Francis Fukuyama

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The “tapp my phones” charge Trump leveled against President Obama on Match 4 in an angry tweet seemed bizarre at first but so initially did the neophyte politician’s defense of the nation’s tyrannical adversary Vladimir Putin during the campaign. The two strange episodes are likely deeply intertwined.

The support of Putin appears now to have been compensation for Russia hacking the election, and not because of some supposed lurid recording of a Moscow pee party. The current wiretapping tale Trump is spinning might just be spasms of his usual ugly ego or it may be an effort to preempt what’s coming next, with the Administration having probably already been informed about the existence of FBI tapes that could prove deeply damaging or even take down the whole operation. Were illicit activities coordinated between Trump Tower and the Kremlin? Was Russian money illegally funneled into the campaign? It’s not clear yet, but the behavior of the new President and his cohort makes these questions worth asking. Something major could be on the horizon.

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In a Politico piece, Francis Fukuyama crows a bit about a prediction he offered in January, when he argued that our checks and balances would thwart this aspiring autocrat. He argues that so far his forecast has proven true, using the failed Obamacare repeal as his prime example. 

His larger contention may ultimately stand as correct, but wasn’t the AHCA debacle less the work of our democracy’s efficacy than of Republican dysfunction and White House ineptitude? The writer acknowledges as much, but goes on to assert that gerrymandering, a political system guided by outside money and Freedom Caucus members fearing Tea Party fury turned out to be blessings (before pointing out is in his final paragraph how unhealthy this situation). The Oval Office’s inability to torpedo the ACA is really more the result of odd and unhappy circumstances, of sickness rather than health. And a potential despot who didn’t possess the attention span of a small child would have had a strong shot to make this bill of goods stick.

If we look at Trump’s attempts to undermine the press and neutralize other levers of the government, the legislative branch has been a great disappointment in regards to checking his power, with Congress working to obstruct investigations into the deeply shady behavior of the Administration during the campaign and since. The judicial branch has been reliable and the media mostly so, but the House has been pretty much complicit in the Presidential power grab and kleptocracy, even if it’s too much of a mess to get out of its own way on the policy it has long prioritized. 

Fukuyama is probably right that Trump will fail to bend the system to his will, but it’s worth wondering what a hyper-competent version of him could accomplish. 

The opening:

Back in January, I argued in these pages that whatever President Donald Trump’s proclivities toward being a strongman ruler, the American system of checks and balances in the end had a good chance of containing him. Friday’s failure of the Republican attempt to repeal Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act underscores how difficult our political system makes any kind of decisive political action. During Obama’s presidency, House Republicans voted some 60 times to repeal parts or the whole of the ACA, and Trump himself pledged that he would replace it with “something wonderful” on Day One of his administration. And yet it appears the ACA will continue to be, as House Speaker Paul Ryan admitted, “the law of the land.” This happened despite the fact that we no longer have divided government, with the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency.

The fundamental reason for the failure of the American Health Care Act lies, of course, in the internal divisions within the Republican Party. The bill was extremely unpopular from the beginning due to the fact it would have potentially resulted in 24 million fewer Americans having health insurance, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Democrats, though a minority, were therefore uniformly opposed to repeal, meaning that the Republicans could afford only 26 defections for the legislation to fail. The hard-line Freedom Caucus in the end could not be badgered or threatened to accept “Obamacare Lite,” coming, as many of them do, from safe, gerrymandered districts. 

This is where the mounting number of institutional checks within the American system came into play. Had this vote been held 75 years ago, the powerful committee chairmen in the House, together with the Republican Party leadership, could have corralled these renegades through a combination of bribes or threats. Today, such tools do not exist: Earmarks have been eliminated along with the powers of the committee chairs, and there is too much money from groups outside the control of the party hierarchy. The Freedom Caucus holdouts were much more frightened of a Tea Party challenge in the primaries than they were of either Paul Ryan or Donald Trump.•



Here are 25 pieces of journalism from this year, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me.

  • Exodus” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A brilliant longform piece that lifts off with Elon Musk’s mission to Mars and veers in deep and mysterious directions.
  • Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) Nobody speaks truth to race in America quite like Coates, and the outrage of Ferguson was the impetus for this spot-on piece about the deeply institutionalized prejudice of government, national and local, in the U.S.
  • The Golden Age of Journalism?” (Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch) The landscape has never been more brutal for news nor more promising. The author luxuriates in the richness destabilization has wrought.
  • Amazon Must Be Stopped” (Franklin Foer, The New Republic) Before things went completely haywire at the company, Foer returned some sanity to the publication in the post-Peretz period. This lucid article argues that Amazon isn’t becoming a monopoly but already qualifies as one.
  • America in Decay” (Francis Fukuyama, Foreign Affairs) Strong argument that the U.S. public sector is so dysfunctional because of a betrayal of meritocracy in favor of special interests and lobbyists. The writer’s idea of what constitutes a merit-based system seems flawed, but he offers many powerful ideas.
  • What’s the Matter With Russia?” (Keith Gessen, Foreign Affairs) An insightful meditation about Putin’s people, who opt to to live in a fairy tale despite knowing such a thing can never have a happy ending.
  • The Dying Russians(Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books) Analysis of Russia’s high mortality rate suggests that the root cause is not alcohol, guns or politics, but simply hopelessness.  
  • Soak the Rich” (David Graeber, Thomas Piketty) Great in-depth exchange between two thinkers who believe capitalism has run amok, but only one of whom thinks it’s run its course.
  • The First Smile(Michael Graziano, Aeon) The Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor attempts to explain why facial expressions appear to be natural and universal.
  • The Creepy New Wave of the Internet” (Sue Halpern, New York Review of Books) The author meditates on the Internet of Things, which may make the world much better and much worse, quantifying us like never before.
  • Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming” (Stephen Hsu, Nautilus) A brisk walk through the process of genetic modification, which would lead to heretofore unknown brain power.
  • All Dressed Up For Mars and Nowhere to Go” (Elmo Keep, Matter) A sprawling look at the seeming futility of the MarsOne project ultimately gets at a more profound pointlessness–pursuing escape in a dying universe.
  • The Myth of AI” (Jaron Lanier, Edge) Among other things, this entry draws a neat comparison between the religionist’s End of Days and the technologist’s Singularity, the Four Horseman supposedly arriving in driverless cars.
  • The Disruption Machine” (Jill Lepore, The New Yorker) The “D” word, its chief promulgator, Clayton M. Christensen, and its circuitous narratives, receive some disruption of their own.
  • The Longevity Gap(Linda Marsa, Aeon) A severely dystopian thought experiment: Will the parallels of widening income disparity and innovations in medicine lead to two very different lifespans for the haves and have-nots?
  • The Genetics Epidemic” (Jamie F. Metzl, Foreign Affairs) Genetic modification studied from an uncommon angle, that of national-security concerns.
  • My Captivity(Theo Padnos, The New York Times Magazine) A harrowing autobiographical account of an American journalist’s hostage ordeal in the belly of the beast in Syria.
  • We Are a Camera” (Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker) In a time of cheap, ubiquitous cameras, the image, merely an imitation, is ascendant, and any event unrecorded seemingly has less currency. The writer examines the strangeness of life in the GoPro flow.
  • A Goddamn Death Dedication” (Alex Pappademas, Grantland) A knowing postmortem about Casey Kasem, America’s deejay when the world was hi-fi but before it became sci-fi.
  • In Conversation: Chris Rock” (Frank Rich, New York) The exchange about “black progress” is an example of what comedy does at its best: It points out an obvious truth that so many have missed.
  • The Mammoth Cometh” (Nathaniel Rich, The New York Times Magazine) A piece which points out that de-extinct animals won’t be exactly like their forebears, nor will augmented humans of the future be just like us. It’s progress, probably.
  • Hello, My Name Is Stephen Glass, and I’m Sorry(Hanna Rosin, The New Republic) Before the implosion of the publication, the writer wondered what it would mean to forgive her former coworker, an inveterate fabulist and liar, and what it would mean if she could not forgive.
  • Gilbert Gottfried: New York Punk” (Jay Ruttenberg, The Lowbrow Reader) Written by the only person on the list whom I know personally, but no cronyism is necessary for the inclusion of this excellent analysis of the polarizing comic, who’s likely more comfortable when at his most alienating.

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At the Financial Times, David Runciman has an article about Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama’s follow-up to 2012’s The Origins of Political Order. The political scientist thinks America made sequential mistakes, establishing democracy ahead of a strong central government, and is paying for these and other sins. Few would argue the country isn’t currently in a political quagmire, but I think historical sequence may not be the most important factor. America by design is a disparate nation, an experiment in multitudes, and there will always by divisions. We ebb and flow, but the flows are pretty spectacular. And while the writer is correct to assert that too much of America’s power has fallen under the control of too few, you could say the same of the late 19th century, and that was remedied for a long spell. A passage about Fukuyama’s prescription for proper political order:

“Fukuyama’s analysis provides a neat checklist for assessing the political health of the world’s rising powers. India, for instance, thanks to its colonial history, has the rule of law (albeit bureaucratic and inefficient) and democratic accountability (albeit chaotic and cumbersome) but the authority of its central state is relatively weak (something Narendra Modi is trying to change). Two out of three isn’t bad, but it’s far from being a done deal. China, by contrast, thanks to its own history as an imperial power, has a strong central state (dating back thousands of years) but relatively weak legal and democratic accountability. Its score is more like one and a half out of three, though it has the advantage that the sequence is the right way round were it to choose to democratise. Fukuyama doesn’t say if it will or it won’t – the present signs are not encouraging – but the possibility remains open.

The really interesting case study, however, is the US. America’s success over the past 200 years bucks the trend of Fukuyama’s story because the sequence was wrong: the country was a democracy long before it had a central state with any real authority. It took a civil war to change that, plus decades of hard-fought reform. Among the heroes of Fukuyama’s book are the late-19th and early-20th-century American progressives who dragged the US into the modern age by giving it a workable bureaucracy, tax system and federal infrastructure. On this account, Teddy Roosevelt is as much the father of his nation as Washington or Lincoln.

But even this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Just as it can take a major shock to achieve political order, so in the absence of shocks a well-ordered political society can get stuck. That is what has happened to the US. In the long peace since the end of the second world war (and the shorter but deeper peace since the end of the cold war), American society has drifted back towards a condition of relative ungovernability. Its historic faults have come back to haunt it. American politics is what Fukuyama calls a system of ‘courts and parties’: legal and democratic redress are valued more than administrative competence. Without some external trigger to reinvigorate state power (war with China?), partisanship and legalistic wrangling will continue to corrode it. Meanwhile, the US is also suffering the curse of all stable societies: capture by elites. Fukuyama’s ugly word for this is ‘repatrimonialisation.’ It means that small groups and networks – families, corporations, select universities – use their inside knowledge of how power works to work it to their own advantage. It might sound like social science jargon, but it’s all too real: if the next presidential election is Clinton v Bush again we’ll see it happening right before our eyes.”


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From an American Interest interview with Libertarian thinker Peter Thiel (who was also profiled by George Packer in the New Yorker last year):

Francis Fukuyama: I’d like to begin by asking you about a point you made about there being certain liberal and conservative blind spots about America. What did you mean by that?

Peter Thiel: On the surface, one of the debates we have is that people on the Left, especially the Occupy Wall Street movement, focus on income and wealth inequality issues—the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. It’s evident that both forms of inequality have escalated at a very high rate. Probably from 1973 to today, they have gone up faster than they did in the 19th century. The rapid rise in inequality has been an issue that the Right has not been willing to engage. It tends either to say it’s not true or that it doesn’t matter. That’s a very strange blind spot. Obviously if you extrapolate an exponential function it can go a lot further. We’re now at an extreme comparable to 1913 or 1928; on a worldwide basis we’ve probably surpassed the 1913 highs and are closer to 1789 levels.

In the history of the modern world, inequality has only been ended through communist revolution, war or deflationary economic collapse. It’s a disturbing question which of these three is going to happen today, or if there’s a fourth way out. On the Right, the Tea Party argument has been about government corruption—not ethical violations necessarily, but inefficiency, that government can’t do anything right and wastes money. I believe that is true, and that this problem has gotten dramatically worse. There are ways that the government is working far less well than it used to. Just outside my office is the Golden Gate Bridge. It was built under FDR’s Administration in the 1930s in about three and a half years. They’re currently building an access highway on one of the tunnels that feeds into the bridge, and it will take at least six years to complete.” (Thanks Browser.)

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