Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Book Reviews

Getting Liberalism’s Attitude Back

Understanding liberalism as a culture not just a tidy set of axioms.

Charles Mathewes

Illustration by Lee Woodgate; Ikon Images.

Francis Fukuyama’s work is generally treated much the way pigeons treat statues: as something on which to deposit badly digested ideas, which are then left for others to clean up. His notoriety for the “End of History” thesis is based on a misreading of that phrase, not a real reading of his 1989 National Interest article “The End of History?” or his less sanguine 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. His subsequent work has received respectful public attention, but little scholarly engagement; he is treated more as a symptom than an intellect. Even with this book, the pattern of neglect-by-vague-praise continues: None of its many reviewers, for all their pretense at comprehension, noticed that his drive-by definition of “deontology” (“not linked to any ontology or substantive theory of human nature”) is totally wrong: Deontology comes from deon, a Greek word here meaning something like “duty” and refers to the study of ethics.

The slip-up is a little embarrassing, but it doesn’t really damage the book’s argument. Fukuyama, now at Stanford University, is a strong thinker. And his latest book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, is a remarkably fair-minded—one might say liberal-minded—exposition of liberalism’s current predicament. Certainly, unlike his magisterial two-volume Origins of Political Order (2011) and Political Order and Political Decay (2015), this slender volume is more frankly an advocate’s work than an analyst’s. But advocacy need not be distortion, and this work is the clearest brief account both of a broadly inclusive sense of liberalism and of some of the more interesting criticisms of it. In this Fukuyama follows earlier liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Lionel Trilling, and Isaiah Berlin, who sought to understand their opponents, not simply condemn them. As Trilling himself put it in The Liberal Imagination, “[a] criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time,” so that liberalism might “be aware of the weak or wrong expressions of itself.”

Attempting to recognize and reckon with genuinely illiberal views—seeking to understand your opponents—is a rare and welcome exercise. It is also undertaken more by liberals than by anti-liberals, who find it convenient to meet liberalism with uncomplicated contempt than any attempt to understand it. In itself this is a strong argument in favor of liberalism. Whether Fukuyama’s own account of liberalism is entirely satisfactory is another matter.

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