Perhaps no idea since the end of the Cold War has been more debated—and disputed—than Francis Fukuyama's concept of the "end of history." In a 1989 essay that used the phrase as a title, though as a question, and then in his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, the Stanford University political philosopher argued that with the collapse of communism, the way was clear for the worldwide spread of liberal democracy and Western-style capitalism. He suggested that humankind might have achieved a kind of endpoint in its sociopolitical evolution. But things didn't work out so simply, and Fukuyama has spent the last 30 years taking on critics and further developing his views.
Fukuyama, 68, says his original concept, derived from the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, has often been misunderstood. Fukuyama says he never intended to argue that democracy and capitalism would spread everywhere but rather that only democracy could fulfill the basic human need for individual recognition and that there were no superior alternatives toward which the world appeared to be evolving. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Fukuyama says he still believes this to be true but that there are many pitfalls to democracy he didn't anticipate—as demonstrated most recently by the rise and fall of Donald Trump. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: In a 2014 essay and then in your 2018 book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, you anticipated the power of identity politics, driven by resentment, to undermine a democracy. Is that behind what we saw at the US Capitol on Jan. 6?
Francis Fukuyama: Well, I think one of the things that's happened much more on the right than on the left is the transition from polarization and political divisions based on policy issues to those based on identity. Meaning that the fundamental issue is loyalty to a certain vision of what the nation should look like: what the values of people running it should be, rather than abortion or guns or tax rates or any of the things that used to divide Republicans and Democrats. And because of Trump's craziness, it's become highly personalistic.
I was struck in reading the comments of people rioting and stuff in Parler. How much people would say, "Well, if our president wants to do something, we'll do it." The real criteria isn't any kind of independent judgment of whether you think this is a good or bad idea. You're basically going to do what the boss orders in an identity movement. And that's obviously bad for all sorts of reasons, because it's not really based on deliberation, just on this pure tribal loyalty. The nature of this loyalty—it's kind of scary the way it's shifted. In the old tradition, it was linked to Christian identity. The new kinds of loyalties are just based on crazy conspiracy theories. I guess it's true this happens in other countries. I mean, in the Middle East, people are always thinking someone's pulling strings behind the scenes, which is kind of reality to them, but the degree to which it's taken root here is, I think, genuinely new.
The real criteria isn't any kind of independent judgment of whether you think this is a good or bad idea. You're basically going to do what the boss orders in an identity movement.
FP: But is that unique to Trump?
FF: Not entirely. I mean, obviously if the president of the United States is pushing that kind of stuff, it's difficult to keep it back. We had the John Birch Society and a lot of lunatics back in the 1950s and '60s, but I think the establishment types were able to keep control over the discourse to a much greater extent. This is really the test for the country right now. If you remember back to Joe McCarthy, it was a very similar kind of phenomenon, this guy spouting crazy conspiracy theories about communists infiltrating the Army and the State Department. All of the Republicans were afraid to go up against him until Sen. Margaret Chase Smith and the Army and a few other institutions fought back. Then McCarthyism collapsed pretty quickly. The question is whether something like that could happen, and it doesn't look as if it is.
FP: We have been wondering for the last five years when Trump's McCarthy moment would come. It never came. Maybe it's now, just as he's leaving office and has become the first president to be impeached twice, this time for inciting insurrection?
FF: There are some things that make you think this time it might actually work. Corporate America really doesn't want to buy into this. I think the precedent of some establishment Republicans having broken with Trump is significant. And then he lost Twitter. I was just thinking to myself what a great thing it is not to have to listen to him anymore. That was what was so brilliant about him: He really knew how to feed that beast regularly. Once it gets starved of that kind of fuel, I think the phenomenon could weaken. On one hand, you can't stop them communicating and you're certainly not going to wipe them out, but you shouldn't artificially amplify them, and I think that process is kicking in. That's an important guardrail that will help marginalize them.
FP: You wrote in your most recent book that democracy will not survive "if citizens do not believe they are part of the same polity." That seems to be the problem we're seeing with the polarization in the United States.
FF: I think it's not an insoluble problem. A lot of it does have to do with political power. Because people do want to have political power, and if the people who are contesting one version of the national identity find it really hard to win elections or gain the commanding heights of real power in the country, then they're going to rethink what they need to change about the message. If you had a decisive electoral defeat or a series of electoral defeats, where Republicans going down this route just isn't going to snowball into something bigger, then they have to reassess. And frankly, going from holding the presidency and both houses of Congress to holding none of those institutions is not success. As they start thinking about the future, that's got to sink in.
I probably shouldn't say this for attribution, but in a certain way that change isn't going to happen without even more overreaching. So, if we go into a period where the Trump wing turns into basically a terrorist organization, and there are assassinations and kidnappings and assaults on state capitols and that sort of thing, they're not going to win that struggle. And ultimately, I think that will sow the seeds of their final demise.
FP: What does the Trump era say about the fragility of democracy and the rise of new forms of authoritarianism?
FF: I have for many years thought, when historians a hundred years in the future look back on this period and they say, "OK, why did democracy in the West collapse? What actually happened?" I think one of the most pivotal figures is actually [former Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi. Because Berlusconi figured out a way to gain political power by combining political power with economic power. He built this media empire that allowed him to run for office, and then once in office he could use his political power to protect his media empire. So the two fed on each other. That's really the new route to power in established democracies.
Now what Trump did was actually get his own TV station, Fox News, and then he developed this new means of communicating through Twitter. But I think that's the secret: You really have to control the narrative.
Now what Trump did was actually get his own TV station, Fox News, and then he developed this new means of communicating through Twitter. But I think that's the secret: You really have to control the narrative. You don't use force. That's why I think the kinds of fracture lines in modern democracy have been people who have taken this Berlusconi formula and used it as a means to gain political power.
FP: And a kind of quasi-legitimacy?
FF: Well, obviously, if you can control the factual narrative. That's what strikes me most about the whole right at the moment. I would say a great majority of Trump voters do not want authoritarian government. They actually think they're defending democracy. They think Trump legitimately won, that he's being deprived of it, and all they're doing is defending these old American ideals.
FP: Where does this conspiracy theory-driven populism lead ultimately? Does it continue like this into the future, or does it somehow self-destruct?
FF: A lot of things have been set in motion since 2016 that will weaken this wave. I certainly hope that this is the case. What Twitter and Facebook did is complicated. I think it's important they deplatformed Trump and a lot of his supporters, but in a way it's not a great solution because they shouldn't have gotten that powerful in the first place. But I do think there's a growing consensus that their power is too great and society has to regain control of such a powerful technology that shapes media consciousness.
FP: Even as you were proposing the thesis of the end of history, you were warning of its pitfalls. Now, after every other form of government has been tested to destruction, so has democracy. And so has capitalism. Your original article raised the question, what is the terminal point of the modernization process? But here we are at a place where we don't have a viable endgame. Is that what we are facing—a permanent muddle?
FF: You know, I don't think that's the case. Actually, [the New York Times columnist] Ross Douthat articulated this in a way that I kind of hadn't really thought of before: that the end of history may not be one form of government but it may be the eternal return to the same. Meaning that we've actually thought through and tried out all the different variants, from democratic to authoritarian government. It's not as if there's another form waiting in the wings that people haven't been smart enough to figure out.
What the end of history is is a perpetual recycling through these different variants. For example, in economic terms, I don't believe the new left has offered anything that the social democratic left didn't offer 50 years ago. Maybe the emphasis is different, like the Green New Deal, but the idea of using state power to redistribute wealth and so forth is the same. And then the right is simply nostalgic; they just want to go back to a point they think they reached earlier. But it's not a new kind of society they're pushing for.
So maybe the end of history is a perpetual kind of running around like a squirrel on a treadmill.
FP: But some things we're not going back to—like monarchy. To some degree, we seem to be evolving toward some kind of amalgam of oligarchy and democracy or perhaps an authoritarian-flavored democracy in many countries.
FF: The trouble is I don't think those variants are stable either. One of the big problems with [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban's illiberal democracy is basically a kind of crony capitalism. Something like 5 percent of Hungarian GDP comes as a subsidy from the European Union, which is kind of outrageous. But as an economic system, it just wouldn't work. It's way too corrupt, getting this kind of external support. And actually I think those chickens will come home to roost over time. Hungary is just not going to be a vibrant economic place.
FP: Let's talk about the international system—are we in this permanent stasis where nothing is resolved, contra the end of history? Recently, both Barry Gewen and G. John Ikenberry, from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, said we may need to lower our expectations about liberal internationalism, make it more realist. It's another way of saying that you're not going to change China and Russia much, for example, as we once thought.
FF: I agree that China may change, but if it does, it's not going to be because of anything we do. Its change will come out of its own internal contradictions. I think realism dictates that the strongest power in the system is going to set a lot of the rules. That's exactly what the United States did when it was the dominant unipolar power. There's absolutely no reason to think the Chinese won't do that. As we speak, they're infiltrating every international organization, trying to put their people in place.
I think realism dictates that the strongest power in the system is going to set a lot of the rules. … There's absolutely no reason to think the Chinese won't do that.
FP: But it's interesting that they're doing it through the current international system, not by replacing it.
FF: They're not huge risk-takers like the Russians. But I think the end result is they're going to be able to bend a lot of these institutions to their own desires. And we're really not going to like that. But realistically there's probably not a whole lot we're going to be able to do about things like standards-setting and their ability to reach into Western society and shape the discourse there.
FP: Finally, the pandemic. You published a piece in Foreign Affairs last summer saying that the Covid-19 crisis revealed the "weaknesses" of institutions everywhere. But you wrote that it also could help promote social unity, support of government, and better social protections in some countries, as happened after World War II and the Depression. What is going to be the long-term impact here?
FF: My first observation is, "It's the politics, stupid." The effectiveness of responses has really depended on politics to a great degree. Things like state capacity are important, but look at the United States. We've got strong institutions, lots of capacity. And we still screwed the thing up. So, in a way, trust and social consensus become some of the most important issues. I think you see that in Japan, South Korea, Germany, and Scandinavia. Some democracies have managed to hold onto consensus, and several managed to strengthen it. [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel's popularity has gone up in the last year. But countries that are polarized and elect out-to-lunch leaders are not going to do well.
FP: Let's say Joe Biden does a good job as president in battling the pandemic. Does that help heal the polarization in the United States?
FF: He may get really lucky. The first vaccine was developed just before he was elected. Once it's rolled out, the likelihood of economic recovery is very high. For once, things may be working in favor of the Democrats. It's not going to turn the polarization completely into background noise, but I think it will help with his legitimacy.
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.