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A review of Francis Fukuyama, “Liberalism and Its Discontents” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).
American liberal democracy is in serious disarray. Nothing better both symbolizes and exemplifies that disarray than the fact that Washington, D.C., the seat of the federal government, has become an armed camp. Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House are defended by a variety of police forces, high-tech nonscalable fences, anti-ram car barriers and bollards, search points, x-ray screeners, and virtually every other security device known to man. It is all a necessary reaction to the invasion of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by a mob seeking to overturn the election. With a large number of armed Americans in the grip of conspiracy theories and continuing to regard the Biden administration as an illegitimate tyranny, the possibility of recurring violence cannot be discounted.
The picture is further darkened by the impending congressional elections, in which any number of election deniers—those who cling to the big lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump—are on the ballot for positions overseeing elections themselves. And looming large in the background, of course, is the specter of Trump returning to the presidency in 2024, a development that could well spell the end of America’s two-and-a-half-century experiment in constitutional self-government.
It is within this foreboding climate that Francis Fukuyama has written a slender volume, “Liberalism and Its Discontents,” a defense of liberalism against the “severe” threat it faces not only in America but around the world. If the institutions of liberal democracy are under assault, so too are the ideas behind those institutions, and it is those ideas with which Fukuyama grapples.
The problem, as Fukuyama sees it, does not arise from deficiencies within liberal doctrine itself but, rather, from the way in which liberalism has evolved in recent decades, with “certain sound liberal ideas … pushed to extremes.” These distortions have led to challenges that come from both left and right, authoritarian populism on one side, and authoritarian progressivism on the other. But the twinned threats are “not symmetrical. The one coming from the right is more immediate and political; the one on the left is primarily cultural and therefore slower-acting.”
One of the distortions of liberalism travels under the name of neoliberalism. Deregulation and privatization pursued by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s had salutary effects on economic growth. But what began as a “valid insight into the superior efficiency of markets,” writes Fukuyama, “evolved into something of a religion, in which state intervention was opposed as a matter of principle.” Abroad, this led to disaster. For example, when the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” was applied to the former Soviet Union, where no rule-of-law infrastructure was in place, “large chunks of the Soviet economy were gobbled up by clever oligarchs whose malign influence continues to the present day.”
Here at home, deregulation of the financial sector led to the crisis of 2008, which brought hardship to millions of Americans. Something similar can be said about free trade and open-door immigration, both of which promised—and probably delivered—improved aggregate economic welfare but had deleterious second-order effects. There were adverse “distributional consequences,” which took the form of deindustrialization, and a “social backlash,” which is one of the factors underpinning the political crisis that confronts the United States today.
If neoliberalism pushed liberal premises in an untoward direction, a similar process was underway on the left, where liberalism, in Fukuyama’s telling, “evolved into modern identity politics, versions of which then began to undermine the premises of liberalism itself.” Identity politics has become kind of a bugaboo among conservatives of all stripes. But Fukuyama is simultaneously sympathetic and critical. When it came to various groups—women, African Americans, homosexuals—liberalism has historically fallen short of its universal promises. “Understood in this fashion,” Fukuyama writes, “identity politics seeks to complete the liberal project, and achieve what was hoped to be a ‘color-blind’ society.”
The trouble is that identity politics itself veered into an extreme doctrine. Fukuyama traces the path from Herbert Marcuse, the philosopher of the New Left, to critical theory, which took aim at the very concept of individualism as a Western invention, a product of a blinkered Eurocentrism that fails to “take into account the fact that real world societies are organized into involuntary groups in which people are categorized according to characteristics like race or gender over which they have no control.” But Fukuyama offers a compelling defense of liberalism from this charge, demonstrating how individualism is “hardly a ‘white’ or European characteristic.” And even to the extent that liberal individualism “may be a historically contingent by-product of Western civilization,” at the same time, “it has proven to be highly attractive to people of varied cultures once they are exposed to the freedom it brings.”
In one of the most incisive sections of his book, a chapter entitled “Are There Alternatives,” Fukuyama takes note of the many “legitimate criticisms” made of liberal societies:
They are self-indulgently consumerist; they don’t provide a strong sense of community or common purpose; they are too permissive and disrespect deeply held religious values; they are too diverse; they are not diverse enough; they are too lackadaisical about achieving genuine social justice; they tolerate too much inequality; they are dominated by manipulative elites and don’t respond to the wishes of ordinary people.
The question that must always be posed, however, in response to such criticisms is, compared to what? The principal alternatives to liberalism in the 20th century—communism and fascism—both had some rather glaring disadvantages: draconian repression, genocide, and expansionist aggression. What else is on offer these days? Fukuyama takes up the contemporary alternatives to liberalism put forward by both right and left.
On the right, various postliberal theorists share the conviction that liberal society is a moral wasteland and that the free market, liberalism’s economic component, only compounds the problem, relentlessly dissolving bonds of family, religion, and tradition, undermining civilization itself. Fukuyama readily concedes that “liberal societies provide no strong common moral horizon around which community can be built,” pointing out that this is “a feature and not a bug of liberalism.” The question he poses is, even if it were desirable, whether there is a “realistic way to roll back the secularism of contemporary liberal societies and reimpose a thicker moral order.” In an increasingly secular and diverse society such as America’s, he argues, “restoring a shared moral horizon defined by religious belief”—whether imposed by persuasion or coercion—“is a practical non-starter.”
From the left, Fukuyama considers the possibility of a “vast intensification of existing trends” in which “[c]onsiderations of race, gender, gender preference, and other identity categories would be injected into every sphere of everyday life, and would become the primary considerations for hiring, promotion, access to health, education, and other sectors.” But Fukuyama, pointing to “strong limits” on the electorate’s acceptance of this cultural agenda, judges it unlikely that anything like it will be realized.
“Liberalism and Its Discontents” is Fukuyama’s 10th book. Within the confines of a review, it is difficult to do justice to the wide scope of an argument that, drawing on philosophy, history, and economics, traverses a mere 178 pages. It is a volume that further cements Fukuyama’s well-deserved reputation as one of America’s most thoughtful and perspicacious students of political, social, and intellectual life.
Even as Fukuyama points to liberalism’s resilience, it would be foolish to charge him with complacency about the possibility of either the left- or right-wing alternative to liberalism reaching fruition. After all, he has written this volume out of a sense of urgency about the perils in which liberalism finds itself. But even with liberalism’s resilience in mind, it is important to consider the extraordinary character of the current moment. Things that would have been thought impossible—like the election of a malevolent carnival barker as president of the United States, like a coup attempt by that same president, or like a major war in Europe—have already occurred. This is a moment of maximum fluidity. There are no guarantees that American liberal democracy will continue to be liberal and democratic. It is all too probable that more unimaginable shocks lie in the future.