Election 2016: A referendum on liberal democracy?

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Hillary Clinton joins President Obama on stage at DNC 00:51

Story highlights

  • Yascha Mounk: Authoritarian revolt against liberal democracy is gathering strength
  • Obama in DNC speech explained the stark choice U.S. faces in 2016 election, he says

Yascha Mounk is a lecturer at Harvard University and a fellow at New America. He is the author of "Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany" and has written for CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs and The Nation. The views expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Sometimes, the real historical stakes of a political moment are barely evident to contemporaries; it is only in retrospect that we recognize its true importance. In the years before the French Revolution, for example, the adherents of the ancien régime did not understand how radically the old aristocratic order was about to be challenged. In the run-up to World War I, neither statesmen nor ordinary people realized they were on the brink of the bloodiest catastrophe humanity had suffered to date.

This knowledge reveals one of the great advantages of our own, increasingly turbulent era: To anybody who bothers to look, the huge stakes of electoral competitions such as that between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are increasingly clear.
    Yascha Mounk
    Across the world, populist strongmen who seek to concentrate power in their own hands and scapegoat minorities for their countries' ills are on the rise. In Russia and Turkey, they have turned fledgling democracies into authoritarian states. In Poland and Hungary, self-declared "illiberal democrats" are doing their best to emulate the playbook. Even in seemingly stable democracies, from France to Sweden, an authoritarian revolt against liberal democracy is gathering strength.
    In the United States, too, this year's election has turned into a choice between the values of liberal democracy and an increasingly explicit form of authoritarianism. However imperfect she may be as a candidate, Hillary Clinton passionately believes we can both respect individual rights and recognize the legitimacy of political opposition. Donald Trump, by contrast, wants voters to believe that only a leader who sees all political opponents as contemptible enemies, and who is willing to do away with the liberties of Muslims and Mexicans, can solve the country's problems.
    The recognition that the current presidential campaign is the key battlefield in this wider struggle is what makes President Barack Obama's emotional speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia so important: He is the first senior official to explain in plain terms that Americans are facing a stark choice between democracy and authoritarianism. Whether Clinton can defeat Trump, he insisted Wednesday, is about nothing less than "whether we stay true to this great American experiment in self-government."

    Dueling visions of democracy in America

    The events of the day leading up to Obama's speech illustrated his point more clearly than he could have expected. At a press conference in Florida, Trump showed just how willing he is to make common cause with foreign dictators -- and expressed his contempt for the basic rules of the American republic.
    He would love to have the power to hack into his opponent's email servers, Trump avowed. Since he doesn't (as yet), he'd be just as happy for a foreign power to do the job for him: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing."
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    This is remarkable on any number of levels. It is remarkable because Clinton's great mistake is supposed to have been that she compromised American state secrets, and yet Trump is now calling on a foreign power to gain access to those very secrets. And it is remarkable because Trump genuinely seems to believe his interests are more aligned with those of Vladimir Putin, the dictatorial leader of a hostile nation, than those of Clinton, his Democratic rival for the presidency.
    Trump entered American politics by calling for Obama to publish his birth certificate, questioning whether he was a true American. So it is all the more poignant that it fell to Obama to point out how un-American Trump's political outlook has become.
    The core of Trump's strategy is to pit Americans of different colors and creeds against each other, only to set himself up as the champion of a frightened plurality. His promise that "I am your voice" is only directed at a particular subsection of the American population. Anybody who looks different, or thinks different, is not represented in his majoritarian vision of popular rule.
    President Obama: Time to pass the baton to Clinton
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    Against this atavistic view, Obama's DNC speech upheld the vision of a country in which patriots come in all shapes and stripes: "I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together -- black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, young and old, gay, straight, men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love."
    For Obama, this ability to recognize common purpose where others only behold difference is the deepest expression of what America is about. "That's why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end."
    I desperately hope he turns out to be right.

    A worrying political trend around the world

    But I worry about the redemptive optimism that drives Obama's oratory. He is a deep believer in the perfectibility of the imperfect union, in the idea that the moral arc of the universe, however long it is turning out to be, will eventually bend toward justice. "We are not a fragile or frightful people," he promised in Philadelphia. "Our power doesn't come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order. We don't look to be ruled."
    And yet it is becoming clear that people across democracies in North America and Western Europe are increasingly willing to trust in the superior wisdom of populist strongmen. As my recent research has shown, the citizens of a lot of seemingly stable democracies are less satisfied with their own institutions, and more open to authoritarian alternatives, than they have been in living memory.
    Obama to DNC: Donald Trump offering slogans and fear
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    This trend is just as strong, or perhaps even a little stronger, in the United States as it is in many other parts of the world. So it is not all surprising that Trump is running neck and neck with Clinton: By the looks of it, the American people have never been quite so tempted by the rule of a homegrown demagogue as they are now.
    Obama clearly conceived his speech as a valedictory address from his time in office. But if Trump wins, there is every chance that historians will one day interpret it as a parting paean to liberal democracy. Anybody who cares about the founding principles of this country, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, is honor-bound to ensure this doesn't happen. And anybody who believes that these principles are of lasting relevance beyond the United States will recognize that defeating Donald Trump is only the first battle in a long campaign to make our time safe for liberal democracy.