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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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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