by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
You might remember John Hood’s endorsement of Francis Fukuyama’s last book, The Origins of Political Order. We will no doubt have a chance to read Hood’s assessment in the not-too-distant future of Fukuyama’s follow-up, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, a 672-page tome reviewed in the latest issue of The Atlantic.
… [T]he real challenge to Fukuyama’s optimism, as he admits, comes not from struggling Africa but from somewhere closer to home. The new element in his analysis, absent from the 1989 essay, is his damning portrait of the state of American democracy. A declining middle class, starkly increasing income inequality, overweening special interests, and partisan gridlock have resulted, he argues, in “a crisis of representation,” leaving millions of Americans convinced that their politicians no longer speak for them.
This is a familiar assessment, yet Fukuyama adds important context. He reprises a long tradition of historical pessimism—familiar to the Founding Fathers themselves—about the fate of republics. They do not, as Madison warned, always grow and prosper. They can also decay and decline. Fukuyama may be optimistic about democracy, but he wants Americans to wake up and understand that theirs could fail, just as other democracies and republics have failed in the past.
The fundamental problem, he argues, lies in the Madisonian machinery of American constitutional law. The Founders’ separation of powers can generate positive outcomes only when political opponents trust one another sufficiently to approve one another’s nominees, support one another’s bills, and practice the grubby but essential arts of political compromise. When the spirit of trust breaks down, the result is not democracy but vetocracy, a term coined by Fukuyama. Too many political players—courts, congressional committees, special interests like the National Rifle Association and the American Medical Association, independent commissions, regulatory authorities—have acquired the power to veto measures; too few have the power to get things done. The dire consequences of the systemic paralysis have become obvious: a democracy that cannot unite to pay down its deficits, rebuild its infrastructure, fund its rising long-term obligations to the aged, or rebuild its tax code to be simple, progressive, and fair.
A parliamentary system like Britain’s, vesting decisive power over the legislature in the prime minister and his cabinet, would produce more-effective government, Fukuyama argues. But this is a counsel of despair, he acknowledges, since no American is going to swap the U.S. Constitution for anything British. Suspicion of strong government on the British model was inscribed in the country’s political DNA at the Revolution, and as Fukuyama points out, the same suspicions unite progressives and conservatives, however much they may disagree about how to fix what ails the American state.