In This Review
Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy

By Francis Fukuyama

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 672 pp.

"After enlightenment, the laundry”—so goes an old Zen proverb. Even after grasping truth and universal knowledge, one must still do the chores and confront the drudgery of everyday life. In many ways, that is Fukuyama’s message in this second volume of his masterful study of political development. Fukuyama became famous at the end of the Cold War after writing “The End of History?” In that essay (later expanded into a book), he asserted that the grand ideological questions about modernity and political order had been settled; as monarchy, fascism, and communism fell away, liberal democracy stood alone as a legitimate and successful system of government. Liberal democracies were far from perfect and continued to struggle with inequality, injustice, and poor performance. But these were primarily problems of “incomplete implementation”; unlike its vanquished rivals, liberal democracy was not plagued with inherently defective or self-contradictory principles. 

In this book, 25 years later, Fukuyama announces quite clearly that implementation is not going well. Fukuyama builds on the ideas of his mentor, the political scientist Samuel Huntington, who argued that democratic governance, a healthy market economy, and social advancement all hinge on capable, impersonal, and incorrupt state institutions. Surveying the history of political development from the French Revolution to today, Fukuyama affirms and extends Huntington’s view. Around the world, political development has followed different paths, as states have found various ways to combine the three key components of political order: state institutions, democratic accountability, and the rule of law. Fukuyama pays the most attention to the United States, which represented the vanguard of political development throughout the twentieth century but is now beset by “political decay,” as Washington is losing its ability to govern and act in the public interest. Fukuyama wonders whether the forces of accountability and renewal will come to the rescue, as they have in past democratic crises, or whether liberal democracies are discovering that their guiding philosophy also suffers from flaws and internal contradictions.

It is impossible to read this book and not come away thinking it just might be time to reopen the debate about ideology and the direction of history. At the very least, there is a lot of laundry to do.