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Our growing disillusionment with liberalism—Francis Fukuyama breaks down the threats from the left and the right

Podcast & Video

Today’s episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with the renowned professor, author, and thinker Francis Fukuyama. They dive into his new book, Liberalism and its Discontents, and discuss the history of liberalism, why people are so disillusioned with it these days, and the caustic effects of polarization.

They also touch on what might happen next in the Russia-Ukraine war and what people get wrong about his earlier work.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Francis Fukuyama, who’s one of the leading political thinkers of our era. He’s currently affiliated with Stanford University and the author of the must-read new book, Liberalism and its Discontents. Professor Fukuyama, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues. 

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Thank you very much for having me. 

SEAN SPEER: In Liberalism and its Discontents, you argue that liberalism faces threats from both ends of the political spectrum. Let’s start by situating that thesis for our listeners. How are John Rawls and Milton Friedman avatars of these two perspectives? What, counterintuitively, do they have in common?

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: It’s a little bit complicated an answer to that. I think that they have been seen as avatars of a certain kind of liberalism on both the left and the right. But I actually think that they’re representatives of a distortion or a deformation of liberalism that accounts for some of the reasons that people are unhappy with the doctrine right now. So, let’s take Milton Friedman. Liberalism for several centuries has been associated with free markets, with economic growth. Liberals support property rights and the freedom to transact, and they’re very closely associated with all of the economic growth that’s made the modern world as rich and prosperous as it is. 

Milton Friedman is a liberal, or starts from those liberal premises, but he was really the avatar of something that’s now labeled neoliberalism, this University of Chicago school that, in a sense, worshiped free markets, turned it from an empirical observation to a kind of religion, and also denigrated the state as an obstacle to growth and efficiency. And this change in ideas has led to a transformation of the early post-World War Two capitalism into this supercharged globalization that we’ve seen, that’s produced a lot of inequality, and, as the financial sector was deregulated under its guidance, a lot of instability that left a lot of ordinary people out of their homes because they couldn’t afford their mortgages anymore, and the like. And so, I think that he was really somebody that stretched liberal principles too far. 

John Rawls, on the other hand, takes a different tack which has to do with personal choice. So, liberals want to protect individual autonomy. That is our ability to make basic choices in our life, about where to live, what kind of work we’re going to do, who we’re going to marry, what we’re going to believe, and the like. But as time went on, and under the influence of Rawls, the act of choosing became more important than what was chosen, the substance of what was chosen. He said that in a liberal society the principle of not interfering with other people’s choices is more important than the actual choice you make. And so it led to a forgetting about the ends of why people want to live in liberal societies. 

You know, they don’t want to be free from religion, a lot of people actually want to be able to freely practice their chosen set of religious beliefs, or they want to live in a particular cultural tradition, and the like. And Rawlsian liberalism is telling them really, “No, it’s actually just the bare act of choice that’s important, and not that you choose wisely or that you act virtuously, and that sort of thing.” So, once again, I don’t think that this is genuine, classical liberalism. I think that this is, in a sense, a deformation of some of those classical liberal ideas. 

SEAN SPEER: So, we’ve in effect been pulled to the right in the form of a kind of overreach of economic liberalism and pulled by the left in the form of an overreach of cultural liberalism. 


SEAN SPEER: Let me take you up on the title of the book in the sense of discontent and disillusionment with liberalism. How much of it, Professor Fukuyama, is a reflection of liberalism failing to deliver the goods, so to speak, versus the fact that liberalism is kind of boring? 

I think, for instance, of young people in search of intellectual and moral stimulus. One wonders if so-called wokeism, on one hand, and post-liberal conservatism, on the other hand, aren’t signs, at some level, of intellectual boredom. What do you think of that proposition? 

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Well, I think that both of the phenomena that you pointed to are correct. So, no liberal society has ever fully delivered on its promise of the equal treatment of all people under the law, right? We see this in the United States where African Americans are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites and so forth. That’s a failure to live up to your promise. On the other hand, I do think that the dissatisfaction with liberalism does have to do with the fact that liberalism deliberately lowers the sights of politics. It says, “We’re not going to focus on a clearly defined common good. We’re not all going to be pulling together; everybody gets to do their own thing and make decisions for themselves.” And I think a lot of people want more than that. 

And so, this is actually a complaint on both the right and the left. I mean, the right would like to say, “We need shared religious values that bind our society together.” I think people on the left would say, “Well marginalized groups need to realize what they have in common and struggle for that kind of social justice, even if that means violating certain other kinds of liberal principles.” 

And I do think that it’s very easy to get bored, frankly, in a liberal society that simply offers peace and prosperity. People want to be able to struggle; they’ve got this side of their personality that seeks recognition and dignity and gets very indignant when people don’t recognize the same causes and gods and forces that they do. That’s what I think has pushed many people to reject liberalism. 

SEAN SPEER: Is this a serious problem, Professor Fukuyama, embedded in the DNA of liberalism? That on one hand, it’s the best doctrine to organize a pluralistic society, but on the other hand, as you say, it fails to provide a sense of fulfillment? It reminds me a bit of Irving Kristol’s famous phrase, “Capitalism is only worth two cheers.” 

In a world where liberalism is only worth two cheers, what needs to happen in politics or civil society or some other parts of our collective life to fill the gap that’s necessarily unfilled by liberalism? 

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: You know, ideally, those kinds of energies—the striving for social justice, and a better life—can be fulfilled in different ways in civil society. So, every liberal society has a dense layer of groups that get together to advocate for some cause, you know, underdevelopment in Africa, or taking care of children suffering from various diseases, and so forth. And I think that serves as a productive and peaceful way of bleeding off some of that energy. 

On the other hand, it’s not enough for a lot of people because they actually want a much bigger kind of social transformation. They want to see the entire society committed to the same kinds of justice schools that they are, which is the counterpart to the people on the right that want this common cultural horizon that basically everybody has to acknowledge. So, I do think that there’s a cycle that people, they like liberal societies the best when they experience something that’s not liberal, right?

So, if they live in a war-torn society, like Europe in the first half of the 20th century, or if they live under a communist dictatorship, which was the case in Eastern Europe up until the fall of the Berlin Wall, then they’re happy to escape to a liberal society where they can just do their own thing. But then over time, they kind of take that for granted, and they say, “Yeah, but still, my life needs deeper meaning.” And I think that’s when you get these attacks against liberalism. And so, it may be that we are doomed to go through these cycles of complacency and then being reminded again of why it’s actually better to live in a liberal society.

SEAN SPEER: The book argues for a renewed sense of moderation, and listeners will hear in your voice and disposition that you’re the consummate moderate. But there are a bunch of forces working against moderation these days, including, of course, parts of social media. How can we get back to valuing moderation in our society? How can we wrestle control of our politics from the political extremes? 

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Well, that’s a really tough question, because I think the polarization and extremism is driven by a lot of different forces. So, as you suggest the rise of social media is one factor where there’s a value placed on virality and offending people and saying things that you wouldn’t say in a civil conversation face to face. I think everybody is wrestling with how to deal with that. I think that content moderation has risen to the top of the agenda for a lot of these big internet platforms. But we’ve got a big problem deciding on who it is that decides what’s acceptable speech and what’s not because liberals are committed to freedom of speech. And it’s not clear that we want the government to be setting these standards, but it’s also not clear that we want these big internet platforms to be doing that either. 

So, I don’t know what the solution to that, in particular, is. I think that most technologies have challenged the political order when they were introduced, even things like printing which really launched the Protestant Reformation, which was very disruptive in Europe. Radio launched the careers of Mussolini and Hitler and that also had a devastating effect. So I think we have to go through this process of social learning to see how we deal with those challenges posed by these new technologies. 

There are other sources of resentment, though, that aren’t so technology-based. I think that there’s a new class divide that’s emerged in many countries, in the United States, in Canada, in Europe, where on the one hand you have urban professionals with pretty good levels of education, that live in big cities, that have lots of connections to the global economy, that are doing pretty well economically, and have very liberal social values, and then other people that aren’t situated in quite that fashion. And most of the polarization centres around that kind of social divide, that really, in the end, is a divide over levels of education. And to deal with that, I think that there are several things. 

I think the economic part of it needs to be addressed because a lot of working-class people have had their lives very severely disrupted. First by globalization and outsourcing, most recently by the COVID epidemic. If you work with your hands you had to show up for work, and if you work in front of a computer screen you did just fine. But then there’s a cultural problem in which there’s a kind of spiraling sense of distrust of people on the other side.

Political scientists label this affective polarization, where you’re not just disagreeing about policy issues or political preferences, you really just hate people on the other side because you think that they’re out to get you, or your identity is somehow directly under attack. And that, I think, was something that just needs to be dealt with through leadership, through a kind of recognition that there are legitimate grievances that people hold on the other side of the divide. And hopefully, that’s something that actually can be addressed in a democratic political system.

But I must say, I’ve been really surprised and disappointed at how those processes haven’t worked over the last few years, and that, at least in the United States we seem to be getting to even a higher degree of polarization. After September 11, after the financial crisis, after the COVID epidemic, all of these things that you might have imagined would bring us together more have actually exacerbated the divide. So, this is a long-winded way of saying that I’m not quite sure what the ultimate solution to that is.

SEAN SPEER: Professor Fukuyama, you’ve made various observations in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war. You’ve argued, on one hand, that Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the Ukrainian resistance may represent a moment of renewed spirit and vigour in the world of liberalism. But you’ve also argued that one of the lessons of this episode is that liberalism must be embedded in some form of nationalism. 

Why do you think liberalism must be attached to the geographic and cultural expression of a nation? And is this something that post-Cold war liberals got wrong?

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Not all of them, but I do think that there is a tendency—so in liberal theory, all human beings have a certain basic dignity that needs to be respected. Human rights are not things that simply exist within one territory, like the whole idea about the rights of Englishmen. Human rights are rights that apply everywhere in the world, in theory, and that leads a lot of liberals to say that they’re citizens of the world, and they care as much about what happens to people in Bangladesh, or in Uganda as much as their neighbours in a rich, liberal society. And I think that that’s problematic in two senses.

I mean, first of all, just given the way people are emotionally, there’s very few people that are genuinely citizens of the world. Everybody cares most about people that are closer to them, and the nation is really the largest unit of social solidarity that provokes a very strong emotional response of patriotism and loyalty and the like. The other issue is a kind of practical one in that the nation remains the political unit that controls legitimate violence, right? It’s really only nations that are able to field armies and police forces that ultimately are, if they’re legitimate and they’re democratically legitimated, they’re the ones that keep order, defend the community, and most importantly, enforce those rights. 

Liberal rights are kind of meaningless unless they’re enforced, and you need a nation to enforce them. And you don’t want nations necessarily using their own power to enforce rights in other countries, because that’s going to lead to a pretty chaotic world. That’s why I think the use of force, legitimate force, needs to be territorially bounded to the community that has basically signed on to a social contract in which people give up their right to arm themselves and defend themselves in any way that they see fit. They give it up to a state that promises to defend them through police power, and the like. And, again, that’s all centered on nations and not on other kinds of entities. 

SEAN SPEER: As we have this conversation, the Russians are bogged down in Ukraine, and one of the ways in which they’re reacting is a strategy of devastating disruption and the targeting of civilians. How long can Western liberal democracies stand aside and watch what’s happening without some form of intervention? 

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Well, I think that the Western democracies have been giving a lot of aid to Ukraine. I think that they’ve been extremely cautious up to this point because Russia has nuclear weapons. There are lots of ways that they can escalate, and nobody wants this to escalate into a broad NATO-Russia war. So, they’ve been cautious. But at this point, they’re really providing Ukraine with some pretty powerful weapons. My personal opinion is that the stalemate is not going to go on for much longer. I think the Ukrainians are very likely to push the Russians out of the areas that they occupied after February 24th, and that that’s likely to happen in the coming weeks. 

But there is this moral problem that it’s really only Ukrainians that are dying, and they’re dying in the tens of thousands in a fight in which they’re bearing a cause for all of us because Russia doesn’t just threaten Ukraine, it threatens every other country in Europe. And it threatens the very idea of democracy because that’s something that Putin has criticized and he’s one of the leading proponents of a non-democratic alternative. So, his success would be very bad, I think, for everybody. I think that does raise a great moral dilemma that it’s the Ukrainians that are bearing this broader burden.

SEAN SPEER: Professor Fukuyama, if I can come back to the topic of liberalism being somewhat boring. The book does an extraordinary job of providing a museum to liberal thinking. How much were early liberal thinkers and philosophers attuned to the risk of liberalism and neutrality on issues of virtue? Or did it not occur to them because they were writing in an age of such high levels of religiosity? 

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Well, I think a little of both. I mean, certainly, the early liberal thinkers grew up in worlds that were basically theocratic. You had established churches, and in Europe, the authority of Christianity was really unquestioned by anybody. And so to argue for religious tolerance was actually quite a risky thing to do. 

But I think it’s precisely for that reason that they made those arguments. Liberalism was born at the conclusion of the European wars of religion when Protestants and Catholics and different sects of Protestants had spent the previous 150 years killing each other. In the 30 Years’ War at the beginning of the 17th century, Germany lost maybe a third of its population in this kind of conflict. And so, the deliberate effort to lower the objectives of politics was undertaken by people that lived through that.  

You know, Thomas Hobbes is not generally understood to be a liberal, but he really is the father of the idea of the universality of the right to life, and his writings came directly out of his experience of the English Civil War in the 1640s. This idea that people fighting for these higher religious ends were devastating his own society, and that people needed a different structure by which they could tolerate and live with each other, and that’s really why The Leviathan was written. So the lowering of sights and the laying the ground for a boring society was actually the by-product of a lot of violent conflicts that made that shift quite deliberate. 

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask you a penultimate question. We talked a bit earlier about the extent to which ideas about markets in the 1970s, 1980s and beyond were taken too far. I think it’s fair to say that idea has increasing resonance among the policy establishment. But your arguments about the overreach of individualism and individual autonomy may be less salient with some listeners who assume that these developments that have manifested in things like the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians are inherently good. 

Where did liberalism go wrong when it comes to the cultural sphere? How do we go from the dignity of the individual to the growing radicalism that we’ve seen on issues of culture and identity? 

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Well, let’s take the question of identity politics, which is the major manifestation of the progressive form of what I think is a distorted form of liberalism. There’s one version of identity politics that is completely in line with liberal principles, and that is a view that says that we have these identities, as let’s say African-Americans or women or gays and lesbians, but we’re denied the equal treatment by the broader liberal society; people don’t respect us, there may be legal obstacles to our living the kinds of equal and full lives that liberalism promises, and we simply want to be included in that larger mainstream. So, that form of identity politics is really a version of liberalism and upholds liberal ideas. 

But some versions have actually turned anti-liberal, where people have said, “Well, actually, because we are members of these marginalized communities, the experience is really not commensurate with anyone outside of our community has experienced, and the oppression that we felt is so determinative that that’s really the most important kind of essential characteristic of us; our skin color, our ethnicity, our gender or gender orientation. And we want to be recognized, therefore, on the basis of those group characteristics and not on the basis of what we accomplish as individuals.” 

And that shifts over into something that is not liberal because one of the fundamental building blocks of liberalism is this idea that we are judged as individuals and that we have this fundamental equality underneath what liberals regard as superficial characteristics of skin color and economic status. We have this moral core that makes us all human beings. There is a tendency on the cultural left to deny that universality in favour of a social justice that would recognize people first and foremost as members of particular groups. So, that’s I think the point at which that kind of progressivism goes wrong. 

The other thing is that many progressives—because liberal societies have failed in the past to really deliver on the equality that they promised—believe that things like racism and patriarchy are baked into liberalism, that somehow this is an essential part of the doctrine itself rather than accidental features of the fact that liberals in the 19th century simply weren’t conscious of women’s equality or the equality of other racial groups and so forth, and therefore, attack liberalism, as such. Which I think is, in a way, guilt by association. 

It’s not that discrimination is not the product of liberal principles. It’s a violation of liberal principles, and it’s something that liberal societies have been able to correct over time. But many people continue to believe that it’s something deeply rooted somehow in liberal ideas and that I think is also wrong.

SEAN SPEER: That sense of time horizon is a good segue, Professor Fukuyama, to my final question. In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, you make the case for the “arc of history.” What do you mean by the arc of history, and how, as a society, can we minimize what you describe as “discontinuities” along the way? 

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Well, that article harks back to my original End of History, both the article and the book The End of History and the Last Man, and a lot of people have completely misunderstood the meaning of “History” as I was using it. A lot of them didn’t bother to actually read what I’ve written, but, History is not just events happening; History is meant in this sense of History with a capital H, which you might otherwise call today modernization or development. And the question is is there a kind of universal pattern of development that human societies have experienced over time? 

You know, I spent a lot of time earlier in my career working on development issues. How do you create institutions in poor countries, working with the World Bank and other development agencies? To me, the idea that there is not such a thing as History with a capital H is just ridiculous. I mean, you go to, I don’t know, Guatemala, or Myanmar, Nigeria, or any number of other poor, disorganized countries with very weak institutions. You see that the quality of life is really different from living in Canada, or Switzerland, or the United States, or Japan. It makes a big difference that you’ve actually industrialized and pulled yourself up economically so that your children don’t die before they’re five years old, so that you have the freedom from daily violence that is experienced by many people in the developing world. And that’s what I mean by History. 

It’s that journey from, let’s say, Guatemala or El Salvador to Texas or California that represents the arc of history. And that’s something very real, and it’s something that we need to understand. For all the problems in the contemporary United States, people are not moving from the United States to El Salvador and Guatemala; they’re moving in the other direction. We need to think about why that is and what it is that has made the one society very different from the other. 

SEAN SPEER: Well, one way to understand some of those big questions is to read the book, Liberalism and its Discontents. Francis Fukuyama, it’s been a great honour and pleasure to have you at Hub Dialogues. 

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Right, thank you very much for having me.