Politics & Society

The best books on Liberal Democracy

recommended by Francis Fukuyama

After the End of History: Conversations with Francis Fukuyama by Francis Fukuyama & Mathilde Fasting

After the End of History: Conversations with Francis Fukuyama
by Francis Fukuyama & Mathilde Fasting

Read

Even some of the world's most authoritarian rulers continue to pay lip service to democracy and people's right to vote for their leaders, but the days when many social scientists believed that all countries at a certain level of prosperity would eventually turn to liberal democracy are over, says Francis Fukuyama, now a Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute. Here, he recommends books to better understand liberal democracy, and what those of us lucky enough to live in one can do to protect our form of government.

Interview by Sophie Roell

After the End of History: Conversations with Francis Fukuyama by Francis Fukuyama & Mathilde Fasting

After the End of History: Conversations with Francis Fukuyama
by Francis Fukuyama & Mathilde Fasting

Read

One of the things that comes out in a lot of the books that you’ve chosen, and in your own work, is the need to defend liberal democracy, because it’s something very precious that we musn’t take for granted. I find it quite hard to pin down, though, what exactly it is. Is there consensus among political scientists about what it is we’re defending, particularly the ‘liberal’ part of democracy?

I think that there probably is a consensus, although I think that there’s a mixing together of the different components of liberal democracy in a way that is often confusing to people. When you asked me to identify five books, you said that I couldn’t put my own on the list. That makes things a little bit difficult, because what I was trying to do in my two Political Order books is to say that a liberal democracy consists of three separate sets of institutions. One is the state, which is all about power and using power. The second is the rule of law, which are rules that limit power. And then the third is democratic accountability, which makes sure that the power is used in accordance with the wishes of the people. And I think that when people use the word democracy, they’re referring to all three of those, kind of indiscriminately.

Right now, as you just indicated, what’s probably under the greatest attack is the liberal part of that three-legged stool, that is to say the constitutional rules that limit power. So, if you look at Erdoğan in Turkey or Orbán in Hungary, or Donald Trump in the United States, they’re all elected. The democratic accountability part is working fine and people still think that elections are legitimate and so forth. Even Putin still feels he has to hold fraudulent elections.

But what they do, in the first instance, is they try to pack the courts, they put their own people in the bureaucracy, they attack the independent media, who are the watchdogs. It’s the constraints on executive power that have come under severe attack. And I think that’s also the part that needs to be defended because, as I said, the legitimacy of people voting and regimes reflecting popular choice isn’t all that controversial in the present-day world.

In your latest book, you mention the importance of voting and mobilizing younger people to vote, which seems pretty straightforward. Is that all there is to it?

I don’t think so. I’m in the process of writing a book that will be published by Profile next spring, on liberalism and its discontents. I’m going to focus on the rule of law part of liberal democracy. The reason I’m writing it is that it’s come under severe attack from both the right and the left. So you’ve got this global populist right-wing movement that takes a nationalist form in Hungary and in the United States. It takes a religious form in India and in Turkey. It’s a severe challenge to the basic principles of the rule of law that seeks to concentrate power in the hands of a single executive leader. Vladimir Putin famously said in an FT interview that liberalism is an outmoded doctrine. So that’s one attack.

But it’s also coming under attack from progressive people on the left, who are very frustrated that liberalism has not brought about greater racial equality in the United States, for example, that it’s denied the legacy of colonialism and slavery and a lot of other bad things that have happened under liberal regimes. It’s led to an intolerance of certain forms of speech, which begins in elite places—like universities and in Hollywood and in the arts—but is gradually spreading to other parts of society. Liberalism itself, as a principle, needs to be defended against both the critiques from the right and the left. That’s what I’ve been trying to do in the last few years and I think it’s a pretty urgent agenda right now.

Just in terms of the numbers, how many liberal democracies are there now, out of the 195 or so countries we have around the world?

That’s a very hard question to answer because, obviously, it depends on how you define liberal democracy. Freedom House has an annual “Freedom in the World” survey that scores different countries. My colleague Larry Diamond keeps track of this and I think that he would say that the number has gone from about 35 back in 1970, to maybe 115-120 in the early 2000s. But, since then, it’s fallen by perhaps 15-20 countries.

“Liberalism itself, as a principle, needs to be defended against both the critiques from the right and the left”

But I think that quantitative estimate doesn’t really capture the seriousness of what’s happened. Freedom House this year downgraded both the United States and India, two of the world’s largest democracies. India fell out of the ‘free’ category because of the very illiberal policies that Prime Minister Modi has been following towards Muslims in India. In the United States it was because of Donald Trump’s most recent attacks on American democracy—denying a peaceful transfer of power once he lost an election. Whatever the numbers may say, there’s clearly also a qualitative change that’s going on in the world when the United States, which has traditionally been the world’s leading democracy, is itself leading the way towards all these illiberal, bad practices.

Let’s go through the books that you’ve recommended. The first on your list is by Larry Diamond, who you’ve already mentioned. He’s a sociologist and political science professor at Stanford who has been studying democracy since the 1970s—he says in the book that after graduating he went off to Portugal where the dictator Salazar had just been overthrown after 48 years in power. It’s called The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World (2008). Tell me about this book, and why you chose it as essential reading on liberal democracy.

If it’s okay with you, I put two of Larry’s books on the list. I think they do need to be read in conjunction with one another because they’re written perhaps ten years apart. The Spirit of Democracy still reflected the optimism of what Samuel Huntington labeled ‘the third wave of democratization’. This is the wave that began with Spain and Portugal in the early 1970s. It peaked with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the transition of a lot of former communist countries to democracy.

In the book Larry Diamond is an advocate of what is called ‘modernization theory’. It’s a theory that a lot of social scientists have held that as countries become richer, more educated, more open to a global, cosmopolitan, liberal order they are going to be more democratic—there’ll be a spontaneous shift towards democratic institutions. At the time he wrote it, he would look at a country like South Korea or Taiwan, both of which had been military dictatorships in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s but then, as they hit a certain level of income, became pretty good liberal democracies. The hope at that time was that there was this connection between economic modernization and liberal values that would eventually lead a country like China to democracy.

But he wrote the book right at the moment when things were beginning to shift towards what he labeled a ‘democratic recession’ in his second book and is now, I think he might say, even heading towards a democratic depression.

Yes, the title of the later book, which you’re also recommending, is Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency and it was published in 2019.

This book reflects all of the bad things that have gone on in the last 10 years. That includes the rise of Russia and China as consolidated authoritarian states. China doesn’t make any apologies, it doesn’t pretend to hold elections like Russia does, it simply says the Communist Party represents China and it’s going to rule regardless. And it’s been very successful, both economically and in terms of political stability.

Russia, which looked like it might be heading towards democracy back in the early 2000s, has made a clear turn, under Putin, not just towards authoritarian government, but also a very aggressive foreign policy. It has occupied the territory of Georgia and Ukraine and Moldova, it has tried to interfere in the politics of the United States and Britain and a lot of other democratic countries. It sent troops to Venezuela. So that has changed.

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But I think that Larry would point to the rise of populist nationalism as an equally grave threat. In a sense, we’ve always been dealing with these external threats. In the 20th century there were very powerful authoritarian countries. Today, the threat is really an internal one that was captured by the January 6, 2021 riot, where pro-Trump protesters occupied the US Congress. Larry wrote the second book, Ill Winds, before that happened, but I think that it would simply confirm the kinds of anti-democratic trends that he saw arising in the United States. And that, in a way, caps a very bad turn in which people have lost confidence in basic democratic institutions, both on the right and on the left.

So is Larry feeling a bit depressed?

The real question is about modernization theory because China disproves that social science theory. China is already past the per capita income point that South Korea and Taiwan hit in the 1980s when they became democracies. And if that theory is true, there should be greater grassroots demand for democracy in China, because a lot of Chinese are very rich, they surf the internet, they purchase stuff on Alibaba, they communicate with each other using the Chinese versions of social media, and they’re increasingly well educated. But there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for democracy in China right now, people seem to be pretty satisfied with the regime that’s given them stability and jobs and economic prosperity. And so it seems to me that we need to question the underlying theory.

On the other hand, the Chinese Communist Party has got two major rebellions on its hands, one in Xinjiang, which is quite a poor region in the west and one in Hong Kong, which is very wealthy and thousands of kilometres away in the south. I don’t feel they’re that confident that their brand of polity is working well either.

I’m not arguing that it is. I do think that they have long-term weaknesses in both their economic model and in their political model. However, I think in terms of the theories that have been guiding Western policy, we really need to rethink whether a richer China is going to be a friendlier or a more democratic China. In Bill Clinton’s day, that was the theory, that we could engage with China, we could trade with it, we could invest in it, because as China got richer, it would be more like us, it would become more liberal. And in fact, since the rise of Xi Jinping in 2013, just the opposite has happened. It’s become a more aggressive, more authoritarian country. And that’s the reality we’ve got to deal with.

Just in terms of our own countries, the US and UK, which both have voting arrangements that favour a two-party system. In Ill Winds, Larry argues that political polarization is ‘poisonous’ to democracy. One possible mitigating move would be to introduce ranked-choice voting, where a politician can ‘no longer just appeal to a narrow base to win’. Is ranked-choice voting something you think is a good idea as well?

I think I agree with him. Polarization in the United States and in other countries has a lot of different sources. It has economic roots; it has cultural roots. Nobody would deny that. But political institutions also make a big difference. And in the United States, as in Britain, we’ve got a plurality voting system or, as it’s sometimes called, a ‘first past the post’ system. In Britain, in one of Tony Blair’s elections, he got less than 40% of the popular vote, and yet he got a very powerful majority in Parliament, because his vote was spread out over enough districts that he got the seats. It creates a winner-take-all politics, because winning that majority becomes an important source of power. In the United States, it’s made worse by our presidential system, where a winner inherently takes all—I mean, you can only have one president, you can’t have a coalition presidency. And I think that that has been one of the factors that has made American politics so bitter and divided.

Ranked-choice voting was introduced first by Australia. It allows people to rank order their preferences while keeping single member districts. The theory is that you would then avoid something like what happened in the United States in 2000 in Bush v. Gore, where George Bush lost the popular vote and would have lost but for a third-party candidate, Ralph Nader. Nader was to the left of Al Gore, and a lot of Gore’s potential voters instead voted for him and threw the election to Bush. Under ranked-choice voting, that wouldn’t have happened because all those Nader voters would have put Gore as their second choice, and he would have won a clear majority. It’s an example of how a change in the institutional rules may create a more multi-party and therefore more representative form of government.

Let’s move on to the third book you’re recommending which is How Democracies Die by two political scientists at Harvard University, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. It’s this idea that democracies are no longer dying by way of dramatic military coups à la Pinochet, but in less instantly recognizable ways.

This book was published early on in the Trump administration, and it was a very useful warning. Maybe it was mainly useful to political scientists like me, because we used to have this idea of a ‘consolidated democracy.’ Basically, democratization is a one-way ratchet and once you became a democracy, you didn’t fall back. What Levitsky and Ziblatt have done in this book is to show that that’s not true, that you actually can have consolidated democracies that do decay and revert to authoritarian government.

As you said, the thing they point out is that today it doesn’t happen through a military coup or through an overtly authoritarian takeover of power, it happens in a much more subtle way. So, for example, Viktor Orbán in Hungary has gradually been putting all of the Hungarian mainstream media under the control of his cronies. He can say, ‘Yes, we still have a free press, the newspapers are owned by private individuals, we have lots of competition’ but, in fact, he has eroded the ability of opposition parties and figures to criticize him because his friends control the media. Similarly, the Law and Justice Party in Poland has been appointing party stalwarts to positions. It abolished the tenure system in the Polish Supreme Court and is gradually politicizing that institution. We see this in spades in the United States where, for example, Donald Trump, even before he was elected, wanted to use the justice system in the United States to go after Hillary Clinton. At his rallies, everybody would start chanting, ‘Lock her up, lock her up.’ This is really something that we thought only happened in young democracies that weren’t mature and didn’t have the strong institutions that would separate law enforcement from politics as they’re supposed to.

“It’s the constraints on executive power that have come under severe attack”

What Ziblatt and Levitsky do in the book is give you a checklist you can go down of the different warning signs of a slide towards authoritarian government. This is a big debate we’ve had in the United States, because a lot of people who didn’t like Donald Trump—and that meant a lot of mainstream Republicans—over the past four years kept saying, ‘Well, yes, I mean, he may not be that great a guy, but he’s not an authoritarian, he’s not a threat to the American system, we’ve still got a really strong set of institutions.’ What Ziblatt and Levitsky are arguing is, ‘No, you’ve got to look at these little danger signs where there’s an authoritarian instinct at work. It may not come on in a full-blown way at first, but what’s been going on in all these different countries is it gradually creeps up on you, and then at a certain point, you can’t do anything about it.’

That’s where we are now, after what happened on January 6, 2021. There was no Republican repudiation of the big lie that Trump had won the election. Now, every single Republican legislature in the United States on a state level is trying to make access to the vote more difficult because, as Trump has said himself, if everybody in the United States voted, you’d never have another Republican elected. In a sense, they’ve accepted the authoritarian premise that if democracy doesn’t yield the right results, we should discard it. It’s an overt slide back into authoritarianism that we should have recognized some time ago.

That’s another theme that comes up in several of the books you’ve recommended, that political parties have some responsibility to defend liberal democracy—for example by controlling Trump or whoever might be in their midst.

They do. I think one of the things that’s happened is that the elite in the Republican party has abdicated any leadership role in terms of turning the party away from this overt authoritarianism, except for certain noble exceptions, like Liz Cheney, who was just dethroned as the third ranking Republican in the House of Representatives. It is the result of a moral failure on their part, but it’s also a reflection of the Republican base. Any elected Republican official is terrified that at the next election there’ll be a primary and one of these Trump supporters is going to run against them if they take a stance that’s remotely critical. This is the situation that we’re in right now.

So let’s go on to the next book, Polyarchy, which dates from 1971 and is by the late American political scientist Robert Dahl. Tell me why this is an important book for understanding liberal democracy.

I was trying to think of a single book that would be a good both as a description and a primer on democracy. Frankly, I couldn’t find one, but this book is quite famous because Robert Dahl was one of the greatest students of democracy. In Polyarchy, he indicated that a democracy is a lot more than just elections and voting and the formal institutions that we associate with it and that democracy really is about pluralism.

Pluralism has to exist on a variety of levels. It’s not just multiple political parties that compete against each other. It’s not just a free press in which you have different voices contending. It’s also a vigorous civil society in which people can organize and there have to be real connections between that civil society and the top-level institutions if the democracy is going to succeed. That leads to his title, Polyarchy, which is a kind of awkward term that few people would adopt. But it comes from the Greek and it means ‘many leaders’. It’s an indication that liberal democracy is really about diversity. It’s a means of governing over diverse societies and representing that diversity, but also coming up with means of compromising, deliberating, and coming to common decisions, despite the fact you have numerous divisions within the society.

Right now, we’ve got a big problem in the United States with that understanding, and there are two different forms of it. On the right, there is this discomfort with the changing American national identity. Part of it has a racial dimension. Part of it is deeply cultural—a lot of conservatives don’t like gay marriage and LGBTQ rights. On the left, it’s a different sort of hostility to diversity. They don’t like conservatives. When they hear the word diversity, it’s only related to race, gender, sexual orientation. They’re not very tolerant towards people who are Christian conservatives, for example. This book is a good reminder that there are many forms of diversity in a democracy, and that you need the institutions that somehow manage to bridge those differences.

That’s so interesting. Before we get to the last book you’ve chosen, if I want a good introduction to liberal democracy written more recently, which of your books should I read: is it the ones on political order?

I wrote two very long books, The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay. In them, I laid out the tripartite framework—about needing to understand that you’ve got these three components: the state (and hopefully a modern state), the rule of law, and democratic accountability, and that they are all separate. Historically, they appeared at different times. And you can mix and match. So Iran has kind of democratic elections—they just had one. They’re not so free and fair but sometimes there’s a surprise. What they don’t have is anything like a real rule of law that constrains their state. Singapore doesn’t have elections—or has kind of fake elections—but it has a pretty strong rule of law. It’s a way of understanding the diversity of political forms around the world, and also where they came from. The disadvantage is these two books, together, are around 1100 pages long. It’s not like you can go to them for a quick summary and get all that content in a really easy way.

But it takes democracy from the beginning to 2014—you’re covering a few millennia?

That’s right. In fact, more than that, because it takes it all the way back to the primates that were the predecessors of human beings.

Let’s move on to the last book you’ve chosen, Democracy in America by the 19th century French politician Alexis de Tocqueville, which a lot of people in the United States seem to read as part of their education. Here in the UK, we tend to study his book about the French Revolution, so I’m less familiar with Democracy in America. Tell me a bit about it, and why it’s a good book for understanding liberal democracy.

Well, The Old Regime and the Revolution is a pretty good book too, for somewhat different reasons. That book is actually one of the reasons why the Chinese regime doesn’t want to reform. They translated Tocqueville’s book on the French Revolution and what they gleaned from it is that if you liberalize a little bit, you set off this cascade of rising expectations, and you won’t be able to control what happens later. It’s one way of summarizing that book.

Democracy in America is important for the following reason: Tocqueville, in a way, was the first sociologist, though that field didn’t exist in the 1830s, when he wrote the book. In it, he looks at the formal institutions of American democracy—Congress, and the presidency, and so forth—but what everybody really takes away from it is that those institutions ride on top of the morals and mores and habits of the underlying society. So, for example, probably one of the most important observations he makes in the book is about what he calls the ‘art of association’. In The Old Regime and the Revolution he writes that before the French Revolution, there weren’t 10 people in France who could collaborate on a common project, because they were too individualistic and unwilling to work with one another. In the United States, he said, it’s different. Americans don’t like top-down  organization by the state and they’re really good at collaborating in all sorts of (what today we would call) civil society organizations. That’s churches, clubs, bowling leagues, lots of different voluntary associations that give society a real texture.

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And I think that remains the case. Some of it is not so great. The Tea Party is an example of a voluntary association where all these people who are mad at the government came together in a way that gave them a lot of political power. But I do think it’s something that doesn’t exist in all societies. In many places, you really do need the state to organize people. But in the United States, you have a kind of spontaneous organization.

Regardless of whether you think it’s good or bad, Tocqueville gives you a different analysis that looks beneath the surface of the visible institutions and tries to understand the moral habits that underlie the workings of those institutions. It’s really looking at the society rather than just the formal laws and whatnot.

As you say, he does also go through the US Constitution and the formal system of democracy in America, which I get the sense is taught more explicitly as a part of an American education than it is in the UK. At school, Americans learn about the three branches of government etc. whereas in England, we learn about Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution. We’re left a little bit none-the-wiser about how that relates to a modern liberal democracy.

Well, that’s true but I wouldn’t write home about how great our civic education in the United States is. There’s been poll data that shows that a majority of teenagers cannot identify what the three branches of government are, or that they can’t name a single one of the rights in the Bill of Rights. I think that’s one of the sources of our problems—that people simply don’t know how their own government works, where their institutions came from, and how they’re supposed to function. That’s part of what’s been ailing our society in recent years.

Yes, because, in a way, we haven’t had to think about it because everything’s been going well.

That’s exactly right and it’s a really important point. Take checks and balances. Every American says, ‘our Constitution has lots of checks and balances.’ But nobody, in recent political memory, challenged any of those checks. For example, when Congress issues a subpoena to the President or to the executive branch, and they have to answer it. Nobody really violated that rule until Trump came along. All of a sudden it made people realize, ‘Yes. There’s something to these rules that limit the power of a president.‘

In Tocqueville—but also in the more recent books you’ve recommended—there is this theme of America as a beacon of democracy. Is that an issue as well, that if the US is a country people look to as an example of a successful, functioning democracy, it has a much broader significance if things aren’t going well?

I think that that’s probably the biggest global problem brought on by this rise of populism in the United States. American influence is, of course, underpinned by its military power, its economic might, and so forth. But I think it’s what Joe Nye called ‘soft power’ that’s been the most powerful source of influence. It’s the positive attraction of American democracy. And quite frankly, right now, people in China or Nigeria aren’t saying, ‘We want to be more like the United States because that’s our model.’ I just think it’s impossible to say that, given what’s been going on here in recent years.

Finally, do you have tips about what individuals can do? In your most recent book, After the End of History, you do touch on this a bit. Tell me about that book, as it’s quite a good way to get a handle on your thinking on a variety of subjects.

That book started out as a series of conversations I had with the author Mathilde Fasting, who runs a liberal think tank in Norway. It was a way to expand on a lot of ideas that I’ve had on different subjects.

In terms of what you can do, it really does all come down to politics in the end, because it comes down to power. I hate to say this, but you can’t really get anything done in any country if you don’t have enough power. Now, fortunately, if you are living in a democracy, that power is constrained, and it’s channeled into certain institutions. But, ultimately, it comes down to elections and voting. And if you elect the wrong people, you’re not going to get the results you want. There was a lot of cynicism prior to 2016, about democracy and the importance of voting because, for the past few decades, it didn’t matter all that much who won a particular election.

“Democracy really is about pluralism”

But with the sharpening of polarization in recent years a lot of people, and especially a lot of young people, have realized, ‘Yes, it actually does matter. If the wrong people come to power, they’re going to do all sorts of things that will affect my life and the things that I care about.’ And that’s led, personally, to a number of my students going into politics. They’ve run for Congress, some of them successfully. They’re now occupying positions of power and influence. I don’t think everybody needs to run for Congress, but I do think that a democracy presupposes a level of political participation where citizens need to inform themselves about issues. Obviously, they can’t know everything about really complex issues like health care reform, but they need to inform themselves about what’s going on and about their own government. They need to take part—even if that only means going out to vote every two or four years. Ultimately, that’s what people can do if they are disturbed about the way things are going in their politics.

I do get a sense, when talking to people, that even those who haven’t traditionally been that political have been jogged out of their complacency and become more politically active in recent years. That’s a cause for optimism, isn’t it?

Yes, though there is a double-edged sword to political participation and activism—because activists oftentimes have more extreme views than ordinary voters. One of the problems in a democracy is that policies reflect the opinions of the activists much more than the general public. But that doesn’t belie the basic premise that you need informed citizens who are willing to participate.

If you’re in Russia or China, is there anything you can do if you’re a dissident? Presumably it’s best just to keep a low profile for now.

In both those countries, a lot of the people I knew that were dissidents or opponents of the regime have gotten out, if they’ve had the ability, because it’s too dangerous for them. Especially since the attempted murder and then the arrest of Alexei Navalny, his followers have all been desperately trying to get out of the country. The same thing is true of democracy activists in Hong Kong after the extension of China’s security law. They’re basically having to undertake terribly dangerous, covert exits because there really isn’t much they can do if they remain in their countries.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama is an American political scientist and author. He is Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Mosbacher Director of FSI's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), and Director of Stanford's Masters in International Policy Program. Fukuyama writes widely on issues relating to democratisation and international political economy, and first shot to prominence with an article "The End of History?" in 1989.

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Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama is an American political scientist and author. He is Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Mosbacher Director of FSI's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), and Director of Stanford's Masters in International Policy Program. Fukuyama writes widely on issues relating to democratisation and international political economy, and first shot to prominence with an article "The End of History?" in 1989.