Essay

The Secret Postmodern Radicalism of Francis Fukuyama

He cheerleads for liberal democracy in public—but quietly admits he’s unsure of its true strength.

By , a Fulbright scholar in North Macedonia.
Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist and author
Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist and author
Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist and author, photographed in Milan, Italy on March 12, 2019. Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images

In his most recent book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, published this year, author Francis Fukuyama argues that the “virtues” of liberal democracy must be “clearly articulated and celebrated.” This injunction is a curious one. For more than three decades, Fukuyama has been one of the most prominent public intellectuals making the case—again and again, in various genres—that liberal democracy is the best form of government available. What has he been doing all this time, if the case for this regime is not yet clear?

In his most recent book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, published this year, author Francis Fukuyama argues that the “virtues” of liberal democracy must be “clearly articulated and celebrated.” This injunction is a curious one. For more than three decades, Fukuyama has been one of the most prominent public intellectuals making the case—again and again, in various genres—that liberal democracy is the best form of government available. What has he been doing all this time, if the case for this regime is not yet clear?

Fukuyama presents himself in this book as an advocate rather than a scholar or philosopher. The premise of social science as practiced in modern universities is that it is possible to consider political things without assigning praise or blame; the premise of philosophy is that it is possible to consider such things in theory in at least a temporary withdrawal from the practice of politics. Fukuyama tells readers from the outset that these are not his aims. Shaping public opinion through paeans to one’s regime seems to him to be not only a reasonable, avowable goal but one that he faults other political thinkers and activists for abandoning.

He scolds both conservatives and progressives in the United States for their growing distrust of the “democratic process”—that is, from the shaping of opinion through discourse. Republicans aligned with former U.S. President Donald Trump are ever more skeptical of the fairness of elections or, indeed, of the idea that those opposed to their agenda can be considered so-called real Americans. The left, meanwhile, has promoted what Fukuyama sees as a divisive form of politics organized around group identities through “courts, executive agencies, and their substantial social and cultural power.” Neither side appears able or interested in attempting to secure a “broad social consensus” for a version of their agenda that could appeal to the material interests and values of most of their compatriots using traditional democratic means: rhetorical appeals, substantiated by political action, aimed at the legitimate demands of ordinary people.

This failure appears to strike Fukuyama not only as regrettable but as frighteningly reminiscent of the political impasse that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fukuyama worked in the 1980s as an analyst studying the Soviet military, as he was also laying the intellectual foundation for his famous thesis on the “end of history.” In his 1989 essay “A Reply to My Critics,” he argued that the Soviet Union under then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev was witnessing a collapse of ground-level social order (evidenced by the “rapid growth of ordinary crime”) and a loss of elites’ “moral authority,” brought about (above all) by their loss of faith in their regime as the embodiment of a “universalistic idea”—communism—that history was directed to fulfill. It would be a terrible misreading to imagine that Fukuyama was gloating about the fall of liberal democracy’s last significant ideological rival. Rather, he was then, and continues to be, concerned that the Soviet Union’s fate could be the United States’ if elites and ordinary people lose their hope in the movement of history toward the global victory of its ideals—and if intellectuals neglect their mission to justify this hope.

Since the publication of his essay, “The End of History?” in 1989 and subsequent book, The End of History and the Last Man, three years later, Fukuyama is usually discussed and often criticized by pundits for having claimed straightforwardly that liberal democracy has already triumphed. In the first paragraph of “A Reply to My Critics,” reflecting on the surprising celebrity of his controversial essay, he complained, “my real accomplishment has been to produce a uniquely universal consensus … on the fact that I was wrong and that history has not in fact ended.”

Nearly all of his readers missed his much more subtle point, re-elaborated in that reply, The End of History and the Last Man, and still again in “Reflections on The End of History, Five Years Later” that the prospect of liberal democracy overtaking all alternative forms of government cannot be an object of rational certainty but only of “hope.” This hope is inseparable from Fukuyama’s fear that if the world does not imagine history to have a “progressive character” trending toward the spread of their own political values, then their adherence to liberal democracy—and thus the regime itself—will be fatally undermined. Without this hope in history, the United States will come to the same end as the Soviet Union.

Fukuyama, from 1989 to the present, seems to have taken it upon himself to give grounds to this politically necessary “hope.” But his career-long project of articulating and celebrating liberal democracy is a complex one that speaks to multiple, quite different audiences. In an interview published in 2011, he reflected on how he addresses these “competing audiences.” There is, on the one hand, a set of academic specialists to whom he speaks mostly “in footnotes,” and on the other hand, a broader but shrinking “residual audience” of Americans interested in intellectual and political life. This group, he insists, are not the “general public” but a “general readership.” The public, presumably, no longer reads and are thus beyond the reach of intellectuals except perhaps by the most indirect means.

Few of Fukuyama’s readers have attended to his avowed concern for speaking at different registers to distinct groups or considered how these various ways of speaking contribute (or fail to contribute) to his project of shoring up our collective faith in our form of government. But without such attention, we cannot understand his intellectual and political career, or what the difficulties his project has encountered might tell us not only about Fukuyama as a thinker, but about the problems of the regime he defends.


Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev (right) hands his book to Francis Fukuyama
Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev (right) hands his book to Francis Fukuyama

Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev (right) hands his book to Fukuyama during a conference in Moscow on June 15, 2007.SERGEI PAPONTOV/AFP via Getty Images

Fukuyama learned how to speak to multiple audiences from his undergraduate professor at Cornell University, Allan Bloom, who published his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987) shortly before inviting Fukuyama to the University of Chicago to give a lecture that would be the first iteration of the “end of history” thesis. Bloom saw liberal democracy, even at the moment of its victory in the Cold War, as menaced by what he described in a 1989 response to Fukuyama as the “dark possibilities” of fascism. A revival of ethnonationalist resentment pitched against liberalism, he warned, could come both from white majorities threatened by immigration as well as from minorities who were taking up—through the American academy’s reappropriation of philosopher Martin Heidegger, political theorist Carl Schmitt, and other far-right illiberal thinkers—“fascist arguments against modernity.”

Following his own teacher Leo Strauss (who himself inherited this perspective in part from philosopher Henri Bergson), Bloom suggested to students and readers perspicacious enough to pick up his hints that society would collapse unless it were held together by its members’ collective faith in a common set of beliefs. For those who wished to pursue what the Straussian tradition calls the “philosophical life” of independent thought, they would be prudent to do so under the cover of outward fidelity and conformity to traditional norms. At most, they might—through the careful use of political rhetoric—gradually modify collective beliefs, bringing them closer into alignment with the truth as they understand it. Fukuyama seems to have learned from Bloom both the necessity and the means of shaping public opinion, molding it into the sort of consensus without which they feared the U.S. regime cannot survive.

Fukuyama’s early work on the “end of history” shows the influence of Bloom and Strauss. It speaks to multiple audiences, endorsing a critical, almost ironic support for liberal democracy while signaling to the more attentive readers its weaknesses and flaws. More radically and in what seems to constitute the great originality of this thinking, Fukuyama distinguishes between two arguments in favor of the U.S. regime. One, a philosophical or psychological argument based on an understanding of human nature, will be, he suggests, incomprehensible to all but a few members of his audience. The other—the historical argument about the “end of history”—is in fact an inferior argument, but it alone can convince ordinary readers.

The psychological argument runs as follows. “In reality,” Fukuyama observes toward the conclusion of The End of History and the Last Man, liberal democracy “constitutes the best possible solution” to two apparently and, at times actually, contradictory desires felt in different degrees by all people. The world has, on the one hand, a passion for equality or “isothymia,” and on the other hand, a passion for superiority or “megalothymia.” People want to be recognized as being as good as other people, and they are indignant when they, or others, are denied this recognition. On the other hand, it seems essential to people’s ability to have a good life—that is, a life of own’s one, defined in accordance with some personal standard not identical with public norms—that they be able to imagine themselves as possessing a certain kind of excellence and even achieving recognition for it among others (who might be only their own families or a happy few who know how to appreciate them).

Liberal democracy protects people from the humiliations of openly declared hierarchies of human value while also enabling them to channel their ineradicable snobbism and competitiveness into harmless and even socially useful activities. No other regime meets these two contradictory needs with so great an equilibrium. However, “while modern societies have evolved towards democracy” as the balance of isothymia and megalothymia shows, “modern thought has arrived at an impasse” and is unable to generate a rational defense of the form of government that best accommodates people’s deepest desires. This is because, since the 18th-century Enlightenment and with particular urgency since the thought of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, it has become more and more difficult for Western intellectuals to believe that there is in fact such a thing as human nature, in light of which people could know objectively which form of government best fulfills their needs. Most intellectuals today imagine that people vary so greatly across different societies throughout history that it is meaningless—or worse, a Eurocentric offense—to speak of human nature.

Fukuyama is seen at the National Press Club in Washington in 1990.
Fukuyama is seen at the National Press Club in Washington in 1990.

Fukuyama is seen at the National Press Club in Washington in 1990.Dirck Halstead/Getty Images

Modern societies are, as liberal democracies, heirs to the 18th-century Age of Revolutions, in which the founders of the American and French republics declared that the universality of human nature entailed universal rights. But confronted by historicist and relativist critiques issuing from social sciences as well as new perspectives from biology, experts seem unable to provide a rational basis for that declaration, which perhaps persists among people now only as an antiquated, increasingly unpopular article of faith. Fukuyama observes that many leaders of those founding revolutions, such as former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, held that liberal democracy “required a supplementary belief” to ward off the corroding force of skepticism about the rational basis of human rights.

The “impasse of modern thought,” foreseen by those Enlightenment thinkers, cannot be overcome by any of their contemporary descendants, Fukuyama concludes. Liberal democracy, although it is the best form of government, has no intellectual defender capable of convincing its supporters and detractors that there truly is a transhistorical human nature that can serve as the basis of comparison among different regimes. The best that its supporters can do, Fukuyama argues, is hope that over the coming course of history, “events continue to unfold as they have,” moving in favor of the stability and spread of liberal democracy. As the latter, victorious over its most challenging rivals—fascism and communism—“may become more plausible to people … the relativist impasse of modern thought will in a sense solve itself.”

The idea that liberal democracy stands at the “end of history,” in other words, is a sort of second-best belief, something to be inculcated in those who are unable to overcome the “impasse of modern thought” and apprehend the universality and political dimension of human nature. It is not really true but a belief that, held for irrational reasons, directs the person who holds it to act in a rational way. Since it cannot be grounded in people’s understanding of human nature, liberal democracy must be grounded in a consensus based on a true-enough, plausible-seeming set of beliefs about a progressive unfolding of history that has led people to the present.

Disturbingly, this means that the U.S. regime depends on what Fukuyama calls the “democratic process,” which the American right and left are both abandoning—or, put another way, on the possibility of forming a “consensus.” But, as he noted in 1989, when complained of the “uniquely universal consensus” that misunderstood his ideas, a “consensus” can be founded—and is perhaps indeed likely to be founded—on a shallow misapprehension of the truth. Ironically, in that same essay, bemoaning the popular caricatures of his complex argument, Fukuyama claims that one of the strongest reasons for having faith in the U.S. form of government is the “remarkable consensus” that has developed in the world concerning the “viability of liberal democracy.” Either Fukuyama was being quite foolish or he was up to something—signaling, perhaps to what he understood to be a minority of attentive readers, that the future of liberal democracy depends on its advocates’ ability to secure public adherence to a view of history and its future progress that is perhaps not even a “true opinion.”


West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall
West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall

West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall as they watch East German border guards demolish a section to open a new crossing point near Potsdamer Platz on Nov. 11, 1989.GERARD MALIE/AFP via Getty Images

Writing to a bifurcated audience—composed on the one hand of philosophers capable of understanding the truth as it really is and, on the other hand, of gentlemen who, although incapable of this, can be led to a “true opinion,” a not-entirely-justified belief that will orient them toward desirable political action—is a core element of the Straussian school. Strauss, Bloom, and other thinkers in this tradition influenced a number of figures outside the academy, such as commentator William Kristol, who translated versions of Straussian ideas to policymaking and influencing public opinion. Although versions of Straussian thinking continue to animate the political right today, including the extreme online right (the popular and deeply reactionary internet personality Bronze Age Pervert evinces a deep familiarity with the work of otherwise obscure Straussian political theorist Costin Alamariu as well as Strauss and Bloom), the peak of its perceived influence was in the early George W. Bush administration. The neoconservative clique that steered the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was seen by many to be guided by Strauss’s sense that the public could, and indeed should, be deceived by a “noble lie.”

It is with an awareness of Fukuyama’s debts to the Straussian tradition that people should read his 2006 book, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. The ostensible aim of the book was to signal its author’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq and the immoderate foreign-policy ambitions of the George W. Bush administration. But Fukuyama began by defending Strauss’s reputation from what he foresaw would be the disastrous legacy of the so-called policymaking gentlemen of the neoconservative movement.

American author and academic Allan Bloom is seen in his Chicago home in 1987
American author and academic Allan Bloom is seen in his Chicago home in 1987

American author and academic Allan Bloom is seen in his Chicago home in 1987.Steve Kagan/Getty Images

Strauss and many of his students practiced an esoteric art of interpreting texts, seeking hidden meanings, and in their own writings, they used a variety of techniques to provoke careful readers to greater thoughtfulness. One of these dear to Strauss was a kind of numerology, by which certain authors supposedly use specific numbers in characteristic ways to signal that the claims on the surface of their text conceal something else. Italian diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, for example, was said by Strauss to have used the number 13 and its multiples for this purpose.

The 13th footnote of the chapter on Strauss in America at the Crossroads directs readers to the conclusion of Strauss’s most important work, Natural Right and History (1953). In that passage, Strauss makes a critical distinction between two views of how the “best constitution,” the best form of government that could be enacted, could come about. The “classical view” of the ancient Greeks, which was likewise held by leaders of the American and French Revolutions, was that “the best constitution is directed toward a variety of ends which are linked with one another by nature” and that these ends could be identified, ordered, and satisfied by a “contrivance of reason,” a regime designed on the basis of an understanding of human psychology. The alternative view, which Strauss saw as arising from the counterrevolutionary writing of economist Edmund Burke but rapidly thereafter becoming the very essence of modern thought, held that the “genesis of the sound social order must not be a process guided by reflection” but must be left to the free play of supposedly so-called natural forces accumulating throughout history.

Strauss took Burke to be the father of an understanding of politics in which human beings are tasked primarily not with using their reason to determine which way of living together best satisfies the demands arising from human nature but rather with determining the meaning of history. A conservative version of this historicism holds that history has completed its work in one’s own way of life, and people have nothing more to do than be grateful and preserve it. A progressive version holds that the work of history is not yet finished and that people can look forward to further development, which may take the form of a new way of life arising out of the old (such as the Marxist theory of history) or simply the spread of one’s own way of life to all other people in the world (a liberal progressive and neoconservative ideal). All of these were anathema to Strauss.

In citing this passage through a footnote whose number readers of Strauss would know to be significant, Fukuyama was perhaps reminding a tiny audience of neoconservative intellectuals steeped, like him, in the work of Strauss and his students that while he put his hopes for liberal democracy’s future in the creation of a consensus around a progressive understanding of history, he himself knew that the U.S. regime, philosophically speaking, depends not on the plausible untruth held in such consensus but on the truth about human nature. He was perhaps warning them that while they were trying to spread liberal democracy throughout the world at gunpoint, the United States was already in danger at home, insofar as even elites who ought to have been taught better by Strauss were now embracing an immoderate, dangerous version of the progressive vision of history. They lacked the capacity for moderation, perhaps, because they had forgotten that this vision is not, strictly speaking, true; it is only a true enough story told to an unphilosophical audience.


Fukuyama is seen at a press conference for his book America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy in Tokyo on Dec. 19, 2006.
Fukuyama is seen at a press conference for his book America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy in Tokyo on Dec. 19, 2006.

Fukuyama is seen at a press conference for his book America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy in Tokyo on Dec. 19, 2006.YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP via Getty Images

Fukuyama thus broke with the neoconservative movement, with which he had previously been identified. He also began a political evolution that seems to have left him without access to policymakers sympathetic to both his concrete recommendations and broader worldview. Now, it is not clear who he wants to speak to. In a 2018 interview with columnist Wesley Yang on the publication of his penultimate book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, he said he is now giving policy recommendations to “an audience that is unlikely to heed” his advice.

The advice, indeed, is quite reasonable and flows logically out of the psychological analysis of human nature Fukuyama made in his “end of history” thesis—which is perhaps just why it isn’t being heeded. He warns that American politics has become so shrilly polemical and so anti-democratic in part because Americans are increasingly unable to secure the fundamental human need for “dignity” by means of a common national identity. The universal, egalitarian premises of liberalism can only be given a psychologically satisfying, concrete expression within a bounded, democratic state that has a coherent national identity.

Of course, people’s needs are not only symbolic but nor can even their desire for equality be satisfied merely with verbal expressions from politicians. Rather, to feel their self-worth affirmed as equal members of a greater whole, individuals must be able to experience—in the material, quotidian patterns of their lives—that they possess the necessary resources to maintain what they understand to be respectability. This includes not only a minimum of physical well-being but (what redistribution programs alone cannot provide) a sense of contributing to the community through work and service; of having safe forums for expressing and sharing one’s beliefs and traditions; and also of having neutral, reliable public institutions in which conflicts over such values can be suspended through common identification with transcendent, national purposes.

Only a strong state—strong enough to control flows of people, goods, and capital over its borders as well as to restrain conflicts over subnational identities and moral commitments—can maintain the security, economic prosperity, and relative material equality necessary to satisfy people’s basic human desires. Fukuyama enjoins moderation to culture warriors of the right and left, and he calls on a patriotic ethic that would recognize national unity and security as the necessary preconditions for tolerance, diversity, and comfort in one’s private, associational life. These calls have been just as ineffective as his warnings about the war in Iraq.

Preaching moderation to political elites, reigning in their partisan and personal ambitions, and drawing their attention to the urgent need to rebuild America’s material infrastructure, civic institutions, and faith in a common national purpose, seems both necessary and perhaps impossible in Fukuyama’s eyes. The Straussian tradition holds the promise that it could teach elites moderation by making them aware of the critical distinction between the publicly avowable justifications for one’s political way of life and its true, philosophical, and almost ungraspable principles.

The sense of such disjuncture—although it may have often given elites a false sense of their intellectual superiority over ordinary people, or indeed their right to deceive them—also, at least potentially, kept them alive to the fact that, precisely because history had not truly ended and never could, they needed to keep supplying the public plausible grounds for such faith with their words and deeds. The notion that there are two distinct justifications for liberal democracy aimed at different audiences could function in this sense like Fukuyama’s warning that the balance between isothymia and megalothymia in the U.S. regime is inherently unstable. By drawing attention to a delicate, unsteady equilibrium, both ideas ought to inculcate prudence.

But from Fukuyama’s own admission, it seems neither the lineage of Straussian thought taken up by neoconservatives whom he separated himself from nor his own efforts to continue the heritage of Strauss and Bloom in a more politically pragmatic vein has succeeded in these terms. If the task of the philosophically minded friend of liberal democracy is to influence elites to make reasonable political decisions to secure the stability of the regime while convincing a wider public that history is on its side, then both iterations of Straussianism seem—in their juggling of multiple audiences—to have let the balls drop.

Perhaps a dissatisfaction with the Straussian paradigm accounts for one of Fukuyama’s most perplexing intellectual ventures, an enormous two-volume series that traces the history of humanity down to the present as the advent and diffusion of liberal democracy. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (2011) and Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (2014) are sweeping but superficial accounts of world history as a teleological movement toward the “end of history,” presented in almost the very caricature Fukuyama had once objected to being identified with. These books are too long and too learned to be popular, and they have no obvious connection to contemporary policy. But they are also too shallow and unreflective to be of interest to the sort of readers who might plumb the depths of The End of History and the Last Man or Fukuyama’s other, more esoteric writings. They speak neither to a philosophical elite nor to policymakers nor to a general audience. It is as though Fukuyama, having exhausted the Straussian paradigm, now articulates and celebrates the virtues of liberal democracy, seen as history’s ultimate meaning, to an audience he is no longer certain of.

Fukuyama holds that the U.S. regime needs to be seen by its citizens as a vessel of historical purpose to survive and that its leaders, in turn, must give citizens good grounds for such a faith in their rhetoric and policies. But for liberal democracy to endure, people also require another kind of faith, a trust in the possibilities of speech. They must find themselves having good enough reasons to believe that by speaking to the public (whether or not they take it to be composed of multiple audiences), they can bring something like the truth to its attention and inspire reasonable beliefs and actions.

That is to say, people’s faith in liberal democracy rests on a more fundamental faith in democratic rhetoric—the mode of address that Fukuyama, precisely, laments is so deficient in American politics today. He regrets that politicians have abandoned its practice, appealing to their radicalized bases instead of to a potential “consensus” that could be shared by a wide majority of citizens. His own rhetoric, however, now seems to speak to no audience in particular. Understood as a growing distrust in the possibility of political speech, the plight of liberal democracy, whatever reassuring news may appear in the headlines, is dire, and Fukuyama, for all his apparent optimism, offers a warning that it is not history but people’s faith in it—and thus in their form of government—that may end.

Blake Smith is a Fulbright scholar in North Macedonia.

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