With authoritarian regimes resurgent in many parts of the world, the triumph of liberal democracy is not inevitable.
In 1989, as the Cold War entered the bottom of the ninth inning, political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a memorable essay entitled “The End of History?” And despite the question mark in the article’s title, the argument resolved itself in a straightforward answer: “Yes.” It was a nifty bit of Hegelian reasoning, filtered through the thinking of a Russian-born Frenchman named Alexandre Kojève, and it fit the temper of the times perfectly: communism was collapsing; the great debates of the past two centuries were being resolved in the victory of market-based economies and democracy over state-based economies and authoritarianism; “history,” understood in grand philosophical terms, was over; and while things were likely to be more peaceful, they were also likely to be more boring.
In a Wall Street Journal article two months ago, my friend Fukuyama revisited his 1989 essay and began with the obvious: “The year 2014 feels very different from 1989.” Indeed. Authoritarianism is resurgent in Russia and China. Radical Islam is roiling world politics along a band of political conflict and anti-Christian persecution running from the west coast of Senegal to the eastern edge of Indonesia. Various socialist experiments are trying a comeback in Latin America. But Fukuyama stuck to his analytic guns, arguing that, while he’s learned a lot more about political development than he knew a quarter-century ago, and while different peoples are going to get there at different times, democracy and the free economy would still characterize the “end of history.”
When Frank Fukuyama’s original essay appeared, I wrote that “history” would continue because “history” was more than politics and economics. History was also literature and art, religious conviction and moral passion: history was driven by culture, an idea I learned from Pope St. John Paul II. Pondering the difficulties some countries have had since 1989 in securing post-communist or post-authoritarian transitions to democracy and the free economy, I’m inclined to sharpen that point farther, as I tried to do in a June lecture at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington:
“History continues because the great challenge within history is not the creation of the machinery of democracy and the free economy; difficult as those tasks may be in some circumstances, the even greater challenge is to nurture the public moral culture, embodied in the institutions of civil society, that ennobles political and economic freedom and prevents the machinery of democracy and the free economy from freezing up—or worse, from corrupting the very men and women, the citizenry, on whom the future of freedom ultimately depends.”
From the perspective of Catholic social doctrine, democratic self-governance is not inevitable, it’s only possible; and its possibility can never be taken for granted. Even established democracies can decay, to the point where what Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism”—the use of coercive state power to impose regimes of lifestyle libertinism in the name of tolerance, while marginalizing those who object in the name of classic moral truths—becomes a real and disturbing possibility. That possibility is well advanced in parts of Europe. It cannot be ruled out in the United States.
It takes a certain critical mass of citizens, living certain habits of mind and heart, to make democracy and the free economy work properly. The formation of those habits is an essential task of the free associations of civil society, and the Church plays a critical role in shaping the moral understandings that animate those free associations. “History” continues because the task of forming the virtuous citizens that make freedom work never ends.
George Weigelis Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.