The future of liberal democracy

THE GREAT EXPERIMENT: Why various democracies are collapsing and how they can endure

Author: Yascha Mounk

Publisher: Penguin

Price: Rs 1,990

Pages: 368



Author: Francis Fukuyama

Publisher: Profile Books

Price: Rs 499

Pages: 192

The philosopher Francis Fukuyama is probably best known for misinterpreting his work. His 1992 book, The end of the story and the last man, was meant to be a statement of fact rather than a description of a process. Since then, he has defended himself: “The word ‘end’ did not have the meaning of ‘end’ but of ‘target’ or ‘objective’”, he wrote in 2019. The Soviet Union had collapsed; Marxist collectivism was not the “end” of the story. Liberal democracy was. Fukuyama has therefore committed the sin of optimism, a risky destination for a serious thinker. In his new book, Fukuyama acknowledges that we are in a difficult zone on the road to this “end”.

There are serious threats from right-wing populism and left-wing identity politics. Illiberal democracy – autocracy – is on the rise. This is a conclusion shared by another eminent political philosopher, Yascha Mounk. Both books raise serious challenges, from the political center to how liberal democracy has operated for generations in America and around the world. They are a rare thing: academic treatises that can really have an influence in the realm of practical politics.

Both authors use the word “liberal” in its classical sense. Liberalism is government founded on the rule of law, with the purpose of protecting individual rights, equality and enterprise, built on a structure of rational and objective facts. “Democracy” is the process by which the law is agreed upon. Both authors assume that liberal democracy is the best way to manage competing interests in a diverse society.

Fukuyama writes with crystalline rationality. He identifies “neoliberalism” on the right and “critical theory” on the left as the main threats to the American Republic. These terms also need to be dissected: “neoliberalism” refers to the schools of economics in Chicago and Austria, which “have strongly denigrated the role of the state in the economy”. This is the philosophy popularized by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Fukuyama believes that neoliberalism was a legitimate response to the “excessive state control” of the late industrial age, “a valid insight into the ‘superior efficiency of markets’ which ‘evolved into a sort of religion’ and led to ‘grotesque inequalities’. Fukuyama believes, however, that markets should be regulated by the state. “Economic efficiency is not the only goal of human life; there is also a social component. People crave respect, not just as individuals, but as members of groups with distinct “religious beliefs, social rules, and traditions,” he writes.

And so there was a backlash from the left, an attack on the libertarian and capitalist excesses, the “primordial” individualist tendencies of neoliberalism. “Critical” theory argues that individual and economic freedoms were merely a smokescreen for the basic power arrangements that underpin capitalist society. Power resides in groups, in identity – in whiteness, in patriarchy, in a plutocratic trading system. Critical theory also led to theoretical theoretical exercises like “critical race theory,” in which society was defined by unchanging racial groups, “privileged” whites, and oppressed “people of color.”

Enter Donald Trump, Hungarian Viktor Orban, Russian Vladimir Putin, Britain’s Brexiteers – the right-wing populists of the past decade. If academics could traffic in radical subjectivity, so could demagogues. The idea that American society was divided between Caucasians and “people of color” was simplistic. Large swathes of recent immigrant populations, Latinos and Asians, didn’t want it.

Yascha Mounk’s analysis is similar to that of Fukuyama, but he is a different, more passionate and personal writer. He is Jewish, born and raised in Germany, a proud American citizen now. He is accessible in a way that Fukuyama is not: “My political values ​​are left of center. The American politician of the last 50 years whom I admire the most is Barack Obama. It is therefore not surprising that he agrees with Fukuyama on the economic inequalities imposed over the past 40 years by the neoliberal regime; nor is it surprising that he is scared of right-wing populism. He is also appalled by the “challenge ideology” – his term for critical theorists. He believes that “rights programs that explicitly target members of particular ethnic groups, for example, provide strong incentives for members of all ethnicities, including whites, to identify with their racial groups and to organize along sectarian lines”.

Both Mounk and Fukuyama pose a practical challenge to the looming battles over identity politics within the Democratic Party and economic elitism among Republicans. An effective liberal democracy, writes Mounk, “should oppose monopolies that allow inefficient businesses to crush potential competitors.”

Do they have practical answers? Both authors suggest that some form of national service could be a way to heal national wounds; Mounk includes a section on Gordon Allport, the 20th-century sociologist whose work suggests it’s harder to hate someone when you know them; interaction between tribes reduces friction. But Fukuyama, rather elegantly, settles for a plea for moderation. “Recovering a sense of moderation, both individual and communal, is therefore the key to the revival – indeed, the survival – of liberalism itself.”

Proponents of enlightened liberalism may not be vocal. But, as Ukrainians prove, they can be stubborn. We can only hope that Fukuyama was right the first time around: that humanity stumbles back to a modest state of grace. It won’t be easy; active and engaged citizenship will be needed. But any other fate is unimaginable.

©2022 New York Times News Service

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