Francis Fukuyama is easily one of the most influential political thinkers of the last several decades.
He’s best known for his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, which arrived on the scene as the Cold War was ending. Fukuyama’s central claim was that liberal democracy had won the war of ideas and established itself as the ideal political system.
Not every society around the world was a liberal democracy. But what Fukuyama meant by declaring it “the end of history” was that it was only a matter of time. The claim made a big splash.
Now, 30 years later, Fukuyama’s written a new book called Liberalism and its Discontents. It’s both a defense of liberalism and a critique of it. It does a great job of cataloging the problems of liberalism, but also argues that liberalism is still the best option there is. Fukuyama writes about some very current challenges, like the American right’s move toward authoritarianism, and the resurgence of nationalism around the world. The upshot: It’s not clear that liberal democracy really is the end of history.
I reached out to Fukuyama for a recent episode of Vox Conversations. We discuss the promise of liberalism, whether he thinks it’s failing, and if there’s anything he’d like to revise about his end of history thesis.
Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Do you think we’re in a genuine political crisis?
Well, I think we’re in a big political crisis. If you look around the world, liberal democracy has been in decline pretty steadily for the last 16 years. And it’s not small countries that are involved in this decline. It’s countries like the United States and India — the world’s two largest democracies. And we’ve seen great powers rising, like Russia and China, that are overtly anti-liberal and anti-democratic. So there’s been a lot of stress on democracy and particularly the liberal part of liberal democracies.
What’s the liberal part of liberal democracy?
The democratic part of liberal democracy has to do with institutions like free and fair multi-party elections. The liberal part really has to do with constraints on the power of the state, through rule of law, through constitutional checks and balances that make sure that even though a leader is democratically elected and legitimate, that that person isn’t able to do whatever he or she wants in terms of violating individual rights or legislative will.
Would you say that liberalism has lived up to its many promises? Has it delivered for enough people in enough places to justify itself?
There are so many dimensions to liberalism that it’s hard to answer that question in any simple way. You wouldn’t have the modern world if you didn’t have liberalism, meaning you wouldn’t have rich developed countries with long lifespans and high degrees of personal wealth, and the kind of individual freedom that exists. So in general, it’s been an enormous benefit.
I think there are many reasons why people don’t like liberal societies. For example, they tolerate a higher degree of economic and social inequality, because they are linked to a market economy.
And because they agree to disagree about the most important ends of life, a lot of conservatives don’t like liberalism because they would prefer to live in a society where everybody shares the same highest religious values, and liberalism doesn’t offer that. So there are a number of reasons why people are discontented.
In general, though, I’d say the promise of liberalism is equal treatment of individuals that are equally worthy of respect, and no liberal society ever fully lives up to that.
I count myself a liberal, despite some misgivings, but I wonder if you think that some of those conservatives are right that a society without some shared vision of the common good will eventually unravel? Or perhaps that the myth of liberal neutrality falls apart once a certain level of cultural and moral diversity is reached?
There are a couple of different answers to that. The first is that liberal societies do have their own cultures. For example, if people are not basically tolerant of diverse opinions, a liberal society won’t work. If they’re not public-spirited enough to do the work of self-government — paying taxes, voting, paying attention to public affairs — then a liberal society isn’t going to work. And so there are common things that liberal societies have.
The other answer is that existing liberal societies have been built on top of non-liberal foundations. You have nations and pre-existing cultures that give people a common heritage. One of the most important things in most countries is language. If you’re German or French or British, you have that common linguistic basis. You have a shared history. You have cultural traditions that are carried forward that give your life a certain thickness that just being a liberal individual doesn’t necessarily give you.
But this creates a tension because sometimes those cultural foundations are exclusionary and they can’t be entered into equally by everybody in the society, in which case they start being illiberal. So I think the trick for a successful liberal society is to have enough of a culture that people do have a sense that they are in a common endeavor, that they do share things with their fellow citizens. But that common shared core has to be tolerant and accessible.
I suppose what I’m getting at is something you write in the book: “Liberalism sought to lower the aspirations of politics, not as a means of seeking the good life as defined by religion, but rather as a way of ensuring life itself, that is, peace and security.”
To be clear, I do think liberalism has failed materially for lots of people, but what if the reduced aspirations of liberalism aren’t enough for human beings? What if too much “peace and security” for too long leads to complacency and boredom? What if the metaphysical needs that go untouched by liberalism finally lead people (mistakenly, I’d argue) to reject it?
I think we’re seeing examples of that in the present-day world. And historically we’ve seen that liberalism is the most attractive when it’s threatened. So if you experience terrible world wars like Europe did in the 20th century, or if you live under a terrible dictatorship, then you’re really eager to live in a liberal society.
But once you start taking that society for granted, and we’ve had 75 years of peace since the end of the Second World War, you start taking that for granted and then you aspire to other things. And I think there is complacency that has affected a lot of people in peaceful, liberal countries. And they want something more than that. They’re bored, in a way, with peace and prosperity.
In The End of History and The Last Man, I had a line where I said something to the effect that if people can’t struggle for justice and peace, then they’ll struggle against justice and peace because it’s a part of human nature that we want to struggle. We want respect for our ideals, for ourselves. And if it’s given to us too freely, then we’re going to want something else, and that’s a source of instability in liberal societies.
In many respects, a lot of the resentments and anger in the United States is a product of people losing sight of what the absence of liberalism would really mean.
You have a whole chapter in the book about neoliberalism, and you basically argue that liberalism has been undermined by excesses of market economies. But what if we think of neoliberalism not as a cancerous outgrowth of liberalism but rather as liberalism fulfilling its own logic? It does seem like we have enough evidence to say that market societies tend toward the concentration of wealth and power, and that that leads to political corruption, and that that finally undercuts the ability of liberal societies to mitigate their own excesses.
Is that account too simplistic for you?
No, it’s correct. I would agree with that. For a liberal society to be successful in the long run, you need to link liberalism with democracy because you need a political mechanism to do a certain degree of redistribution — not to completely equalize, but to mitigate the kinds of inequalities that a market society produces.
That’s why I think that the most successful liberal societies were the social democratic ones that emerged after World War II, where the elites had this recognition that a lot of the horrors of the early part of the 20th century were due to these class cleavages in both Germany and Japan, for example. In other democracies as well, there was a real effort to create a welfare state, and to try to be more inclusive in terms of having everybody sharing the benefits of economic growth. I think that’s the way that liberal democracy survives.
You don’t quite endorse a Bernie Sanders-style progressive economic agenda, but unless I’m missing something, that does seem to be exactly the thing we need to save liberalism from itself —
Yeah, I’m not shying away from any of that. I think we need more redistribution. We need some kind of universal health care system, and it’s a tragedy and kind of outrageous that we’re the only developed country that doesn’t have one.
There are other aspects of the Sanders program that I think are not terribly well thought out. For all the complaints about fiscal conservatism and austerity, if you don’t worry about those sorts of things, you’re not going to be able to sustain a progressive redistributive agenda. So you gotta be a little bit careful about it. But yeah, I do think that you need to correct some of the inequalities that have been created by this very ruthless capitalism that we’ve experienced in the last generation or two.
Reading your book and listening to you now, it’s never entirely clear to me whether you think liberalism has failed or whether you think we’ve failed liberalism —
A lot of this depends on your definition of liberalism. And mine is a fairly expansive one. I can see a version of liberalism that was actually quite successful when combined with other institutions and other features. I do think that there was an effort to push things to extremes on both the right and the left that were not intrinsic to the design of liberalism.
So I believe that neoliberalism is a deformation of classical liberalism in the sense that it takes the ideas of property rights and market transactions and absolutizes them and demonizes the state in an inappropriate way.
Similarly, I think there’s a version of identity politics that turns into something very illiberal. When you begin denying the premise that, under the skin, we’re all fundamentally equal individuals, and begin to say that our group characteristics are the most essential things about us, and that society ought to be organized around those group, that’s a clear deformation of the liberal principle of universal human equality.