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Francis Fukuyama On Why Liberal Democracy Is In Trouble


Today we begin writing the latest draft of history.


We're in the middle of a dramatic year. There's a new administration in the U.S. and big elections abroad from Turkey to France to Germany and beyond. For some, it is a disorienting year. So in days to come, we will explore the history of our time. And we begin with a man who authored a famous idea of modern history.

INSKEEP: Just as the Cold War was about to end, as the Soviet Union was about to collapse, in 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote "The End Of History."

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: For the previous 150 years, Marxists had been saying that there is such a thing as a progressive history and where it's leading us to is communism. And I simply made the observation that if we're going to evolve to anything, we were going to evolve to a liberal democracy tied to a market economy.

INSKEEP: So communism lost, liberal democracy won. Twenty-eight years later, Fukuyama sees a new wave of history. In our time, he says, many of us feel the pull of taking part in tribal societies. And that impulse struggles against the drive for an open society. Many people feel democracy has not delivered for them. Fukuyama points to the United States, where President Trump campaigned against a system he saw as corrupt and was opposed by people fearing he would be corrupt.

Fukuyama's interested not just in democracy but in the survival of liberal democracy. There's a difference.

FUKUYAMA: The liberal part, which is a rule of law, meaning generally accepted rules that put clear limits on the way that the state can exercise power. Then the second is democracy, like elections to guarantee that the state represents the interest of as much of the population as possible and not just the elites that are running the state.

INSKEEP: So what is it, in your view, that has begun to go wrong in liberal democracies around the world since the 1990s when they seemed so triumphant?

FUKUYAMA: Well, there are several things. So one is just the fate of globalization, which actually worked very well in the aggregate. But it didn't benefit everybody equally. You know, we're now more than a generation away from the collapse of communism. And in a way, everybody now takes democracy for granted. And they're very unhappy with the way that their institutions are performing, I think, both in the United States and in Europe.

INSKEEP: Let me throw out something that I feel that I've observed. You tell me if I'm correct. It seems that there are a lot of countries around the world where the forms of liberal democracy are still in place but the reality is not. Maybe Russia would be an example. You have an elected president. You have an elected legislature. You have a mass media. You have people who vote. You have courts. And yet, nobody would say that's a democratic society.

FUKUYAMA: Well, I think Russia is the prime case of the democratic part of a liberal democracy turning against the liberal part, meaning that, you know, Putin is very popular. The latest poll says that he's got over 85 percent popularity in Russia. And he's used that popularity as a base for eroding laws so that he can arrest or disqualify opposition candidates. He can basically cow the media. He can assassinate pesky political opponents.

And this is what's been happening in that country. So you have democracy without liberalism.

INSKEEP: Is there a danger of this in the United States?

FUKUYAMA: Well, I think that's the issue that many people, myself included, have worried about in the case of the election of Donald Trump. If you look at the way he's treated the media, the mainstream media, he's used his popular base. He's got them very angry. He said at one point that the mainstream media is the enemy of the American people, which is something we haven't heard from a leader, you know, really since Joseph Stalin.

You know, he gets the democracy point. He loves going to these rallies where people adulate him. He doesn't get the liberal part so well, which is that you've got this set of rules that constrain power and force you to play by the rules.

INSKEEP: What are the causes of an election of someone who concerns you so much like that?

FUKUYAMA: Well, I think there's two basic background conditions. So the first is this globalization reaction that I'd mentioned earlier that, you know, you have a middle class in the United States or working class that has really not done well in the last 30, 40 years. And I actually think it's quite legitimate for them to blame the elites who promised that, you know, as a result of globalization, everybody would be better off. But in fact, they were the losers.

The other thing, I think, has to do with our political system. Quite honestly, you know, well before Donald Trump began saying this, it wasn't working well. You know, Congress couldn't pass budgets, it couldn't - you know, it was very deadlocked. Plus - which I think there's a general feeling that interest groups, people with a lot of wealth and power, have a disproportionate say in the way that our democracy works. And so all of these put together, the institutional shortcomings and the socio-economic impacts of globalization, I think, prepared the ground for a rise of a populist.

And I'm actually surprised it took this long to get to this point because ever since the financial crisis in 2008, I think we've been ripe for something like this.

INSKEEP: Can I throw out a hypothesis that the events of the past year or two have been very good for democracy? And it might be something like this. There were millions of people who were feeling frustrated and disconnected. Many of them expressed that by voting for President Trump. And now they're engaged. There were millions of people on the other side of politics who were not very engaged, who now realize a great deal is at stake.

And people on the left are far more energized. Could all of these developments actually be very good for American democracy?

FUKUYAMA: Absolutely. I think that people need to pay attention. They need to participate. The problem, I think, really is in the polarization that there's so much anger and distrust between the two sides of this divide. And that's the part that really makes things very unhealthy.

INSKEEP: Is this an exciting moment for a historian to be alive and looking around?

FUKUYAMA: Well, as a, you know, as a citizen, I feel that it's a little bit too exciting. Every day, you wake up and you really read something you thought was not possible in terms of American politics. As a dispassionate social scientist, I actually think that it's quite interesting, you know, because we have these theories about institutions and how they're supposed to work. And it's going to be a test. I think we're all in for an interesting test of the stability of our democratic institutions, how legitimate they are, whether they can actually self-correct.

We political scientists tend to believe this. But, you know, you have to meet reality.

INSKEEP: Francis Fukuyama, thanks very much.

FUKUYAMA: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University, whose many books include "Political Order And Political Decay." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.