The first of six posts on Francis Fukuyama’s recent book Liberalism and its Discontents.
Liberalism Under Attack
Francis Fukuyama loves to take an idea and turn it upside down. He became widely known for proclaiming an end to history. Today’s readers may look at this idea with disdain, but few of them recall how Marxists long predicted an inevitable end of history of their own. Indeed, the end of history was supposed to be a communist utopia. Fukuyama turned it into a prediction about the inevitability of liberal democracy. At the same time, it’s hard to take Fukuyama entirely serious. While it certainly made a formbidable intellectual argument, it also poked fun at Marxist intellectuals.
Today the end of history comes across as foolish, because democracy is in recession. However, unlike past autocratic waves, nobody openly attacks democracy. “Given the popularity and supremacy of democracy in contemporary political discourse,” Jie Lu and Yun-Han Chu note, “the hotly debated and discussed crisis of democracy is puzzling.” Fukuyama believes he has the answer. He writes, “It is liberalism rather than democracy that has come under the sharpest attack in recent years.” So, the crisis of liberal democracy is really about liberalism rather than democracy. In a recent article, he makes this case explicitly, “Liberalism’s decline is evident in the growing strength of autocracies such as China and Russia.”
At the same time, it’s perilous to disentangle liberalism from democracy. For starters it’s difficult to determine where liberalism ends and democracy begins. Indeed, it’s no accident that their fates rise and fall alongside one another. Sheri Berman writes, “As in the past, the political trends that threaten liberalism today stem more from a dearth of genuine democracy than from democratic excesses.” The two ideas complement one another, so it’s not necessary to choose between liberalism and democracy. Still, Fukuyama provides a welcome reminder of the importance of liberalism.
Democracy Paradox Podcast
Sarah Repucci from Freedom House with an Update on Freedom in the World
Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman on Democratic Backsliding
It may be “perilous” to disentangle liberalism from democracy, but that doesn’t mean people won’t try. Democracy, in all its forms, is a structured mechanism for political power. It gives a final answer of who’s in control, and what happens if you break its rules. “Liberalism”, on the other hand, is all over the place. The goals and values it espouses have always been disputed. In short, democracy can function with undisputed finality. The “winner” need not continue policies that promote liberal values. And many people are finding that they can reject those values, and yet choose leaders, even “autocratic” ones, that are accepted as the legitimate choice of the people.
Thanks for reading. It’s perilous because efforts to establish an illiberal democracy erode democracy. Look to the prototypical case of Hungary where illiberal democracy has descended into competitive authoritarianism. As so many have said before, ‘Democracy is more than elections.’