The fundamental task of liberal democracy is to manage conflict in societies whose members disagree about the summum bonum, life’s highest good. At this, it has succeeded brilliantly, as Francis Fukuyama’s learned essay notes. So why are its polities in trouble all over the world as populist demagogues, particularly on the right, take aim at them?
Fukuyama’s answer is that liberal democracies have been blind to the discontents they’ve generated, particularly rising income inequality and the loss of identity due to weakening social bonds. Hence, what’s needed, he says, is “a strong state that seeks social protections for populations left behind by globalization” and neoliberalism run amok. In his 2018 book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Fukuyama also recommends curbs on “mass immigration,” along with income redistribution.
But the discontents he cites are less serious than what meets the eye. The real reason why some liberal democracies are in trouble is that they planted their diversity project atop an ethnically and culturally homogeneous demographic substratum. Hence, they never quite managed to conquer the majoritarian temptation. The only way to do so—and stabilize them in the long run—is to refrain from interfering with the natural forces of demographic diversification.
It’s true that the IT revolution, the fruit of globalization, resulted in a dizzying expansion of the millionaire and billionaire class, especially in the United States, sending America’s Gini coefficients up. But there is a world of difference between inequality stemming from exploitation and inequality through increased production. The current inequality in America is largely of the second variety. The rich didn’t get richer in America by impoverishing the middle class. The largest income gains from 1988 through 2008 came not to those in the 95th percentile and above but to those between the 20th and 70th percentiles.
It is one thing to create social programs to backstop poverty, however defined. But doing so to address the supposed “positional” or “status” anxieties fomented by inequality, as Fukuyama recommends, is quite another. That would require not social insurance programs but aggressive redistribution, which would only offer grist for left-wing demagoguery.
Thankfully, this type of demagoguery has had only limited appeal in America in recent years. Bernie Sanders, after all, failed twice to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Average Americans don’t compare their bank balances with those of Bill Gates to measure their worth. If they did, Trump would not have portrayed himself as a (fake) billionaire.
Strikingly, even as the Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled out, the Tea Party movement morphed into Trumpism because Trump intuitively understood that average folks are more bothered by foreigners and immigrants than by rich Americans. That’s why he could retain his base while giving tax cuts to the rich, as long as he trained his ire on “mass immigration” and “unfair trade.” In truth, of course, these forces have no more impoverished average Americans than they have harmed the rich. To the contrary, a good deal of academic research shows that both trade and immigration have boosted average Americans’ real incomes.
Why do foreigners and immigrants generate so much resentment? At least part of the answer is our innate in-group tribalism, as Jonah Goldberg incisively argues in Suicide of the West (2018). The positional concerns that Fukuyama describes certainly help drive our current political moment. However, they are directed not at rich Americans but, to use a hoary leftist term, the “other.”
After World War II, it was a source of national pride that America was the planet’s richest country, offering its citizens the best living standards. When China started catching up, it challenged the notion of American exceptionalism, especially since, at the same time, a bipartisan chorus was hyping the threat posed by the Middle Kingdom to American political hegemony.
The prospect of America losing its standing has always been overblown. Still, it affected the self-confidence of ordinary Americans, who were also being told that their factories were closing because they couldn’t compete against the scrappy Chinese (though the bigger reason, by far, was automation).
If the enrichment of Chinese and other foreigners has generated status anxieties for Americans, immigrants getting rich in America has generated even more. It is one thing when an American pulls ahead of other Americans; we love a good Horatio Alger story. It is quite another when immigrants from “shithole” countries do so. That’s why Trump didn’t just try to build a wall against low-skilled migrants from Mexico and Central America; he also shut down the H-1B visa program for high-skilled immigrants, which allowed Indian and Chinese techies and other professionals to immigrate and become America’s most affluent ethnic groups. Steve Bannon, the architect of America First and tribune of working-class Americans, hates the program and condemns immigrants in high-tech as “oligarchs of Silicon Valley.” In this view, it’s not just poor immigrants “mooching” off the welfare state who rub native Americans the wrong way; it’s also successful immigrants who create jobs and generate big tax revenues.
The big political divide now is not “the haves and the have-nots” but “us versus them.” As Princeton University’s Jan-Werner Mueller has pointed out, the current populist backlash isn’t against elites, it’s against pluralism.
Why has immigration produced such a bilious nativist spasm in this nation of nations? Because America is not fully a nation of nations yet. It has the mythology but not the reality. In about twenty years, whites will formally lose their majority status, along with the perks that accompany it: their stamp on the culture, their dominance over institutions, and the systemic bias in their favor. The present spasm is their last-gasp effort to hang on before everything slips away.
In non-liberal polities, a culture war to protect majoritarian privilege would be understandable. But it is less so in America, a country that pioneered liberal democracy, has 200-plus years of it under its belt, and whose commitment to pluralism, toleration, and free enterprise is essential to its self-understanding. To some extent, the white establishment is reacting so poorly because progressives on the left, the self-appointed champions of minorities, have gone out of their way to alienate it by issuing shrill condemnations of “white supremacy” and deploying totalitarian re-education tactics in their impatience to advance their social justice goals. The bigger reason is that when a majority has to choose between sticking up for bedrock principles and protecting its interests, a good portion of it will embrace the latter.
If protecting liberal democracy is the challenge of our times, throwing half loaves to the discontented majority while curbing alleged “mass immigration” to give the native-born time to adjust, as Fukuyama suggests, is the wrong answer. If aggressive income redistribution schemes are an opening to left-wing demagoguery, aggressive restrictionism—which is what it would take to disrupt natural migration patterns—will keep the Trumps of the world in business.
It is no coincidence that literally every populist authoritarian—Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India—demonizes immigrants.
Meanwhile, some countries with far higher percentages of foreign-born than America’s 14 percent have avoided our type of populist nativist backlash. For example, 20 percent of Canada’s population and 28.2 percent of Australia’s are foreign-born. But Canadians have embraced their diversity and multiculturalism as a source of national strength and pride. Australia’s ruling Liberal Party has managed to quell the anti-immigration rumblings it has recently faced from, ironically, the leftist Labor Party.
None of this should surprise. James Madison understood that preaching the gospel of liberal democracy would never be enough to banish the majority’s impulse to use the strong arm of government to protect its interests. The solution, he argued in The Federalist No. 10, was to “extend the sphere,” to enlarge the republic’s population in order to “multiply the factions” and forestall the possibility of a permanent majority.
Lord Acton went even further, calling for a diversity of nationalities. “Intolerance of social freedom,” he said, finds a “corrective in the national diversities, which no other force can so efficiently provide.”
Thus, preserving liberal democracy by curbing the tyranny of the majority requires not just building constitutional guardrails against such tyranny but encouraging a heterogeneous population with a vested interest in safeguarding liberty. America needs a demographic mosaic, not a monochromatic canvas.
Shikha Dalmia, a columnist at The Week, has been writing about American politics and policy for numerous publications for twenty-five years.
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