Liberalism, broadly understood, is on the defensive. As political scientist Larry Diamond has pointed out, while the number of liberal democracies increased from the early 1970s to the turn of the millennium, since then we have been in a “democratic recession” with global measures of freedom – understood in a liberal sense – in decline.
Twenty years ago, economic determinism seemed to be on liberalism’s side. When the 20th century ended, it seemed that free markets, political democracy and a liberal version of the rule of law were the secret of economic success. It was widely thought that this had been demonstrated by the collapse of the Soviet bloc and by the success of the newly democratic east Asian tigers like South Korea and Taiwan. But today, the continued economic rise of the People’s Republic of China and the apparent stability of its one-party system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” have made that claim pretty hard to sustain.
At the beginning of the new millennium, the conventional wisdom was that new information and communications technology would empower people in authoritarian countries to overthrow tyrants while deepening democracy at home. While there are some examples that have vindicated this hope, few people using Facebook or Twitter today feel these are unmitigated blessings. The reversal of democratic advance in the developing world, the success of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in pushing public opinion in Europe and the United States toward a nationalist right or antimarket left, and the deepening epistemic closure of the various political tribes in the rich countries makes any technologically determinist optimism increasingly implausible.
In the 1990s, it seemed as if freer movement of goods, people and capital did not even have to be argued for. It was inevitable. The idea that “globalization” was an irresistible force was shared by those who favoured it and those who trashed downtown Seattle to protest it. But since September 11, 2001, borders have become harder and religious and civilizational identities sharper. And since October 2008, the faith that markets should be left alone to increase wealth has been shaken, leading both to a healthy rethinking of global finance and a revival of mercantilist ideas that in trade one nation can win only if another loses. Never mind that Adam Smith and David Ricardo showed almost two hundred years ago that voluntary transactions usually leave both parties better off. In these populist times, who is going to listen to dead white males who were also globalist elites?
The ideological tendencies that have been the pillars of the Western liberal consensus since the Second World War – social democracy and Christian democracy – appeared perfectly healthy when the world woke up to find out that the Y2K panic was overblown. Today, both are in electoral decline, losing ground to populist nationalists on the right, hard-line Marxists on the left and idiosyncratic personality cults in the “centre.” Broadening our perspective to democracies in the global South complicates the picture, but also provides reasons for disquiet. I write shortly after the first round of the Brazilian presidential election, in which Jair Bolsonaro – a right populist long considered marginal in the political scene – obtained 46 per cent of the vote (Bolsonaro was elected President in the October 28 runoff).
Not long ago, the English-speaking world seemed different. Granted, it had been through some unwinnable wars and a financial crisis. But anglophone elites could smugly reassure themselves that a foundational liberal consensus, spanning the electable left and the electable right, would not be seriously threatened in the lands of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill. But then came Brexit – and Trump.
To be sure, there is nothing intrinsically illiberal about leaving the European Union. Some Brexiteers argued that a fully sovereign Britain could recapitulate the liberal Little England dreams of Richard Cobden and John Bright by developing its own tradition of rights protection and enter into freer trade relations with the world. But polling evidence suggests that few Leave supporters are interested in a more open Britain, as opposed to preserving what they see as its historic identity. Moreover, leaving Europe has complicated the greatest liberal achievements of the Tony Blair years in finding a political accommodation for the contending Unionist and Nationalist identities in Northern Ireland. While electoral politics in the eras of John Major, Blair and David Cameron were dominated by a broadly liberal consensus around a civic definition of national identity and support of markets mitigated by social insurance, the major parties in Brexit-era Britain are dominated by a nationalist and nostalgic right and a left that is profoundly suspicious of business, markets and the institutions of the liberal international order.
As for Trump, as I write (in October), it seems unlikely that his populist nationalism will radically change America’s institutions. While he has made immigration enforcement nastier, for the most part he has left policy to conventional congressional Republicans who favour lower taxes and less regulation. But Trump clearly has transformed the rhetoric of the American right in a way that does not seem obviously reversible. Ronald Reagan and the Bushes rhetorically embraced the conservative conception of America as an idea – one of democratic politics, personal freedom and free markets. Trump instinctively rejects this bourgeois-liberal view of human nature, and his emotional connection to the Republican base (which includes most politically active white Christian Americans) shows, to my mind, that they instinctively reject it as well. Trump has consistently refused to claim that America is, or should aspire to be, morally superior. Trump values America solely because it is his, and he identifies its interests with his own. While all American presidents have failed to live up to liberal democratic ideals, he is the first in living memory to reject them.
The relationship between Trump’s Twitter stream and actual public policy is unclear. What is obvious is that he can, to the approval of approximately 40 per cent of the American electorate, deliberately dehumanize ethnic and religious groups and rage against norms constitutive of American liberal democracy such as the independence of criminal prosecution from partisan politics It is hard not to worry about how far a more disciplined leader of the same authoritarian coalition might get in future.
Mounk: Sensible proposals from the centre-left
Yascha Mounk, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. 400 pages.
The decline of support for the institutions of liberal democracy is not confined to a single country or a single age group. A number of depressing statistics are laid out in gory detail in Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy. Across western Europe and North America, trust in democratic institutions has been declining since the 1950s and is now at all-time lows. Each age cohort is less committed to democracy than the previous one: while 71 per cent of Americans born in the 1930s told pollsters it is “essential” to live in a democracy, only 29 per cent of those born in the 1980s gave the same answer. Similar results can be shown in every wealthy democracy, including Canada. More people support military rule (16 per cent of Americans in 2011) and a “strong leader who does not have to bother with elections” (32 per cent) than ever before. While older voters are more likely to support democracy in the abstract, they are also more likely to express racial resentment and, at least in the United Kingdom and the United States, to vote for right populists like Donald Trump.
The democratic recession is now undeniable and can no longer be dismissed as a blip. It requires rethinking the certainties of the 1990s. Rethinking is something liberals are good at. For the liberal intelligentsia – very much including those on the right primarily motivated by free market economics and keeping the liberal world order secure – the Trump election in particular has finally destroyed whatever complacency survived 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. Naturally, a demand for “big think” books to tell us what this all means has never been greater, and a supply has followed.
Mounk’s contribution to this literature approaches the problem from the antipopulist centre-left. His analysis begins by reminding us of the tension between democracy (a system of majority rule) and liberalism (a system of limitations on government). To be sure, some limits on what governments may do in repressing opposition and competitive sources of power are necessary for democracy to continue. But there is no guarantee that the majority will want these, or any other, liberal guarantees.
Mounk grants that liberalism can restrict democracy in questionable ways. Institutionally, judicial review, independent central banks, trade and investment treaties and other international institutions – most dramatically, the European Union – have reduced the choice set of elected politicians compared with the postwar era. These golden handcuffs were put in place out of a legitimate fear of illiberal demagogues. But such unaccountable institutions foster a sense of learned helplessness in the public. If all the important decisions are going to be made by the central bank or constitutional court or in Brussels, how much does a vote matter anyway?
While democracy in its most minimal sense merely requires that there be reasonably competitive elections in which the people can freely choose among contending elites to govern them, as an ideal it aims at equality of political influence. But in real democracies, it is the concerns of those with access to wealth, status and education that most sway public policy. While globalization has vastly increased the incomes of people in poor countries since 1980, it has also brought greater inequality of wealth and income to the rich world, especially its English-speaking sector. As a result, the rich countries have become less substantively democratic. Mounk notes all of this and, as a social democrat, he has proposals to improve the well-being of the population in the bottom half of the income distribution.
Mounk notes the risk of liberal institutions restricting democracy but, in light of his diagnosis of the dangers of populism, he is not willing to support reversing this. It is the danger of illiberal democracy that lies at the heart of his analysis. Although Mounk occasionally mentions the increasing strength of the pro-Russia left, he (correctly, in my view) focuses on the populist anti-immigrant right.
Like the far left, this tendency is generally supportive of (and reportedly assisted by) Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It defines “the people” in ethnic terms and is hostile both to cosmopolitan elites and to immigrants as outsiders. In Hungary and Poland, the populist right has taken power and has “deconsolidated democracy.” Mounk sees similarities in these European developments to those in Turkey, Russia and India It remains to be seen how far things go in Italy. For Mounk, as for Steve Bannon and (in some moods) Trump himself, the 2016 U.S. presidential election was the first step in a similar deconsolidation in America itself.
Mounk’s comparative approach is welcome context for North Americans marinated in the latest newsflash about the Trump administration, but with no comparable connection to events in Europe, let alone Turkey and India. There is no doubt that the European populist right and the Trump wing of the Republican Party have inspired each other.
At the same time, like any comparative enterprise, Mounk’s runs the risk of throwing together very different national situations. It is possible to argue that “authoritarianism” is a single thing that either “will happen here” or will not. But liberalism and democracy are both things we can have more or less of. Digging into Mounk’s discussion of what is happening in individual countries, it becomes clear that except for places like North Korea, authoritarianism, populism, democracy, corruption and even liberalism are not all or nothing. This seems to be true in North America as well. Antiterrorism panics have made us more illiberal in some ways. But victories by minorities have made us more liberal in others. Is America under Trump really less liberal than under McCarthy and Jim Crow? Or even than it was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11?
Quite properly, Mounk will not be diverted by any easy optimism, even one based on reminding people how bad the good old days really were. He can show that support for democracy has been declining everywhere in the West as memories of fascism and even Communism fade. He attributes the problem to social media, economic stagnation and “identity” – by which he means a feeling of threat and resentment among ethnic-racial majorities against outsiders. I find the simplest explanation best: the rise of the populist right is the result of identity threat. While social media make the situation more visible, I doubt they have independent causal force. And, from the data, Mounk himself shows that there is no real link between economic prosperity and support for the populist right. The populist right is strongest in countries like Hungary and Poland that have had the most economic growth. In general, it has been steadily increasing in strength, and the 2008 financial crisis does not seem to have made a particular difference. By contrast, Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to suspend enforcement of the EU’s Dublin policy and stop returning asylum seekers to their first port of entry in the EU in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis appears to have been a turning point.
We might as well face the reality that ethnic identity is a powerful political motivator, and that the populist right can most convincingly tell threatened or resentful ethnic majorities that it will fight for them. Greater inclusion for other citizens of the country is thus coded as threat. Liberals can and should try to frame greater inclusion as of net benefit to everyone, and viewed from the perspective of economic interest this is largely true. Social democrats should put forward proposals about how to minimize economic disparity. But the very fact that societies with all levels of redistributive institutions and economic growth are facing the same phenomenon shows that economic solutions are not enough.
Mounk proposes a very sensible set of principles for centre-left reform of the welfare state, including coordinating taxation of the internationally mobile, ensuring that people who own property in a country pay taxes there, increasing housing supply and decoupling benefits from work. Western politics would be improved to the extent that we focused on these issues. But the real problem is still how to defang the identity threat felt by ethnic majorities. Mounk supports reinvigorating civic nationalism, in recognition that nation-states remain the locus of democratic decision-making.
If this civic nationalism is of the kind that public-spirited people feel for their cities and towns or subnational units, then I am all for it. But this is too weak a brew for genuine nationalists. I am sceptical that a “creedal nationalism” of the kind found in the United States, Canada and Australia is really much better than an ethnic nationalism. The problem with identifying citizenship with a set of beliefs is made obvious by the phrase “un-American” beloved of Joe McCarthy or, less seriously, the tendency of the Liberal Party of Canada to identify its own shibboleths with being Canadian. For all the problems with national identity in Europe, at least you cannot imagine someone getting hounded out of a job for “un-Dutch” opinions.
Of course people will always have particularistic loyalties broader than their families and smaller than the human species as a whole. But I see no reason that liberals should concede that these loyalties have to be targeted on one single entity. Liberals can support various kinds of federal approaches to inevitable identity conflicts, while preaching the truth of the cosmopolitan insight that a person’s moral worth does not depend on where they are born. That truth may not be popular, but showing the courage of your convictions – as Mounk urges liberals to do – means taking lonely stands.
Despite Mounk’s half-hearted support for civic nationalism (and if it could be quarter-hearted, I might even go along!), I consider his book an excellent guide to our current perilous state. Well-written, factual and with sensible proposals for orienting the resistance to right populism, it should be on the secular wintertime gift list for anyone with a liberal cosmopolitan in their life open to big-picture rethinking.
Goldberg: The battle for the true meaning of conservatism
Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy. New York: Crown Forum, 2018. 464 pages.
Sadly, I cannot say the same for Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West. My inability to endorse the book is sad because Goldberg, despite becoming wealthy and well known as a happy warrior for the American right (his Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Change was a bestseller), has been politically orphaned by the Trump phenomenon. He acknowledges that Trump’s rise in the Republican Party demonstrates that he got it wrong. The American right, he now realizes, is not currently a coalition held together by a commitment to free markets, family values, a vision of foreign policy or a strict reading of the U.S. Constitution. Rather, its glue consists in the identity politics grievances of white Christians (in an ethnic, if not doctrinal, sense). This sense of grievance and the way it is expressed has obvious analogies to the left-wing “identity politics” activists that Goldberg targeted, but without the justification of any genuine history of oppression or subordination.
In the end, Goldberg finds that this right-wing identity politics is an understandable-if-regrettable response to the excesses of the left. I find him unconvicing, but I do not rule out the possibility that a well-presented argument for this thesis by a conservative writer could make for an interesting book. Unfortunately, Suicide of the West is too unfocused to do the job. Goldberg likes serious ideas and discusses various theories of the origins of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, the thought of Rousseau and the influence of Romanticism on Hollywood, with a long detour on Woodrow Wilson and the origins of the American administrative state.
Unfortunately, Goldberg is obviously out of his depth and should have focused on the postwar American conservative movement that he knows extremely well. He starts by saying God does not appear in the book, but he immediately attributes providential qualities to what he calls “the Miracle,” a combination of the Scientific Revolution, English common law, laissez-faire capitalism and the American constitution as it was before Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt ruined it. Rousseau (although clearly a leading figure in the Enlightenment) and Romanticism-influenced Hollywood (although clearly a major part of what made American capitalism great) are the bad guys. The British Empire and pre-Roosevelt America had their faults (slavery and the dispossession of Indigenous people), but according to Goldberg these were inessential. What was essential were the benefits of longer life expectancies and greater personal freedoms that we enjoy today but are on the verge of losing if we do not show enough gratitude for the Enlightenment and eschew Romanticism and all its works – which include the aforementioned Woodrow Wilson, gender studies and Donald Trump.
Goldberg is unable to say how the combination of economic and technological progress and liberal values got started in western Europe in the first place. Fair enough: experts argue about this and no one really can say. But by contrast, he is sure why they are threatened: their beneficiaries are not “grateful” enough for what they have brought to us.
The European Enlightenment and the United States of America are, like all human things, a mixed bag. They are not a “choice” and they are not going to commit suicide merely because people are not reverential enough towards them. Goldberg is aware of the paradox that the greatest critics of the institutional legacies of the Enlightenment and liberalism are the ones who have most thoroughly accepted its demand that authority be justified in light of the equal freedom of all. But he fails to see that this paradox cuts in both directions.
Colonialism, slavery and racism were just as essential to the Enlightenment and the U.S. Constitution as science and rights. As Orlando Patterson has argued, ideas of freedom and redemption have always been understood in terms of slavery and manumission. Or as Dr. Johnson put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” When setting out his thesis that the identity politics of the populist right is a response to the left, Goldberg never even considers the obvious progressive rejoinder that the identity politics of racial minorities was a response to the identity politics of white (originally, white Protestant) America.
To be sure, there is a sense in which the abolition of slavery was the “truth” of the Declaration of Independence. But that sense is a retrospective sense, made possible by the clash of the Civil War and the rhetoric of Lincoln. This was not a cheap truth, but Lincoln recognized that if the price were “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil” and “every drop of blood drawn with the lash … paid by another drawn with the sword” the redemption would still be providential. This was identity politics with a vengeance, and out of it a genuine idea of freedom was born, and then betrayed with the defeat of Reconstruction. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was yet another attempt at redemption – and Goldberg’s movement, in its modern Goldwater-Reagan form, regained the majority status it had lost with the New Deal by opposing this attempt.
In his battle with the Trumpites over the true meaning of the Goldwater-Reagan movement, Goldberg should also realize that this truth is also defined rhetorically and retrospectively. Goldwater and Reagan won over the base of Dixiecrats and George Wallace followers to a vision of creedal nationalism compatible with de jure racial equality and more universal values. Many on the left have failed to see the moral progress implicit in this transformation, a moral progress exemplified by the room that the coalition now makes for black conservatives. At the same time, many on the more ideological and cosmopolitan right have been in denial about the historic roots of their coalition or the attitudes of its Trumpite followers about social insurance and globalization.
The ideological right was blindsided by the attraction felt by the “base” for a protectionist former Democrat with zero interest in conventional virtues, the Atlantic Alliance or free market orthodoxy. Trump presented as a tough guy who would fight for “real” Americans against foreigners and “unreal” Americans. The conservative intelligentsia exemplified by Goldberg were surprised by the true feelings of their own movement in a way that the most knee-jerk American progressive was not. In effect, the National Review crowd made the same mistake about the “base” that they made in invading Iraq: because they think of themselves as people who put ideas above identity, they assumed others would as well.
Those who feel left behind by progressive changes need representation too. It was inevitable that this group would sooner or later rebel against being voting cattle for a project of ultramarketization that was never the reason they joined in the first place. If we agree that all politics is identity politics of some kind, the problem becomes how to represent their interests in a civilized way, make appropriate compromises and bring home the bacon. Some of Goldberg’s colleagues, such as Ross Douthat, Reiham Salam and Yuval Levin, have started down this road. But Goldberg has not. He is correct that liberalism, in its left and right forms, is a creed that cuts against the tribal aspects of human nature. But it should not ignore them.
Fukuyama: Equal or superior recognition?
Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 240 pages.
Standing between Goldberg and Mounk is Francis Fukuyama, whose Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment ploughs much of the same ground. A former neoconservative who remains critical of the American left for failing to connect, Fukuyama gets pride of place when it comes to “rethinking,” if for no other reason than that his 1989 article “The End of History?” (and his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man) crystallized the post–Cold War liberal optimism now being rethought.
To be sure, The End of History was not the triumphalistic book it has been caricatured as being since it first came out. When Fukuyama referred to the End of History, he was not claiming that, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc – which occurred after the publication of the article and before the book – there would be no more events. Fukuyama was using the word history in a distinctive sense that owed its meaning to the early-19th-century German philosopher Georg Hegel, as interpreted by the mid-20th-century Russo-French philosopher and framer of the European Union, Alexandre Kojève.
For Hegel, as understood by Kojève, “history” as a coherent narrative can be contrasted with a more or less random sequence of events to the extent it is a development of ideas of freedom. Hegel saw in the aftermath of the French Revolution the generalization of the idea that everyone is a rights-bearing free subject. State authority can no longer be justified as the natural right of the strong to rule, but as rationally justifiable in light of this equal freedom. For Hegel – at least as Kojève told it – once the powers of the world gave even lip service to this idea, history was over. It did not matter that the rise of America and Russia and the world wars – all of which Hegel predicted – lay ahead. The abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, the rise of the labour movement, women’s legal equality, the end of the traditional European imperial dynasties and the fall of colonialism were all – from this Olympian perspective – details about how to work out this revolutionary idea and therefore did not count as history at all.
As the Soviet bloc fell, Fukuyama argued that this showed Hegel had been right after all. Although Fukuyama has often been interpreted as saying 1989 represented the end of history, he was in fact suggesting that it showed Hegel was right when he said that 1806 had that paradoxical result. Marx’s claim that history would end after the revolution was no longer believable. There was no longer an appealing potentially universal idea that could compete with liberal democracy in the sense of a mixed economy with guaranteed rights for individuals and competitive elections based on universal suffrage. Fukuyama did not dispute that there were many particularistic ideas that would continue – loyalty to family, clan, sect or nation among them. But his assumption at that time was that particularistic ideas were ultimately no match for universalistic ones, so if Marxism was no longer a competitor with liberalism in that space, history had indeed ended along with the Holy Roman Empire.
While Fukuyama thought that a modern economy required price signals and therefore some play for market forces, he was not making the argument beloved by the Economist magazine of the era that liberal capitalism would sweep all before it as a result of economic forces. He noted that authoritarian development in Asia (including China under Deng Xiaoping) was perfectly consistent with rapid technological development and some degree of market mechanisms. Fukuyama followed Hegel in believing that history is not primarily about economic forces, but about struggles for recognition, dignity or status (what he called thymos). Fukuyama noted that the demand for recognition can be either the demand of the subordinate for equal recognition (isothymia) or of the dominant or would-be dominant for superior recognition (megalothymia). He thought that both are deeply rooted in human nature. The advances of democracy, from the overthrow of the remnants of European fascism in Greece, Spain and Portugal in the mid-1970s through the realization of democracy in South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s to the dramatic revolutions of eastern Europe in 1989 and the collapse of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s, were expressions of the demand for “isothymia,” equal recognition, a demand that had taken liberal ideological form since the time of the American and French revolutions.
Marxism shared the basic Hegelian belief that it was possible to make sense of history, and that its coherent narrative can be explained in terms of the expansion of freedom through the struggle of the “slave” to obtain equal recognition. By contrast, after the mindless carnage of the First World War, most non-Marxist intellectuals became persuaded that the idea of any meaning to history at all was merely a secularized version of Christianity. Fukuyama had a point in noting that the spread of revolutionary ideas across the Soviet bloc in a short time suggested this was too quick. Ideas of global scope could still give history a meaning, if only after the fact and from the perspective of the present.
In addition to the criticism that Hegel-style history found too much sense in what he himself knew was a slaughterhouse with no one in charge, another criticism was that it was crudely Eurocentric. There is no denying the truth of this criticism as applied to Hegel himself: he dismissed Africa and pre-Columbian America outright and saw the civilizations of China and India as simply preparations for Greece and Rome. Hegel was the product of his time, of course. Paradoxically (or dialectically), the demand that institutions reflect isothymia unleashed by the European Enlightenment has been turned against the exclusions of the Enlightenment itself. John Locke, the avatar of the equal natural rights of all and toleration of religion, was an apologist for slavery and dispossession of Indigenous people. Immanuel Kant, author of “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” was also the author of several tracts of “scientific” racism. From a postcolonial perspective, this was not just a matter of the failings of particular individuals. Rather, the scientific and liberal intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment both enabled and were rooted in European domination of the rest of the world.
For the End of History–era Fukuyama, it was sufficient to respond to these criticisms by noting that they were phrased in an ideological vocabulary rooted in the demand for isothymia that was itself a product of the Eurocentric process of history Hegel had described. “Eurocentric” can only be felt as a criticism if equal recognition is accepted as an ideal. This in itself demonstrated the universal implications of the specific and interrelated historic developments of Western science, economics and politics. While ideas that originated in the West could be turned against Western domination, in doing so the critics were acknowledging that their ultimate aspiration remained “getting to Denmark.” As non-European societies absorbed an increasing proportion of this aspiration, the contradiction inherent in the European origins of the ideal of equal recognition and its cosmopolitan implications would fade. Cultural relativism, like the Marxist state after the revolution, would wither away.
In 1989, Fukuyama was writing against a tradition of deep intellectual pessimism about the prospects for bourgeois liberal democracy dating back to the First World War. His claim that a demand for equal recognition is rooted deeply in human nature and that this demand’s only sustainable ideological expression was liberal clearly had comparatively optimistic implications. But The End of History also contained considerable discussion of what he considered the weaknesses and instabilities of the “post-historical” order. Some of these discussions seem prescient now. For example, Fukuyama thought that, if economic growth in America and Europe faltered, and the West’s cultural cohesion continued to disintegrate from an East Asian perspective, the relatively recent embrace of liberal democracy by economically successful east Asian countries might give way to a new deferential authoritarianism legitimizing itself on the basis of Confucian values. Fukuyama also saw the threat that refugee and migrant crises from the “still historical” worlds of the Middle East and Africa posed to “post-historical” Europe. He could see that the desire of the European public to keep migrants out would be in tension with the principle of equal recognition, and that Europe had no good answer to this dilemma.
Fukuyama was most troubled by the prospect that a liberal “post-historical” order could not tame the innate human desire for more status than others. In the late 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche ridiculed the well-behaved product of egalitarian liberalism as the “last man” and instead celebrated the “over man” (superman) who would not shy away from explicitly trying to dominate other people. In Fukuyama’s view, it was this critique of 19th-century bourgeois society – and not the Marxist one – which led to the near-destruction of liberalism in the trenches of the First World War and in the rise of fascism in its aftermath. For Fukuyama, the danger to liberalism is not material deprivation, but boredom and the lack of an outlet for the domineering aspect of human nature.
The solution, if there is one, is to channel these drives away from politics and violence and toward making money or pastimes like extreme sports. It is in this context that Fukuyama discussed Donald Trump in The End of History. At that time, Trump was a metonym for esthetically vulgar capitalism. Fukuyama adopted John Maynard Keynes’s attitude that it was “better that a man tyrannise over his bank balance than his fellow citizens.” In other words, one of the advantages of capitalism is that it allowed instincts of domination the relatively harmless outlet of commercial success and consumerist one-upmanship. Fukuyama still worried that this would not be enough, and that the drive for megalothymia would lead to wars and an internal revolt against the constraints of bourgeois liberalism from those conceiving themselves as the strong.
In Identity, Fukuyama returns to the themes of The End of History now that the Donald is no longer content to tyrannize over his – possibly exaggerated – bank balance. Canvassing the intervening decades, Fukuyama makes a convincing argument that the demand for equal recognition continues to lead people to push up against existing structures of authority, as with the 2011 Arab Spring. While these revolts often do not lead in a liberal direction, there is still no coherent alternative universal idea to compete with liberalism, broadly understood. Fukuyama acknowledges that in emphasizing liberalism’s advantages over its universalistic rival, communism, he understated the appeal of particularistic alternatives. He continues to take the approach of viewing intellectual history as primary with politics ultimately being about the working through of ideas whose expression is most developed by philosophers and other intellectuals.
One story Fukuyama adds to Hegel’s account of how the primordial conflict between master and slave ultimately leads to the ideal of universal recognition of equal freedom owes a lot to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. This story describes how our contemporary idea of personal identity came to be. Premodern societies simply assumed that it was the job of the individual to conform to social norms and that failure to do this was obviously evidence of bad character. This was first challenged by Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, which introduced the idea that God worked through the individual conscience and that if a properly inspired individual was in conflict with the society, then society should change, not the inspired conscience. (Arguably, Fukuyama is oversimplifying here by identifying premodernity with Aristotle and Confucius, while ignoring counterexamples like the Hebrew prophetic tradition, the cynics or Jain and Taoist sages.) Rousseau secularized Luther into the idea, made familiar by modern popular culture, that everyone has a natural self that is repressed by society. After Freud, this discovery of the true self became conceived as a therapeutic process and this idea of therapeutic self-actualization has either replaced religion or has restructured it (as with many versions of evangelical Christianity or modernized Buddhism, both of which tend to use therapeutic idioms).
On Fukuyama’s current analysis, “identity politics” in the modern sense combines the struggle for isothymia with the therapeutic discovery of the true self as suppressed by society. To the extent that this is a claim for equal recognition, it fits within the Hegelian story and a liberal society simply needs to widen the circle of recognition to include new ways of being. The political problem, according to Fukuyama, is that the connection to deeply personal issues of psychological well-being makes it difficult to engage in the kind of compromises that are the key to democratic politics. In this respect, he contrasts these issues with the economic issues of redistribution and class relations that dominate “materialist” politics.
I do not doubt that this analysis is useful in understanding feminism and the liberation movements of gender and sexual minorities, as well as phenomena on the right like the prosperity gospel and Jordan Peterson’s Jungian self-help retelling of biblical stories. But I do not think it is actually useful in understanding the forces that have given rise to the democratic recession. The “identity politics” that has mattered is the traditional one of ethnic differences drawn around racial, linguistic and religious lines. It is the last of these, religion, that is fuelling the rise of the populist right in Europe and America. Indeed, in Europe especially, but also in North America, the anti-Muslim right will use the rhetoric of progressive expressive individualism as an ethnic marker between enlightened native Europeans and foreign invaders. It is difficult to argue that there is anything postmodern, or even post-Reformation, about ethnic politics. Human tribalism is as old as humanity, and managing it is something democracies have always had to do and something they have often failed at.
While there are obviously conflicts about abortion, gay rights and transgender washrooms in Trump’s America, it seems to me that these sorts of questions are manifestly not threatening democracy and are less salient than they were when Reagan was President. What is new since then is the fear of whites with an ethnic Christian identity that they are becoming a minority in America. In 2000, George W. Bush tried to reach Hispanic and Muslim voters on a shared social conservatism. Trump represents the abandonment of that strategy, and his overwhelming popularity among white evangelicals demonstrates that ethnic identity “trumps” any allegiance to the sexual morality of traditional religion.
Fukuyama acknowledges the legitimacy of demands for equal recognition by historically marginalized ethnic groups and the need to address their grievances (most saliently in North America, the overcriminalization of young black, Hispanic and Indigenous men). But he says redressing these grievances should take place within the context of a shared civic national identity and agreement that immigrants should assimilate to the norms of liberal democracy. While he will no doubt get grief from some campus activists for this, I frankly do not see any politically significant group in the relevant communities that would disagree with him. Certainly, Barack Obama had no trouble articulating an aspirational postracial American identity to be united by civic morality.
The trouble is that it is precisely this settlement that is threatening to the traditional ethnic majority. The further trouble is that while an objective observer might consider “red” Americans’ identity politics an exercise of megalothymia, they themselves would view it as a demand for isothymia (not in those terms, of course). Just as Protestant America saw itself becoming a minority in the 1920s and reacted by reviving the Klan and shutting down immigration, the broader (but still exclusive) white Christian ethnic identity forged after the Second World War also sees itself as losing equal recognition, regardless of whether this is true. Unfortunately, there are no neutral adjudicators in the struggle for recognition. Even more unfortunately, in Trump, ethnic majoritarian identity politics found a man whose genius is in combining the threatening dominance of Hegel’s master with the sullen resentment of the slave.
In other words, the problem is not that identity politics is inherently any more resistant to compromise than economic issues. The problem is that the political system has not developed a civilized form of ethnic brokerage politics that both includes traditional white ethnic majorities and requires them to see themselves as merely one interest among many. This is the problem that the identity politics left has labelled the problem of “white privilege” or “white fragility,” and it is a real one that could use someone of Fukuyama’s dialectical abilities and equanimity to unravel. He could also have updated the hints in The End of History of the contradictions between a global posthistorical order and national orders that remain historical in his sense, contradictions he saw as at the root of a potential migrant crisis in Europe, which came to be 20 years later. Unfortunately, Identity fails to do this, and so is a bit disappointing.
Faced with an increasingly ascendant populist right, backed by Putin’s rabid petrostate, liberals cannot afford complacency or fatalism. There is still no alternative universalistic vision that competes with limited government based on equal individual rights, competitive elections and a mixed economy. Liberalism’s strong point is that it recognizes the limits of the political in answering the fundamental questions of eternity and identity, and it allows people to optimize their own life chances based on their own decisions. But these are its weak points too. While rethinking will not be the answer to a fierce enemy, it is good to have Mounk and Fukuyama’s analyses; hopefully, another movement conservative can do what Goldberg failed to, and seriously rethink the history of the American classically liberal right.