Francis Fukuyama is a popular punching bag for historians. I admit to partaking in such sport myself. His much maligned “End of History” theory argued that the end of the Cold War marked, the political victory of liberal democracy.
Yet, as I write these words, authoritarianism is alive and well in the twenty-first century. By now, critical landscape surrounding Fukuyama’s theory is well tread. Let’s not revisit them here. Instead, allow me to entertain his thesis in a slightly different light. If we consider Fukuyama’s argument vis-a-vis political discourse it suddenly seems startlingly prescient.
Liberal democracy has so thoroughly won the battle of political ideas that vastly different practical forms of government – even vastly different ideas – now conform to a common political language. Our political discourse seems unable to contend with authoritarianism that doesn’t describe itself as such and all manner of authoritarians have now learned to express their ideas as indistinguishable from or at least compatible with liberal democracy. In this sense, Fukuyama was right.
After Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Vladimir Putin stood in front of a television camera and congratulated the United States on the successful completion of another free and fair election. Forget about whether or not Russia influenced the US election. A man who rules his own country through oppressive, authoritarian measures designed to silence political, social, and cultural opposition finds it worth him time to pay homage to the most fundamental basis of liberal democracy – free and fair elections.
Almost no one is under any illusion that Vladimir Putin has any real interest in free and fair elections, so why the pretense? Deploying the language of liberal democracy grants legitimacy and demonstrates normalcy in a world where mainstream political discourse has converged on a relatively narrow set of ideas.
In the United States, this problem is only amplified by our historical of genuine, if troubled, liberal democracy. Donald Trump demonstrated countless times during the 2016 campaign that he had and was willing to act on brazenly authoritarian impulses. To call these out as authoritarian, as some on the left did, was ineffectual for two reasons.
First, the victory of liberal democracy as an idea has in fact been so thorough in the United States that Republican voters simply didn’t take seriously the idea that their candidate could pose a serious authoritarian threat. Trump even managed to position himself as the protector of American democracy to many Republican voters.
Second, anti-authoritarian language has been largely stripped of its critical content. To call someone authoritarian, fascist, anti-democratic, or communist, depending on the flavor you find most personally repulsive, is not meant as a critique of their political ideology or actions. It simply labels that person as an outsider. Even if Republicans did take seriously the authoritarian impulses inside their party, our political language simply falls flat when trying to talk seriously about authoritarianism in the west. When genuine authoritarianism comes along, we apparently lack the political language to have a serious discussion of anything short of North Korea’s dystopian nightmare.
By now, some of you will be saying “now wait a minute, I know plenty of people that have criticized Trump as authoritarian.” Among people who take politics especially seriously – academics, intellectuals, policy wonks, etc. – there absolutely is clear language that can bypass the problem. However, that cogent discussion simply does not extend into mainstream political discourse and when it sometimes does, it can just as quickly disappear. Even the Washington Post and New York Times, papers that have shown the ability to do truly excellent journalistic work under Trump, recently fell prey to this impulse when describing Trump as an independent with deal-making on his mind after a meeting with Democratic leaders.
We know that there is substantial diversity in ideas and practice in politics in the United States and more still internationally. The victory of the democratic ideal in western societies has not led to the practical implementation of those ideals to the exclusion of all others. From the second half of 2017, it seems the quarter-century since Fukuyama’s proclamation has only made it more difficult for us to mount successful rhetorical attacks against genuine authoritarianism as long as that authoritarianism is masquerading as part of the liberal democratic consensus.
Political history has not come to an end, but our ability to historicize our politics is in jeopardy. If we want to mount a credible attack on the most insidious forms of authoritarianism, we must re-learn our ability to think and – just as importantly – speak historically about our politics. If we behave as if the liberal democratic consensus of which Fukuyama wrote is real, we will be unable to see its enemies. Even worse, the veil is so effective, some of its enemies think they are fighting for it. It’s time we snap out of it.