Is global democracy in crisis? In new book, Stanford’s Fukuyama still sees hope

Francis Fukuyma launches his new volume, "Political Order and Political Decay," at Stanford University in conversation with CDDRL Director Larry Diamond.


Political scientists have long tried to understand why some governments perform better than others. Providing security, supporting economic growth and delivering basic public services are essential functions of government. But as West Africa’s Ebola outbreak illustrates, many governments cannot keep their citizens safe.

In his latest book, Francis Fukuyama, the Olivier Nomellini senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), brings a new set of answers and inquiry to the question of why some governments work and others fail.

Political Order and Political Decay picks up where his 2011 The Origins of Political Order left off, tracing global political development from the French Revolution to the present day. The new book builds on the theories of the late Samuel Huntington; the political scientist who argued in his 1968 work Political Order in Changing Societies that political instability comes when government institutions fail to keep pace with social mobilization.

 

Based at FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law since 2010, the author of “The End of History and the Last Man” argues that economic development produces middle classes that are often the social basis for democracy.

“Turkey and Brazil, for example, have both been rocked recently by mass protests as their democratically elected governments failed to respond to citizen demands for transparency and better quality services,” Fukuyama says. “And the Arab Spring was triggered by rising expectations of new middle classes in Tunisia and Egypt whose opportunities were blocked by authoritarian regimes.”

But there are also tensions and ironies inherent to building a liberal democracy. Expansion of voting rights in early 19th century America led to widespread corruption and weakened the quality of government. While Germany and Japan developed efficient, modern governments under authoritarian conditions, Greece and Italy found state reform difficult to accomplish precisely because the spread of democracy encouraged use of bureaucracy for self interest. Democracy and good governance can therefore be at odds.

Fukuyama uses China as an example of a strong state with a long history of modern bureaucracy. But this centralized government, combined with a Confucian tradition, has prevented the evolution of legal and democratic institutions to keep the state in check. These historical and cultural factors help to explain why China has evolved into an authoritarian state with successful economic growth but few democratic features - a system that may not be sustainable in the face of social change.

Fukuyama contrasts Asia’s long history of political development with Africa, where weak central governments and the experience of colonialism prevented many countries from developing strong state institutions in the wake of independence. This has given rise to the staggering levels of corruption, poverty and governments' ill-prepared to contain the rapid spread of diseases, such as Ebola.

Fukuyama says all political orders – including liberal democracies – can decay as a result of ideological rigidity and the capture of state institutions by powerful elites. His book argues that both phenomena are evident in the contemporary United States, whose check-and-balance institutions -- when combined with intense political and social polarization -- have made decision-making extraordinarily difficult.

It’s a system Fukuyama calls “vetocracy,” and is the subject of the American Democracy Program, a research project he helped launched at Stanford’s CDDRL.

Fukuyama leaves readers wanting to know how stalled democracies can get back on track. But many of the solutions only lie in a greater understanding of the historical traps that have held many states back, he says.

“Newly emerging democracies in Tunisia or Ukraine can use learn from America’s Progressive Era when a grass-roots movement for clean government succeeded in eradicating corruption in the American political system,” Fukuyama says.


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Media Mentions

Francis Fukuyama on Avoiding 'Political Decay' - NPR KQED Radio with Michael Krasny (Oct. 2, 2014)

The end of harmony: How the benefits of political order are slowly eroding -The Economist (Sept. 27, 2014)

Political Order and Political Decay review - volume two of Francis Fukuyama's magisterial political history -The Guardian (Sept. 27, 2014)

Francis Fukuyama's 'Political Order and Political Decay'  -FT (Sept. 26, 2014)

Doubling Down on Democracy -The Atlantic (Sept. 15, 2014)

Global Warning: Francis Fukuyama's 'Political Order and Political Decay' -The New York Times (Sept. 11, 2014)