Liberalism Isn’t Dead—but It’s Very Sick

In two new books, Yascha Mounk and Francis Fukuyama try to cure the patient.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
The full moon rises behind the Statue of Liberty in New York City on May 18, 2019.
The full moon rises behind the Statue of Liberty in New York City on May 18, 2019.
The full moon rises behind the Statue of Liberty in New York City on May 18, 2019. Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has played out like a terribly grim, but so far at least, profoundly ennobling laboratory experiment in the relative virtues of autocracy and liberal democracy. Yet evidence that a (more or less) liberal democracy can defeat or withstand an autocracy even in war—the one sphere that so obviously favors the latter—hasn’t, and probably won’t, meaningfully diminish the forces that have undermined liberalism in the West and around the world.

Indeed, the sharp division between Western democracies that regard the invasion as an intolerable violation of moral principle and non-Western and barely liberal ones like India and South Africa that have treated it as geopolitics as usual only reinforces the idea that liberal democracy occupies a diminishing space in the world.

It is possible that liberal democracy was a historically contingent experiment that depended on underlying conditions that no longer obtain. In his 2018 book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, Harvard scholar Yascha Mounk described those limiting conditions as broadly shared prosperity, relative demographic homogeneity, and sources of information that encompass the whole population. That was the last century, not this one.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has played out like a terribly grim, but so far at least, profoundly ennobling laboratory experiment in the relative virtues of autocracy and liberal democracy. Yet evidence that a (more or less) liberal democracy can defeat or withstand an autocracy even in war—the one sphere that so obviously favors the latter—hasn’t, and probably won’t, meaningfully diminish the forces that have undermined liberalism in the West and around the world.

Indeed, the sharp division between Western democracies that regard the invasion as an intolerable violation of moral principle and non-Western and barely liberal ones like India and South Africa that have treated it as geopolitics as usual only reinforces the idea that liberal democracy occupies a diminishing space in the world.

It is possible that liberal democracy was a historically contingent experiment that depended on underlying conditions that no longer obtain. In his 2018 book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, Harvard scholar Yascha Mounk described those limiting conditions as broadly shared prosperity, relative demographic homogeneity, and sources of information that encompass the whole population. That was the last century, not this one.

Yet if you believe that all alternatives to liberal democracy are much worse—indeed, unbearable—then you must proceed as if the illness it suffers from is curable. That is the premise of Mounk’s new work, the more optimistically titled The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, as well as Liberalism and Its Discontents by Francis Fukuyama, also a long-standing combatant in the liberalism wars.

Liberalism, as Fukuyama describes it, functions as a political technology for the management of otherwise irreconcilable differences. Liberals from the time of Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century have erected a series of procedural rules and normative principles—above all, the rule of law and the rights of individuals to pursue their own preferences—to limit the reach of absolutist doctrines. Liberal rules and norms allow people of different views not only to get along but to subscribe to the implicit “contract” on which democratic government rests. Liberalism is endangered when the “factions,” to use James Madison’s term, that arise naturally in society cease to respect the rules and norms.

But liberalism has a problem when those factions consist not of like-minded individuals but of tribes: ethnic or religious groups bound together less by changeable beliefs than by immutable characteristics. A “diverse democracy,” in Mounk’s sense, is a heterogeneous one. In such states, “where virtually everyone votes along religious or ethnic lines,” Mounk observes, “a large portion of the population forms a permanent minority,” locked out of power, while majorities use their power to dominate or marginalize minorities, as white people did to Black people in the American antebellum and Jim Crow South and as Hindus now do to Muslims in India.

Liberalism addresses people as equal, free-standing citizens; but Mounk has concluded that the wish to stand apart from kin, culture, and state is less primordial than we think. Both experience and social science research show us that people are by nature “groupish.” The chief threat to liberalism over the last decade has been majoritarian nationalism provoked by real or alleged threats to collective identity—whiteness in the United States and Europe, Hinduism in India, Judaism in Israel, and Islam in Turkey. Against this rage, liberal universalism, the idea that we all have equal rights based in our common humanity, has steadily retreated.

No one has developed an entirely convincing answer to the problem of diverse democracy. The “consociational” model, where power is allocated among groups that enjoy formal status, has worked out well in the Netherlands, divided between Catholics and Protestants, but very badly in Lebanon, where power-sharing among different religious factions has currently produced a vacuum of governance very close to anarchy. Slightly over 40 percent of the French public just voted for a presidential candidate who promised to restore the primacy of natives over newcomers and, not coincidentally, white people over people of color.

The first wave of rise-of-illiberalism books—including Mounk’s and Fukuyama’s earlier books as well as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die and my own What Was Liberalism?: The Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea—focused almost entirely on the right-wing nationalism of former U.S. President Donald Trump, French politician Marine Le Pen, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and others. That’s old news by now. One of the features of the new generation of liberalism-in-peril books is worry over the rise of an identitarian left that is equally contemptuous of liberal restraints.

Fukuyama writes of a species of identity politics that “sees the lived experiences of different groups as fundamentally incommensurate.” White people cannot understand what it means to be Black; racism is not an individual attitude but is rather imprinted in the structures of power, and thus in collective consciousness. Mounk describes the “strategic essentialism” of those who insist that we treat race or gender as ineradicable essences. This is the new groupishness of the left. Anyone who has spent time in the advanced institutions of American culture—universities, art museums, foundations, newspapers—will recognize this mentality.

It is, however, striking that while right-wing nationalism has circled the globe, the so-called woke left is an almost entirely U.S. phenomenon. It explains nothing about illiberalism in India or Poland and very little about France or Germany. Why is it that the most advanced progressive thinking in the United States, but not elsewhere, is obsessed with the policing of group boundaries and the honoring of group rights? Perhaps because of the unique role that racial anger and racial shame play in the United States.

The effect, in any case, is to set up a kind of reciprocal tribalism, where the left and right goad each other to greater extremes. Both agree on the need to weed out evil books from libraries but disagree violently over the books in question; meanwhile, what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “vital center” recedes to an ever more distant horizon.

What is to be done? Fukuyama’s answer is to defend the citadel. In this slim volume (a euphemism for a long magazine article by a famous author that publishers are eager to issue in book form), Fukuyama, in the manner of philosopher Isaiah Berlin, traces the evolutionary path of the new illiberal ideologies, locating their origin in the postmodern critique of rationality of philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, a doctrine of the radical left later picked up by the right.

And then, like a stout crusader of liberalism, he smites them one and all. Fukuyama first refutes what might be called the neoliberal or free market heresy of liberalism, noting that while humans are indeed self-seeking, “they are also intensely social creatures who cannot be individually happy without the support and recognition provided by their peers.” But neoliberalism is a heresy, or a perversion, for liberal societies created the redistributionist state that promoted equality in the 20th century.

Fukuyama goes on to note that liberalism is not so obsessed with the individual as to inevitably atomize society, as many Catholic conservatives claim: “Private associational life has grown enormously” in the liberal societies of the West. Nor must liberal states plead guilty to colonialism. How, after all, should we explain the rise of liberal East Asian states innocent of that charge? Fukuyama reminds liberals of what they stand for and why they are right to stand for it.

Of course, that’s not a solution. Mounk writes that big books about ideas tend to be far better at explaining the problem than at offering solutions. Another way of putting it, though, is that illiberalism is the kind of problem to which solutions inevitably feel inadequate because the problem is not a failure of policy but of collective belief. How do you create conditions that will favor a restoration of a vanished consensus?

For Mounk, that comes down to the question of mechanisms to contain and channel the tribalism that one cannot wish away. Ranked choice voting, for example, will help gain representation for minorities, he argues. Much of Mounk’s agenda resembles the current Democratic Party platform: broad-based economic growth, progressive taxation, and opportunities for social mobility—all designed to create a sense of collective rather than tribal good. In that vein, he argues—against the progressive left—for universal rather than race-conscious policies and for limits on immigration, a flash point for the nativist right.

These are good solutions, but I do not see how they will cure the patient. (For the record, I was not entirely convinced by the solutions I offered in What Was Liberalism?) Mounk doesn’t entirely disagree: He writes that liberalism ultimately must be defended at the level of private and social behavior. He advises all of us to think for ourselves and be prepared to criticize our own side and restrain the impulse to vilify the other. I am guessing that most readers of his book will not need that advice, whereas the tribalists of left and right would sneer at it.

I read The Great Experiment while thinking about India, the biggest and most diverse of the world’s democracies. India is also among the sickest patients in the liberal democracy ward. Born under the star of secularism and tolerance, India under Modi has increasingly become a theistic and intolerant society that advances the cause of Hinduism at the expense of its more than 200 million Muslims. I asked myself whether Mounk had anything to offer the many Indians who believe in the nation’s secular values and deeply fear their demise. The answer is: not much.

Some diseases prove fatal; others can only be cured very slowly, as the patient’s own defenses finally rally. I am in favor of everything Mounk suggests; I am even more in favor of Fukuyama’s rousing call to truth. Only liberalism, as both authors argue, can allow us to live safely and prosperously in a diverse world. But I recognize that the restraints imposed by liberal rules and norms ask a great deal of citizens, far more than nativism, nationalism, or majoritarian tyranny do. We need to keep fighting for what is right even as we recognize that the road will be long.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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