Although Francis Fukuyama never said the triumph of liberal democracy was inevitable, his qualified declaration of the “the end of history” captured the optimistic, sometimes naive tenor of the early post-Cold War era. But how quickly that confidence faded! Unmistakable signs of history’s resumption began to appear less than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In its 2008 annual report on political rights and civil liberties around the world, the democracy watchdog Freedom House took troubled note of the reversal of progress in a number of key countries in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the former Soviet space.
This “profoundly disturbing deterioration,” as Freedom House put it, has continued, and not only in countries with fragile democratic institutions. The most recent survey found that “in 2016 it was established democracies—countries rated Free in the report’s ranking system—that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks.” The report’s authors went on glumly to note that the US election of 2016 “raised fears of a foreign policy divorced from America’s traditional strategic commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rules-based international order that it helped to construct beginning in 1945.” And if this were not enough, they pointed to a growing “nexus” of mutual support between authoritarian regimes and populist movements in both weak and strong liberal democracies.
It would be somewhat reassuring to think the United States is the “exceptional nation” resisting the tide. But President Donald J. Trump’s casual, sometimes caustic, disdain for democratic norms and his inexplicable coziness with Vladimir Putin and lesser authoritarians have raised concerns in America and abroad, particularly among traditional allies.
Disturbing as the behavior of the forty-fifth president is, honesty compels us to recognize that Trump’s presidency is less the cause of America’s democracy woes than the product of them. Surveys and studies, including The Vanishing Center of American Democracy, published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture last year, reveal a steady decline in Americans’ confidence in their political institutions as well as various other bulwarks of a liberal and civil society. A declining faith in democratic norms has only exacerbated the culture war divisions of the last four decades, divisions that have in turn been intensified by what some call a new class war between “credentialed” elites and (mostly) white lower-income earners who see their fortunes declining. And as many have noted, democratic norms are bound to suffer when there are no shared conceptions of truth or objectivity, and when all products of journalism are dismissed, from one partisan angle or another, as “fake news.”
Is it time to declare the end of the end of history, as we tentatively suggest in the title to this issue’s theme? More fundamentally, is there something deeply flawed in what many people have long believed was the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment: not merely the idea of governments of, for, and by the people but states undergirded by commitments to personal and civil liberties. Are we witnessing the exhaustion of the once-vital liberal tradition that supported our politics, both its progressive and conservative strands, and which made politics a (relatively) civil enterprise, and compromise a desirable outcome of that enterprise?
The contributors to this issue propose widely differing answers to these questions. But all agree that the questions are urgent and the stakes are high, not only for America and other liberal democracies but also for the relatively stable global order that emerged after World War II, an order built on faith in the universal worth of liberal principles.
For us at The Hedgehog Review, the questions addressed in this issue have added urgency in light of recent events that took place in our hometown—events on which senior editor B.D. McClay reports and comments in her eloquent Notes & Comments essay, “Monumental Woes.” The white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville in August to protest the removal of Confederate monuments, some carrying weapons and dressed in military garb, all chanting racist slogans and waving flags and emblems of hateful ideologies, made the current crisis of liberal democracy immediate and local. Protected by their constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech and assembly, these cynical flouters of all civil norms gamed democratic rules for all they were worth. A last-minute court order even overturned efforts by the city to restrict the white supremacist protest to a more manageable space than downtown’s Emancipation (formerly Lee) Park. The night before the downtown assembly, the protestors marched across the central grounds of the University of Virginia chanting, “You will not replace us.… Jews will not replace us,” violating a previous agreement to restrict their march to the university’s periphery.
As was feared, violence erupted, despite the best efforts of the vast majority of counterprotesters to preserve the peace. And at one point, one particularly deranged young man “weaponized” his protest by driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one young woman and injuring many others. As the protesters crowed on their various websites in the days after these events, they got just what they came for, above all, attention to their cause. For the most extreme of those protesters, the deaths of three people (including two Virginia state policemen, in a helicopter crash) were not even regrettable.
Charlottesville’s immediate tragedy is magnified by its place in the larger national and international crisis of liberal democracy. That tragedy reminds us that democracy requires something more than procedures and rules. It requires shared commitments deeper than merely partisan ones, including fundamental respect for one’s fellow citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, or creed. There are many good and different arguments for how and why we have lost those shared commitments, the reasons as well as the sentiments that bind us. It is time to consider all of those arguments with humility and open-mindedness.