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Democracy Fellow Yascha Mounk Talks Populism, Protests, and the Future of Democracy

Kennedy School
A student common area at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Visiting Ash Center Democracy Fellow Yascha Mounk discussed the weaknesses of liberal democracy and the challenges populism pose during an event Wednesday afternoon at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

Archon Fung, professor of citizenship and self-government at the Harvard Kennedy School, moderated the event.

Mounk is currently an associate professor of practice at Johns Hopkins University and host of the podcast “The Good Fight.” His most recent book, “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It,” focuses on how populist leaders contribute to eroding citizens’ trust in their government.

During the discussion, Mounk shared his insights on how protests and populism will affect the future of democracy. He said populist leaders are “a danger to liberal democracy” because they claim to exclusively represent the people.

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“The right definition, I think, of what a populist is, is not ideological. There are far-right populists and also left-wing populists. It is not necessarily what particular outgroup they hate,” Mounk said. “It is that they’re saying, ‘I and I alone truly represent the people. And anybody who disagrees with me is, by virtue of that, illegitimate.’”

This method of discrediting o political opponents can give rise to authoritarian regimes, Mounk said. When these authoritarian regimes ignore democratic institutions, this leads to “the downward spiral of populist legitimacy,” he added.

Mounk gave examples of this downward spiral that sparked mass protests in Hong Kong, Venezuela, Russia, and Bolivia. He categorized these demonstrations into three types: “protests of discontent with existing liberal democratic institutions,” “protests of discontent with rising populist dictatorships,” and “pro-democratic protests in an autocratic context.”

Fung also joined Mounk in the discussion, applying Mounk’s views to the political climate in the United States. He also challenged the views Mounk presented during the event.

“I guess I think you’re being too hard on populism and too soft on liberal democracy,” Fung said.

“In Europe, populism is a bad word, because it generated some forms of world historical tragedies, but in the American tradition populism is actually quite a good thing,” Fung added.

Mounk also said that the fusion of populist political purposes and nationalist views is particularly dangerous. He said populists’ claims that they will “stand up for the real people, like you and me” draws heavily from nationalism.

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