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Where Things Went Awry

The rise of illiberalism in the West flows directly from liberalism’s failures.

Jeet Heer

Francis Fukuyama’s “Liberalism and its Discontents” is far-reaching and judicious. It is dialectical thinking in the best sense: a careful weighing of competing claims and historical forces in pursuit of a viable synthesis. It returns to Fukuyama’s core concern, the limits of liberalism that persist even as liberal democracy has vanquished all serious ideological rivals.

Fukuyama’s famous essay “The End of History” (1989) and subsequent book of the same title (1992) have often been misrepresented as triumphalist celebrations of liberalism. Yet anyone who reads them honestly would acknowledge that Fukuyama in fact possessed the trait that John Keats called “negative capability,” which allows a poet to keep two contrary thoughts in mind at once: There was no alternative to liberal democracy, but liberal democracy hardly satisfies all the soul’s longings.

Recall the melancholy ending of the original essay:

I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created. . . . Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

More than three decades later this passage feels prophetic. This kind of nostalgia, and other, more potent emotions, are reviving anti-liberal ideologies of all sorts. In the Trump era, America often seems like a playground on which live-action role players reenact the Weimar Republic, with Proud Boys and Antifa fighting on the streets in (thankfully) less violent imitation of interwar Nazis and Communists. There are Twitter tankies now, who celebrate Stalin’s achievements on social media. The guillotine has been turned into a popular left-wing meme. Donald Trump rode to the White House on Charles Lindbergh’s slogan of “America First.”

All of these are a symptom of the desire for a return to history, a hunger for a new era of meaningful ideological combat. To be sure, at least in North America and Western Europe, the end of the end of history is still embryonic. In the heartland of what is often called the West, liberal democracy remains a horizon that cannot be transcended. Yet many more people are now trying to imagine the land that might lie over that horizon. Even more people, especially among the young, see the horizon as a prison wall rather than an achieved promised land. The coronavirus pandemic, the response to which has been botched in many Western democracies, will only strengthen this disillusionment.

The neoliberal consensus that emerged in the 1970s and became dominant in the 1990s is now battered and bruised but has yet to be toppled. Trump, with his characteristic preference for performance over reality, picked some colorful trade fights and trash-talked NATO and other venerable alliances, yet this hardly amounts to overturning the liberal international order.

Elsewhere, more sober and less narcissistic rulers than Trump, governing nations with fewer checks on chief executives, have harnessed right-wing populism in ways that point more clearly to a post-liberal future. Fukuyama rightly singles out Viktor Orbán and Narendra Modi.


As a social democrat, I welcome Fukuyama’s remorseful acknowledgement that the engine driving the current crisis is unrestrained neoliberalism; but more can be said about the liberal political institutions and consensus policies that provoked the populist backlash and anti-democratic erosion. You don’t have to be a Brexit supporter to see that the European Union was deliberately designed to limit democratic control of economic and immigration policy. The manifest failures of the EU in response to the 2008 crisis, including a premature turn to austerity, were major factors in spurring a populist reaction on the continent.

In the United States, Trumpism can’t be understood without acknowledging the radicalizing impact of the global war on terror and the “forever wars.” George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to their credit, denounced Islamophobia. They premised American engagement in the Middle East on the spread of democracy, by military invasion in Bush’s case and, more modestly, through American rhetoric from Obama. But this project has yielded barren results: a struggling democracy in Iraq, true, but stunted democratic revolutions elsewhere, with much carnage and often with ambivalence from the United States. There are Americans born after 9/11 who are now garrisoned in the Middle East.

Just as the grim deadlock of the Cold War maddened some Americans enough to make them supporters of Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society, the forever wars paved the way for Trumpism. Both the EU’s anti-democratic features and the forever wars were products of centrist elites, who in their own way threaten democracy as much as the extreme Left and the extreme Right.

Fukuyama still works within a Cold War framework in which liberalism is the “vital center,” to use Arthur Schlesinger’s deft phrase, while the enemies of democracy are found on the opposing ends of a linear spectrum. But centrists—both conservatives like George W. Bush and liberals like Barack Obama—have played a role in democratic erosion and prepared the way for Trump.

Consider a Washington consensus deliberately fostering trade deals that handcuffed nation states’ ability to protect labor rights and the environment; a global war on terror featuring no clear end date, a Patriot Act and license for nearly unlimited spying: All of this was bound to create public anger and paranoia. Trump reaped what was sown.

Fukuyama worries about the dangers to “liberalism,” yet I think the true threat is to democracy. In the United States, the “small-d” democratic parts of the political system consistently constrained Trump (he twice lost the popular vote, met with constant popular protests and citizen-driven litigation, and was impeached by the House of Representatives), while the anti-democratic or “small-r” republican parts of the political order empowered him (the Electoral College turned his popular vote defeat into a victory, Trump benefited from the Senate’s skew toward less populated states, and his ability to appoint judges was a major source of political power).

In the United States, the true long-term problem is that the Republicans will be able to thwart majority rule for many years to come in a political system that overrepresents small states and rural voters while holding many veto points. Domestic gridlock has been the American norm for many years; it makes demagogues like Trump more attractive.

A concern with democracy rather than liberalism makes one more sanguine than Fukuyama is about populism and nationalism. Some forms of populism and nationalism are undeniably atavistic, bigoted, and illiberal; but that is not inevitable. Populism and nationalism have often been useful correctives to liberal regimes that are too rigidly legalistic, elite-controlled, or technocratic. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King all harnessed nationalism to a politics that expanded democratic equality.

Along with Benedict Anderson, I think nationalism is a necessary glue for holding diverse societies together. While some on the left disagree, it is hard to imagine a robust social democratic regime without a sense of solidarity based on a widely held commitment to the nation.

In sum, the success of noxious figures like Trump, Orbán, and Modi comes from the fact that they are addressing real problems like the fraying of the social order under neoliberalism and the failure of centrist elites, even though they provide bad solutions. For liberals, decent conservatives, and the Left, the task is to acknowledge these problems—and provide better solutions.

For that reason, we need more self-critical accounts of the failures of the existing order. Fukuyama’s essay is a bracing effort at liberal self-criticism.

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent at The Nation and author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014).

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