illustration by Jesse Lenz
Although Francis Fukuyama never said the triumph of liberal democracy was inevitable, his qualified declaration of the “the end of history” captured the optimistic, sometimes naive tenor of the early post-Cold War era. But how quickly that confidence faded! Unmistakable signs of history’s resumption began to appear less than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In its 2008 annual report on political rights and civil liberties around the world, the democracy watchdog Freedom House took troubled note of the reversal of progress in a number of key countries in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the former Soviet space.
This “profoundly disturbing deterioration,” as Freedom House put it, has continued, and not only in countries with fragile democratic institutions. The most recent survey found that “in 2016 it was established democracies—countries rated Free in the report’s ranking system—that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks.” The report’s authors went on glumly to note that the US election of 2016 “raised fears of a foreign policy divorced from America’s traditional strategic commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rules-based international order that it helped to construct beginning in 1945.” And if this were not enough, they pointed to a growing “nexus” of mutual support between authoritarian regimes and populist movements in both weak and strong liberal democracies.
It would be somewhat reassuring to think the United States is the “exceptional nation” resisting the tide. But President Donald J. Trump’s casual, sometimes caustic, disdain for democratic norms and his inexplicable coziness with Vladimir Putin and lesser authoritarians have raised concerns in America and abroad, particularly among traditional allies.
Disturbing as the behavior of the forty-fifth president is, honesty compels us to recognize that Trump’s presidency is less the cause of America’s democracy woes than the product of them. Surveys and studies, including The Vanishing Center of American Democracy, published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture last year, reveal a steady decline in Americans’ confidence in their political institutions as well as various other bulwarks of a liberal and civil society. A declining faith in democratic norms has only exacerbated the culture war divisions of the last four decades, divisions that have in turn been intensified by what some call a new class war between “credentialed” elites and (mostly) white lower-income earners who see their fortunes declining. And as many have noted, democratic norms are bound to suffer when there are no shared conceptions of truth or objectivity, and when all products of journalism are dismissed, from one partisan angle or another, as “fake news.”
Is it time to declare the end of the end of history, as we tentatively suggest in the title to this issue’s theme? More fundamentally, is there something deeply flawed in what many people have long believed was the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment: not merely the idea of governments of, for, and by the people but states undergirded by commitments to personal and civil liberties. Are we witnessing the exhaustion of the once-vital liberal tradition that supported our politics, both its progressive and conservative strands, and which made politics a (relatively) civil enterprise, and compromise a desirable outcome of that enterprise?
The contributors to this issue propose widely differing answers to these questions. But all agree that the questions are urgent and the stakes are high, not only for America and other liberal democracies but also for the relatively stable global order that emerged after World War II, an order built on faith in the universal worth of liberal principles.
We will be releasing a select number of essays and reviews from this issue on a rolling basis during the coming weeks, starting with the following two:
Here’s what subscribers can already read: “The Tragedy of Liberalism,” Patrick J. Deneen; “Not Melting into Air,” John M. Owen IV; “Why Nations Matter,” Wilfred M. McClay; “Technocratic Vistas,” Jackson Lears; and “What Is to Be Done?,” by William A. Galston.
Other contributions include essays by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon and Phil Christman.
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