Endless History: The Tension in Liberal Democracy

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.

John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

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  1. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Professor McGinnis,

    “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.”

    When you have time, an explanation of those propositions and the bases for them would be an interesting topic for commentary.

  2. EJW says

    Professor McGinnis:

    “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.”

    Somehow if only that were as true as it should be.

    It especially seems under the current administration executive fiat has overridden “bicameralism, the separation of powers, and federalism.” Of course, the administrative state holds as much of the blame in the erosion of the concept of republicanism in America as does the president.

    To discuss America in terms of a “liberal democracy” as opposed to, say, a “liberal republic” sets up a comfortable falsehood for the general population. That is, in the name of “democracy”, it is honorable to abridge the broader liberties rather than to protect them. Wherein individual liberty/license reigns supreme, such is the case particularly in the last fifty years, but the overarching, republican liberties such as freedom of religion, and state’s rights are further eroded.

  3. Devin Watkins says

    Executive fiat wouldn’t normally be that much of a problem but for the courts. Executive fiat to give benefits to individuals should be stopped by the courts, but for bad standing doctrine. Executive fiat that creates whole new law wouldn’t be that much of a problem but for chevron doctrine. If the courts strongly enforced the non-delegation doctrine all these problems goes away. The problem isn’t the executive alone, its the courts that let them get away with it.

  4. EJW says


    From the Center for Effective Government:

    “[The Chevron decision] created a two part test to determine regulatory authority. First, the court must determine whether Congress spoke directly to the question at issue. If so, then the court defers to the statute. If Congress did not address the issue in question in the statute itself, then the court must determine if the agency’s response to the statute is based on a “permissible” interpretation of the statute. If so, then the court must defer to the agency.

    It seems to me the issue of the abuse of the executive order or fiat isn’t a regulatory issue, and thus resolved by the courts upholding non-delegation. Regardless, I agree they should better enforce non-delegation doctrine to reign in the administrative state, especially since Congress won’t. However, it would be better still if Congress were the enforcer since they created the administrative state, and have so willingly delegated away much of their power.

    The courts exerting greater judicial review in matters of separation of power could better curb the executive’s abuse, but clearly they’re AWOL on the whole matter. Of course, exactly how the issue of separation of power would get to the Supremes I’m not sure.

    The president with the ACPPA, “Obamacare”, for example, continues to rewrite the very law he slipped through Congress, and yet where is Congress, where are the Supremes on this? In that case, Justice Roberts virtually rewrote the law to save it. His majority opinion on the issue of a “penalty” vs. a “tax” to enforce enrollment in this monstrosity kept it afloat. We’ve paid the price since.

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