Francis Fukuyama in São Paulo (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Fukuyama has been humbled. In today’s world, democracies and democratic leaders struggle to justify themselves over authoritarian systems and strongmen.

But in the last fifty years, Fukuyama writes, both the Right and Left have become increasingly comfortable with undermining liberalism. On the Right, politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and economists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman took the individualism of liberalism to its logical extreme. The neoliberalism forged by these figures has become the primary school of thought for conservatives today. What neoliberals have failed to understand, according to Fukuyama, is that prioritizing the individual above all else leads to a demonization of the public sphere and an erosion of community. While liberalism allowed diverse communities to coexist and thrive, neoliberalism decimated smaller communities and tended to favor the wealthy. Without some sort of social-oriented entity to step in and defend smaller communities, these displaced individuals lose faith in liberalism altogether and turn to alternative illiberal or authoritarian movements.

On the political Left, a different problem developed: the undermining of rationality. Fukuyama argues that while liberalism valued individual thought, the Left pushed to the extreme the idea that all opinions and viewpoints are equally valid, resulting in hyper-relativism. Here, Fukuyama points to postmodern intellectuals such as Michel Foucault and Franz Fanon, who argued that truth claims and language are merely reflections of power imposed on marginalized groups. While this philosophy promoted decolonization and emphasized inclusion and equality, actors on the Left eventually encouraged the abandonment of national identities. Fukuyama contends that a lack of linguistic unity and rejection of any national identities has weakened our ability to engage in communal discussions. A kind of hyperactive tolerance has resulted in a slow deterioration of truth, as well as the delegitimization of experts and the spread of lies and misinformation.

Fukuyama argues that issues on both sides have been exacerbated by technology and social media. In most liberal democratic societies, freedom of speech was protected to allow individuals to exchange ideas. But social media has instead allowed them to insulate themselves from alternative perspectives, creating a new array of problems. On the Left, Fukuyama argues, calls for social change have been replaced with social-media activism—liking and sharing posts or participating in cancel-culture mobs rather than physical protests. On the Right, neoliberalism has corroded trust in state institutions, and by extension the basic integrity of elections and other democratic processes. Insulated communities on the far Right have embraced radical theories from groups like QAnon that specifically advocate against liberalism altogether.

Fukuyama wants to give a full picture of the damage: What would the system look like if actors on either side succeed in their efforts to do away with liberalism? If the Right were to succeed, Fukuyama predicts that the movement would be split between a neoliberal capitalist wing and a religious wing. Both groups would reform society and abolish large portions of the federal government, albeit for different reasons. Christian groups would seek to remove liberalism and install a system that adheres to a strict set of moral principles rooted in the pursuit of a Christian theocracy. Alternatively, neoliberals would minimize regulations and government intervention, bringing back a society similar to the United States of the 1920s.

A kind of hyperactive tolerance has resulted in a slow deterioration of truth, as well as the delegitimization of experts and the spread of lies and misinformation.

Fukuyama argues that there are also two wings on the political Left who oppose liberalism. The first comprises those who believe that the past crimes of the state such as slavery, institutional racism, or other atrocities mean that these institutions are beyond redemption. Such a group would advocate for something akin to anarchy and champion smaller communities that operate independently rather than under the thumb of a federal government. The other wing would seek to further centralize the federal government’s power and abolish many of the current laws in the United States in pursuit of a more equitable, pluralistic, and secular society. Fukuyama is against all of these proposals, Left and Right, insisting that while liberalism is certainly facing an identity crisis, it still remains better than any of these alternatives.

In the final—and weakest—portion of the book, Fukuyama offers recommendations to liberals across the political spectrum. Above all else, he urges both sides to return to a position of toleration, embrace agreed-upon norms of civility, and find a common definition of objective truth. Both sides must regain trust in federal governments and acknowledge that they have a vital role to play in protecting basic rights and democratic institutions. Fukuyama implores those on the Right to reject anti-democratic practices and sees a revival of liberal conservatism as a real possibility; he holds up Benjamin Disraeli as an example of someone who embraced democratic reform rather than doubling down on anti-liberal measures. The result was a renewed belief in conservatism in Britain and a new generation of liberal conservatives such as Winston Churchill.

Fukuyama has more advice for the Left. He suggests that to appeal to voters, the Left should re-embrace national pride—by abandoning the concept, they have ceded valuable ground to illiberal actors both in the United States and abroad. Illiberal leaders like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, and Xi Jinping have used nationalism to stabilize their regimes and build support for their platforms. Fukuyama argues that the Left should embrace patriotism and begin associating a national identity with democracy. He also encourages progressives to be more willing to make compromises with centrists; without them, progressive policies simply do not have enough support. While progressives may have the right intentions when it comes to addressing past wrongs or future problems, their policies can easily be lampooned and the original intent can be lost or dismissed as identity politics.

He urges both sides to return to a position of toleration, embrace agreed-upon norms of civility, and find a common definition of objective truth.

The first two-thirds of Fukuyama’s book offers an insightful defense of liberalism and a convincing diagnosis of the extremes that have developed on both ends of the political spectrum. But the conclusion suffers from a “both-sidesism” that distorts Fukuyama’s conclusion about the biggest threats to democracy. Fukuyama claims, for example, that progressives in Congress could be just as dangerous to American democracy as conservatives. True, progressive policies may be too extreme for some voters, but progressives still ground their proposals and efforts in established democratic channels. In contrast, the latest Republican president has continued to fuel unfounded claims of election fraud in a bid to stay in power, and is running again despite his attempt to overturn the results of a free and fair election. Furthermore, many Republicans and conservative voters have expressed their openness to illiberal doctrines such as the independent state-legislature theory and have readily embraced figures like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his explicit calls for “illiberal democracy.” Orbán and his Fidesz party have perfected the playbook for producing large quantities of misinformation and undermining voices that would aid voters in sifting through what is fact and fabrication. It is no coincidence that Orbán was the keynote speaker at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, where he exhorted conservatives to “take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels. We must coordinate the movement of our troops…. You have two years to get ready.” In early September, more than 80 percent of the European Parliament voted to classify Hungary as a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy,” and plan to put pressure on Hungarian leadership to return to democracy. Rather than imploring conservatives to look to the examples of conservatives past, Fukuyama would have done better to address these very real illiberal activities that right-wing parties are already engaged in and the support for them the Republican Party apparently has. While there is certainly room to critique both ends of the political spectrum, American liberalism stands to lose far more from actors on the Right than those on the Left. Treating both sides equally dismisses this grave reality.

Liberalism and Its Discontents arrives at a time when democracies face a serious legitimacy crisis around the world. As Americans anxiously speculate about the fate of our democratic institutions, Ukrainians are quite literally fighting for their nation’s existence and their fledgling democracy. Fukuyama implores the reader to believe fighting to preserve liberalism is worth the struggle. His book serves as an excellent reminder of liberalism’s successes and strengths, and of the need for liberal democracies to reinvigorate their constituents’ belief in democratic institutions. Democracy is a challenge, but it remains far superior to the alternatives.

Liberalism and Its Discontents
Francis Fukuyama
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$17 | 192 pp.

Nicholas Misukanis is a doctoral candidate in the history department at the University of Maryland–College Park. He studies modern European and Middle Eastern history with a special emphasis on Germany and the role energy autonomy played in foreign and domestic German politics.

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