The discipline of political theory basically focuses on the normative—how things ought to be—rather than the positive, which deals with how things actually are. Because of the obsession with the former, there has been immense stress on the study of institutions and governance, as to how they should function. Any malfunction and another institution is proposed to be built to check the malafide. In this quest, human beings who run the institutions are forgotten, as institutions lack flesh and blood. Herein, the importance of the positive—how things actually are—comes into play. Therefore, in recent times, there’s more focus on the behavioural aspect rather than merely institutions.
The rise of Donald Trump in the US in recent times has produced immense interest in the scholarly circles about the rise of strong (often dictatorial) rulers within the democratic system. Intersperse this with the rise of Narendra Modi in India or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and the subject becomes a heady cocktail, with social scientists churning out reams to explain this phenomenon.
The subject has caught scholarly fancy because, since post-World War II, the democratic system has been touted as a panacea for equitable and high economic growth, coupled with a framework that guarantees rights to the minorities. Suddenly, this well-woven theory of comfortable living and high thinking is facing the test of times and scholars are busy finding causes to explain the phenomenon. Is it because of stagnant economic growth, which has led to stagnant wages? Is it because of the new economic order where production is being relocated to far quarters where labour is cheap, which is threatening job creation on the domestic front? Is it because the growing immigration to certain centres for jobs has led to a sense of insecurity, leading to xenophobia? As it is said, the social system is a living organism, which is irrational, so any study cannot throw straight and simple answers like a laboratory experiment. But scholars have to pursue scholarly pursuits, hence, reams need to be churned up.
Two books—Yascha Mounk’s People vs Democracy and Sam Wilkin’s History Repeating—are the latest in the series to explain the phenomenon. Both promise interesting reading to anyone interested in contemporary times across the globe. However, there’s a fundamental difference in the approach both the writers have taken in explaining their hypotheses. While Mounk’s work tends to be a little academic since he’s a professor of government at Harvard University, Wilkin—being a political risk adviser to investors and companies—falls back on history and anecdotes to explain his take.
It is best to read both the books simultaneously to grasp the complete picture. Reading Mounk in isolation can be boring at times because it takes one through surveys and theories, which feel like a lecture in a political science class. Quite in contrast, the writing style and interesting nuggets from the histories of different countries across the globe make Wilkin’s work unputdownable.
While Mounk delves into explaining the present crisis as one that has been fuelled by a combination of factors—economic stagnation being chief among them, which has led to dissatisfaction among the masses, as there is a lack of jobs (for those with jobs, it is stagnant wages, which has led to the rise of populist leaders who promise to rectify things)—Wilkin tells you that what is happening today has happened in the past as well, and there’s a pattern to it.
Mounk paints the danger of the current trends, which, he says, have also been fuelled with the rise of social media and loss of control of the traditional forms of media. He says it brings illiberal tendencies in democracy, which basically harm the interests of minorities. While there’s truth in his hypothesis, the bit about illiberal democracy and minorities seems stretched. Democracy can never be perfect, as it leads to struggle for power through the ballot system. Leaders are bound to create vote banks and use them to the hilt to win at the hustings. Similarly, minorities are no monolithic bloc where interests are common.
Wilkin’s is a better approach, as case studies of different countries such as Thailand, Russia, Iran, Argentina and the US are included, where populists have risen in the face of a crisis and fallen as well. He points out that to understand the present you must delve into history and you will find similar patterns—there’s a way in which populists rise to power and there are contradictions inherent in the means, which lead to their decline also.
Since any study of political theory can only be backed if there’s a historical example, Wilkin’s book is not only interesting, but also convinces one of the theories propounded by him. My favourites are the chapters on Thailand, Russia and Iran. These three chapters provide an apt understanding of current times, be it for the US and Trump, or India and Modi.