In the summer of 1989, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, political scientist Francis Fukuyama penned the essay, The End of History? In it, he pondered the meaning of the end of the Cold War and fall of the the Soviet Union.
It’s an essay, that as much as any other, represents a time stamp at the end of one leg of the American journey.
At the end of man’s deadliest century, one that began with the rise of Bolshevism, witnessed the defeat of fascism and the development of doomsday weapons then ended in the collapse of communism, Fukuyama hypothesized that we had, perhaps, reached the end of the old form of uncertainty.
Fukuyama’s conclusion, 29 years ago, was that we were witnessing an “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism” at the end of a natural pattern of mankind’s historical development. “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
The end of history…
The essay, and the following book with the same name have garnered their fair share of criticism over the last decade or so. As most things that dare to predict the unpredictable, a good deal hasn’t held up. As a timestamp though, it’s a critically important artifact.
It was the end of something, if perhaps not history.
It was the end of the struggle between economic systems as the basis for international conflict. With a brief hiatus from international state conflict to focus on non-state political Islamist, nihilist adversaries that served to galvanize nationalist bluster in Europe and America, we’ve moved into another form of international conflict.
That of individual, economic and regional competition within free capitalist systems.
2016 gave us Brexit and Donald Trump. Among the volumes of commentary that those events have produced to explain them, one reasonable conclusion can be drawn. The idea of a single, globalist world order driving us towards one governing body was far more fragile than perhaps its architects believed. It did not survive its lone significant economic crisis.
It left the global infrastructure of trade, communications and finance in place. But it broke the ties of nations willing to play nice with each other en route to a world devoid of conflict. Or, less naively, it removed the illusion of them.
America’s adversaries don’t want to rule the world any more. They want to dominate others in trade and influence. The goal is to win the Super Bowl. Not to exterminate the other teams. Without them, there is no game from which to profit.
Some principles persist though. The rules still favor the strong.
Europe is a loose coalition of nations with sovereignty divided at the national level. As a body, it lacks cohesion and political will. Though it is the world’s largest economy, it is not really one economy. As immigration and economic shocks have roused nationalistic tendencies, it’s reasonable to believe that an EU fracturing before our eyes, fares less well in the grand competition against cut throat, no holds bars trade wars and cyber espionage of present and near future than they would have under the vision of a global world order. Especially with the current American depreciation of NATO.
To Russia and China, the EU is a wounded elephant.
And a Trump divided America, isn’t far off.
While the European Union breaks the ill formed ties that bound its underlying nations, America is ripping apart centuries old wounds along the great cultural divide that’s existed since our inception. Agricultural or Industrial. Slave or Free. Red or Blue.
#MAGA and everyone else.
In my lifetime, there has never been a clearer division within America. An America in which one group simply cannot live with the other. In which one doesn’t consider the other American.
In the book Sixteen: A Rational Account of an Irrational Election, I published a series of essays that I wrote on this blog during the 2016 election. In February of 2016, on the eve of Super Tuesday, when Donald Trump was poised to run the table and win the Republican nomination for president I didn’t believe he would eventually win the general election. I believed there was material risk that our conservative political apparatus would run quickly in the direction of the message of Trump-ism; that of nationalist, ethnocentric bluster. And I knew that direction was a direction some portion, a majority I hoped, would not ever follow in America. I urged conservative leaders not to try to lead them there.
I was screaming into darkness.
“Tomorrow, Donald Trump is going to win the Republican Nomination for President of the United States. Whether or not Republican leaders choose to blindly follow his tone and adopt the ideology of the base that carried him to victory is a choice. Where there is choice, there is opportunity–an opportunity to stop the tide of nativist rot that has divided our country and sprung countless wasteful deadly wars throughout history. The line is here. This goes no further.”
But further it went. And further we are. And now on the eve of our first formal referendum of the Trump administration and the new conservative political direction of America, we have another choice. What’s at stake now, is much more than a few years of division within our national discourse. We’re revisiting whether our system of government is viable in the future global domain.
China, the likely dominant world power for the 22nd century and beyond has gotten by for five thousand years without liberalism or any rule of law. Just an immensely effective bureaucracy governed by a lone principle; Chinese national interests.
Russia under Putin and unencumbered by any version of their own rule of law has shown it is willing to play to win at any cost.
America, faced with this new environment of global competition and a chance to double down on the strength of our liberal western values, that of accountable government, human rights and personal liberties, wobbled. When challenged, enough of us ran towards authoritarian rhetoric to give us a moment of pause. As a result, we’ve found ourselves in another four score and seven years ago moment.
A moment where we ask aloud, in earnest, is this thing going to continue to work?
Past American administrations have understood that there was more at stake in governing than winning internal political fights. What was also at stake was trust in a system that would, when required, consolidate the will and resources of the American people towards eliminating existential threats to our way of life. One could only blow apart our national unity so much, before we couldn’t reel it back in.
Eventually, Lincoln has to give his second inaugural address, where he asked the Union for years of more war, to one people.
Eventually, FDR has to be speaking to one “we” when talking about all we have to fear. If we couldn’t, the system wouldn’t work.
This is the bargain of liberal democracy. We can argue. But we can’t fracture.
What’s at stake tomorrow is trust in a system that says, we’ll only take so much hate, anger and division, until we choose something else. So much good has come from the trust in American global leadership. So much good has come from the trust in the system of liberal democracy.
So much is at stake tomorrow.
Does the future find strength in the Putin led oligarchs of the world? Or does it still believe in western liberal values? Can American accountable government deliver on returning our nation to more unified times? Or are we headed for the dustbin of old regimes.
I know I won’t reach anyone caught up in the populous fervor of rally’s and chants. But I hope to find someone sitting on the fence that might not understand quite what’s at stake.
Here’s to the old ways, I guess.