When Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man in 1992, his argument that liberalism and liberal democracies were the political culmination of history appeared to be proving true. As he was writing, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union had disintegrated, and the Cold War had, contrary to many experts’ predictions, ended peacefully. All signs pointed to the capability of liberal democracies to weather the most difficult political storms and provide a legally, economically, and socially superior form of government.
Since then, Fukuyama has been humbled. In today’s world, democracies and democratic leaders struggle to justify themselves over authoritarian systems and strongmen. But to meet this moment, Fukuyama has written a strong defense of liberal democracy in his new book Liberalism and Its Discontents. Liberal democracies and their institutions are under assault from both the political Right and Left, he argues, and many citizens’ frustrations with their democratic institutions are causing them to forget the stability and prosperity that liberalism has created. The solution to countering illiberalism lies in returning to compromise at the political center rather than embracing a winner-take-all mentality bent on crushing political opponents. While Fukuyama’s book serves as a helpful reminder of the history of liberalism and the benefits that come with it, his recommendations for how to protect liberalism are inadequate to the threats it faces today.
Fukuyama begins the book with an explanation of how liberalism emerged in Western Europe. In the aftermath of devastating religious wars in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire, many governments consolidated their power into absolute monarchies. English monarchs, however, failed to solidify their rule as soundly as their French or Austrian counterparts; the resulting division of powers between the monarch and a representative body provided the foundations for liberalism, which prioritized the protection of individual rights, equality before the law, and the consent of the governed as the basis for political power. In addition to a check on royal authority, liberalism also provided major economic and legal benefits to ordinary people, which spurred massive economic growth and expansion. Fukuyama explains that liberalism in England allowed individuals to create social and democratic institutions that recognized individual rights while also acknowledging the equal moral and legal status of others. Consequently, liberalism helped to make it possible for diverse populations to coexist in the nations that embraced it. While liberal democracies sometimes suffered from gridlock and even violence, the potential for institutional improvement and the protection of individual liberties appealed to the majority of people, and in the twentieth century, democracy triumphed over powerful alternatives such as monarchism, fascism, and communism.