The Irony at the End of History
A critic of liberalism argues that, in a way, we are all liberals now.
Francis Fukuyama was right. His original argument about history moving with purpose and intent towards something conclusive has grown more prescient with time. In a recent essay, Fukuyama reminded readers that it is still the end of history, despite everything. With China and Russia facing existential headwinds, the authoritarian alternative has lost its luster. There is nothing new under the sun.
But there’s a wrinkle. Liberal democracy’s apparent victory comes at an odd time. Victory has not led to a revival of the faith. If anything, it’s the opposite. What has come to be called “post-liberalism” is spreading across the West, in the very places where the liberal idea was born. If liberalism itself is being called into doubt, then what sort of victory are we talking about?
One might call it the irony at the end of history. Just as liberal democracy appears weak, so do its alternatives. This is the paradox of liberalism—its strengths and weaknesses are entangled, making it hard to judge whether it is failing due to its very success, or succeeding despite itself.
To make sense of these tensions, we need to break liberal democracy down into its constituent parts. What if the apparent strength of liberal democracy has less to do with the “liberal” part and more to do with the “democratic” part? Indeed, as illiberal far-right parties continue making gains across the globe, liberalism gives off a rarified air, increasingly out of step with who we are and who we want to be. Democracy, on the other hand, is surprisingly resilient, while democracy’s alternatives have demonstrated even more bankruptcy than usual. China is the “best case” scenario for smart and streamlined dictatorship, but even that best case has been collapsing under its own contradictions.
It didn’t used to be like this. There was a time when democracy seemed boring. Political scientists lamented the apathy and indifference of democratic citizens. Today, apathy doesn’t seem to be the problem. Across Western democracies, political engagement and excitement are rising. If anything, there is too much excitement.
But looked at through an optimist’s eyes, vigorous debate—and the polarization that results—is not an indictment of a democracy, but rather evidence that democracy is doing what it should. In the U.S. midterms, worst-case scenarios of democracy dying—to the extent they were ever plausible—did not come to pass. Trump-endorsed election deniers failed spectacularly. When the results came in, most of the GOP’s furthest-right candidates readily conceded.
Meanwhile, across European democracies, old parties are being voted out and new parties, including radical ones, are being voted in. This means that voters are holding incumbents accountable at the ballot box, however inelegantly. We might wish that they did so by voting for “moderate” or centrist parties, but if you’re angry with the way things are, you’re probably going to vote for the way things aren’t. In Italy and Sweden, rising far-right parties are disturbingly anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Muslim, but they have not yet said or done anything to suggest a desire to dismantle democracy as we know it.
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In my new book The Problem of Democracy, I propose what I call “democratic minimalism” as a way of thinking through democratic dilemmas and perhaps even resolving them. For too long, we have projected too much onto the democratic idea, transforming it into something elusive, remote, and nearly mystical. This is not a burden it should have to carry. Instead of conflating liberalism with democracy, it is time to do the work of disentangling democracy (with its emphasis on procedural mechanisms of conflict management through regular elections) from liberalism (with its prioritization of individual freedoms, personal autonomy, minority rights, and a constrained role for public religion).
Of course, it’s not a clean or indiscriminate uncoupling. Democracy—even in minimalist form—requires some liberalism; it’s just a question of what kind. Political liberalism—guaranteeing the right to vote, hold protests, form political parties, and criticize the government—is different from cultural or religious liberalism, which is about expressing a particular conception of the Good. The former is generally concerned with means, while the latter is concerned with ends.
This can help us conceptualize the threat of illiberalism more clearly. For example, laws restricting the right to consume alcohol, have an abortion, or insult prophets and divine texts are about ends, while a law that prohibits public gatherings of more than 100 people is about means. For those who wish to see democracy succeed, political rather than cultural illiberalism is the bigger threat, since it undermines the fairness of electoral competition and makes it harder for the opposition to oppose.
If democracy is doing better than expected—demonstrating its resilience just as the standard-bearers of autocracy enter into decline—then it makes sense to double down on minimalism. Not anything goes, but most anything should go within the context of a democratic process and constitutional framework that protects the “right to recourse,” which would include various basic protections for freedom of association and expression. Without that, opposition parties would not be able to make their case to voters in subsequent elections. Even if you accept this more permissive approach to majoritarianism, it still includes quite a bit of liberalism. In a recent back-and-forth, this is precisely the argument that Fukuyama made to me. And he had a point.
This has major implications for how and whether history discovers its own conclusion. If a minimalist conception of democracy still requires a certain kind of liberalism, then illiberal and post-liberal parties are stuck in a world not of their own making.
They are indelibly constrained by the very system that empowers them. Diverse and divided democracies—and Western democracies today are becoming more rather than less diverse—are simply too fragmented for enough non-liberals to agree on viable alternatives. Even when post-liberal alternatives are effectively theorized and developed, it is difficult for them to win enough elections, by large enough margins, to significantly alter the ideological structure of society and state. So, post-liberals are stuck.
But so is everyone else. As a liberal who is critical of liberalism, I find myself coming to terms, reluctantly, with the fact of being trapped. The problem with liberalism is that it’s not actually all that great. Overwhelmed by endless free choice, we struggle to find purpose and belonging. Yet despite liberalism’s weaknesses, or perhaps because of them, we can’t imagine living without it. I certainly can’t.
Shadi Hamid is the author of the new book 'The Problem of Democracy.' He is a senior fellow at Brookings, a research professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Seminary, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He is also co-founder of Wisdom of Crowds.
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