Politics & Policy

History Makes a Comeback?

Fukuyama revisited.

Harold Stassen ran for president — unsuccessfully as I hope you know — somewhere between three and four thousand times. He was so indefatigable that in the 1970s, my mom came up with a dish called “Chicken Harold Stassen” because “You just can’t keep it down” (this shouldn’t be confused with the Marion Barry shooter, which longtime readers know not to drink).

Some people think history is a lot like Harold Stassen, you just can’t keep it down. But I’m not sure they’re right.

In 1990, Francis Fukuyama wrote a brilliant essay for The National Interest (the best foreign-policy magazine in the world without a centerfold) entitled “The End of History?” He followed it up with a book, The End of History and the Last Man. (Personal trivia: By successfully faking having read this book in an interview, I got a job at the American Enterprise Institute. I finished the book later.)

While Fukuyama’s thesis was widely misunderstood by a lot of people, it’s actually a pretty simple idea (it’s the explanations that are complicated). History, according to a Hegelian interpretation, has been a long series of bloody arguments about the best way to organize society. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the intellectual and moral collapse of socialism-totalitarianism, liberal democracy won that argument and thus ended capital-h History. (Just to be clear: when I say “liberal democracy” I mean liberal in the Lockeian, not the Ted Kennedy, sense.)

Now, before you start yelling at me about how this is all wrong, let me make a few points. First of all, it ain’t my argument. Yell at Fukuyama. Second, Fukuyama is brilliant, and he anticipated in his book about 99 percent of all your objections. And third, he was right.

For example, Fukuyama wasn’t oblivious to Islamic fundamentalism; he just understood that radical Islam isn’t a competitor with political liberalism, it’s an opponent of it. Unlike Communism, socialism, or (for a teeny minority) Star Trekkism, radical Islam has almost no appeal in economically advanced societies. It is not a universal ideology or religion in the sense that it appeals to the imagination, dignity, and self-interest of large numbers of people everywhere. (Indeed, since the story of Islam is in large part one of conversion by the sword, you could say the same about some of the less radical forms too.)

The reason liberalism is more successful than all other systems — i.e., the least worst system, in the Churchillian perspective — is that it does the best job of ensuring the self-respect of its members. Fukuyama, borrowing from Plato, calls this natural human desire for recognition or esteem, “thymos,” but I strongly advise against trying to use it in sentence.

All you need to remember is that while liberal democracy ain’t perfect, its system of rights and responsibilities, along with its gift for channeling creative energy and egos into productive outlets, makes it better than any other system. In the pluralistic, market-driven West, our potential dictators satisfy their outsized egos by becoming corporate CEOs or some other form of celebrity. Also, we leave it to people to figure out how to satisfy their own thymos as they see fit (just don’t let your mom catch you playing with it). Totalitarian and authoritarian systems seek to compel citizens to find meaning in official ways. We don’t do that, so long as you don’t hurt anybody. Through all of Fukuyama’s Kantian, Hegelian, and Nietzschean jargon, the basic point is this: In the West, we allow people to pursue happiness by their own compass.

A couple years ago, Fukuyama wrote a follow-up in The National Interest entitled “Second Thoughts.” Unfortunately the title didn’t refer to a serious reevaluation of their “No centerfolds” rule. Rather, Fukuyama reaffirmed his thesis about the “End of History” but added a new caveat: biotechnology. The one universal constant of big- and little-h history has been human nature. Biological and pharmacological breakthroughs have the potential to make human nature a variable instead of a common denominator.

But that’s a subject for another day. For now, the point is that Fukuyama is still right. It’s just that History is ending with more of a bang and less of a whimper than many of us had thought.

In a recent issue of Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria argues that Fukuyama was wrong about the end of history. “Radical Islam as an ideology…” poses “no threat to the West. But we pose a threat to it, one its followers feel with blinding intensity. It turns out it takes only one side to restart History.”

I think Zakaria is half right. To the extent this is a surgical war against “terrorism,” radical Islam is not a challenge to liberal democracy in any way. Unless you are a profound, nigh-upon-metaphysical idiot or college professor, this is not a “war of ideas” in any way. These people cannot be reasoned with; they make no “argument” about how to organize society; they seek no compromise with dissenters. They are simply malfunctional murderers, and we have neither the time, the inclination, nor the obligation to understand or tutor them.

One quick example. USA Today recently reported that the training manual for the bin Laden organization exhorts members to kill American children in their playgrounds. One young man, who carries around a picture of Chicago’s Sears Tower, told the reporter: “This one is mine.”

In discussing people like this, “Capturing their hearts and minds” only makes sense if by that you mean, literally, capturing their hearts and minds and putting them in a mason jar.

Now, to the extent this is a broader “civilizational” confrontation of some kind, winning hearts and minds is a good idea. An argument between the West and the Islamic world would be fruitful for everyone. I’m sure there’s much our policymakers and voters could learn. And, more important, the Islamic world needs to understand that their only hope for a healthy and prosperous future is to embrace liberal democracy — complete with its tolerance for religious pluralism and respect for individual initiative.

But does anyone, anywhere, truly think this is a war of ideas we could lose? (If you think we should lose, I’d like to know what you’re doing here in the first place.) Unlike in the war on Communism, there’s no real threat that huge swaths of the West are going to renounce our political traditions for an anti-capitalist, alien, sometimes medieval, and often corrupt theocratic fascism. In fact, no democracy has ever — ever — reverted to authoritarianism once per capita GDP rose above $6,000 in 1992 parity purchasing power.

So Zakaria is right, in that History won’t die as quietly and as gracefully as one might hope. It’s fighting back, like Harold Stassen with a vitamin B12 shot. But in the end, we know how the story’s going to end. No matter how many times he pops up, you know he’s not going to win.

Yes, the end of History hasn’t manifest itself everywhere yet. Large numbers of people still live in the past — and, not coincidentally, in poverty, of either the political, moral, or material variety. But the problem of how humans should live has been solved. And just because some folks don’t like it, doesn’t mean that freedom isn’t our final answer.


The Latest