In an act of wanton aggression with the invasion of Ukraine, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has thrust the West back into an ideological and military conflict that Europeans and Americans thought they had put behind them decades ago. Although not a rebirth of the original Cold War battle against global Communism that ended in victory for the West in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the current conflict is shaping up to be a similar generational fight between liberal democracy and authoritarianism.
On one side are the United States and most of Europe. On the other are Russia, China, and various forces of illiberalism within Western nations themselves. To win this conflict, liberals must once again prove to the world—with brains and brawn—that political orders based on individual rights, market economies, constitutional rules, value pluralism, reason, and basic decency are superior to those maintained through force, internal fear and propaganda, and widespread corruption.
This intellectual struggle might seem like a slam dunk for liberal societies because of their successes throughout history. Liberal nations defeated both fascism and Communism and worked cooperatively to create decades of rising growth and expanding prosperity for people in America and Europe. But with mounting internal political divisions in our countries—fueled by new digital forces of propaganda, extremism, and mis-information—it’s not at all clear that proponents of liberalism are adequately prepared to win the fights ahead. Liberals will clearly need to better understand and counter their internal critics, as well as outside enemies like Russia and China, if they want to defend a system of thought and governance that has survived since the Enlightenment. Western defenders of liberalism must make a strong case for liberal renewal in the face of multiple self-inflicted economic and political crises—mishandled military efforts in the Middle East, market meltdowns, rising inequality, and political polarization. If not, post-liberal forces on the right and left seeking to either upend or replace a political system based on pluralism, constitutional freedoms, and individual rights will continue to gain strength.
America and the world will need good generals to help steer people through the ideological battles to come, people armed with historical insight and a genuine normative commitment to liberal values of equal dignity and rights for all.
There are few people better able to lead this intellectual fight than Francis Fukuyama.
Fukuyama’s new book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, offers an eloquent and eminently sensible defense of liberal freedom and pluralism that should be read and debated by leaders and activists across the ideological spectrum. This clearly written and concisely argued book highlights Fukuyama’s lifelong examination of the political theories and systems that shape human history—and in turn get shaped by its developments.
Classical liberalism in Fukuyama’s definition represents a “big tent that encompasses a range of political views that nonetheless agree on the foundational importance of equal individual rights, law, and freedom.” Liberalism in this formulation is not what we typically think of as center-left, Democratic Party politics in the United States or libertarianism on the right. It is a system of thought and institutions dating back to the 17th century designed to solve the problems of governing a diversity of people without force and constant war. As Fukuyama explains,
The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism is one of tolerance: you do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what they are without interference from you or from the state. Liberalism lowers the temperature of politics by taking questions of final ends off the table: you can believe what you want, but you must do so in private life and not seek to impose your views on your fellow citizens.
Liberalism may be guided by norms of tolerance and reason, but it is enforced by constitutions, laws, regulations, and court rulings that maintain the political and economic rights of individuals to do as they please, provided that they don’t interfere with other people’s similar rights to self-determination. Liberalism in modern times requires free and fair elections, representative legislatures, a fair and impartial judicial system, neutral bureaucracies, an independent press and media, and a commitment to free speech.
Unfortunately, as Fukuyama correctly argues, classical liberalism is under sustained attack from both the populist right and the identity-based left.
Right-wing leaders in countries like Russia, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and Turkey, and even in America with Donald Trump, actively seek to demolish liberal institutions, eliminate checks on power, advance outright lies and conspiracies, and take over previously independent bodies to maintain their hold on power often in corrupt ways. In turn, illiberal left-wing movements in America and Europe seek to override constitutional neutrality and individual rights by promoting group-based discrimination to ameliorate real and perceived injustices while simultaneously patrolling political speech and dissent deemed as deviations from progressive orthodoxy.
Although threats from the populist right may be more pronounced and immediate, threats from the identity-based left also contribute to cultural divisions that undermine the cohesion and consensus necessary for pragmatic, incremental steps to improve liberal societies.
Fukuyama’s book is no lightweight polemic against the forces of illiberalism or “wokeness.” He honestly engages with liberal critics on the right and left and gives their arguments a fair elucidation. He acknowledges that internal excesses of liberalism itself—represented by neoliberal economics and unrestrained expressions of human autonomy that threaten cultural and religious traditions—helped produce these illiberal countermovements that now threaten democracies from within and without.
In terms of the neoliberal agenda of globalization and deregulation prominent in the 1980s and ’90s, Fukuyama says, “A valid insight into the superior efficiency of markets evolved into something of a religion, in which state intervention was opposed as a matter of principle.” Although aggregate growth and wealth increased sharply over this period, inequality soared while financial crises mounted with devastating consequences in places like Mexico, several Asian nations, and eventually in the United States with the subprime market collapse of 2008.
As neoliberalism grew in power during the Reagan-Thatcher conservative revolution and the Clinton-Blair third way era, it took the good aspects of market economies to the extreme by tearing down government protections and regulations and encouraging speculation and instability. The subsequent stagnation and downward mobility of working-class people in many Western countries produced an understandable backlash. The populist response against neoliberalism came from both the right and left and was grounded on real experiences of diminished economic security for workers and their local communities, and wider anger at cultural values of neoliberal elites that were often at odds with traditional working-class norms.
If neoliberalism represented the economic interests of the super-wealthy and professional classes, the populist response in turn gave voice to working-class discontent with liberal systems of trade, immigration, and global identities. It manifests itself in left-wing efforts such as the Occupy movement in 2011, and on the right with the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the election of Trump in the U.S. in 2016.
On the cultural front, Fukuyama convincingly argues that “identity politics” initially emerged “as an effort to fulfill the promise of liberalism, which preached a doctrine of universal equality and equal protection of human dignity under the law” that grievously ignored ill treatment of Black Americans, women, gay and lesbian people, and religious minorities. This led to historic changes in American life from the mid-1950s to the 1970s through various liberal civil rights movements.
However, in recent decades, according to Fukuyama, this outgrowth of liberal thought turned on liberalism itself as identity politics was “absolutized in ways that threatened social cohesion, and in its service progressive activists began to enlist social pressure and the power of the state to silence voices critical of their agenda.” For example, rather than teach students that all people deserve equal dignity and rights as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, critical theorists operating in many schools and institutions today teach instead that “white privilege” and “systemic racism” preclude any meaningful life chances for Black or Hispanic Americans and assert that most policies and laws reinforce historical white supremacy.
These theorists also challenged liberal concepts of meritocracy, rationality, and adherence to scientific thought as thinly veiled forces of oppression and power that should be replaced with subjective “lived experiences” of marginalized groups. These ideas led directly to fierce recent battles over affirmative action and the elimination of test-based admissions policies for many elite public schools and universities in favor of subjective evaluations of cultural diversity and group-based disparities. Likewise, with the rise of social media the ability to enforce the illiberal left’s ideological conformity has expanded in both subtle and overt ways. If you try to challenge the doctrines of critical theorists or use the wrong terms of debate as laid out by many social justice activists, you will likely be targeted directly for “wrongthink” and face potential social and institutional opprobrium.
At the same time, liberals’ unwillingness to take on the illiberal left by arguing for egalitarian principles and individual rights over radical group-based theories ceded political terrain to forces in the Republican Party who promised voters that they would “do something” by enacting sweeping prohibitions on the teaching of ideas that “make people uncomfortable” and even banning some books. One illiberal act was countered by another, and Americans are no wiser or better off for it.
Fukuyama also examines nationalist critiques of liberalism mostly emerging from “post-liberal” conservative intellectuals like Sohrab Ahmari and Adrian Vermeule, whose ideas infuse the daily monologues of Tucker Carlson and other media hosts with massive audiences on the right (see Gabby Birenbaum, “Inside Tucker Carlson’s Brain,” page 30). These intellectuals argue for a “substantive moral constitutionalism” that seeks to enshrine particular theological notions about abortion, homosexuality, family structures, and gender identity and relations. They are coy to the point of defensiveness about what that would mean practically for American democracy. But they almost universally praise nationalist leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose successful efforts to curb judicial independence, shut down NGOs, and muzzle opposition media outlets (often through buyouts by oligarchs loyal to him) have earned the country a “partly free” rating by Freedom House.
These post-liberal conservatives see liberal cultural values—and expansive views of personal freedom and open immigration—as threats to traditional families, religious communities, and national identities. Fukuyama rightly argues in response that liberal universalism—the belief that human rights apply to all people—need not conflict with national identity and patriotism. Universal rights may be normative goals for all people, but they can only be enforced and protected within nations. Properly understood, liberalism embraces different religious, ethnic, and cultural identities and patriotism. Liberal universal values can also help to define a more inclusive nationalism based on common civic values of tolerance, freedom, and respect for differences rather than a more exclusive one based on race, religion, or ethnicity. As Fukuyama argues, if liberals cede national identity and patriotism to the right, we end up with the extreme and exclusionary models that we see in places like India, Turkey, Poland, and Brazil.
Post-liberal alternatives from the left would involve a “vast intensification of existing trends,” according to Fukuyama, where “considerations of race, gender, gender preference, and other identity categories would be injected into every sphere of everyday life, and would become the primary considerations for hiring, promotion, access to health, education, and other sectors.” Fukuyama also envisions a post-liberal left further changing immigration policy through an “open-ended asylum system” or seeking to override domestic legal constraints and deferring to more international actors to address the climate challenge. However, he doesn’t see most of the American left’s economic agenda as potentially hostile to traditional liberalism, instead viewing it as the pursuit of a social democratic welfare state consistent with those in Europe.
In the end, Fukuyama argues that while there may be real deficiencies in liberal thinking, liberalism itself is the only proven political framework for protecting human freedom and ensuring rights in diverse societies with people of different beliefs and backgrounds. If we try to replace the individual choice and freedom to pursue one’s goals enshrined in liberal thought with singular religious viewpoints or a host of left-wing identity-based ideas antithetical to individual rights as put forth by post-liberal critics, then diverse societies such as America can’t function.
Liberal pluralism, tolerance, and constitutionalism provide guaranteed means for protecting citizens from other citizens or governments who may try to force them to bend the knee to a specific way of thinking. Societies should not throw these principles and laws away rashly because of frustrations with the status quo or the slow workings
of incremental, consensus-based democratic politics.
Fukuyama’s parting advice is a simple yet powerful request for liberal societies to embrace personal and political restraint and advance the ancient Greek notion of “moderation,” meaning nothing in excess: “Moderation is not a bad political principle in general, and especially for a liberal order that was meant to calm political passions from the start.”
Moderation alone will not stop Russian aggression or defend the free world from authoritarianism. But moderation in the pursuit of a better politics may be the only way to reduce internal tensions in America and Europe, while convincing more people that their legitimate grievances are better addressed within systems that protect individual rights and defend diverse views rather than authoritarian or post-liberal alternatives based on state control and curbs on dissent and alternative viewpoints.
Liberalism faces many discontents. Fukuyama reminds us that the best way to overcome these challenges is for principled liberals to take them on directly, correct internal excesses, and defend a renewed liberal vision as the best political model for respecting individual rights and economic opportunities within diverse societies.