Fukuyama has foreseen this possibility. He felt that citizens dissatisfied with freedom and equality could destabilize liberal democracy – restart history, so to speak. One way they could do it, I realized while writing a book on grudge, is if such dissatisfaction leads to malicious acts.
So I think supporters of liberal democracy need to understand the danger of resentment.
The need for recognition
Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our value recognized.
This desire may involve wanting to be recognized as the equal of others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognized as superior to others. A stable political system must meet these two wishes.
Communism and fascism failed, argued Fukuyama, because they could not solve the problem of recognition. Communism forced people to make humiliating moral compromises with the system. Fascism offered people recognition as members of a racial or national group. Yet he failed after his militarism led to the defeat of World War II.
In contrast, Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy could solve the problem of recognition. Granting universal human rights, recognizing the dignity and worth of all, has made it possible to meet the desire for equality. Encouraging entrepreneurship, competitive professions, electoral politics and sport created secure opportunities for those who wanted to be recognized as superior.
But freedom can lead to inequalities, frustrating the desire to be recognized as equal. And measures taken to reduce inequalities can curb the desire to be recognized as superior.
These frustrated urges can lead to a malicious backlash. This could lead to decision making that weakens a liberal democracy. It might even tear apart the delicate net of rights that holds liberal democracy together.
Liberalism is why Western democracies are the best places in the world …
A desire for equality is found in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Every time someone outdoes themselves, the group belittles them. The means can range from gossip to murder.
If ancient humans evolved under comparable conditions, we probably developed “counter-dominant” tendencies. Indeed, we see it today in the games imagined by economists.
In such games, the majority of people, when they are anonymous, will pay to destroy someone else’s undeserved winnings. Moreover, almost half of people, if they are anonymous, will destroy the fairly earned earnings of others. We even see people paying to punish those who help them, finding the esteem acquired by generous people threatening. This is called the benefactor exemption.
Counter-dominant grudge can weaken liberal democracies. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted ‘Leave’ to upset the elites, knowing it could hurt the country’s economy.
The desire to be superior to others, regulated by hunter-gatherer societies, was unleashed around 10,000 years ago, when agriculture began. People then lived in larger groups, with more personal resources. The quest for domination, which is also part of our evolved nature, could no longer be easily limited.
The desire to be seen as the best can be socially productive and motivating. Yet, it can also lead to what’s known as pervasive wickedness. This may involve accepting one loss in order to maintain an advantage over another. For example, many of us would rather earn less while being ahead of our neighbor than earn more and be behind them. Likewise, about 10 percent of people will take less if it maximizes their lead over others. In short, the prevailing grudge reflects a desire to rule in Hell rather than serve in Heaven.
Dominant spite is also manifested in some people’s craving for chaos. Researchers found that around 10-20% of people approved of statements that society should be burnt to the ground. It can represent frustrated status seekers who think they might ultimately thrive in the ruins.
Freedom, equality, democracy?
To avoid a malicious descent into hell, we need to understand what triggers the grudge. We know that grudge increases as inequality and competition increase. The benefactor waiver is larger in societies where the rule of law and cooperative norms – how acceptable people find tax evasion or tax evasion – are.
An economically growing liberal democracy, seen as legal and fair, may be the most effective way to solve the problem of recognition. Yet this society still has to contend with some members believing that all inequalities are the result of oppression, while others believe that any curb on inequality is immoral. Such feelings still leave the door ajar for destructive acts of spite.
Yet if wickedness can threaten liberal democracy, it can also save it. When people violate values that we hold sacred, the activity of the part of our brain that does cost-benefit analysis is slowed down. It encourages us to act regardless of the harm that may befall us, allowing us to upset the other.
At the end of the story, argued Fukuyama, people would no longer risk their lives for causes once considered sacred. But if no one believed that liberal democracy was sacred, who would dare to defend it?
To defend liberal democracy, it must be sacred. This is what motivates its defenders to “go all the way … whatever the cost”, as Winston Churchill once said. Spite can tear liberal democracy apart, but it may also be sublime madness that saves it from tyranny.