What an incoherent argument. Democracy began to seem boring? To WHOM?!?

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Dec 10, 2022·edited Dec 10, 2022

Honestly, this argument does not hold water in too many respects. From a celebrated fellow of the Brookings Institute I would expect better.

"history moving with purpose and intent towards something conclusive" ? I do not recall Fukuyama using those words in his book, although there is a similarity of concepts. But there's the rub, which was the rub in Fukuyama's book too, ultimately: you speak of History as though it were an entity with agency. It is not. Conferring agency to abstract entities is the flaw of Hegelian idealism, which ultimately derives from Plato and brings into the 'lay' observation of the world interpretative tools that belong to religious thought, to the belief in superhuman forces that guide the course of human experience.

Alas. As any historian in good faith can tell you, History has no agency of its own. There is no "purpose and intent", which are ridiculous concepts better suited to a deity. History is a jumble of the agencies of very real and tangible entities (humans and the fluid groups they form) conflicting over their very real and tangible perceived interests.

No arrow of progress. No continual evolution towards better (real Evolution has no agency either... organisms evolve by adapting to circumstances limited in space and time, and what works at a certain time and in a certain place is very likely to be tragically unhelpful to survival at a different time under different conditions -- like a good friend who is a professor of genetics repeats often, 'in the course of evolution, the normal state of species is EXTINCT'). We do not progress towards better: we change; the subsequent state may be exceptionally worse for a great number -- but it is different. Struggling to keep what we value never comes to an end.

History will go on forever -- I have news for you: there have been systems of government that did, in the course of the last 4000 years, last for a millennium or more virtually unchanged. Globalisation has reshuffled the cards, and brought to preeminence the system born in the West with the Industrial Revolution... a mere 300 years since its first baby wail, 150 years since Gladstone and the Liberal party, some 100 years since universal suffrage was first implemented. It is a darn short time, historically, to declare persistence... even more so the end of change.

"Trump-endorsed election deniers failed spectacularly." I love this statement in particular. If for you a loss by extremely slight margin is a spectacular loss, I congratulate you on the efficacy of your rosy-coloured glasses. Your country is steadily moving, on one side, by several State laws and gimmicks to restrict universal suffrage or at least the exercise of voting rights, while on the other side it resuscitated the crime of thought and delights in witch hunts worth of Cromwell's committees. There may be some signs of a shift towards reason, in some places and fields, but they are small. There is nothing spectacular about it.

"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)"

Now you will have to explain how is it possible to maintain the first without the latter. Because the procedural mechanisms need, to be implemented, that people believe in their value. It takes acknowledgement of the superior value of individual freedom, to safeguard the freedom of expressing opinions and organising into parties/pressure groups/political entities. It takes commitment to safeguard personal autonomy to enforce the equality of all citizens in exercising their right of association (not, for example, like we did once, having the man vote for the wife, or the poor not vote at all). It takes belief in the value of exercising of civil rights also by minorities, in order to prevent minorities from being excluded from democracy. And it takes a staunch position on the separation of church and state in order to prevent a religion from suppressing all the other religions and removing the civil rights of their adherents and whoever disagrees.

One might want to recall, to cite a trite historical fact that is still too easily forgotten, that the National Socialist Party of Germany was voted in with a strong relative majority (44% of the vote in the last free election in 1933) -- we are used to think that authoritarian systems only come to power through violent revolutions, but it is not always the case; they also come to power in times of deep social unrest, through democratic means.

The problem is what these illiberal parties, which have the support of a significant part of the population) do once they are in power. And their strategy is always to dismantle those "procedural mechanisms of conflict management through regular elections", that is democracy even by your restrictive definition. Inevitably, their goal is to prevent their opponents from expressing dissent, organising consensus and challenging their power. They progress towards increasingly rigged electoral systems, ban opposition parties, and arrive at a totalitarian state, more or less efficient and therefore more or less long-lived.

And the damage that they do to democratic institutions is immense and hard to recover from. Spain, Chile, others, having recovered from awful dictatorships in a bloodless manner, have struggled for a long time, or are still struggling, with the poisoning suffered by all those values that you would like to 'disentangle' from democracy. The European countries come out of the old Soviet Bloc, many of which were rather established democracies before the Soviet era, have been struggling with similar problems, with greater or smaller success.

There is very little to be triumphant about. Although an optimism of the will is salutary, a pessimism of reason comes inevitably from what we see. And a minimalist definition of democracy is not a solution, rather I am afraid would be the paper screen to its death.

For if some of the autocracies that exist seem to have problems, in this last few years, this is far from an established trend -- Russia, the great revenant, is just now sinking deep into its illiberal hell, and it has nukes, and is unleashing on the world famine and recession; China is still in the run for top economic power in the world. And others fare quite well -- see all the totalitarian theocracies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, where the "procedural mechanisms of conflict management through regular elections" are ridiculous shams, not just because of intimidation and fraud, but because of the nullification of the premises to holding democratic elections, which are freedom of association and freedom of expressing dissent.

I am afraid that with your minimalist definition, the system that existed in the USSR, or that in existence in the Republic of Iran, comfortably would qualify for democracy: after all they have a parliament and hold elections, all of which surely has a lot of neat procedural mechanisms in place. Who cares about the excluded, right?

The problem is that the excluded, the forced and the suppressed are always ticking bombs: and while they may not produce regime changes, they sure guarantee a future of ugly bloodbaths.

We were better off when we believed that elimination of arrant poverty and increased per capita wealth would de facto bring about liberal democracy and its entailed freedoms. At least it was a theory based on what had actually happened in a number of what were later to be called developed countries, following the Industrial Revolution.

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The reality is that liberal democracy in the West is in deep decline and authoritarian states are on the rise. China passed the US in GDP years ago and hasn’t looked back. For better or worse, authoritarian China is a rising power and ‘woke’ America is a declining power. I have a single line that summarizes the decline of the USA and the rise of China. 

“China is very good at building dams, the US is very good at enforcing PC. Which system will prevail in the 21st century?”.

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Some history may help here. 

Around 1840, a small liberal (by the standards of the day) island waged a war against a vast empire on the other side of the world. This was of course, the Opium War (a vile undertaking to say the least). The liberal island (the UK) won both the first and the second Opium Wars. China was decisively defeated. 

These days the world has been turned upside down. My favorite quote on this is 

“China is very good at building dams, the US is very good at enforcing PC. Which system will prevail in the 21st century?”. 

Of course, dams in China are only one example. How about high-speed rail lines in California. The US tried to build one and failed. China has built 25,000 miles of high-speed rail. 

In 1968, the US was in the final stages of the Apollo program (which would succeed in 1969) and China was starting the debacle of the Cultural Revolution. Stated differently, the US was arguably among the most effective nations on Earth and China was among the least effective nations on Earth. What about now?   

In 2021, this isn’t so clear. Let me use one of my favorite examples. California tried to build a high-speed rail line and failed. Costs in 2020 were estimated at $80 billion and possibly as high as $99.8 billion. The project collapsed under its own weight (cost). The nation of Spain built an HSR from Madrid to Barcelona at a cost of $6 billion. By coincidence, the distance is about the same. 

Of course, California has substantial mountain ranges as you approach San Francisco (from the south) or Los Angeles (from the north). Conversely, the Central Valley of California is one of the flattest places on Earth (way flatter than Spain). 

The details here are not really that important. The important fact is that the US/California is now a place where things don’t get done (other than PC enforcement).

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Dec 10, 2022·edited Dec 10, 2022

It was once a common refrain that during Mussolini's regime "trains always kept their scheduled times", and the state machine under Hitler was undeniably extremely efficient, both administratively (with dreadful consequences for some) and economically: immense public works, and German economy rose from a state of utter disrepair to a leading role in numberless fields. When Germany started WWII, it was a major superpower of the time, and many believed that it was unstoppable.

But what has efficiency to do with democracy? And how do you measure the returns of the population in an efficient totalitarian system, where there is no way to measure it credibly? Are the Chinese happier because of their high speed rail? Does the high speed rail make up for not being able to express unapproved thoughts? Does it improve the life of the pariahs who cannot ride it, or of the ethnic groups who are deprived of their culture and freedom and put en masse to forced labour?

You seem to look at the subject of this article from the perspective of "who is winning in the race to the top" between superpowers, which changes according to what indicators we choose to employ... and in any case is not so relevant to the debate about the success or lack of success of liberal democracies.

The race to space is a token medal. So, 1968, the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King, at the end of the Johnson presidency, with the burden of defeat of the Vietnam War and Johnson's Great Society project ready to be dismantled by what many contemporary historians have called a conservative counterrevolution, a shift that brought to power Nixon and his policies of corruption and individual enrichment of very few -- that was in your opinion the apogee of the US efficiency? Johnson had attempted to do good things for the US society, partially succeeded, but that year was the brink of the downward sweep.

Most of the achievements of the US (like everywhere else) appear to be linked to the periods of plenty. When the markets roars, the US roar. And public projects never seem to be so efficient, unless they generate profitable business (you have a great network of highways, not so much of railways... it may have a little to do with Henry Ford?)

Today, in some respects China seems to be doing better than your country. In others your country (and mine, and others among the traditional liberal democracies) is doing better than China. But while it is easier to measure to which extent democracies satisfy the needs of their population, for the data are available and polls can be freely held, it is far harder to do the same with a totalitarian state, whose data are opaque.

Therefore I still do not get your point, except that you are fed up with the sanctimonious "wokeness" that has infected much of the Western Left (same as I). It surely decreases efficiency, clear thought and general fairness as well. The same can be said of the positions of the illiberal Western Right. Extreme polarization is not a friend of efficiency, as most efficient public projects require bipartisan consensus.

Again, "US/California is now a place where things don’t get done" (US/Texas may strongly disagree on its part), does not seem to me to be an argument about the virtues or faults of liberal democracy. It is not because of lack of efficiency that liberal democracy is embattled today, but because the actors involved cannot find common grounds and put their creeds (religious, ideological and otherwise) rigidly in front of everything else.

"Won't do anything at all unless I can have everything done my way to a T" is the rallying call of the political maximalists, and plays right into the hands of totalitarian aspirations.

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In 1941, when the US went to war with Germany, the US was a competent, capable country where the trains ran on-time. So was Germany. Of course, the US was larger and with the help of the British and Russians, Germany was defeated.

Now the US is country that can’t get things done (other than to enforce PC). China can (and does) get things done. Big difference versus 1941. The US is a nation where standardized tests are abolished because they aren’t PC. China makes heavy use to standardized tests and doesn’t apologize for it. Big difference versus 1941.

“But what has efficiency to do with democracy?”. A lot actually. If democracy mean inefficiency, then democracy will die.

Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ wasn’t dismantled by Nixon. Johnson’s programs (Medicaid, AFDC, Federal aid to urban public schools, etc.) are still with us and still don’t work.

“Nixon and his policies of corruption and individual enrichment of very few” Wow is that far off. Under Nixon, top 1% incomes (as a share of GDP) actually fell. See https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Trends-in-the-income-shares-of-the-top-1-percent-in-Australia-Canada-and-United-States_fig2_263366424 for some actual data.

I would be the first to argue that ‘wokeness’ is a bad thing and has hurt (badly) the West. However, the problems of the West predate ‘woke’. California couldn’t build its HSR long before ‘woke’ took over. NYC couldn’t (can’t) build its subways at any reasonable cost, long before ‘woke’. My favorite example, is not the CA HSR, but the Tappan Zee bridge near NYC. The original Tappan Zee was built rather quickly during the Korean War (which slowed the project). It was built at a cost of $81 million ($796 in 2014 dollars). The replacement bridge cost nearly $4 billion.

It is important to note that these problems are not limited to the US. The UK took more than 20 years (and more than 4 billion pounds) to build Terminal 5.

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There are surely different interpretations about the outcome of Johnson's Great Society project, especially according to the school of thought of the scholar who writes about it. I do not pretend to have all the literature at my fingertips (I am not a contemporary historian, my field is mediaeval studies) but I read books and research on contemporary history, and that is the assessment of many historians on the fate of the Great Society project: that the mechanisms put in place by Johnson were dismantled (not removed, but weakened and rendered less and less efficient, decentralising them, shifting them to less proper departments) by Nixon and further on by Reagan.

Interesting to know that you believe that these projects did not work then and continue not to work (as the "still" in your sentence suggests) when several historians I read consider them, despite their weakened state, to be projects "that command bipartisan support for their effectiveness" (quote from https://millercenter.org/president/lbjohnson/impact-and-legacy , only source of exact words I can find on the run).

On the effect of Nixon's economic policies there are also widespread different opinions of course, and a simple graph cannot put the final word on the studies of economists on that period of time.

My point was not an argument of detail. My point was that then, like now, there was a huge lot that could be called inefficient.

Moreover, comparing the cost of public works in the past to the cost of today is rather an idle exercise, because numbers per se tell nothing worth learning, except that the cost of building has increased dramatically, like the cost of everything else: and especially for public works, the need to ensure lawful following of all procedures (about labour safety, wages, bidding on contracts, etc) that have become increasingly complex for entities exposed to public scrutiny, has increased both cost and times of execution.

(Sorry though, Heathrow's Terminal 5 took only 5 years to build, from the beginning of the construction in 2002 to when it was completed in 2007, including the year of preventative archaeological digging on site -- we have a lot of history underneath, in Britain, and we care about it. Then almost a year of testing followed. The cost was fully within the cost of projects of that size in those years, it stayed on schedule and within budget and nobody ever blamed the project itself with inefficiency; BA's initial cock-up in implementing the flights, which had nothing to do with the project itself, was a fluke. On timeline, you were misled by the fact that the drafting of the design was commissioned in 1989 and the application was submitted in 1993; public works in Britain take a lot of time from first draft to beginning of works, because of a lot of checks, like public inquiries, which usually ensure a much higher efficiency after completion.)

But let us not enter a war of quotes, nor make this a discussion about the US recent history, as it is a subject much vaster than that.

How your notion of efficiency works (aside from blunt statements about things getting done in the past and not today, which is a bit of the "snows of yesteryear" nostalgia) in the assessment of the validity of a system of government, still evades my grasp.

Do you mean to say that autocracy is better if it gives us more efficiency? That becoming more efficient in some respects is the only way for democracies to be better than autocracies?

A measure of inefficiency -- delays, expenditure and conflicts that needs to be mediated -- seems intrinsic to the democratic system, which to "get things done" needs to bring together a large number of actors with their very different and often opposing priorities.

Totalitarian states suffer from extensive inefficiency too, mostly because of inflated bureaucracies and corruption. When they do not, you can be sure that someone has been ridden over roughshod.

I'm still missing how this fits in the discourse.

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LBJ’s ‘Great Society’ was supposed to end urban poverty. Of course, that didn’t happen. LBJ’s ‘Great Society’ was supposed to make urban education work. Of course, that didn’t happen. What actually happened was more of the reverse. When LBJ was President, most black children had two parents. Now they don’t (not even close).

6 years to build Heathrow 5. 14 years of ‘planning’. Count me unimpressed. Note that in another era, the UK built the Crystal Palace in less than a year. The issue if not that the US today, is less effective than it was in 1868 (it took just 4 years to build the Transcontinental railroad). Of course, that is true. The US is far less efficient / effective than it was in 1968.

The US is also far less efficient / effective than many other countries. Consider the California HSR (High-Speed Rail). California couldn’t build it for $100 billion. By contrast, Spain built an HSR covering essentially the same distance for just $6 billion. Taiwan built a shorter HSR over far more difficult terrain. Of course, the cost was far, far less.

The obvious question is why? Why can’t California build an HSR if Spain, Taiwan, etc. can do so? Take a look at “New California Gov. Gavin Newsom slams brakes on San Francisco-to-Los Angeles bullet train” (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/california-s-new-governor-slams-brakes-san-francisco-los-angeles-n970851). The picture shows a train being built on a Trestle (elevated on a viaduct) in one of the flattest places on Earth (Spain is not nearly so flat, Taiwan is rugged ).

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Look, honestly, I understand that the issue of efficiency is very important for you (you have made the exact same comments, with the same exact words, on an article on Quillette), but unless you connect it credibly to what is wrong or right with liberal democracy and whether democracy can be separated from liberalism, it is a complete waste of time for me.

Despite being a nitpicker by nature, I am not interested in arguing about the efficiency of public projects/policies in the US or Britain, or about how more efficient China may be. You give no hint as to WHY you think this is true, which might bring the discussion to a broader scope.

So I disengage. Have a nice day.

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My comments are actually directed at what I think is a deeper point. Liberalism / democracy won’t survive if they are objectively synonymous with inefficiency. At one time, liberal/democratic societies were notably more efficient, than authoritarian nations. For example, the US in 1968 (or 1868) was liberal / democratic and far more effective than Mao’s China. What about now? My favorite line on this subject is

“China is very good at building dams, the US is very good at enforcing PC. Which system will prevail in the 21st century?”

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To me the author's main argument is that a functioning democracy will always be to a large extent a liberal democracy with protections for individual freedoms and property rights and respect for the rule of law. However, how is that related to faltering autocracies such as Russia and China? After World War II, the US and its allies pushed Japan and (West) Germany into a democratic form of government. That is just not going to happen with Russia or China no matter how bad things get. Further, neither country has a cultural history of any form of democracy to fall back on should they descend into chaos.

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