In Liberalism and Its Discontents, Francis Fukuyama aims to defend liberal political ideas and institutions against rising and now entrenched detractors from the postliberal left and the right. As he notes, “liberalism is under severe threat around the world … its virtues need to be clearly articulated and celebrated once again.” More specifically, Fukuyama defends “classical liberalism,” which he depicts as “a big tent that encompasses a range of political views that nonetheless agree on the foundational importance of equal individual rights, law, and freedom.”
Speaking of “foundational importance,” a gaping weakness in a book dedicated to shoring up liberalism against critical assaults by a postliberal left and right is his lack of any philosophical grounding for equality under law. Fukuyama describes dispassionately various Christian and Enlightenment contributions to liberalism, as these sources built the idea of the individual and conscience, which the law must respect. Similarly, he provides the familiar detailing of how the “Wars of Religion” left us with liberalism as the sufficient way to settle intractable creedal competition by limiting the concerns of the state to this-worldly matters. This is all a standard historical retelling, one a student might encounter in a conventional Western civilization course, assuming those are still competently taught. This lacuna of an actual normative argument in the book is even more remarkable when the reader considers the rather destabilizing nature of identity politics, which builds on the deconstruction of language and ideas put forth by the postmodern left.
Liberal political ideas are everywhere asserted by Fukuyama but left with only feet of clay to stand on. Fukuyama’s most comprehensive treatment of liberalism comes through his use of John Gray’s long definition of it as individualist, egalitarian, universalist, and meliorist. In short, the individual is prior to the collectivity, with equal rights under the law; humanity is a unity, and liberal institutions can be improved to serve these realities.
There is a world of meaning in this definition, but do we know if it’s true? One answer from liberal philosophers is that we don’t require such a deep grounding of these ideas because we know experientially what happens to us politically and socially if they are denied. We just know that the individual and his or her rights should be paramount. If we deny this, we become authoritarian monsters.
But what if the consequences of liberalism are precisely the realities most contested by its opponents? Suppose, that is, that liberalism has morphed equality and individualism into an egalitarian celebration of the autonomous self and the valorization of the will. And this has left us in a nihilistic hellscape, filled with widespread pornography, high rates of divorce, declining birthrates, drug use, and drag queen story hour for kids, among other evident betrayals of reality.
Fukuyama doesn’t really consider these untoward aspects of liberal societies. Liberalism is thin, but, he says, it also offers us the best practical solutions to widespread disagreement.
In taking on the opponents of liberalism, Fukuyama locates certain errors in thinking in various quarters of society that challenge liberalism, but he never really considers that liberalism and its institutions are also an artefact built on a shared underlying constitutional consensus, much thicker than liberalism can justify. This consensus can be described as a touchstone of meaning for who we are as an American people organized for political action in history. Formerly, we were easily understood as a republican people, rooted in various faiths, connected with family and community, proud of our independent heritage, and constantly refining our approach to what is required to maintain our Constitution.
We may not have referred to ourselves as a natural law people, but the American constitutional practice was heavily influenced by the knowledge that reality was evident and knowable, and our words could sufficiently describe it and guide us in a truthful manner that corresponded with human nature, law, and politics. Such a consensus permits disagreements to be profitable and move toward political settlement that accords different voices a decent amount of respect.
Left unacknowledged by Fukuyama is that conservatives and progressives in American liberal society now have diametrically opposed principles on anthropology, sexuality, family, work, liberty, law and constitutionalism, among other deep-seated disagreements. We may already be operating without a constitutional consensus. As a result, words, policies, and politics have become weapons.
Tolerance is the fundamental virtue of liberalism, urges Fukuyama. That is, “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.” Equally important for liberal societies is that “liberal principles” must be universally accepted by these societies. We must be open to being open. But that is just question begging. What precisely must we be open to and closed to? Fukuyama never attempts even a general answer to this question. His formal neutrality on this score reads like a caricature of liberal theorizing.
Fukuyama never takes the routes that some of our deepest classical liberal statesmen and writers have explored. Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Lord Acton, Wilhelm Roepke, and others firmly defended constitutionalism, rule of law, and markets, but were also very clear that these political institutions required the formation of citizens in strong pre-liberal institutions. The market, Roepke maintains, does not really build virtue in its participants, but it does depend on a great amount of virtue having been infused into people through family, religion, neighborhood, and other civil society institutions. Where do we learn fortitude, courage, prudence, restraint? And where do we learn to love and defend the truly excellent things in life, like our country? You’re going to need more than tolerance.
Our liberal political institutions need these pre-liberal institutions to shape us fundamentally as honest and forthright men and women who know what is required of us in the political and market realms. Moreover, these pre-liberal institutions also deserve tremendous protection from egalitarianism and consent ideology reshaping them into simulacra of autonomous individualism.
Such a transformation of marriage has already occurred, with the generative family, one of the central purposes of marriage, no longer recognized in law as one of its definitive features. Marriage is viewed as being for the care and fulfillment of adults, and it ends very abruptly when those needs are not met. Similarly, a secular liberal society struggles to understand existence itself, believing, as Peter Augustine Lawler intoned, that Being ends with my being.
The immediacy of the present and the needs of the individual become all-encompassing in pervasive secularism. But how will the future of such societies be built if its members are incapable of love, sacrifice, and the belief that authentic freedom calls us out of ourselves and toward others, toward our nation?
Such analysis makes intellectuals like Fukuyama uncomfortable. Forgoing it, he is left with a rather predictable “pox on both their houses” defense of liberalism. Much of the book considers certain political assertions by various factions on the right and left against aspects of liberalism. The mode of Fukuyama’s presentation is to lump former President Donald Trump, “extremist”-type conservatives, and presidents of Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, and Russia as opponents of constitutionalism and individual freedom. They appeal to nativist, racist, religious, and nationalist elements in their naked power grabs. Fukuyama then turns to the left with a less-than-strident criticism of identity politics, rejection of liberal institutions for group identities, socialist policies, and so forth. Much of this style of argumentation has been done before by countless house establishment intellectuals.
After noting various attempts by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Polish President Jaroslaw Kaczyński, and President Trump “to attack liberal institutions,” including the “courts and justice system, nonpartisan state bureaucracies, independent media,” and on and on, Fukuyama never considers the obverse attacks by a liberal establishment to destabilize and overwhelm populist opposition to their imperium. This goes beyond getting the facts right.
Fukuyama’s refusal to even mention that, in Poland, the judiciary in its post-communist Constitution was thoroughly dominated by former communists and was not subject to tight democratic accountability processes, making it a self-perpetuating group of EU flaks. Of course, the Law and Justice Party, having won in a landslide in 2015, watched helplessly as the outgoing and defeated Civic Platform Party changed the rules and put five justices on Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal. It was imprudent and rash, carrying a patina of legality. Law and Justice responded by refusing to seat them in the judiciary and putting its own judges in their place. Was the party wrong to do this? Maybe, but the question is a close one—and one capable of being redressed in subsequent elections. Fukuyama’s analysis smacks of a drive-by liberal hit that shoots first, choosing to ignore the situation’s political complexity.
Trump, we learn, “was less successful [compared to Law and Justice and Orbán] in his attempts to weaken institutions like the Justice Department, the intelligence community, the courts, and the mainstream media, but his intentions were much the same.” Fukuyama cannot be bothered to even mention that the FBI and the Justice Department ran with a theory promulgated by the 2016 Clinton campaign, specifically Hillary Clinton, that the Trump campaign was “colluding” with the Russian government to win the election. It was a brazen lie, and it shackled the Trump administration from the beginning, as the hoax prompted an independent investigation, which ultimately found nothing to justify its investigation. No less a figure than James Comey, then-director of the FBI, pursued the allegations in Congress and in the media. Establishment liberalism has its own sins. Fukuyama’s tit-for-tat analysis about the threats of right-wing populism to classical liberalism becomes very tenuous when he omits basic facts.
Fukuyama pins blame on Trump and cohorts for refusing to accept the results of the November 2020 election. But he then engages in shabby analysis that the post-election reforms in Georgia and other states were motivated by right-wing skullduggery to limit voter access because Republicans have concluded it’s the only path to winning future elections. As many have reported, the access to voting increases under these electoral reforms. What decreases are the irregular voting practices that prevailed in 2020 under COVID rationales, practices largely fomented in liberal states. Again, Fukuyama neglects to mention the administrative end runs around the law in these states that arbitrarily increased voter access while decreasing electoral accountability. Fukuyama has a narrative to fill out in this book, but he loses the more complicated and enduring thread of meaning that might help us understand what is happening in our liberal society.
Similarly on political economy, Fukuyama frequently employs the term “neoliberal” to indict the past generation of policies governing the economy throughout the West and much of the world. As is usual in this well-trod analysis, “neoliberal” is really a stand-in for “libertarian” and the charge is one of a deregulated economy that resulted in damaging inequality, rank individualism, and financial calamities like the Financial Crisis of 2008. We took things too far, Fukuyama says. Yes, there’s truth in a deregulatory critique, Fukuyama notes, but allowing financial actors to pursue interests without responsibility to the broader societal order left us with untoward social and political ills. We’re going to need a much stronger state is the conclusion.
He never once considers that the 2008 crash is not even understandable without the numerous ways government intervention shaped the incentives of market players in financial markets and made the housing and financial crash so widespread and devastating. Would we have had the dysfunctional mortgage market absent government-backed institutions buying them, insuring a thick market for subprime mortgages that would otherwise not have existed? That’s one of many examples from this episode of government inducing profits and socializing losses. There’s nothing neoliberal about a financial crisis heavily engineered by a phalanx of federal policies.
Fukuyama does adequately treat and critique the “repressive tolerance” of Herbert Marcuse and the reduction of language to structural power conditions under French theorists Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Michael Foucault. In an insightful chapter, “The Critique of Rationality,” Fukuyama lays bare the intransigence of largely left-wing-driven cancel culture. “Language” was not a “neutral pathway” to understanding an objective reality but “an instrument of power.” Under the tutelage of these thinkers, Fukuyama observes, words turned into violence precisely because they came to constitute reality itself. Truth was merely the battle of words as weapons forging power relationships in society. Therefore, words became violence if used to critique the speakers advocating for certain class, race, and gender ideas and politics. Such critics were engaged in “violence” against these essential group identities, denying them their existence. Cancel culture in all its frenzied operations stems from this languaged mentality.
Fukuyama wisely observes that the left’s commitment to “identities” comes at the expense of liberal institutions. Unfortunately, those institutions are now gravely damaged. Tolerance and openness and a willingness to follow scientific data in politics, journalism, and medical science probably won’t save them. We need courage, charity, prudence, and a profound willingness to sacrifice and throw our hearts into the defense of liberty to save this country. Fukuyama’s rationalistic liberalism and data-driven approach are a sideshow.
This piece originally appeared in the Acton Institute Powerblog