"Liberalism needs Democracy"

An Interview with Francis Fukuyama by Alexander Görlach
Francis Fukuyama

Der US-amerikanische Politikwissenschaftler Francis Fukuyama

© picture alliance/dpa | Horst Galuschka

Alexander Görlach: We last met at a conference in Warsaw before the outbreak of the pandemic, and discussed the state of the world. A lot has happened in the meantime. Where do we stand today after two and a half years of Covid-19?

Francis Fukuyama: All in all, I have to say that the pandemic has shaken things up less than I thought it would. In my opinion, the war against Ukraine will have longer-lasting effects and more drastic consequences.

Görlach: Have democracies or dictatorships fared better during the pandemic?

Fukuyama: There is no general answer to that: China had the terrible outbreak in Wuhan, then the situation was stable for a while, but now it's out of control again. Germany did well at first, and then the second wave came. Such a back-and-forth has happened all over the world, regardless of the system of government.

Görlach: In your opinion, what was crucial for getting through the pandemic well?

Fukuyama: Above all, whether a country had a sound health system and political leadership that was willing to listen to the people who work there. The Trump administration had no interest in that. The most important thing, however, was trust in the government on the part of the citizens and trust in the citizens on the part of politicians. This is not the case everywhere in the USA. There has been opposition to mask-wearing in Republican-led states. In addition, doubts have been cast as to whether vaccinations are of any use at all.

Görlach: Did your experiences in the US during the pandemic lead you to now write your new book, "Liberalism and Its Discontents"?

Fukuyama: Indeed, the reason for this is the rise of populists and nationalists around the world, from India to Brazil. The leaders in these countries glorify the past in nationalist nostalgia. They don't like immigration, they subscribe to a particular religion. And they're hostile to Liberalism, which means they don't believe in people being able to make their own decisions.

Görlach: Which has led to divided societies around the world.

Fukuyama: Unlike the Cold War, this is not a conflict between states but within nations, including the United States and India, the two largest democracies in the world.

Görlach: In many places in the democratic world, distrust between camps is so high that even simple facts, such as the existence of a virus, can no longer be agreed upon.

Fukuyama: Social researcher Jonathan Haidt at New York University found why: We are mistaken in assuming that people first look at the world, observe things, and then form opinions and judgments. The opposite is true: We have an opinion that forms the basis of what we perceive in the world. Whatever supports our preconceived notions, we take them to be true.

Görlach: In your opinion, is the reason for this a lack of education?

Fukuyama: No. There are conservatives in the US who went to college but still don't believe in the effectiveness of vaccines. The Internet exacerbates the situation by producing completely parallel information universes in which people are constantly present and whose content is based on so-called "alternative facts". Because of this, it's possible that a third of Americans can believe that Joe Biden didn't win the last presidential election.

Görlach: What does Liberalism mean to you?

Fukuyama: In essence, it says that we as societies do not answer the so-called big questions about God and the meaning of life politically but leave this opportunity to everyone privately. Liberal societies meet the multitude of answers with tolerance. Liberalism also means that people are able to make decisions for and about their own lives. For example, they should not be forced into a particular way of life because of their origin or gender. In liberal democracies, these beliefs are legally encoded and protected by-elections and institutions. 

Görlach: Those are civil rights you're addressing. What about the social component of liberalism? Only both together, says the liberal sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, certify respect for human dignity in a liberal community.

Fukuyama: Liberalism also means the right to property and institutions like the courts that guarantee that property right. Where there are such guarantees, we speak of the rule of law.

Görlach: Why are we experiencing a new surge of anti-liberal forces right now?

Fukuyama: In the past thirty years, globalization has created a rift in wealthy nations between the working class and those who are better educated. The working class sees itself as a loser from globalization, as do people living in rural areas. This leads to an expression of different values, which is particularly evident in the rejection of immigration, which for many who see themselves as disadvantaged, is at the root of their situation.

Görlach: Rejection of immigration is not a new phenomenon. Is there something about globalization that has triggered or favoured the current development?

Fukuyama: In the globalized world, skills are suddenly in demand that in the past brought neither prestige nor a lot of money. In the past, anyone who was good at math in school could hope for a solid job in accounting. Today, people who are good at math become programmers or join the big banks and make a hundred times as much as their former classmates who were terrible at math. The general rule today is that cognitive abilities are more important than physical strength. All over the world, this has resulted in women playing a more prominent role in the workforce than in the past.

Görlach: The nationalist, populist movements they speak of all propagate an old, patriarchal image of women.

Fukuyama: Not only have women started to work, but they are also better than men in many ways. More women than men graduate from university. Because brains are more important than physical strength, women are now taking on all kinds of jobs that men thought were theirs. This development worries them because, in this worldview, women undermine the role of men and their social role as breadwinners in the household.

Görlach: Doesn't that mean that the worldwide resistance to globalization is in fact, heralding the end of patriarchy?

Fukuyama: Yes, it is. The populist backlash is, in large part, a rebellion by the patriarchy to stave off its end. The fact that many of the top management positions are still held by men today should not hide the fact that women's triumph is irreversible. Much of the hatred that Hillary Clinton felt was due to the uneasiness that men, especially those with few professional skills, felt toward successful women. Their anger is also a reason for Donald Trump's success.

Görlach: Not only "white old men" are furious. Their anger unites them with men in India, Hungary and Brazil.

Fukuyama: Absolutely right. And the actors fueling this anger have now formed anti-democratic alliances. Putin supports Venezuela and Iran, for example, militarily, in cyberspace and with aid. These countries do not have much in common except that they are not democracies. They are linked solely by their rejection of freedom and democracy.

Görlach: In their analysis of the crisis of liberal democracy, they look not only at external enemies but also at home. At what point did liberalism tilt and make opponents in actually liberal societies?

Fukuyama: We have already touched on the first, the economic point: privatization, de-regulation, and the withdrawal of the state as a sign of the change from liberal to neo-liberal economies have brought many people disadvantages, which is why they have turned away from liberalism. The good thing here, if you will, is that some of this neo-liberal policy is already being reversed. Democracies also use this example to show that they are capable of course correction and change.

Görlach: In your book, you call neo-liberalism a “deformation of Liberalism”.

Fukuyama: Yes, and another "deformation" is the development of identity politics. In the left spectrum, the idea arose of not seeing people as individuals but classifying them as members of groups to which they belong based on specific characteristics such as ethnicity. This led to a counter-development on the right-wing spectrum, where white people began to see themselves as victims, as a minority under siege. This is of course, mostly nonsense. But what can be said is that identity politics gave each group a framework to expose their own situation: I am the victim of other groups who seek to marginalize my group.

Görlach: If I understand you correctly, the reason for the crisis in democracy is not, first and foremost, a lack of participation mechanisms or a lack of representation. In order to renovate our liberal polities, do we first have to re-liberalize our economic system, away from the neo-liberal aberration?

Fukuyama: Yes, but wrong economic policies can be reversed faster than identity politics that have hardened fronts between people. Fundamental rights of people are affected here, so a solution is not just like “We are all the same, but then not quite”.

Görlach: To stay with the economic criticism for a moment: The People's Republic has followed the USA in its economic orientation, with the result that inequality and wealth distribution is almost the same in both countries today. Both states have two completely different political systems. Doesn't that make it all the more clear that neo-liberalism is destroying societies, regardless of whether they are democratic or autocratic?

Fukuyama: Capitalism in the People's Republic is not neo-liberal but interventionist. The Communist Party does not believe that the state should play little or no role in the economy. We are currently experiencing the exact opposite. Generally speaking, capitalism that is not tied to democracy can produce grotesque inequality. So I don't think Liberalism works on its own. Liberalism needs democracy to build a legitimate system of redistribution.

Görlach: That sounds like a social market economy.

Fukuyama: Exactly, continental Europe has such a model. There, too, inequality has increased in every country in the recent past, but by far not to the same extent as in the United States.

Görlach: How liberal is our international order still? We addressed China. Ruler Xi Jinping has repeatedly made it clear that he wants to change the rules of the world game. The reference to the inviolability of national sovereignty seems to be the only remaining value from the United Nations Charter on which one can still agree.

Fukuyama: From the fact that the People's Republic defends sovereignty, we can see that this is not a liberal value per se. Reference to sovereignty is often used to achieve nationalist goals and to ban outside interference.

Görlach: That is exactly what Beijing is doing with regard to Taiwan. China wants to conquer the island democracy because Xi, as Putin claims to Ukraine, says Taiwan is part of his country. The truth is that the CCP has never ruled Taiwan, and today the island nation ranks 8th in The Economist magazine's global democracy index. The USA is 26th in comparison. Will Washington come to the aid of its democratic friend if Beijing attacks Taiwan?

Fukuyama: Xi has made it his life's work to, as he says, “re-unify" Taiwan with China. It cannot be expected that this will happen peacefully because the Taiwanese do not want it. In order to achieve the goal of annexing the country, Beijing will have to attack US positions in the Pacific. Then the United States will become a war party.

Görlach: Xi and Putin justify their fight against the free world by claiming that the West is using democracy and human rights to once again colonize the rest of the world. They say that there are no universal values and rights, which to an exaggerated extent, could imply that in China, it is ok to torture or commit genocide because it is in line with Chinese "values".

Fukuyama: I believe it is fair to say, based on universal human and moral truth, that all human beings want to have a minimum of freedom, that they want to be respected and treated fairly. Unfortunately, what is not universal are the mechanisms and institutions that guarantee these rights, such as an independent judiciary. It is necessary to fight for the proliferation of these institutions because there is no automatism that creates them.