In this article Liam Farrell offers a set of critical reflections on the decline of political judgment in contemporary political debates around the emergence of populist politics in recent years. Focusing on a recent op-ed by the political theorist Dr. Yascha Mounk (Department of Government, Harvard University), Liam argues that a deficit in political judgment has meant that centrist responses to populist political movements across the world have resulted in a moralistic and knee-jerk anti-populism.
In a recent Observer ‘Sunday Politics’ essay entitled: ‘How populist uprisings could bring down liberal democracy’, Yascha Mounk argues that it is an absolute necessity that liberals initiate a programme of civic education aimed at re-establishing the moral foundations of liberal democracy. These moral foundations he argues, are at risk of being eroded by the ‘extremes’ of left and right, which have ‘seduced’ electorates. In turn, such political ‘extremists’ have had a destructive effect on the propriety of liberal democracy, a proper order that only the mainstream of politics can protect. Mounk equates ‘extremism’ with non-liberalism, non-centrism, with the unreasonable and the improper. As a cabal of ‘guttersnipes’ and practitioners of impropriety, here at The New Pretender we have been adequately provoked to respond to this patronising and paternalistic line of argument, of which Mounk’s is exemplary. In this article I take aim at the aspects of Mounk’s analysis that are symptomatic of the mainstream criticism of populism, arguing that it stands as but one instance of an ostensibly moralistic and post-political response to the present moment by centrist liberalism.
Liberal democracy in crisis
Mounk starts his essay with a story of how we arrived in our present conjuncture detailing a peculiarly cyclical meta-history of long periods of consensus, punctuated by moments of polarisation, chaos and transformation. It is amidst one of these periods of chaos in which he locates us at this present moment. Curiously, however, Mounk’s account of history stops moving in revolutions and comes to a natural rest in a manner reminiscent of the ‘End of History’ hypothesis. Throughout Mounk’s essay we are rhetorically presented with a projected naturalness of liberal democracy, which is not simply a form of politics, the interruption of which he laments (‘until recently, liberal democracy reigned triumphant’), but a triumphant reign normatively supported by economic growth.
But, ‘then the future came – and turned out to be very different indeed’. Citizens who have grown disillusioned with politics have also become restless, angry and disdainful. In fact, they ‘have become fed up with liberal democracy itself’. The political manifestation of this present crisis of liberal democracy, then, for Mounk is the growth in support for a plethora of strongman leaders such as Trump, which in some instances has created a tangible power shift at the top of politics. Mounk’s worry is not simply that we are in a populist moment, but rather, that we are approaching a populist age. Liberal democracy for Mounk is natural and normative, populist politics is exceptional, and must be curtailed if stability is to be maintained. While Mounk places his ‘extremisms’ and his ‘popular politics’ in the messy in-between times of history amongst the chaos of events and instability, liberal democracy is so pure as to be de-historicised. Liberal democracy for Mounk is wholesome enough that we can ignore its messy titular synthesis, and we can presume that unlike traditions of political thought, liberal democracy is neither temporal nor temporary.
Democratic stability then is prized as the highest normative ideal for Mounk, and ostensibly equated with a consensus over both formal and informal rules of political practice by all political actors: ‘When democracy is stable, it is in good part because all major political actors are willing to adhere to the basic rules of the democratic game most of the time.’ Whilst, in a sense, formal rules such as a constitution are a valid prerequisite for a (democratic?) political community in the conventional “modern” sense; Mounk’s emphasis on informal rules opens the door for a form of pre-political moral perfectionism, and imposes a set of expectations upon political actors which Mounk himself is, I suspect, largely dubious about. What is significant however for Mounk’s argument is that recent populist movements have challenged and broken many of these rules, both formal and informal. Such rule breaking, Mounk suggests, is less ideologically driven than ‘tactical’, cynically surfing the tide of anti-system sentiment (it is, remember, part of a historical crisis, not the suprahistorical truth of liberalism).Worse, Mounk frets that the extremism is in no way contained: rule breaking by extreme parties provides reason for mainstream political parties to break the rules of the democratic game too.
The root of the malaise…
Assuming a rupture between populism and the principle of democracy, Mounk equates the ‘seduction’ of young people by ‘extreme’ and populist parties and movements with a declining commitment to the democratic experiment. In what strikes this reader as an incredibly paternalistic passage in the essay in question, in which Mounk adopts the speaking position of a philosopher-king, counseling the youth to act with moderation, and to heed the wisdom of historical experience and professorial authority, he writes: ‘The very fact that young people have so little idea of what it would mean to live in a system other than their own may make them willing to engage in political experimentation. Used to seeing and criticising the (very real) injustices and hypocrisies of the system in which they grew up, many of them have mistakenly started to take its positive aspects for granted.’ Whilst on some level I’m suspicious of throwing babies out with bathwater, nonetheless, the implications of this passage for the political imagination are stark: we have seen all the political alternatives to liberal democracy; Stalinism, Fascism, and other forms of Totalitarianism including the Communism of USSR stand as the only alternatives to liberal democracy in Mounk’s horizon, and thus we find ourselves, perhaps, back at the end of history. Liberal democracy then, is the best we can hope for, and beyond its limits is the abyss of presumably a wretched form of totalitarianism… or at least that is the subtext of Mounk’s essay.
And the solution? For Mounk what is required is a comprehensive programme of civic education, instilling virtue and a renewed commitment to the moral ideals of liberal democracy in the minds of the young. Drawing on a line of philosophers from Plato through Cicero and Rousseau, up to George Washington and James Madison, the importance of civic virtue is written to the fore of all of these political thinkers, as each sought to teach the young to respect a stable mode of government. What civic virtue constitutes here is something akin to an ‘inclusive patriotism’ which further seeks to naturalise the bounds of liberal democracy as ideologically superior, trans-historical and in sum, the best we can hope for. Whilst substantial reforms to government are required, what is at stake for Mounk is something ‘more high minded than wonkish reform’; as Mounk concludes his essay with a rallying cry to liberal centrists: ‘Populists have only been able to celebrate such astounding successes because the moral foundations of our system are far more brittle than we realised. And so anybody who seeks to make a contribution to revitalising democracy must first help to rebuild it on a more stable ideological footing.’
So, what we have here is a rather typical ‘Federalist Papers’ liberal-republican position, in which the principle of popular sovereignty in its unmediated form of ‘the people’ is taken to be inimical to stable “democratic” government. Typical of such a tradition of understanding politics, has been a default assertion that populism is un-democratic, insofar as democracy being defined as stable government with some direction from ‘the people’, or citizenry. Democracy on Mounk’s account is aristocratic government bordering on the oligarchic at times. This is of course nothing new, and largely conforms to our everyday experience of liberal democracy. But why has Mounk made the strange political judgment that such oligarchic stability is worthy of popular assent?
The question of political judgment
In her essay ‘Introduction into Politics’, the German political theorist Hannah Arendt writes about two distinct kinds of judgment when it comes to politics. The first kind she calls prejudicial, and is based upon making judgments by comparison with outcomes of judgments made in the past. These kinds of judgments are easy, appeal to a certain common sense, and often focus on continuities and similarities; that is to say they are blind to that which is unique and new. The second form of judgment that Arendt identifies, and it is this mode of judging which she promotes, is what she calls political judgment. Political judgment has no ‘bannisters’ to hold on to, no standards or pre-judgments to rely on. Rather, this second form of judgment is truly political, it is concerned with ‘feeling one’s freedom’, and is linked to a Truth that is fundamentally democratic in its operation.
The reason I raise this distinction made by Arendt some fifty or so years ago is that it tells us something about the judgment and disposition of scholars and public intellectuals such like Yascha Mounk. Mounk’s lack of political judgment is shown in his failure to differentiate between populisms appeals to the people that are reactionary and harmful, and those that present to us potentialities to revitalise democracy itself. As radical democrats, who take the principle of popular sovereignty to be the cornerstone of our project, we cannot accept an attempt to consolidate the meaning of democracy that is so constrained and sublimated as aristocrats like Mounk proffer. Rather, we see populist moments on both the left and right of politics as symptomatic of a deeper crisis in giving expression to needs and demands of the populus, the people. In a liberal democratic order, which can no longer sustain even the façade of the democratic, and thus relies on an empty liberalism; we say good riddance, and welcome a democratic future built from the political judgment of adventurous radicals, a more democratic future, liberal or otherwise. A future in which, we think, left populism can play a deeply democratic and corrective role.
By retreating into the warm comforts of civic education and ‘moral foundations’, contemporary liberals and republicans drift from a personal and lived political morality into, what Wendy Brown calls ‘moralism’. Fearful of exercising political judgment, they seek to naturalise a set of moral foundations that can provide a prejudicial basis on which they can proceed. Appeals to ‘inclusive patriotism’ and ‘civic education’, are an attempt to delimit an exclusionary ‘normality’, which maintains the state of play that this populist moment indicates: an uneven distribution of resources and power. In failing to judge the ‘populist moment’ politically, and fearful of its continuation (into a ‘populist age’) as an exception to and abandonment of history’s crowning achievement, Mounk and his ilk respond moralistically. Rather than judging the situation in which Trump is elected as a failure of the liberal candidate Clinton, or of the overall centrist strategy of the Democrats, who declared that ‘America is already Great’ to a people suffering from the worst excesses of a racialized and neo-liberal economy and politics; Mounk blames those who lack commitment to a system which is failing them. Moralistic responses paint political questions as moral deviations.
In a political world without bannisters democracy as something unpredictable, wild and dynamic opens up the spaces for deepening the popular tradition and cultivating a more livable form of life. But nothing is guaranteed, not even the success of carefully laid civic moral foundation: if such foundations ever really existed in the first place. We ought not retreat from the prospect of a politics without foundations, as it gives us in return the joy of exercising political judgment and the possibility of a more deeply democratic and moral way of life.