reported, “a little over half of Americans born in the postwar boom gave maximum importance to living in a democracy. Among those born since the 1980s, less than 30 percent did.”

In two articles published in the Journal of Democracy in July 2016 and January 2017, Mounk and Foa expanded on those findings, reporting similar trends in Europe. All over the West, people had “become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system” and more willing to entertain “authoritarian alternatives.”

Mounk and Foa’s findings were controversial, challenging a long-held assumption in political science that wealthy “consolidated” democracies — governments which have peacefully changed hands in multiple free and fair elections — are unlikely to revert to authoritarianism. But after the Brexit vote, as Donald Trump’s path to the White House cleared and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s authoritarian aspirations matured, pundits and politicians were hungry for an explanation. Mounk and Foa burst on the scene with hard numbers.

But exactly how hard were they? Mounk and Foa’s work attracted swift criticism from other academics, so much so that the Journal published three critiques by prominent political scientists, some challenging the pair’s methodology, others their interpretations. Mounk and Foa responded, doubling down on their arguments.

The most misleading aspect of Mounk and Foa’s data was also the most widely reported: the alarming figure about plummeting support for democracy, especially among millennials. It takes some explaining to illustrate why, so bear with me.

In the survey, respondents were told to rate the importance of living in a democracy, on a scale of one to 10 — 1 meaning “not at all important” and 10 meaning “absolutely important.” But Foa and Mounk charted only the respondents who answered a full 10 out of 10, and treated that figure as the fraction of people who felt it was “essential” to live in a democracy (even though the word “essential” did not appear in the survey question.) By that measure, Mounk and Foa said, only a third of millennials rated living in a democracy as “essential.”

But what about people who gave democracy an eight or a nine? Accounting for them, it turned out the majority of millennials answered that living in a democracy is important. But you wouldn’t know that from reading Mounk and Foa. You also wouldn’t know that less than one percent of respondents of all ages reported living in a democracy as “not at all important.”

In an email to The Outline, Mounk noted that the original piece explains what he and Foa meant by “essential.” A key for one of the graphs does indicate that essential refers to “a rating of 10 on a 10-point scale,” he said. That explanation does not, however appear in the text of the article nor in the Times.

Erik Voeten, professor of geopolitics at Georgetown, found that when you looked at survey data indicating discontent with the functioning of democratic institutions — as opposed to “abstract preferences for democracy” — it was old people, not young people, who were “upset about how U.S. institutions actually work.” And, Voeten said, “they behave like it in the voting booth.” After all, if Mounk and Foa’s data was capturing something significant about youthful flirtation with authoritarianism or disdain for democracy, why did young people vote overwhelming for “Remain” in Britain and against Donald Trump in the U.S.? (Though, to be fair, the populist right enjoys more youth support in France and Greece.)

The small amount of millennial disaffection that does appear in the survey data may have had more to do with the economy than an abstract distaste for democracy. That is, young people may not be dissatisfied with liberal democracy as such, but with the degree to which liberal democracy has delivered on its promise — of a society in which one’s life prospects aren’t determined by circumstances of their birth.

“Like all impactful articles, this one elicited a lively debate,” Mounk told The Outline. “Our critics make some reasonable points. I'm not persuaded by them.”

But none of this seems to have tarnished Mounk’s reputation as an in-demand teller of hard truths. In a February 2018 op-ed for NBC, the political scientist and Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer repeated Mounk and Foa’s finding that millennials have turned against democracy. “Those of us over 40 wonder what’s going on. Maybe it’s that young Americans — and Westerners generally — have grown up without a fascist or communist enemy to pose an existential threat,” Bremmer writes, before suggesting that perhaps political correctness and the “backlash against free speech online” is to blame for this.

There was backlash to that piece, too. Cas Mudde, a political scientist at University of Georgia who criticized the original Mounk-Foa paper, tweeted a link to Bremmer’s op-ed with the commentary: “Bad social science research influences bad pundits who influence important people who then make bad decisions with bad real world consequences for many people.”

Mounk no longer needs survey data to prove democratic declension. After all, look around! In country after country, as Mounk writes in his latest book, the public has grown dissatisfied with governing elites, the caretakers of a stable but oligarchic world order Mounk calls,“undemocratic liberalism.” Discontentment with technocratic regimes that respond to the will of rich cosmopolitans but neglect the impulses of the majority has led to a rise in what Mounk calls “illiberal democracy” — i.e, popular disregard for constitutional norms and the rights of minorities.

In other words, he writes, “the views of the people are tending illiberal and the preferences of the elites are turning undemocratic,” and as a result “liberalism and democracy are starting to clash.”

Mounk argues that populists offer attractively simple solutions to complicated problems (Drain the swamp! Build the wall!), and when their common-sense fixes prove insufficient, they blame liberal norms and institutions (the courts, the press, the parliament) for impeding their (i.e. the people’s) will. Technocratic liberals, to their credit, understand that global problems are “increasingly complex,” requiring increasingly complex solutions, but they’re unable to “sell the message that things are complicated.”

Mounk’s cure is less vividly drawn than his diagnosis. Other than campaign-finance reform and some center-left redistributive goodies, Mounk’s prescription resembles the “nationalism-lite” expounded by centrists like Hillary Clinton and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (more on him later). Building sustainable multiethnic democracies, Mounk says, means assuaging the anxieties of those who long for a monoculture.

Like Clinton, Mounk advises a “strategic retreat” on immigration policy. “A streamlined process for identifying and removing immigrants who pose a security threat will help to calm, rather than to fan, ethnic tensions,” Mounk writes, conceding, as did generations of Democrats before him, a permanent deportation regime.

“We need to domesticate nationalism,” Mounk writes. “Nationalism is like a half-wild beast. As long as it remains under our control, it can be of tremendous use.” Echoing “Never Trump” conservatives like National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, Mounk calls for a renewed “civic faith” in our institutions, a national identity rooted in fierce attachment to the inheritance of liberal democracy (as a testament to his own fealty to these ideals, Mounk applied for and was granted American citizenship in 2017). Mounk cites Barack Obama and French President Emmanuel Macron as exemplars of this “inclusive nationalism” (no matter that Obama built the deportation apparatus now being deployed by Trump or that Macron’s anti-refugee policy has been cheered by France’s far right).

If Mounk’s thesis is such a bitter pill, how has he found so many mouths eager to swallow it?

Despite a penchant for soaring rhetoric about the need to be “vigilant” and “fight for our immersed, fervently held values,” Mounk’s benchmark for victory is uninspiring and startlingly naïve. As he said in a February 2017 monologue on his podcast, “True victory would be that the Republican Party would transform itself, reform itself and that when we run elections in 2024 and 2028 they are between a center-left with a real vision about how to improve people’s lives and a center-right that accepts all Americans as equal citizens and that abstains from racial dog-whistles.”

Like the out-of-touch elites whom he passingly criticizes, Mounk envisions a return to the status quo ante: warmed-over neoliberalism combined with high-school civics. In his zeal to win over cultural conservatives to nationalism-lite, Mounk even indulges in some YouTube-pundit-style left-punching: condemning “political correctness” and “identity politics” as losing propositions and lamenting that American undergraduates are taught “disdain for our inherited political institutions.”

If Mounk’s thesis is such a bitter pill, how has he found so many mouths eager to swallow it? Contrary to his so-called brand as a “prophet of doom,” Mounk has risen to outstanding prominence by telling Western elites a story they desperately want to hear.

Liberal democracy, in his soothing tale, is imperiled not by its failure to deliver an egalitarian society — a basic standard of living and fairness for all — but rather because nefarious illiberal forces have tricked the “masses” into believing there is a better, easier way to govern than through the hard work of pluralism.

This account serves a deep psychic need for wealthy and powerful audiences. It absolves elite complicity in popular discontent; it relieves their anxiety that the solution to the present crisis will come at their expense; and it flatters their sense that people like them (like Mounk) are still the protagonists of history and not about to be cast aside.

Mounk routinely grants politicians, pundits, and think-tankers the delusion that their deep discussions about “liberalism” and “democracy” at Aspen, Davos, and Brookings are the stuff of political struggle — sufficient to save and restore an imperiled liberal world order.

His canny embrace of the thought-leader hustle has coincided with the rise of what political theorist Corey Robin recently called the Historovox, a “complex of scholars and journalists” colluding to produce a “new genre of journalism that forgoes the pedestrian task of reporting the news in favor of explaining it through the lens of academic research.” These explainers — as frequently published in the New York Times and Washington Post as at Vox or Slate — combine the news cycle’s myopic presentism with a pseudo-academic appreciation for longue durée, a frothy mixture that cheapens the value of empirical reporting and historical analysis both, perfectly suited for an audience intoxicated by “context.”

Mounk, with an academic background in political theory and a perch from which to opine on the day’s news, is well positioned to play both sides of this game. It doesn’t really matter, in the Historovox, whether Mounk’s theories about liberalism or his ramshackle historiography are correct or well-regarded in the academy. The important thing is that they’re intelligible to a general audience and reducible to 1,500 words.

But it’s not only writing and speaking gigs that have kept Mounk busy. In March 2017, Tony Blair funnelled £10 million ($13.2 million) from his foundation into a “non-party platform” called “Renewing the Centre” to be run out of his eponymous Institute for Global Change, and hired Mounk to oversee it. “Renewing the Centre” is the newest of the Blair Institute’s four pillars, which also include “Co-existence,” “Governance,” and “Middle East.”

If Mounk is sincere in his criticisms of technocratic elites who, by abandoning redistributive justice, enabled far-right populism to get a foothold, Blair is an odd choice of compatriot; he is widely held responsible for the UK’s embrace of finance capital and privatization. In 2010, Mounk himself blamed Blair for failing to “defend the liberties and economic interests of average citizens,” creating an opening for the populist right.

Blair has repeatedly accepted millions of dollars to advise autocratic regimes in Egypt, Kazakhstan, and Saudi Arabia. In July 2018, it was reported that Blair was advising Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s government under a £9 million ($11.8 million) deal through his institute, at which Mounk was then an executive director. In October, after Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was allegedly murdered by agents of bin Salman, Blair refused calls to back out of the deal.

The Saudi deal was made through the Institute’s “Middle East” pillar. Mounk, who directed the pillar focused on centrist policymaking and populism, had no involvement in the deal.

But, curiously, I’ve found no indication that Mounk publicly commented on bin Salman or Khashoggi during this time in speeches, articles or on Twitter, where he has 45,000 followers. He continued working at the Institute until December, when he accepted the job at Johns Hopkins.

Mounk categorically denied that he refrained from criticizing Saudi Arabia for self-serving reasons.

“The focus of my work is on the rise of authoritarian populism in democratic societies,” Mounk told The Outline. “I therefore comment far less frequently on countries that have long or always been dictatorships, like China, Eritrea or indeed Saudi Arabia, than on deconsolidating or former democracies like Poland, Hungary or Turkey. However, I have, during my time at the Institute, repeatedly criticized Saudi Arabia for its terrible record on a range of important issues including gay rights, women's rights, and press freedom in public appearances, published articles, and on social media.”

As evidence, Mounk provided links to three tweets that mention Saudi Arabia among other human-rights violators and another, from January 2019, about Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, an 18-year-old Saudi asylum seeker whom Mounk feared would be “imprisoned, and possibly killed” if forced to return to the kingdom. He also directed me to three articles published in early 2017 and the spring of 2018 in which he variously referred to Saudi Arabia as “theocratic,” “autocratic,” and “unfree.” But none of these explicitly mention bin Salman or Khashoggi.

Mounk’s appointment as a senior fellow at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at John Hopkins was announced with fanfare. “He has a Twitter following of more than 42,500,” the press release goes. “His name pops up frequently in articles on our fraught political climate, and dozens of his essays and op-eds have appeared in publications including The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.” The release referred to the institute as Mounk’s “new home for discourse.”

Mounk’s new position “also includes” an associate professorship at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. This spring, Mounk will teach an undergraduate course on “the nature of populism, investigating the ways in which it is a response to demographic change and whether it poses an existential threat to liberal democracy.”

For his part, Mounk said he looks forward to contributing to “the intellectual life of the institute,” which launched in 2017 with a $150 million gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. And the new position, Mounk said, will allow him “to continue to have a big public voice in what I think are the very most important questions of our time.”

At times, Mounk reminds me of another German-born Jewish philosopher who found refuge in U.S. academia during a time of global crisis: Leo Strauss.

Strauss, like Mounk, was a philosopher of decline. Modern liberalism, he believed, inevitably tended toward one of two relativisms: the “permissive egalitarianism” of America or the brutal nihilism of Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia. After his death, Strauss came to be associated with neoconservative intellectuals who agreed with his diagnosis that the West had become “uncertain of its purpose” and saw in themselves the wise and virtuous few who would restore America’s moral leadership (through perpetual war).

What Mounk shares with Strauss is a belief in the fundamental fragility of liberal democracy, that it must be defended from the parallel threats of fanaticism and apathy. This defense takes the form of noble struggle — a “good fight,” you might say — undertaken by intellectuals and statesmen who’ve acquired the civic wisdom needed to man the barricades.

Mounk, at his best, aspires to spread this wisdom far and wide and redistribute the resources necessary to access it. But Mounk flirts dangerously with a more conservative impulse — a Straussian disdain for the knowledge already possessed by the revolting masses. As New York University law professor Stephen Holmes once wrote of Strauss, “He knows, in advance, that the philosophical few have nothing whatsoever to learn from the unphilosophical many.”

Sam Adler-Bell is a writer in Brooklyn.