Francis Fukuyama established his reputation with the publication The End of History and the Last Man, but it is his two-volume work on political order which is his masterpiece. It is this work which realizes ambitions which were implied but never attempted in his earlier writings. And both its achievements and flaws originate from his earlier ideas about history, democratization and political development.
The challenge in his second volume was to provide an explanation for political decay. A perfect linear relationship does not allow for regression. Indeed, a perfect linear account of history uses time itself as the independent variable so every new moment brings about developments and progress. Of course, in reality history has both setbacks and decline. Gibbons did not need to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for his contemporaries to realize civilizations can and do fall apart. His first volume gave a roadmap for political development dependent on the emergence of the state, rule of law and accountable government. His second volume explains why political institutions fail. Many will look to the election of Donald Trump as a sign of American political decay, but Fukuyama published this volume during the Obama Presidency. It is another recognition that the problems in American democracy were obvious before the 2016 election.
Still, it is surprising to find his account of American political decay focused on institutions. He describes the American political system as a vetocracy. Many of its reforms emerge from an activist judiciary because its political system is left in a stalemate. He contrasts this approach with European democratic governments where issues are typically resolved through the political rather than the legal process. Ultimately, he blames the weakness of the state as the primary culprit for the decline of the American political system.
Earlier in the work he describes the rise of the Prussian state. He refers to the emergence of a professional military as a key moment in the development of the state. For Fukuyama a strong state requires both a professional and semi-autonomous bureaucracy. Samuel Huntington gives a clearer explanation of the rise of the Prussian military in his work The Soldier and the State. Of course, Fukuyama does not hide his debt to Huntington. The inspiration for this work came directly from Political Order in Changing Societies. Fukuyama goes on to contrast the evolution of the German bureaucracy with the American progression from clientelism to a professional bureaucracy. He largely credits the American public for this transformation, but emphasizes how its historical legacies continue to offer challenges for its preservation.
I must emphasize this is required reading for anyone who is interested in political theory. It is a landmark work that cannot be skipped. It is available as an audiobook for those with busy schedules so there is really no reason to avoid it. But it can also be disappointing for what it does not deliver. Fukuyama’s ambitions were large. They is too much content for a two-volume work. Parts of this work seem abbreviated as though the writer wants to give us more but has run out of space. For instance, Huntington’s account of the rise of the Prussian state is deeper and more fulfilling.
And sometimes it feels as though there are two different Fukuyamas. There is the Fukuyama who uses institutions to explain political outcomes. But there is another who writes about political culture and its impact on institutions. This work treats institutions as the source of political outcomes. This approach fails to satisfactorily explain historical change. For instance, the American political system has been largely successful apart from the Civil War. Yet Fukuyama feels the roots of America’s political decay belong to its institutional design. The United States has always faced institutional challenges, but its constitution has lasted nearly 250 years. Fukuyama is right to define the American political system as a vetocracy. Yet the people have determined whether this feature resembles the consensual democracy championed by Lijphart or the gridlocked, legalism feared by Fukuyama. It is surprising Fukuyama did not focus on the connection between culture and political change since so much of his past work is focused on culture as a factor within political development including his recent work Identity or his earlier work Trust.
But the greatest writers do not deliver the books we think we want. They write to express their own ideas and help explain challenges they struggle to comprehend. Sometimes Fukuyama does not seem to write this book because it is easy for him to explain but because these ideas are difficult for him to reconcile. And in the end, it is the reader who benefits. Fukuyama offers us a gift and it is up to us to accept it.
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