Endless History: The Tension in Liberal Democracy

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Last week Francis Fukuyama revisited his justly famous article, “The End of History,” which in 1989 argued that history, in a Hegelian sense, was coming to an end. With the breakup of the Soviet bloc, liberal democracy had won, and there were no real ideological competitors. As Fukuyama himself recognizes, 2014 does not look like 1989, but he nevertheless argues that liberal democracy remains effectively the only plausible system for modernity.

Fukuyama’s defense of his own work is thoughtful, but his original thesis suffers from a problem that is playing out now all over the world. There are inherent tensions in liberal democracy that ensure that history continues. By protecting liberties, liberalism prioritizes individuals, while democracy necessarily prioritizes a collective right—the right of a people to govern themselves and impose obligations and indeed trench on the liberties of others.

In a constitutional republic such as ours, we try to resolve that tension by permitting democracy for ordinary politics while enshrining rights that are beyond majority control. But even here with a constitution that has lasted for two hundred years the mixture is unstable. Just consider current conflict between campaign finance regulation and the First Amendment. Around the world the conflict is truly combustible.

Fukuyama acknowledges that some nations that looked in the 1990s as if they were moving to liberal democracies are backsliding today, but he does not discuss how this problem reflects in large measure the basic tension within liberal democracy itself. Take Thailand, one of his examples. There one party wins elections apparently by giving out huge subsidies to supporters—subsides that are not restrained by conceptions of limited government. Or take another example—Turkey—where Prime Minister Erdogan believes that his stalwart religiously inspired majority support permits him to shut down Twitter and engage in other fundamentally illiberal acts.

I think we underestimate, too, how much democratic support another autocratic discussed by Fukuyama- Vladimir Putin–enjoys. As my friend Mark Movsesian suggests. Putin sadly does reflect the preferences of Russian people, who do not generally accept our WEIRD (Western,Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (as defined in liberal democracy)) values. They by and large support his illiberal policies. More generally, the tension between democracy and liberalism will continue to generate new kinds of regimes– new syntheses of the contradictions between liberalism and democracy– depending on culture, religious affiliation and geopolitical position.

In his retrospective article, Fukuyuma could also have discussed old Europe more, where democracy has led to economic illiberalism and, consequently, stagnation. As one politician says of the failure of European economic reform, we all know what to do, but we do not know how to be reelected once we do it.

Interestingly, Fukuyama complains that democracy in the United States is not working well, specifically that gridlock has led to insufficiently energetic government. But gridlock writ large and our slower-moving politics—the product of bicameralism, the separation of powers, and federalism—protects liberty as much as the provisions of the Bill of Rights. Fukuyama’s unhappiness with America as well as with democratic autocracies, like Russia, shows that his thesis has a Goldilocks quality: the world is moving to liberal democracy, but only if the mixture creates the right temperature for both liberalism and democracy.

Given their inherent tensions the right mixture is no mean feat to achieve and even if achieved, there is no stable stopping point, as his contemporary examples of backsliding illustrate. History will continue as long as does the conflict between liberalism and democracy, between markets and the state.