The scholar Francis Fukuyama has been widely ridiculed for the title of his 1992 book, “The End of History.” Critics point out that we’ve had — suffered — a lot of history since then: the 9/11 attacks, prolonged wars in the Middle East, a worldwide financial crisis and deep recession.
But Fukuyama’s point wasn’t that all conflict would cease. His argument was that the Western model of democratic governance and market-based capitalism had emerged as the only intellectually serious model of a good society. Other models have persisted — China’s centralized control, Russia’s petrostate, Islamic jihad — but don’t have appeal beyond the places where they are imposed by force.
That remains a strong argument. But as one looks at this nation and around the world, one has to say that democratic governance has not been operating optimally and market capitalism seems to be going through a protracted rough patch.
Exhibit A for Americans is of course the 2016 presidential race, in which both major parties managed to nominate candidates with majority negative ratings. Our presidential nominating system is the weakest part of our political system and, even after major reform and minor tinkering, there seems to be no entirely satisfactory way to structure it.
For two centuries, God or good luck provided Americans with brilliant leaders in times of crisis. It’s beginning to look like our luck has run out or that God is on vacation.
In the meantime voters have been lined up like two roughly equal-sized armies in a culture war, with demographics giving Democrats the edge in presidential elections and Republicans the edge in congressional contests. As a result, needed policy changes require skillful negotiations between leaders, at which Bill Clinton excelled and George W. Bush was better than is remembered.
Barack Obama plainly has neither the inclination nor the skill to do this kind of thing. It’s not clear that Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump do, either.
Beyond the United States, democratically chosen leaders have been making glaring blunders. Angela Merkel’s decision to let 1 million Muslim refugees into Germany (the proportionate equivalent in the U.S. would be 4 million) has led to terrorist violence and widespread sexual assault. But she heads a two-major-party coalition, which provides no avenue for justified protest to prevail. Meanwhile, Islamist terrorists have struck multiple times in France and other parts of Europe.
In June, 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the European Union, against the wishes of two-thirds of members of Parliament and David Cameron, who was obliged to resign as prime minister. Betting markets and hedge fund managers were sure the vote would go the other way. But British voters, watching the terrorist wave in Europe and the fiasco of the euro, decided they would rather be governed by Parliament in London than EU bureaucrats in Brussels.
Brazil, the world’s third-largest democracy and the host of the Olympics, has an interim president while its senate decides whether to remove his impeached predecessor. This comes as dedicated judges have been unraveling the scandal of billions of dollars in bribes paid by wealthy business executives to ruling party politicians.
The common thread in all these examples is the dysfunction of political, economic, media and academic elites. They persist in the belief that they understand what is best for ordinary people better than those people do themselves. In their persistence one sees complacency about actual results. Ordinary voters seem to be responding as Queen Elizabeth II reportedly did when, just after the 2008 financial meltdown, she asked a group of experts, “How come nobody could foresee it?”
One answer is that success breeds failure. As the economic journalist Robert Samuelson has argued, the apparent success of 1960s Keynesian pump-priming led to the 1970s stagflation, and the apparent success of 1980s and 1990s central bankers led to the 2007-2008 crash.
Another is that elites remain preoccupied with problems that have long been solved. Angela Merkel, raised in East Germany, naturally abhors walls. But the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, 27 years ago. Eurocrats believe the EU prevents another war between France and Germany. The last one ended in 1945, 71 years ago.
In historic perspective, today’s advanced countries enjoy unprecedented levels of freedom and prosperity. The complaints of today’s voters would seem picayune to ordinary people in the 19th century. Fukuyama’s insight was fundamentally well-founded.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not something to voters’ basic message to elites: You need to do a better job.