Several years before Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, Yascha Mounk was troubled by a simple question: what if liberal democracies were on the verge of collapse?
It's a widespread belief that once democracy takes hold, citizen commitment to the system grows stronger with time.
However, as populist ideas gained ground in several European countries in the early 2000’s, Mounk, a Harvard political scientist born and raised in Germany, started to doubt the theory.
“I think part of it is having seen the slow rise of populism in Europe since the beginning of 2000 in places like Austria, in Italy with Berlusconi and this sort of feeling people weren’t taking it seriously enough as a phenomenon,” he said in a National Observer interview in Montreal.
Mounk counts himself as one of only a few political scientists who started studying the challenges faced by democracies in the West several years before a surge of interest in populism prompted by Trump's election to the U.S. presidency and the referendum to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union.
"Now some people are scrambling to move in that space," he said.
The end of democracy?
Mounk wanted to understand this consensus around liberal democracy. Was it declining and if so, why? And could it lead to the end of liberal democracy as a political regime?
Mounk had studied history and examined examples of political regimes that seemed stable for decades or even centuries but that had become increasingly brutal and eventually collapsed. He mentioned that many scholars assumed the Soviet Union would remain stable. In Latin America, Venezuela was a democracy for several decades before two attempted military coups and the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998. The country then progressively slipped into an authoritarian regime with little or no political or press freedom.
In his opinion, if other political regimes, including communism, have collapsed, democracy might not be an exception.
“My hunch was always to be skeptical of the democratic triumphalism that’s pretty widespread today, or at least was widespread until a few years ago,” he said.
Poll showed 'deeply concerning' trends
After several years of work, Mounk and colleague Roberto Stefan Foa released their study based on polls from the World Values Surveys between 1995 and 2014. The polls gathered data from citizens in European countries of Germany, Spain, and Sweden as well as the United States.
They found “deeply concerning” trends: citizens in several Western European and North American democracies had grown more cynical and distrustful about their political system and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.
Mounk used different measures to explore the growing distrust of democracy: citizens' express support for the system; the extent to which they support key institutions of liberal democracy including civil rights and the vote; their willingness to advance their causes in their political system; and their openness to authoritarian alternatives including military rule. He found the results of these measures showed European and American citizens were becoming wary of their political systems.
Mounk and Foa found American citizens were becoming more open to authoritarian regimes. Their research showed a three-fold rise in the portion of Americans who think it would be a "good" or "very good" thing for the "army to rule." In 1995, one in 16 agreed with that statement compared to one in six in 2014.
Their research also showed senior citizens prized democracy much more than youth in the United States. About 72 per cent of Americans born before the Second World War rated living in a democracy as “essential” while 30 per cent of millennials, the generation born since 1980, did so, among those polled.
“I think young people are disappointed with democracy in many ways and on the economic front, they have the reason to be disappointed with it,” he said. “In many countries, older people have done very well. They bought houses 30 to 40 years ago when they were very cheap to buy. These houses appreciated a lot in value, they've had more job opportunities....And now, younger people have real trouble managing to stay in the same sort of economic class and circumstances of power. Few of them have the experience of really climbing up the occupational social ladder in the same way their parents did and I'm really worried about what that will mean for the future.”
But for him, economic reasons such as growing income inequality are not the only explanation for discontent with democracy. Mounk believes Western countries are also challenged by "national identity crises."
According to Mounk, the growth of immigration especially in European countries has sparked fear that migrants are a threat to cultural and religious heritage.
Is Canada an exception?
In 2017, an Ipsos immigration and refugees poll found 63 per cent of Italians and 56 per cent of Belgians felt strongly uncomfortable with changes brought on by immigration. In Canada, 40 per cent felt similarly. The survey of 17,903 people was conducted between June 24 and July 8, 2017.
Mounk said the United States has a slightly different "crisis of national identity." For him, Americans are more accepting of immigrants than Europeans but some feel threatened about what he called "potential end of white dominance over U.S. politics and popular culture."
While Mounk's interest focuses on European countries and the United States, his research also informs political scientists in Canada and other countries.
Peter Loewen, director of the School of Public Policy and Governance and associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, has witnessed the wave of discontent with democracies in Western countries and started wondering if Canada was an "exception."
"I think there's a worrying trend going on about the ability of liberal democracy to maintain a consensus both around democracy and around open borders and open trade," Loewen said.
He noted, however, that Germany and Canada have conservatives parties that believe in open trade and high levels of immigration.
“If you take people's opinions on matters of trade and of immigration, the most frequent voter is the one who believes in open trade and open borders,” he said. “So no political party in Canada has an incentive to move off that open trade, open borders kind of consensus.”