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Boredom at the End of History, Part II
AI image generated by Adobe Firefly: "A broken down mansion at the End of History"

Boredom at the End of History, Part II

Francis Fukuyama takes on those who believe he should recant his "end of history" thesis, Part II.

Francis Fukuyama

The absence of a vision for a systemically better future is apparent on both the extreme Right and Left today. To the extent that the extreme Right has a vision for a better future society, it involves turning the clock back to a time in the past when America was supposedly great: perhaps the 1950s, or the late 1800s, or perhaps all the way back to the period before the Enlightenment when societies could agree on a single religion. But few people want to storm the barricades for the privilege of living, say, in the year 1952. 

Something similar is happening on the Left. There are no progressive visions for alternative societies that have not been tried already. The extreme version of egalitarian justice that animated many leftists in the 20th century, Marxism-Leninism, has been exposed as a moral atrocity after the collapse of Communism. The more moderate vision of social democracy has also been tried; indeed, many of its policies have already been happily incorporated into present-day social democratic welfare states. Some extreme environmentalists look to a future of “de-growth” to deal with the climate crisis, but honestly, who is going to risk their lives to get to a world where everyone gets poorer year after year? This does not seem more attractive than the conservative dream of returning to the year 1952 (when indeed we emitted much less carbon than we do today).

The absence of plausible visions for a better future society means that politicians have to whip people into a panic over how bad the present is. What is striking about the protests and critiques of the liberal status quo in today’s America is how disproportionate they are to the lived reality of the protesters. This is nowhere more true than on the MAGA Right. According to Donald Trump and many of his acolytes, the very existence of the United States is at stake in the coming election; if Biden is re-elected, “you won’t have a country any more.” According to Tim Alberta’s recent book on the evangelical Right, many Christian nationalists believe that Christianity itself faces an existential threat and that liberals seek to close down their churches. And many conservatives agree with the notion that we are living under a woke tyranny, in which it is impossible to dissent on a host of issues related to race, gender, sexual orientation, environment, and the like. They say this, despite the fact that they themselves are expressing strong criticism of these very trends. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Nor is it the case that economic desperation is the primary driver of Right-wing rebellion. While working class Whites who lost their jobs to outsourcing may have been part of the original Trump coalition, the vast majority of protesters who turned up at the Capitol on January 6 were middle-class people with decent jobs. They showed up on that day because they believed in a concocted narrative about how the 2020 election had been stolen from them. They could play-act at being armed revolutionaries bravely defending their way of life, when the reality was that they were simply soothing the ego of a single narcissistic politician.

The same is true of the students who have set up encampments on campuses across the United States. They are for the most part highly comfortable, privileged elites, going to top schools like Harvard, Columbia, or UCLA. What they want is a break from their lives of steady striving to get into those universities, and to experience danger and struggle in pursuit of a just cause that has never previously been a major part of their lives. They, no more than the MAGA Right, have a clear vision of what type of future society they want to live in. Over the past couple of generations, the Left’s former dream of a classless society has been replaced by identity politics, which ultimately promises a return to the kind of zero-sum contest between identity groups for resources and recognition. It is understandable that many young people feel sympathy for the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, but turning on their own institutions and authority figures from university presidents to President Biden will not bring about a systemically better future world. Indeed, it may produce one that is a lot worse.

There was a time when liberal democracy seemed like an exciting new idea, as it pushed aside earlier social orders based on tradition, inherited status, and fixed hierarchy. Meritocracy was not seen as a form of White supremacy; rather, it was a way for outsiders to break into circles of elite privilege. And indeed, liberal democracy is still inspiring to huge numbers of people around the world. Every year, tens if not hundreds of thousands undertake dangerous and expensive journeys from their homes in poor, unstable, violence-prone societies for the privilege of living in North America or Europe. Back at the time when I wrote “The End of History?” there was great excitement on part of people in former Communist countries that they too would be able to experience the prosperity and personal freedom of life in a liberal democracy, as part of “Europe.” 

Almost thirty-five years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and more than an entire generation has grown up in Eastern Europe since then with no direct experience of Communism or dictatorship. The European Union has fully delivered on its promise of peace and prosperity, yet many Europeans have come to see the EU itself as a tyranny. People in North America have had an even longer experience of stability, and are able to take the liberal democratic institutions that have produced that outcome for granted. 

Of course, there is a lot that still needs to be accomplished. Racial justice remains elusive for many African-Americans, there is a hugely inadequate response to the climate crisis, and wealth disparities remain enormous. But fixing these problems requires the slow steady work of reform: legislating, mobilizing, persuading, implementing policies, and building things, whether institutions or physical structures. A focus on real reform is boring: problems need to be fixed piecemeal and over long periods of time. No alternative social system that anyone to date has dreamed of will make them go away, nor will any charismatic leader break through today’s constraints, despite promises that “I alone can fix it.” Democratic backsliding today is driven by activists who do not want to be “last men” tinkering with the house that has been built for them at the end of history. The problem, of course, is that struggling against liberal democracy is very likely to produce a worse world than the one we currently live in. That is the situation we face today, an outcome that was perfectly predictable more than thirty years ago.

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

AuthoritarianismDemocracyCulturePolitical PhilosophyUnited States