Francis Fukuyama On Liberalism's Crisis
The famed author talks through the threats to liberal democracy.
Fukuyama is simply the most sophisticated and nuanced political scientist in the field today. He’s currently at Stanford, but he’s also taught at Johns Hopkins and George Mason. The author of almost a dozen books, his most famous is The End of History and the Last Man, published shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His new book is Liberalism and Its Discontents.
You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above, or click the dropdown menu to add the Dishcast to your podcast feed. For two clips of my convo with Fukuyama — explaining why we need to pay attention to “the men without chests,” and remembering when the political right championed open borders — head over to our YouTube page.
Did you ever catch the episode last year with Glenn Greenwald criticizing Bolsonaro, woke journalism, and animal torture? We now have a full transcript available, if you’d rather read the conversation.
Back to Fukuyama, the following meme captures much of the sentiment addressed in the episode:
A fan of the Dishcast has been anticipating the episode:
You announced a few weeks ago that you’d be interviewing Francis Fukuyama, so I decided to re-read The End of History. While I’m sure you’ve no need of assistance of any kind, I wanted to remind you of why some folks are struck by its prescience. Towards the end, he highlights the potential danger for liberal societies that have solved so many problems — there is no end to the amount of “problems” that a society can then invent:
To find common purpose in the quiet days of peace is hard…. [When] there is no tyranny or oppression against which to struggle, experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause, because that struggle was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain kind of boredom. They cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. If the world they live in is a world characterized by peace and prosperity, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity … and against democracy.
He then refers to some French college-student protests in 1968 against Charles de Gaulle:
… [they] had no rational reason to rebel. They were, for the most part, pampered offspring of one of the freest and most prosperous societies on earth. But it was precisely the absence of struggle and sacrifice in their middle-class lives that led them to take to the streets and confront the police … they had no particularly coherent vision of a better society.
Like the old Cervantes metaphor — then and now, we see people inventing enemies and problems while they obliviously find themselves “tilting at windmills.”
There is no greater example of this, to my mind, than the current LGBTQIA++ movement. Fukuyama and I discuss these people, also known as “the men without chests”:
Related to that conversation is a reader email over my recent item, “The Rumblings of Rome”:
I enjoyed your take on the faltering mos maiorum of our American republic, and I think you’re onto something important. These values and practices are what keep the system together in times of crisis, and their abandonment is a canary in the democratic coal mine. I know you’ve used the Weimar analogy before, and it is apt: Hitler may have issued the coup de grace to German democracy, but its demise was hastened by powerful elites who in the years beforehand eroded republican norms and removed safeguards to authoritarianism. Certainly the Roman example is also apt, as you convincingly argue here.
But what troubles me is a point you make in the linked article in New York Magazine: “But a political system designed for a relatively small city had to make some serious adjustments as its territory and prosperity and population exploded.” The system was ill-equipped for how Rome evolved over centuries from a city-state to a sprawling empire, and the lack of meaningful reform amplified popular frustrations and opened the door for opportunists like the Gracchus brothers to demagogue, generals like Marius and Sulla to assert political authority, and Senators — desperate to preserve the system — to embrace political violence and thus inadvertently hasten its demise.
The system did not evolve enough to meet the challenges posed by expansion, and so people began to reject the system, sometimes for cynical and self-serving reasons, sometimes due to righteous anger born from real suffering, and sometimes in a misguided attempt to save the system from itself.
Our America, of course, is vastly different from the Founders’ in any number of areas, and I have often wondered how well our system, even with the amendment process, can respond to the challenges of the 21st century. Especially given our partisan intransigence, our social media echo chambers, and our Super-PAC funded campaigns — things no one imagined in the 18th century — do we really have any chance of meaningful reform on healthcare, welfare, immigration, election integrity, etc.? To put this another way, democracies work best, I think, when they combine change and continuity — keeping a foot in virtuous traditions while also adapting to new circumstances. If we can’t do the latter, what chance is there to also do the former? I mean, are we fucked?
Thanks for your historical thinking on this issue — I try to tell my students that a working knowledge of history is essential to making sense of the modern world.
The Sinister Symmetry Of CRT And GRT, Ctd
Readers continue the debate from this week’s main page over my comparisons of CRT to GRT. This next reader shares a brilliant video on the parallels between right-wing racists and woke racists:
Your excellent piece reminded me of this very funny sketch:
I recently read James Lindsay’s new book, Race Marxism. His analysis isn’t always watertight, and people have picked holes in the past, but his explanation on page 239 is that this conflict results from the Hegelian dialectical process at the heart of CRT (thesis/antithesis/synthesis):
In a very real sense, all of this “alchemy” is meant to reinvigorate the master-slave dialectic in a contemporary cultural and legal context. Indeed, this feature of Critical Race Theory is why so many people rightly perceive that it is, for all its “anti racism” built on an undeniable engine of white supremacy that regards whites as superior, blacks as inferior, and this state being in immediate need of being abolished through critique and multiculturalism. In fact Critical Race Theory defines itself as the antithesis (and method for seeking synthesis) to the systemic “white supremacy” it believes fundamentally organises society …
CRT’s version of anti-racism therefore isn’t about a liberal process of using democratic institutions to reduce racism gradually through passing laws and changing public opinion through education. It’s a deliberately confrontational process by which you challenge an idea (racism/white supremacy) with its opposite (antiracism/anti whiteness). We end up in constant racial conflict, as the Hegelians forever continue to restart the dialectic process after every failure they suffer.
This next reader, though, senses a false equivalence:
You quoted a reader voicing one of the right’s standard new grievances, about alleged differences in media treatment between the Buffalo shooter and the recent NYC subway shooter. Instead of just nodding along, you should pause for a second and examine this critically, because it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.
The Buffalo shooter wrote a manifesto in which he apparently explained that he intended to target black people and why. And then he did so.
The NYC subway shooter, in contrast, made some rambling videos expressing a mishmash of racist views, and then, in addition, he shot up a subway. Have you ever been on the subway? Did it strike you as a bastion of whiteness or white privilege? Is it where you would go to try to kill white people (or shoot them in the legs, as he apparently did, for whatever mentally disturbed reason)? Is there any evidence that he selected white people out of the crowd? His attack was just some kind of weirdly disordered thinking, or perhaps intended in a foggy sense as an attack on New York City, whose (black) mayor he had also criticized.
I think that’s a fair distinction, especially the choice of target. Another reader claims a false equivalence of a very different sort:
I found your latest column unpersuasive. While I like the aesthetic symmetry of “CRT and GRT” as a title, I am not at all convinced there exists an actual intellectual symmetry of the two things as distinct ideas. Yes, both depend on and promote a race-essentialist worldview, and both undermine our nation’s ideals and identity. But that is where their symmetry ends.
On a political level, CRT not only claims far more power throughout all our elite institutions, but it also holds responsibility for far more violence and destruction. Which major institution has propagated anything close to GRT? One could make a case for Fox News through Tucker Carlson. I would disagree — as would your podcast guest Briahna Joy Gray, who is on the left. But even so, that is one institution that claims any kind of power in our society, compared to all the others captured by CRT.
In terms of violence and destruction, see no further than the summer 2020 riots and the various other attacks motivated by anti-whiteness. Of course, none of this is to dismiss the vile atrocities committed by white supremacists. But I don’t understand why you find the need to draw a false equivalence between the two when one of these evils is clearly a fringe element of our society, with no real threat of spreading further beyond its current limits, while the other already has near-complete elite capture.
Also, a minor but important point: you wrote that “Hispanics are originally from Europe.” This is false. The reason Hispanics/Latinos are considered an ethnicity and not a race in the U.S. context is that we are a complete mix of many races. There are Asian Peruvians, Black Cubans, Indigenous Mexicans, White Argentines, and a complete mix of all of the above and more, including mestizos, mulattos, et al.
Of course, Hispanics/Latinos (which are not the same circles, by the way; most of Latin America is considered both, but Brazilians are Latinos and not Hispanics, and Spaniards are Hispanics but not Latinos) are united by a common Iberian history, which has resulted in common institutions, heritage, culture, religion, and pair of languages (Spanish and Portuguese). But given the deep, centuries-old mix of indigenous peoples and African slaves and Asian immigrants beyond just Europeans throughout Latin America, it’s just false to claim that “Hispanics are originally from Europe.”
Along those lines, another adds:
In 2019, Mexican-Americans comprised 61.5% of all Latino Americans, so by and large, when we discuss Hispanics, we are generally discussing Mexican immigrants. Weren’t there a lot of indigenous people in Mexico and Central America at the time of the Conquest? Didn’t most of them have children, so that those children are reflected in current demographic analyses of Mexico?
The 1921 census shows Mestizos and indigenous groups as the majority — usually the vast majority — in literally every Mexican state. Numbers of self-reported “white” Mexicans have increased substantially since then (though no explanation is posited for the decline in Mestizo or indigenous populations), but self-identified “whites” still are a minority at 47% of the Mexican population, with 51.5% as either indigenous or “most likely Mestizos.” Frankly, it is likely not the white groups that are congregating at the border. Your explanation seems to assume that Mexico was unpopulated at the time of the Conquest, which is a gross misrepresentation.
Thanks for these complications of too breezy a statement. Another reader gets philosophical:
I enjoyed your piece this week on CRT/GRT. Also, on Friday I read David Brooks’ piece on conservatism/progressivism, and it made me think of John Keats’ bitter — and ultimately incorrect — epitaph for himself: “Here lies one whose name is writ in water.” That would fit most of those who have ever walked the earth, including most “public intellectuals,” to use your phrase. Humans come and go, and we know damned well that we are likely soon to be forgotten, unless we become a curiosity for ancestry researchers.
It strikes me that this is a defense for conservative “philosophy.” We don’t live a life entirely within ourselves. We pay attention to what has gone before. Progressives see a long history of oppression, identify with it, and project it into the future. Conservatives are mindful of the past, in family, ethnicity and faith; even if some of it is wrapped in a flag of “patriotism.” Tradition is important to both sides, for better or for worse. We can’t escape it, so why not find ways to discuss it civilly? Which brings me back to Keats. His eying expression of humility was mistaken. Present-day feelings of certitude, on left or right, are badly in need of humility — and that, I believe, is a conservative thought.
David French On Religious Liberty, CRT, Grace, Ctd
From a “gay, Christian, moderate conservative”:
I thoroughly enjoyed your episode with David French, especially since I got to hear the two of you discuss Church of Christ theology at the beginning. I grew up in the Church of Christ denomination and went to a sister school (Abilene Christian University) of the one French attended (Lipscomb). The faith journey you both described is one very familiar to me. My boyfriend also grew up in the Church of Christ tradition and we still feel a certain affinity to it, although it’s obviously not a tradition that affirms same-sex relationships.
I loved that the two of you were able to have such a gracious conversation about faith and politics. I enjoy reminders that one’s stance on gay marriage is hardly the litmus test for both conservatism and Christianity that it once was. There’s so much more common ground to explore, and Christianity and conservatism are big enough for differing views — even in the midst of this bizarre cultural climate we’re in.
Here’s a snippet of my convo with David:
Another listener makes a recommendation:
In follow-up to your conversation with David French, could you possibly interview Tim Alberta? His new article in The Atlantic, “How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church,” is worth your attention.
Indeed. Thanks for the tip. Lastly, a sermon for Sunday:
I am an Episcopal priest in Atlanta (though hopefully one not quite as woke as Douglas Murray accuses us of being). If it’s not too bold, I wanted to send you the manuscript of my sermon from last Sunday. The sermon is from a small passage for Easter 6, Revelation 22.3-4: “Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”
I started working on it, and then on Friday I heard the first part of your interview with David French. I think that interview found its way into my sermon, and I know that your ongoing conversations have affected my preaching in a positive way.
The manuscript is pasted below, but I’ll close by saying again how grateful I am for your podcast, and I hope that you might consider occasionally having theologians onto your show. I’ve loved hearing you talk about faith with Cornell West and David French, and I think it might be fascinating to have a systematic theological think through issues like CRT and gender.
The sermon in full:
“They’re out to get you.” That’s what the world will tell you, over and over. “They” — whoever they are — “really are out to get you.”
Now, sometimes it’s true. The world can be a dangerous place, after all. But usually the message isn’t that they are after you, Jennifer, or you, Meredith, or Kevon, or Rafael, or whatever your name might be.
And they’re not after you because of your character or your choices. The message is that they are after you because of your team, because of your skin color, or where you were born, or your gender. They’re after you because of what you represent.
And again, sometimes it’s true. Last weekend the threats were real on both sides of our country.
Last weekend a young man consumed by evil drove 200 miles to Buffalo to open fire on innocent people. But not just any innocent people.
He targeted a black neighborhood because he wanted to send a message of hate, a message of terror. He wanted black people all across the country to believe that they had a target on their backs.
And with our history of violence and terror, our black sisters and brothers heard his message.
On the other side of the country another man used a gun to send the same message of hate to a different group of people.
In California the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church was enjoying a church picnic when a Chinese-born American citizen walked up and started shooting.
The sheriff said the man was motivated by his hatred of Taiwan, and he sent his message of hate and terror to those innocent people.
The messages don’t always come with bullets, and they aren’t always about race, and they also aren’t limited to one side of our national divide.
When you listen with a careful ear to the issues that divide us, what gives them their power is the underlying threat that something of YOUR identity, something of YOUR autonomy, is about to be taken away.
“They” are going to take something away from you because of who you are.
I remember 20 years ago after the Twin Towers fell, the rhetoric on both sides of our political culture was that “they” hated our freedom, hated capitalism, hated democracy. That “they” were coming for us.
Two years later, our church was almost split apart by the debate over same-sex relationships.
For the progressive, the message was that “they” were coming for your right to love who you choose. For the conservative the message was that “they” were coming to destroy the social values you had been taught were right and good.
We hear those threats still today. The uproar over cancel culture and over excesses in cultural trends doesn’t feel to some conservatives like an interesting social trend; it feels like a threat. It feels like “they” are telling conservatives, “We’re coming for you.”
On the other side, progressives and especially progressive women heard an old threat earlier this month: “They’re coming to take away control of your bodies.”
When that Supreme Court draft was leaked, the message went forth - “They’re coming for you, they’re coming to take control of your bodies away from you.”
In fact, they’re not just coming for your right to an abortion, they’re also coming to take away Obergefell and then Loving and then Brown v. Board of Education.
So…I’ve been taking some big swings up here this morning, on things that are frankly outside of my area of expertise, and I haven’t said a word yet about God or Jesus or had any kind of gospel message.
That’s about to change, but the reason I’m trying to bring up all the touchy stuff is because the call to follow isn’t just for other people and it isn’t just for when somebody cuts you off in traffic.
Now let me repeat my disclaimer. I’m not saying the threats are all imagined, or that they’re all equal. Sometimes the threat is real.
BUT, in the face of those threats, in the face of the world’s desire to put you on notice that you NEED to be afraid, the question for us this morning is, “Should my being a follower of Jesus affect how I respond?”
When I was first ordained Bishop Alexander told me to always keep my vows in the correct order.
He meant that FIRST I was a baptized child of God, THEN I was Emily’s husband, and THEN I was a priest, and if I remembered the hierarchy of those vows my life would be properly ordered.
I haven’t always gotten it right but when I’ve gotten a little unbalanced his advice has helped me get back where I need to be.
And Bishop Neil’s advice helped me to see something even deeper: we all move through the world with multiple identities and we have to keep them in their proper order.
In my case I can think of myself as a man, even as a white man, as a Georgian, an American a Christian, a father, a husband, priest, neighbor, brother, and of course a really, really good singer/dancer.
Almost all of those identities are important but for me to be who I aspire to be there needs to be a hierarchy to them. I need to make sure all those identities are properly ordered.
There’s a distinction in Christianity between being a Creature of God and a Child of God.
All of us are Creatures of God. All of us, every person who ever lived, are creatures of God.
Our first and most important identity is that we are created by a God who loves every single one of us and that, as Fr. Rhett said last Sunday, there’s not a thing you can do about it.
And for those of us baptized into the body of Christ, those of us who believe in Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord we have a second and eternal identity - beloved Child of God.
A properly ordered life embraces those two identities - beloved Creature of God and beloved Child of God - as more important than all the others we have. And then downstream of those two come all the rest: gender, sex, family, values, race, creed, and on and on.
So am I white? Am I black? Am I Taiwanese or Woman or Man or Husband or parent or Democrat or Republican or even American?
Yes, I am all of those things and more, but my first identity, the very core of who I am, is always beloved Creature of God, and my eternal hope is not in escaping the threats or defeating my enemies but in holding on to my identity as a Child of God, as a member of the Body of Christ.
The world will try to disorder your identities. The world will whisper and then shout fear & danger & division, will try to make your threatened identity the center of who you are.
When evil drives to Buffalo, fear will tell you that your first identity is the color of your skin, and that it always will be.
When evil drives to a church picnic, fear tells you that your primary identity, your fundamental self is as a pawn in a great ethnic & political strife.
When cultural values change, when marriage is redefined, or social programs try to right historic wrongs, or when human laws try to legislate that which cannot be legislated but must be legislated, when they try to balance the rights of the mother and the rights of the unborn, fear will tell you that your core identity is not beloved Creature of God or beloved Child of God, but is your demographic or political or racial or gender identity, and that your response has to come from that threatened self.
But Jesus tells us something different. Jesus tells us to love our enemies.
Jesus tells us we are all beloved creatures of God, the just and unjust alike, AND that those baptized into his death and resurrection have an ETERNAL identity greater than anything else about us, an ETERNAL hope that will live beyond any other understanding of self.
Our response to Jesus’ message is to understand who we really are and order our identities so that we do not respond to threats as the world does.
Our call is to respond as beloved, as BELOVED children of God who share a common humanity and a common creator, and as people whose hope is not in temporary victories but in eternal life.
It’s not easy.
Hate invites you to respond with hate. Fear invites you to respond with fear.
Change makes you want to dig in your heels and hunker down and defend YOUR turf, YOUR way of life, with all that you’ve got.
No wonder Jesus said we must give up our lives to follow him.
In the Revelation to John, Jesus showed John a vision of the heavenly city. In that city the Children of God had the name of Jesus written on each of their foreheads.
Using our language of baptism, they were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.
WE are those Children of God. Our true identity is not in any of our human distinctions but in the name of Jesus written across our faces.
Our task is to understand that truth and to live it, to treat one another with that common heritage as Creatures of God even when we feel threatened by one another, and to teach our children that no matter what the world whispers to them about who they are, their truest, deepest, most fundamental self will always be … Beloved of God.