The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America; The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It

In This Review

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America
By Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan Books, 2018
368 pp.
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The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It
By Yascha Mounk
Harvard University Press, 2018
400 pp.
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Of all the books that seek to explain the current crisis of Western liberal democracy, none is more eloquent or more frightening than Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom. In an earlier book, Bloodlands, Snyder told the story of Nazi and Soviet genocidal violence in eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. In his new work, Snyder argues that fascism and authoritarianism have returned in new and subtler guises. For Snyder, the primary threat comes from Russia’s ideological challenge to the West. The West’s grand vision is built on Enlightenment ideas and a belief in the inevitable spread of liberal democracy. Snyder argues that this “politics of inevitability” has collapsed, opening the door to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “politics of eternity,” a project in which illiberal states perpetuate themselves by manufacturing enemies, stoking grievances, manipulating the truth, and undermining foreign countries that offer alternative ideals to their citizens. Snyder’s lyrical prose gives the book its emotional power. What is missing is a sense of what stands in oppo-sition to this illiberal onslaught. What political and ideological tools can the liberal democratic world use to resist the politics of eternity? 

Mounk provides an equally disturbing account of the decline of liberal democracy, but he traces the source of the crisis to the West itself. The extraordinary success of Western liberal democracies in the postwar decades created an illusion that liberalism (human rights and the rule of law) and democracy (rule by the people) could easily coexist. But today’s right-wing populists have exposed contradictions between the two. Illiberal politicians have undermined rights and rules-based institutions in the name of the people. Meanwhile, elites in Western societies have moved in the opposite direction, investing authority in bodies, such as the eu, that reduce their exposure to democratic politics. These clashing populist and elite movements, Mounk writes, are creating an unstable mixture of “illiberal democracy” and “undemocratic liberalism.” Western liberal democracy was built on rising living standards, relatively homogeneous societies, and a shared space of public information—foundations that are now eroding. Mounk does not think all is lost. But for liberal democracy to survive, Western countries will have to pursue serious economic reforms, build new conceptions of multiethnic societies, and reestablish trust in rules and institutions.

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