Francis Fukuyama and Yascha Mounk Wonder, Is Democracy Finished?

Fukuyama writes with a crystalline rationality — indeed, he has underestimated the power of irrationality in the past. He works to rectify that in “Liberalism and Its Discontents.” He identifies “neoliberalism” on the right and “critical theory” on the left as the primary threats to the American Republic. Those terms need to be unpacked as well: “Neoliberalism” refers to the Chicago and Austrian schools of economics, which “sharply denigrated the role of the state in the economy.” This was the philosophy popularized by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Fukuyama believes neoliberalism was a legitimate response to the “excessive state control” of the late industrial age, “a valid insight into the superior efficiency of markets” that “evolved into something of a religion” and led to “grotesque inequalities.” There was an undue libertarian emphasis on “personal responsibility.” Fukuyama believes, however, that individuals need to be protected from “adverse circumstances beyond their control.” Markets need to be regulated by the state. Economic efficiency isn’t the sole purpose of human life; there is a social component as well. People crave respect, not just as individuals, but as members of groups with distinct “religious beliefs, social rules and traditions.”

And so there has been a backlash from the left, an attack on the libertarian and capitalist excesses, the “primordial” individualist tendencies of neoliberalism. “Critical” theory argues that individual and economic freedoms were just a smoke screen for the basic power arrangements that underpin capitalist society. The system was rigid. Power lay in groups, in identity — in whiteness, in patriarchy, in a plutocratic business system. There was some truth to this: “Real world societies are organized into involuntary groups,” Fukuyama writes. The critical theorists believed liberalism “sought to impose a society based on European values ​​on diverse populations with other traditions.” There was some truth to that, too, but also a broad-brush siliness. Critical theory — as practiced by French deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida — became an assault on the objective realities that provided the ballast for liberal democracy. “The search for human universals fundamental to liberalism was simply an exercise of power,” the critical theorists argued. Fukuyama believes they espouse “a radical subjectivism that rooted knowledge in lived experience and emotion.” It also led to notional academic exercises like “critical race theory,” in which society was defined by immutable racial groups, the whites “privileged” and “people of color” oppressed.

Enter Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the British Brexiteers — the right-wing populists of the past decade. If academics could traffic in radical subjectivity, so could demagogues. The idea that a divorced white woman with two kids, working three jobs, was “privileged” was crass foolishness. The idea that American society was divided between Caucasians and “people of color” was simplistic. Broad swaths of the recent immigrant populations, Latinos and Asians, wanted no part of that. Who spoke for these groups, anyway? The loudest voices. Where did legitimacy lie? If truth was purely subjective, where did reality lie? “Liberal societies,” Fukuyama concludes, “cannot survive if they are unable to establish a hierarchy of factual truths.”

Yascha Mounk’s analysis of the difficulties facing the “Great Experiment” of liberal democracy is very similar to Fukuyama’s, but he is a different sort of writer — more passionate and personal. He is Jewish, born and raised in Germany, a proud American citizen now. He is accessible in ways Fukuyama is not: “My political values ​​are left of center. The American politician of the past 50 years I most admire is Barack Obama.” So it is no surprise that he agrees with Fukuyama about the economic inequalities imposed over the past 40 years by the neoliberal regime; and it is also no surprise that he is frightened by right-wing populism. His last book, “The People vs. Democracy,” explored that threat. But he is equally appalled by the “challenger ideology”— his term his for critical theorists. He believes that “entitlement programs that are explicitly targeted at members of particular ethnic groups, for example, provide a strong incentive for members of all ethnicities, including whites, to identity with their racial groups and organize along sectarian lines.” And furthermore: “Diverse democracies should never waver from a vision of the future in which ascriptive identities play a smaller, not a larger, role.”

Mounk is a meliorist, not a radical. He understands that racial enslavement is an enduring American stain and burden. He does n’t directly propose the elimination of race-based programs like affirmative action — and his argument is universal, encompassing and criticizing the anti-immigrant politics of his native Europe. Fukuyama agrees: “Social policies should seek to equalize outcomes across the whole society but they should be directed at fluid categories like class rather than fixed ones like race or ethnicity.” So both Mounk and Fukuyama pose a practical challenge to looming battles over identity politics in the Democratic Party and economic elitism among the Republicans. An effective liberal democracy, Mounk writes, “should oppose monopolies that allow inefficient corporations to quash would-be competitors.”

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