Doubling Down on Democracy

Francis Fukuyama is still bullish on where history is headed, but Americans should worry: republics can decay.

Jackie Lay

Francis Fukuyama made himself famous overnight in 1989 with the claim—in his essay “The End of History?”—that history as we knew it had ended with the victory of liberal-democratic capitalism over Communism. In fact, his tract wasn’t as triumphalist as some now remember. Fukuyama wondered, with Nietzschean melancholy, whether citizens in the newly hegemonic West would lose spiritual and moral purpose now that the all-defining conflict with Communism was over.

Capitalism did win in 1989—no credible alternative has emerged—but capitalism didn’t lead to liberal democracy. Market systems turned out to be politically promiscuous: they could share a bed with any number of political regimes, from Nordic democracies to Singaporean meritocracies. In Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Western liberal democracy now faces a competitor Fukuyama did not anticipate: states that are capitalist in economics, authoritarian in politics, and nationalist in ideology. These new authoritarians are conducting an epoch-making historical experiment as to whether regimes that allow private freedoms can endure when they deny their citizens public freedom.

Fukuyama has now completed the second of two enormous tomes on the history of political development from the dawn of civilization to today. (The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution came out in 2011.) Far from recanting, he appears to double down on his original claim that history has a democratic destiny. After exhaustively and sometimes laboriously tracing the political development of societies around the globe—Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy is 672 pages long—he concludes that, yes, “there is a clear directionality to the process of political development.” Democracy is where political history is headed, he says, and “the prospects for democracy globally remain good.”

This assessment depends greatly on the global rise of the middle class. “No bourgeois, no democracy,” the Harvard theorist Barrington Moore Jr. famously wrote. Fukuyama cites figures showing the worldwide middle class expanding from 1.8 billion people in 2009 to a projected 4.9 billion in 2030. As their incomes rise, he argues, they demand rule of law to protect their property and then demand political participation to safeguard their social standing. They do so not just to defend their economic interests but also for moral reasons. Beyond a certain level of status and income, people become insulted when authoritarian systems of rule treat them as disobedient children.

Fukuyama has learned caution since “The End of History?,” and some readers will tire of his tendency to hedge his bets about the implications of his own theories. If his analysis is true, however, then Presidents Xi and Putin should beware. Over the long term—and nobody knows how long that might be—authoritarian regimes that allow their citizens capitalist freedoms but deny them democratic rights will explode, in revolution, coups, civil war, or a combination of all three. Democratization, Fukuyama seems to be saying, will eventually turn out to be necessary to Russia’s and China’s very survival as unitary states.

He also takes a relatively optimistic view of political developments in the Arab world, arguing that a middle class is steadily growing there, education levels are rising, and economies are opening up, all of which mean that autocracy or military dictatorship cannot last forever. Islam, he insists, is not an enemy of democracy. Indeed, Islamic parties have best captured the demand for political voice and dignity. Fukuyama clings to the Tunisian example, where moderate Islamic parties and secular political groups have agreed on a compromise constitution that does not let Sharia trump the rule of law.

Fukuyama’s assumption that middle classes always want democracy would seem to break down in Egypt, where the middle class of Cairo teamed up with the army to restore a military dictatorship after the first wave of the Arab Spring. Elsewhere, Islamists have exploited demands for voice and dignity, and Syria and Iraq are crumbling as their regimes fight to hold on to power. Not even Fukuyama is up to the challenge of predicting how long this battle will last, or who will win.

In Latin America, democracy has sunk solid roots in Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, and Peru, but in Africa, he concedes, its future is less certain. While stable democratic alternation of political parties is well anchored in some African states, such as Ghana, other countries—such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Central African Republic—face enormous hurdles. They have been so devastated by colonial rapacity and so hobbled by climate, geography, and warring ethnicities that the best they can hope for is to achieve order in any form.

But the real challenge to Fukuyama’s optimism, as he admits, comes not from struggling Africa but from somewhere closer to home. The new element in his analysis, absent from the 1989 essay, is his damning portrait of the state of American democracy. A declining middle class, starkly increasing income inequality, overweening special interests, and partisan gridlock have resulted, he argues, in “a crisis of representation,” leaving millions of Americans convinced that their politicians no longer speak for them.

This is a familiar assessment, yet Fukuyama adds important context. He reprises a long tradition of historical pessimism—familiar to the Founding Fathers themselves—about the fate of republics. They do not, as Madison warned, always grow and prosper. They can also decay and decline. Fukuyama may be optimistic about democracy, but he wants Americans to wake up and understand that theirs could fail, just as other democracies and republics have failed in the past.

Beyond a certain level of status and income, people become insulted when their rulers treat them like disobedient children.

The fundamental problem, he argues, lies in the Madisonian machinery of American constitutional law. The Founders’ separation of powers can generate positive outcomes only when political opponents trust one another sufficiently to approve one another’s nominees, support one another’s bills, and practice the grubby but essential arts of political compromise. When the spirit of trust breaks down, the result is not democracy but vetocracy, a term coined by Fukuyama. Too many political players—courts, congressional committees, special interests like the National Rifle Association and the American Medical Association, independent commissions, regulatory authorities—have acquired the power to veto measures; too few have the power to get things done. The dire consequences of the systemic paralysis have become obvious: a democracy that cannot unite to pay down its deficits, rebuild its infrastructure, fund its rising long-term obligations to the aged, or rebuild its tax code to be simple, progressive, and fair.

A parliamentary system like Britain’s, vesting decisive power over the legislature in the prime minister and his cabinet, would produce more-effective government, Fukuyama argues. But this is a counsel of despair, he acknowledges, since no American is going to swap the U.S. Constitution for anything British. Suspicion of strong government on the British model was inscribed in the country’s political DNA at the Revolution, and as Fukuyama points out, the same suspicions unite progressives and conservatives, however much they may disagree about how to fix what ails the American state.

Contemporary American conservatism has no solution to paralysis; “starving the beast” ignores the necessity of capable government regulation for any efficient capitalist economy. The progressive side, Fukuyama argues, is equally at fault: encumbering American government with contradictory and unfunded mandates only reduces public confidence in the state’s capacity to serve its citizens fairly and efficiently.

What separates Fukuyama’s analysis from conservative and progressive polemics alike is his argument that this crisis of government results from “too much law and too much ‘democracy’ relative to American state capacity.” In America, he explains, a vigorous common-law culture of “adversarial legalism” took root before the Revolution and gave courts, rather than administrative government itself, the final say over key matters of public choice. “Conflicts that in Sweden and Japan would be solved by quiet consultations … through the bureaucracy are fought out through formal litigation in the American court system.” Adversarial legalism weakens the government’s ability to solve its own problems, since every outcome can be challenged and delayed through litigation. A political culture that believes more transparency and public accountability are the solution to the democratic impasse only makes that impasse worse. Politicians need privacy and discretion—smoke-filled rooms—to get the business of government done.

“No one dares suggest that what the country needs is a bit less participation and transparency,” Fukuyama writes, but that is precisely where his thinking leads. Less democracy means fewer veto holders in the system. Though he is not always clear, he seems to have in mind curtailing the power of senators to hold up presidential appointments, reducing the ability of members of Congress to lumber government with unfunded or incoherent mandates, increasing presidential power over independent government commissions and regulatory bodies, and cutting back on court interference and supervision of government bureaucracies.

The strength of Fukuyama’s analysis rests in the lofty distance he keeps from the partisan nostrums of both sides. What he wants is also what most Americans should want: an efficient, responsive, capable state. He is resolutely optimistic that reform is possible. “I do not believe that there is a systemic ‘crisis of governability’ among established democracies,” he writes. Theodore Roosevelt battled the trusts, Woodrow Wilson implemented Progressive reforms, Franklin Roosevelt created the modern liberal state: if they could do it, Fukuyama implies, future leaders can too. He explicitly washes his hands of the practical obstacles, which are daunting. How even the clearest-minded political leader might manage to assemble a coalition of interests and citizens strong enough to wrest power from the veto players is far from clear. But Fukuyama has succeeded in proving, with a formidable display of erudition, that anyone who wants to reform American democracy had better start by reading his latest book.

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