Will Liberal Democracy Survive the 21st Century? (Two experts don’t sound very optimistic)

Francis Fukuyama didn’t pronounce “the end” of Liberal Democracy last week at Stanford, but he identified its modern nemesis: Populist Nationalism (which he wrote about last year). It was one of those talks with a high percent of a-ha-moments-per minute, so I decided to share takeaways.

Speaking with former Estonian President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Dr. Fukuyama said that Populist Nationalism arises when a popular leader comes to power through a democratic process and uses that power to dismantle institutions. Ironically, one of the only things that survives this deconstruction is the “democracy” part (people still elect their leaders), while the rule of law, impartial bureaucracy, and other checks and balances are hobbled. He pointed to Erdoğan in Turkey, Zeman in the Czech Republic — and yes, the U.S. president even got a brief mention.


The three causes of Populist Nationalism, according to Fukuyama, are:

  1. Economic Anxiety — The now-familiar combination of globalization, outsourcing, automation, and tech displacement.
  2. Political Decay — Declining effectiveness of institutions, exacerbated by the “veto-ocracy” of interest groups that can block government action and lead to paralysis. (It was not lost on anyone that the conversation took place less than two weeks after the U.S. govenrment shut down for failure to reach agreement on a spending bill.)
  3. Identity Politics — A feeling that one’s self, one’s history is not being respected or validated, a loss of pride. Fukuyama noted a change in language, beginning with the left but now also on the right, from a focus on economic arguments to a greater emphasis on identity. “In many ways, questions of identity — language, ethnicity, religion, and historical tradition — have come to displace economic class as the defining characteristic of contemporary politics,” he wrote last year.

“Which brings us to the internet…,” Fukuyama said, “the internet is great for identity because it allows people to self-segment into smaller and smaller groups of people like them.” Unfortunately, he cautioned, “democracy requires a national identity; a ‘We the People.’”


President Ilves noted that the internet also makes it possible for these vulnerabilities that lead to Populist Nationalism to be exploited by external bad actors.

He should know.

Estonia was Ground Zero for the first cyber war in 2007, a three-week attack from Russia, complete with fake news reports and denial-of-service attacks. Estonia now protects itself from cyber attacks with its own voluntary Cyber Defense Unit, a network of volunteers with relevant experience who sign up for trainings and to be ready when called.

Ilves ticked through the list of the most recent revelations (many from the past week) of social media manipulation from outside forces:

  • New York Times’ “Follower Factory” report, exposing the massive market for creating and selling fake social media identities
  • The “fraudulent use of American identities” for comments submitted to the FCC during the public comment period for net neutrality regulations
  • Twitter notifying 1.4 million people that they engaged with or followed accounts now known to be Russian propaganda bots during the 2016 election cycle
  • Facebook revealing that 126 million people in the U.S. were exposed to posts produced by Russian government-backed agents, including the promotion of 129 events displayed to 300,000 people which, in some cases actually led to Americans taking to the streets

These examples of cyber manipulation, most perpetrated by Russian-affiliated actors, are designed to exploit the very vulnerabilities in democratic societies that Fukuyama identifies. In our interconnected age, democracy itself makes democracies vulnerable. “The vast openness and anonymity of social media has cleared a dangerous new route for antidemocratic forces,” wrote Massimo Calabresi in May 2017. Quoting Rand Waltzman of the Rand Corporation: “Using these technologies, it is possible to undermine democratic government, and it’s becoming easier every day.”


As the western world experiences democratic recession (diagnosed by Professor Larry Diamond so long ago) while awakening to scale and scope of international cyberthreats, autocratic regimes have more tools than ever to monitor and control their population.

Former President Ilves pointed to the dystopian potential of China’s Social Credit “Trust Score” for each of its 1.3 billion people, which will combine data about political leanings, purchase history and social interactions to “nudge” citizens towards certain behaviors. Described by Mara Hvistendahl recently in Wired, a higher score could mean “favorable terms on loans and apartment rentals, as well as showcasing on several dating apps,” even streamlined visa processing for foreign travel. Those who find themselves on the “List of Dishonest People” may have limited options — unable to purchase first class travel tickets or certain consumer goods, stay at luxury hotels, or access large bank loans. What’s more, a person’s score could be adversely impacted by mere association with someone with a low Social Credit score.

At the same time, behind China’s “Great Firewall” a censored internet economy is booming, seemingly protected and far removed from fears of external meddling. In fact, Russia wants its own Great Firewall an they are not the only ones buying into the Chinese model of “internet sovereignty.”

Well beyond its own borders, China is undertaking the world’s biggest building project — a “new Silk Road,” the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative is “considered the biggest foreign spending program by any one country since the U.S.’ Marshall Plan to rebuild post-World War II Europe.”

President Ilves pointed out the stark contrast that this booming Chinese example presents to wider international community, compared to the sputtering dysfunction of liberal democracies at the moment. “When a country without a tradition of liberal democracy looks to the outside world for examples to emulate, the autocratic systems appear to be working.”

Yes, democracy is messy, as former President Obama told Silicon Valley CEOs, and it’s the worst form of government except for all others that have been tried, as Winston Churchill assured us. But what if the world and even increasing numbers of citizens in these democratic countries begin to lose patience with the messiness? President Ilves pointed to a recent article that descibed declining faith in democratic systems by younger generations.

Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The crisis of democratic legitimacy extends across a much wider set of indicators than previously appreciated. — Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, The Democratic Disconnect

I wish I could report that the discussion turned then from diagnosis to a treatment regimen, but the organizer called time. As these things go, the audience lobbed a few “not-so-much-a-question-as-a-comments” and things wrapped up. Will Liberal Democracy survive the 21st Century? At least for Ilves and Fukuyama, one got the feeling they weren’t too optimistic (though I assume all the answers can be found in forthcoming publications).

I stepped up to the stage briefly and caught President Ilves in time to ask just one thing, really just an attempt to leave something short of completely depressed.

“President Ilves, despite all that was said, do you have a vision of a tech-enabled, functioning, modern system that respects its people?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said emphatically, nodding his head.

Encouraged, I kept going, “and would it include a data-driven, transparent, evidence-based policy approach?”

“Yes. Yes it would,” said Ilves.

“But…” I continued, “the U.S. is not investing in that.”

“No it is not,” Ilves replied.

“Is Estonia?” I asked. (I knew the answer already)

“Yes it is,” he said — and smiled.


It reminded me a lot of a conversation I had the week before with a water expert, someone who helps design systems to provide people around the world with access to clean water.

“If you had infinite resources and politics was not an issue,” I asked, “is there a combination of technology and policies that could give everyone on the earth access to clean water?”

She laughed (and rolled her eyes), “oh, it’s not even a question of technology,” she exclaimed. “We have the technology. And there is plenty of water.” The problem, she said, was the siloed and politically driven way we fund and manage these projects. With a huge sigh, she looked me directly in the eyes and said, “yes, it is totally possible.”


Will Liberal Democracy survive the 21st Century? I believe it’s totally possible.


Thinking a lot about how we govern in the 21st Century and will be sharing thoughts (and hopefully some guest posts) at G21C. Please follow and join the conversation in the comments.

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