Reflections · Social Justice

Democracy and Popular Mobilization: Notes from Francis Fukuyama

Earlier this decade I realized that I needed to [re-]introduce myself to alternative political perspectives on justice if I was to improve my professional and personal goals of collaborating with an increasing diversity of people in order to achieve a more just society. I found James Sterba’s book, Justice: Alternative Political Perspectives a good starting point in that pursuit. Key to his work is that ultimately no one perspective is totally accurate. Instead, libertarian, socialist, liberal democratic, communitarian, feminist, postmodern, and environmental perspectives on justice, among others, each bring forward essential viewpoints — even if conversations with those from other viewpoints are at times contentious and will never reach full agreement.

To that end, and especially given the increased awareness of raised levels of contention within the U.S. and indeed many nations around the world as a result of a range of recent elections, National Public Radio’s special series “History of our Time” has proven very worthwhile.  The first was aired April 4, 2017. Titled “On Why Liberal Democracy Is In Trouble”, it highlighted a conversation by Steve Inskeep with political scientist Francis Fukuyama ( This led me to read a couple of Fukuyama’s more recent writings: the 2016 chapter “Why Is Democracy Performing So Poorly?” in the book Democracy in Decline? edited by Larry Diamond, Marc Plattner, and Condolezza Rice; and his article “American Political Decay or Renewal?” in the August, 2016, issue of Foreign Affairs.

I must admit there are some aspects of Fukuyama’s writings that stand in opposition to some of my own views on democracy and justice. However, in keeping with Sterba’s insights, I do think that there are some important perspectives brought forward by Fukuyama given the “History of our Time”. In this blog, I’d like to highlight two of those.

1) Alternative shapes of democracy. I must admit that quite often I join with others in incorporating the word democracy in a discussion or writing in a very simplified form. It’s helpful to note the decline in democracy around the world through studies such as the yearly aggregate Freedom House scores. But it is also important to note that democracies come in many shapes in order to achieve different priorities for accountability. In an ideal modern liberal democracy, the three key parts — the state, the rule of law, and democratic accountability — aspire to be “impersonal, treating people equally on the basis of citizenship rather than on whether they have personal relationship to the ruler” (Fukuyama, “Why is Democracy Performing So Poorly?”, page 13). This helps to develop “good” states which use infrastructural power to provide public goods in support of the public interest.

But many means have been used to ultimately influence the quality of a democracy, including neopatrimonialism (use of state resources by those at the top of a social hierarchy in order to secure support from the general populous), clientelism (use of funds such as tax dollars by a successful political party to reward their supporters with jobs and benefits), meritocracy (e.g., talented are moved to power as a financially elite group in order to ultimately support their own agenda; e.g., a high-level of economic development nationally mobilizes voters to select political leaders that will promote a higher-quality and more just government), and “vetocracy” (use parliamentary procedure to stop a government from being able to promote the common good).

As an example, Russia is currently a well-established and internally popular, although highly illiberal, democracy led primarily through neopatrimonialism. This is in large part because of the 85% popularity rating of Vladimir Putin. Ultimately, through exclusion of the liberal part of democracy, that is, the rule of law, Russia has also excluded clear limits regarding how the state can exercise power. By comparison, after the Revolutionary War, the U.S. began as a British-influenced liberal democracy primarily based on a beneficial form (at least for white males) of clientelism. While it has at times moved towards various forms of meritocracy — some more beneficial than other — Fukuyama suggests it is currently increasingly moving towards a vetocracy. As a third example, Germany has a fairly strong, meritocratic liberal democracy that includes a business elite who continues support of trade unions. As such “wages are set across the German economy through government-sponsored negotiations between employers and unions. As a result, German labor costs are about 25 percent higher than their counterparts. And yet Germany remains the third-largest exporter in the world “, with consistently higher manufacturing employment than in the U.S. (Fukuyama, “American Political Decay or Renewal).

Many nations are now democratic, although those numbers are decreasing. But the form of democracy and the ultimate value to the largest number of the nations populous, and especially the non-elites and the disenfranchised, is constantly under change.

2) While the political and business elites are the primary controllers of government, popular mobilization often brings forward significant social change, for good and for harm. In Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us), Cecelia Tichi provides a very useful examination of seven people from the gilded age who ultimately were able to help launch the Progressive era in the United States. Interestingly, Jane Addams, who many of us consider as one of those on the top of that list, was not included as one of the seven within the book. But she was regularly written about by Tichi as a key mentor to some of the seven people reviewed in the book. Ultimately, Jane Addams was the first of multiple generations who were able to significantly shape the ultimate direction of the political and business elites in ways that had significant positive social change.

Along these lines, I appreciate the last paragraph of Francis Fukuyama’s article in Foreign Affairs. “‘Populism’ is the label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like. There is of course no reason why democratic voters should always choose wisely, particularly in an age when globalization makes policy choices so complex. But elites don’t always choose correctly either, and their dismissal of the popular choice often masks the nakedness of their own positions. Popular mobilizations are neither inherently bad nor inherently good; they can do great things, as during the Progressive era and the New Deal, but also terrible ones, as in Europe during the 1930s. The American political system has in fact suffered from substantial decay, and it will not be fixed unless popular anger is linked to wise leadership and good policies. It is still not too late for this to emerge.”

The United States has had pivotal moments that were a significant negative influence within the political system and the populace at large, including Native American genocide by the U.S. military and re-education through Mission Schools, the slavery of forced immigrants who were legally defined as less-than-human followed by a continued American disenfranchisement of people of color, and the internment of Japanese during World War II.  The United States has also had pivotal moments, including the Emancipation Proclamation, the 19th Amendment allowing Women to vote, the Progressive era and the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both the positive and the negative moments have had popular mobilization intent on shaping the political system for good and for ill. And indeed, those popular mobilizations and political systems continue to this day to influence pieces of these for good and for ill to this day.

In Fukuyama’s NPR interview, Inskeep asks: “Is this an exciting moment for a historian to be alive and looking around?” In response, Fukuyama replies: “Well, as a … citizen, I feel that it’s a little bit too exciting. Every day, you wake up and you really read something you thought was not possible in terms of American politics. As a dispassionate social scientist, … I think we’re all in for an interesting test of the stability of our democratic institutions, how legitimate they are, whether they can actually self-correct.”

Our work as a popular mobilization in the months and years to come will have good things and bad things, when all is said and done. Our commitment, our effort, our choice of who to include within the conversation, and ultimately our hard work to more effectively own and speak truth to our past in order to influence our future will be a significant shaper upon that self-correction.

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