The Year of Fukuyama
American Triumphalism and "Normie Theories of Democracy"
Bashing Fukuyama is the pastime of midwits. In the Twitter version of events, he’s understood to be the guy who said nothing will ever happen again, and then things in the news happen, and so he’s always being proved wrong. People who actually read and understood The End of History and the Last Man know that the argument wasn’t that there would be no more wars or genocides, but that there would be no serious alternative to liberal democracy. Thus, while the “war on terror” might’ve killed a few people and gotten us to indefinitely take our shoes off before flying, there was never a realistic possibility that Muslim fundamentalism could either seriously threaten the most advanced societies of the world or provide an alternative to their governing model in any but some of the most backward areas of the globe.
The rise of China was always something completely different. Here is a country of 1.4 billion people that appeared to be in the process of surpassing the US economically, and doing it without anything resembling democratic institutions or a free press. It’s done this while becoming a world leader in science and technology, and with extremely low rates of crime, drug use, and illegitimacy. The Taliban or ISIS was never going to tempt other nations to follow its lead. But in recent years, smart analysts have made a serious case for the “China Model,” which emphasizes technocratic skill and political meritocracy over voting and a mobilized citizenry. Those who take human capital seriously, like Garett Jones, might point out that China still has the poorest Chinese people in the world, so we can’t really give that much credit to the CCP. Nonetheless, most people don’t take human capital seriously, and so Chinese success could always be seen as resulting from unusually wise policy choices.
Unlike with China, no one ever thought Russia was going to surpass the US and become the world’s dominant economy. Nonetheless, before 2022, it wasn’t crazy to believe that it could experience decent economic growth, and become a mid-tier European power, maybe comparable in economic might and cultural influence to Germany or France. Russian fertility and life expectancy had already substantially recovered from the worst days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and one couldn’t rule out the possibility that things would continue to get better. This argument could have a particular appeal to conservatives, who believe that nationalism, religion, and traditional morality make for more successful societies. Again, contemporary Russia was nobody’s ideal civilization, but there had been a sense that it could perhaps do well enough to give those who’ve been driven crazy by LGBTQ something to hold on to as an alternative. I’ve argued that liberal hostility to Russia reflects our domestic culture war, but a more mild Russophilia on the other side clearly has similar roots.
Although we have three months left, I think that regardless of what else happens 2022 will be notable for being the year that both of these threats to liberal democracy collapsed. And the fact that they collapsed in such different ways indicates that there is something extremely robust in Western societies that will allow them to dominate the world for the foreseeable future.
Neurotic Autism and the Death of the China Model
As of 2020, the fact that the US and Europe were enduring lockdowns while Beijing had stamped out the coronavirus, despite its origins in Wuhan, seemed to make the case for the Chinese model. In September of that year – a month and a half before we knew we would soon have a working vaccine – the New York Times reported that, in contrast to the United States and Europe, life in China was going back to normal. The article was accompanied by photos of unmasked Chinese enjoying themselves at a beer festival, a concert, and on the beach. Yet over time, the creation of vaccines and the emergence of more contagious variants made Zero Covid an insane policy choice. While people talk about the Chinese vaccines being inferior to the Western versions, they’re good enough at protecting against serious illness or death to allow life to return back to normal under any reasonable cost-benefit analysis.
Nonetheless, Xi Jinping has doubled down. Major cities in China have spent more days in lockdown in 2022 than they did in 2021. Due to it shutting down its most economically productive regions for long periods of time, the World Bank now forecasts that China will grow at 2.8 percent in 2022, falling behind the rest of Asia for the first time since 1990. To be fair, the country did see relatively good growth in 2020 and 2021 when the rest of the world took coronavirus seriously. But although there’s still time for Beijing to move away from Zero Covid and resume its previous trajectory, the fact that the policy has lasted this long indicates that there is something deeply pathological about the Chinese system. Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea seem to have also moved towards permanent masking, indicating that what is happening across East Asia has deep cultural roots, but the Chinese system has been the one that has most allowed underlying neuroticism to run wild. Before 2020 we could already criticize the Chinese government for its treatment of the Uighurs, but history shows that harsh measures against minority groups can be consistent with high levels of technological progress, international influence, and economic growth. Maintaining Zero Covid into 2023 is not.
There are mistakes political systems make that are understandable, could have been made by anyone, and have no wider relevance, and others that teach a broader lesson. I don’t pretend to know what is ultimately motivating Chinese leaders. Perhaps they are extremely neurotic about risk and want to save every life they can, or they will always choose maintaining control and sticking to vanity projects over freedom and economic progress. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for the future prospects of the country.
The end of history thesis was always as much about perception as reality. It wasn’t simply a matter of liberal democracies having the most robust economies and most stable governments, but that this view of their strengths was widely shared. Last year, Peter Thiel called China a “weirdly autistic country,” arguing that it is “profoundly uncharismatic, and I think that’s a very big limitation they have.” Yet autism is an extremely masculine trait, and can be appealing if it is combined with confidence and competence. One could have imagined a Chinese propaganda campaign aimed at the outside world that said “no, we don’t have Hollywood or Lizzo, but we’re doing amazing things in high-speed rail and quantum computing.” But an autist who is also a hypochondriac and won’t leave his house because he’s afraid of getting the sniffles doesn’t appeal to anyone. I used to think that China could be the kind of autist that builds SpaceX. Instead, it’s the kind that is afraid to look strangers in the eye and stays up all night playing with his train collection.
China is now a country where a citizen in a major city can go to an Ikea, hear an announcement on a loudspeaker that someone in the store has tested for covid, and have to run to the exit to avoid being locked in his house for days. Or a baby can be swabbed 70 times in her first year of life. There is something extremely depressing about a society that would do this to itself, and a people that would allow this to happen.
Vivian Wang reports in the New York Times on the horror of life in China now.
The signs of a looming lockdown in Shenzhen, China, had been building for a while. The city had been logging a few coronavirus infections for days. Daily Covid tests were required to go pretty much anywhere. Individual buildings had been sealed off.
So when a hotel employee woke me up a little after 7 a.m. to explain that we were not allowed to step outside for four days, my initial disorientation quickly turned to resignation.
Of course this happened. I live in China.
As the rest of the world sheds more restrictions by the day, China’s rules are becoming more entrenched, along with the patterns of pandemic life under a government insistent on eliminating cases. People schedule lunch breaks around completing mandatory tests. They restructure commutes to minimize the number of health checkpoints along the way….
The most obviously jarring aspects, for me, were technological. China under “zero Covid” is a web of digital codes. At the entrance to every public space — restaurants, apartment complexes, even public restrooms — is a printed-out QR code that people must scan with their phones to log their visit. Everyone also has a personal health code, which uses test results and location history to assign a color. Green is good. Yellow or red, and you may be sent to quarantine.
The entire piece must be read to be believed. New forms of technology have developed around the Zero Covid project, including book sterilizing machines for libraries and individual air condition units to keep workers cool in their hazmat suits.
In addition to covid hysteria, Chinese rhetoric and policy have become more hostile to free markets. Billionaires can disappear from public view if they displease the government. Entire industries can be destroyed by government fiat overnight. In individual cases this might arguably be justified, as when the state tries to clamp down on wasteful tutoring services that prey on the irrational fears of parents and exacerbate zero-sum education competition. But the crackdown on tech has been much broader, going after service providers that unquestionably create value, like food delivery, and which the government must rely on to make its covid policies work. The state appears to have a general animus towards the market forces that have helped China succeed over the last four decades based on some sense that they are unmanly, bad for government control, and get in the way of serving the state.
Noah Smith last year noticed the crackdown on business and asked whether perhaps Xi simply isn’t very competent. But it may be simply a matter of him not caring all that much about economic growth. If you assume his priorities are maintaining control over a passive citizenry, he looks like a genius. While that might mean that the Chinese system is stable, it is looking less likely that it will dominate the world or provide a model for others. If anything, it will make a better case for democracy and the protection of civil liberties than any Western country.
The End of the Great White Christian Hope
The nature of the Russian challenge to liberal democracy was different. Putin in his speech announcing the annexation of four regions of Ukraine stressed the idea that “they see our thought and our philosophy as a direct threat,” before talking about how Russia rejects a world of “parent number one, parent number two and parent number three.” Anatoly Karlin argues that the nationalist turn in Russia has been a legitimate change in the ideology of the state, not simply superficial propaganda aimed at domestic or foreign audiences. If you think national identity is healthy and society should encourage traditional gender roles and ideas about sexuality, you might have been optimistic about what Putin was building. Sure, you weren’t moving to Russia any time soon, but perhaps there eventually could be enough evidence to convince you that it was on the right trajectory.
The invasion of Ukraine has destroyed any prospect of that happening. This is not simply because it morally discredits the regime, but because the way the war has gone reveals the state to be fundamentally incompetent and lacking in appeal even to Russians themselves that live outside its borders. Most serious analysts and intelligence agencies thought that Ukraine would be crushed in the run-up to the invasion. That did not happen, and Russia has been forced to double-down on a strategy that will, in the best case scenario, leave it with more land and people but economically crushed and internationally isolated. It is losing influence and prestige even in the central Asian countries that the US either can’t reach or doesn’t care enough about to try and reform according to its own ideals. As the West cuts it off from advanced technology and Europe finds alternative sources of energy, Russia is certain to remain a poor, backward country indefinitely into the future, regardless of whether it adds a few million more pensioners in the Donbas.
It’s easy to mock Ukraine as a “current thing.” But we shouldn’t trivialize the strength of the Western reaction to the Russian invasion. This isn’t like the rise of zhe/zir pronouns or some new DEI initiative. Western leaders, with the support of both public and elite opinion, came together and formed a united front against an instance of international aggression, and helped a nation practically everyone thought would collapse or become a satellite of its neighbor maintain its independence. These societies did all this while having to make massive economic sacrifices, with countries in Europe wondering whether they will even have enough energy to heat their homes in the winter.
If Russia was going to be a credible conservative alternative to the West, one would expect it to at least have been able to win over other Eastern European countries that have clashed with the US and its Western European allies over topics such as abortion, immigration, and gay rights. Yet, with the exception of Hungary, nations of the former Communist bloc are if anything the most hostile to Russia. Even in the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, support for the occupation has been lukewarm at best, as pro-war Russian writers and analysts have had to admit. Following their social media accounts, I see practically no signs of mass enthusiasm among almost anyone in Eastern Ukraine for the idea of being absorbed into Russia.
As a result, the US is growing more emboldened on the issue of Taiwan. Biden has broken with his predecessors by making it clear on several occasions that the US will defend the island against China. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently advanced the Taiwan Policy Act, which would provide more military aid to that government, support its inclusion in international organizations, and mandate sanctions on China in the case of war. The US foreign policy establishment may be overlearning from what has happened in Ukraine, but China has shown itself so risk averse in the midst of covid and how it has responded to US policy towards Taiwan so far that I doubt we’ll find out any time soon whether it can undertake a successful conquest of the island. The argument that it was a matter of time before China swallowed Taiwan looks less plausible now in the face of the united Western response to Ukraine and increasing American support to Taiwan, and the fact that Chinese growth can no longer be taken for granted.
Normie Theories of Democracy and American Triumphalism
I’ve always had a visceral dislike of what I call “normie theories of democracy.” We are told that democracy works because it provides checks and balances, allows for the peaceful transfer of power, and the correction of mistakes. It takes account of public opinion and gives citizens a say in how they are governed, thus creating some level of social peace.
I used to scoff at these theories. They seemed to be the product of social desirability bias. How convenient that intellectuals who believe in democracy find that it is the best system humans have ever designed. The fact that the definition of “democracy” often comes down to “whatever the establishment left happens to believe today,” along with the utter silliness of modern methods of measuring democracy, added to my skepticism.
Nonetheless, I have to admit that normie theories of democracy have had a good year. If you look at Chinese and Russian failures in 2022, they appear on the surface to be very different. Russia was too risk-acceptant, and intoxicated with masculine dreams of conquest. China has been too risk-averse, and shown itself to be too neurotic to be able to respond to threats in a measured way. But at a deeper level, both involve a governing elite that is willing and able to drag a public towards making massive sacrifices for a fundamentally irrational goal. Yes, I know that most Russians tell pollsters they support the war in Ukraine, but given the reality of the “rally ‘round the flag effect,” that support seems extremely tepid by historical standards, and appears to be decreasing. And while surveys in China indicate support for Zero Covid, polling indicates that Westerners are also extremely hysterical safetyists, yet they don’t behave or vote that way, which is why we have been able to largely move on. Lending further support to normie theories of democracy is a recent paper using satellite light data to convincingly show that dictatorships systematically overestimate their levels of economic growth. I would’ve assumed that the incentives to lie were pretty similar across different forms of government, but this finding appears extremely robust.
This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to create a great power dictatorship that combines social stability, economic growth, and the ability to inspire others to accept, or least respect, its model of societal organization. I think if you cloned Lee Kuan Yew and put him in charge of modern Russia or China, you would see great successes. But critics of democracy have to keep bringing up Lee Kuan Yew because there have been so few like him. Despite history providing us with hundreds of dictators to learn from over the last few centuries, it says something that those partial to monarchy or technocratic authoritarianism are forced to keep talking about a man who was in effect the mayor of a city-state. Deng Xiaoping helped China emerge from the madness of the Mao era and begin decades of economic growth, but as a pro-natalist I can’t endorse the man responsible for the one-child policy. Chinese efforts to deal with supposed overpopulation was another case – like nationalism and covid safetysim – of a dictatorship taking what was simply a flawed idea with limited power in a democracy and putting the entire machinery of the state behind it.
Tyler Cowen says that when he hears people being pessimistic about the future of the United States, he likes to ask “are you long the market or short the market?” They never short the market. Far from revealing how fragile our system is, the events of January 6 showed how little even a president who wanted to stay in office can do to overthrow the system. Fukuyama himself has gotten caught up in a wider hysteria, I think making the common mistake of confusing his aesthetic revulsion towards Trumpism and populism more generally with something that will end democracy. On the right, there is a similar exaggeration of the ultimate impacts of wokeness, which, while annoying and ugly, is not the end of civilization. It may increase the crime rate, make women more neurotic, and slow economic growth, but it is a tax that we can afford to pay as long as we still have a stable government and a functioning market economy.
Far from always teetering on the edge of collapse, which is the impression one gets from reading our intellectuals, modern America might have the most stable political and economic system the world has seen since the Industrial Revolution. Political violence is so non-existent that to find a threat to the system the media needs to obsess over Gavin McInnes and his friends punching each other while naming breakfast cereals. There are few major philosophical disagreements between the two parties. While Democrats may be in favor of allowing “gender affirming care” for minors and Republicans might oppose it, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell wouldn’t dare misgender a trans adult. Both parties accept capitalism as the way to organize the economy, while being at peace with the major pillars of the American welfare state such as social security and Medicare. They have become all but indistinguishable on foreign policy. While Republicans wish Democrats would be “tougher on the border,” they accept demographic change and simply wish it would go a bit slower. And yes, both sides accept democracy as the only legitimate basis of government, even if they disagree about exact voting procedures. Those who think they’re going to fundamentally change the parties and expand the scope of what is politically possible – whether socialists on the left or nationalists on the right – will only have effects on the margins. The parties are where they are due to an equilibrium resulting from public opinion, modern communications technology, and the fragmented nature of our political system.
None of this is to say that American society doesn’t change and develop. But it generally changes and develops in ways that have little to do with our most prominent political struggles. I am amused by the fact that major newspapers are writing stories about emotional debates regarding which books should be available in schools and public libraries as if we’re still living in the nineteenth century and that matters. Meanwhile, kids carry around phones through which they have instantaneous access to an unlimited stream of every kind of pornography imaginable. Anxiety about demographic change makes half the country obsessively focus on the Southern border, but white children are already a minority, and legal immigration flows alone ensure that they will be a shrinking one in the coming decades. Renewed enthusiasm for labor unions is running into the hard realities of the gig economy and the fact that businesses have the freedom to just close locations that aren’t profitable.
I anticipate that in many ways American society will be all but unrecognizable after a few decades. But the major pillars of our economic and political system won’t change. We’ll still have elections, the peaceful transfer of power, the House and Senate, a 9-member Supreme Court that acts as the final interpreter of the laws, a global empire with bases in over a hundred countries abroad, millionaires and billionaires who carry a disproportionate share of the tax burden, social security and Medicare, growing racial diversity, increasing class stratification based on IQ differences and assortative mating, no major secession movements, and virtually zero political violence. People without the capabilities to succeed in a modern society will continue to have problems, and they will find demagogues claiming to speak for them on either the left or right depending on the color of their skin, although technology and culture will ultimately matter more for them than politics. The higher classes will embrace embryo selection and perhaps genetic engineering, leaving the bottom of society further behind than before, even if in absolute terms things get better for almost everyone. Policy decisions made in Washington will matter to a certain extent, but the most important among them won’t have much to do with what we consider hot-button political issues.
As for the rest of the world, they will continue to become more like us. There really isn’t any other option.
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