One Cheer for Liberal Democracy?

REVIEW: Francis Fukuyama's 'Liberalism and Its Discontents'

'Liberalism and Its Discontents' by Francis Fukuyama / Farrar, Straus and Giroux
June 5, 2022

Francis Fukuyama calls his brief new book a defense of classical liberalism, which he defines as "the limitation of the powers of governments through law and ultimately constitutions." Had Liberalism and Its Discontents been written by anyone else it could have been called Fukuyama for Dummies, jumping as it does between the various themes that have preoccupied the Stanford political scientist over four decades.

Fukuyama introduced himself to the reading public with a 1989 journal article called "The End of History?" in which he suggested that, with the withering of the Soviet Union, American-style liberal democracy constituted a final answer to 200 years of ideological questioning. Liberal democracy has been his subject, frontally or obliquely, ever since. In Trust (1995) he focused on the cultural/psychological underpinnings of political order. In The Great Disruption (1999) he was probably the first to examine how the transition from an industrial to an information economy was changing not just our politics but the conditions of our politics, in matters ranging from family formation to crime. He wrote a two-volume history of political order. He became a prominent advocate of spreading American liberal democracy by force, calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in a 1998 letter, but repented in 2004, a year into the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Lately he has been especially active in public debate. He considers Donald Trump a menace to the country's political institutions. Even some of the former president's supporters will probably share Fukuyama's verdict that, "of Donald Trump's many assaults on American institutions, the most serious by far was his unwillingness to concede his loss of the 2020 presidential election and to peacefully transfer power to his successor." But Fukuyama has come to believe that Republicans more generally aim at "restricting voter access" and "are toying with the idea of overtly authoritarian government." In recent weeks, Ukraine's resistance to Russia has reconciled him with the project of armed democracy-promotion. He even hopes the war will bring to our exhausted liberal democracies what Lincoln called "a new birth of freedom."

It might sound like a boring thing to have been, since 1989, Senior Ideologue of the global hegemon, Explicator-in-Chief for those who rule the world. But there has always been a disruptive "edge" to Fukuyama. Utopian Marxists and fellow travelers, who had thought their own ideology would bring an end to history, got the trolling of their lives from him. More neutral readers were struck by a peculiarity: Most intellectuals sounding off about "liberal democracy" treated liberalism and democracy as if they were two names for the same thing. Not Fukuyama! And it was not hard to tell which of the two goods he cared about more. "There is an inherent tension between democracy and what we now call 'good governance,'" he wrote in Political Order and Political Decay (2014). Fukuyama did not despise democracy. But he considered it a means. Liberalism was the end.

Fukuyama's familiar strengths and weaknesses are on display here. The strengths include a keen eye for the paradoxes of liberal freedom. Late-20th-century free-market sloganeering is a favorite target of Fukuyama: "Ideas about the centrality of property rights, consumer welfare and spontaneous order," he writes, "are far more ambiguous in their economic, political, and moral consequences than neoliberal doctrine would suggest." For instance, he notes that government's handover of the Internet to the private sector set in motion the process whereby its retail users would lose control over it.

Fukuyama's weaknesses include a prose style that often fogs up, as abstractions do abstract things to other abstractions. "Following the French Revolution, liberals were shunted aside by other doctrines on the right and on the left," he writes, as if doctrines shunt. It is hard to pin Fukuyama down. He has a style of argument, useful literarily but slippery philosophically, of ventriloquizing arguments. "Intersectionality is an acknowledgment of the fact that different forms of marginalization exist, and that their intersection creates new forms of prejudice and injustice." Does he buy that? Or is he just laying it out? He covers a great deal, but in a hurry, and so superficially that one wonders whether to trust him. He calls Richard Nixon's victory in 1968, in which he nosed Hubert Humphrey by 0.7 percent, a "landslide." He thinks the 16th Amendment, which enabled progressives to introduce the income tax in the 20th century, was one of the post–Civil War amendments.

The book's punchiest chapters concern how "certain sound liberal ideas have been interpreted and pushed to extremes." On the one hand, Republicans pushed too much of one kind of liberalism (capitalism); on the other hand Democrats pushed too much of another (identity politics). That is a reasonable construction as far as it goes. But lately events have shifted out from under Fukuyama, in ways that his book struggles to take into account. At the close of the 20th century both parties were, in their different ways, liberal-democratic. Nowadays, Democrats are overwhelmingly the party of the liberal Ordnung that Fukuyama prizes—of stare decisis, of human rights, of the "rules-based international order." Republicans are the party of the democratic sentiment that Fukuyama mistrusts—of the credential-distrusting common man, of the gun-carrying yeomanry, of Daniel O'Connell–style "monster meetings."

As a result, certain of Fukuyama's observations that might have challenged preconceptions during the Clinton administration now come off as complacent: "Communist societies pretended that they had solved problems related to race and gender," he writes, "but in Western liberal democracies the social transformation was driven by grass-roots mobilization rather than top-down decree and hence proved more thoroughgoing." Sorry, but that is not where race-and-gender matters stand now: Where is the "grass-roots mobilization" behind critical race theory? Behind swimmer Lia Thomas's testosterone-fueled long march through women's college swimming records?

Fukuyama criticizes for its treatment of civil rights this reviewer's most recent book, The Age of Entitlement, a history of the United States since the Kennedy assassination. Since Fukuyama neither lists the book in his bibliography nor manages to accurately reproduce any of its arguments, it would be unseemly self-flattery on my part to assume he had read it.

All the same, it is worth addressing Fukuyama's treatment of civil rights, which he uses occasionally as a synonym for liberalism. His embrace of "diversity" is more categorical than it was just a few years ago. Comparing Asian countries' late 20th-century success to various postcolonial failures on other continents, he noted in Political Order and Political Decay that China, Japan, and Korea "constituted some of the most ethnically homogeneous societies in the world," and that their "state building efforts were enhanced by great ethnic homogeneity." That is the "edge" to Fukuyama mentioned above. He was once more willing than other political scientists to admit that, under certain circumstances, diversity is not a strength but a weakness.

Today he is more categorical. He opens the book by noting that the circle of rights-bearers "was initially limited, in the United States and other 'liberal' regimes, to white men who owned property, and only later was broadened to other social groups."

But this has nothing to do with "whiteness," which has never had standing as any kind of category within liberalism. Liberalism was a civilizational invention, an advance if you like. All such advances initially benefit people in the place where they happen, and sometimes they are defended against outsiders. For a long time only "yellow men who owned property" benefited from Confucianism as only "black men who owned property" benefited from Benin ivories. No matter where liberalism was invented, it would not have extended to women. That American liberalism has for most of its history borne the imprint of a particular culture does not make pre-multicultural liberalism a pretense or a sham.

In fact, we are discovering today that liberalism—or the ideology that bears that name—is just as susceptible as other ideologies to turn illiberal. In theory, liberalism is a set of neutral, rational, scientific principles for making sense of a society, the raw human material of which may well be non-neutral, ir-rational, and un-scientific. Liberals have generally reformed institutions by judging them against standards of utility and fairness. But what happens in what we might call "late-stage" liberalism, when all such institutions have been reformed according to liberalism's wishes? Liberalism's defenders turn the argument around, demanding, on behalf of institutions, that the public demonstrate its utility and fairness—that it make itself "legible" to government, to use the anthropologist James Scott's term.

Fukuyama has always believed, and repeats here, that "liberal societies cannot survive if they are unable to establish a hierarchy of factual truths." He does not call for censorship but would like to see speech governed by norms. "There are well-established techniques for determining factual information," Fukuyama writes, "techniques that have been used for years in court proceedings, professional journalism, and in the scientific community."

Is that realistic? The verb "establish" makes it sounds as if liberalism is merely defending truth against error, and indeed this is what most liberals believe they are doing. Just as often of late, liberalism has meant defending official truth against free inquiry: defending race-based college admissions against aptitude testing, defending abortion against ultrasound technology, defending transgenderism against medical studies. That is leaving aside the related problem of how, in a society where all institutions are liberal and value-free, it becomes profitable to suppress scientific truths like "opioids are dangerous" or social ones like "betting is dangerous." So profitable, in fact, that interested parties can raise immense sums of money to turn an untruth into a public watchword. "Disinformation" is not always a problem of populist epistemology that liberalism must hold accountable. It is sometimes a problem of liberal political power that populism must hold accountable.

This book hangs in front of Fukuyama's collected works like a rainbow flag in front of a church, reassuring readers that the Old Faith that used to be preached inside is no threat to theirs. You're good the way you are! Pay no attention to that cross on the roof! Returning early in this book to the origins of liberalism in the aftermath of the English civil war, he calls it "an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity, or, to put it in slightly different terms, of peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies." As if the electrifying 17th- and 18th-century vision of liberalism had anything to do with today's corporate-consulting phrase "managing diversity." As if the freedoms at the core of that early liberalism—speech, association, religion—were not the ones that "diversity," as we understand it today, is least inclined to honor.

Liberalism and Its Discontents
by Francis Fukuyama
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 192 pp., $26

Christopher Caldwell is a contributing editor at the Claremont Review of Books and the author of The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties.

Published under: Book reviews