How liberal democracy outshines other systems of government | Interview with Dr. Francis Fukuyama

We met with Stanford University political scientist Dr. Frank Fukuyama to discuss liberal democracy, populism, Marxism, voting, and much more.

How liberal democracy outshines other systems of government | Interview with Dr. Francis Fukuyama
"I think in an established democracy like the United States or many European countries, people take democracy for granted, and they can complain about it and dislike various aspects of it because they really haven’t had the direct experience of living under a nasty dictatorship."” – Dr. Francis Fukuyama

Leading political science expert Dr. Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama discusses the superiority of liberal democracy over alternative systems, especially Marxism/communism. He also shares how culture can determine economic direction, why voting is a check on populism, and how political institutions grow and evolve over time, with Afghanistan and Iraq as case studies. Director of Stanford University’s Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy; Mosbacher Director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law; and a senior fellow for the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Dr. Fukuyama talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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Interview with Political Scientist Dr. Francis Fukuyama

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:24Starting out

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Professor Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University. And today we have a wonderful guest coming to us from Stanford University, Professor Frank Fukuyama, who is one of the most influential political scientists in the world, and so we’re really honored to have you here today with us. Tell us a little bit about how you got into the career that you are now in.

Francis Fukuyama: I [chuckle] was an undergraduate at Cornell back in the [chuckle] Middle Ages, in the 1970s, and I was actually a classics major. I started out with a very humanistic education. I wanted to learn Greek and Latin so that I could read Plato and Aristotle in the original, which I actually succeeded in doing. But then I decided that I really needed a more practical career and I made a switch. I actually spent a year in Paris, studying with some of the post-modernist people, like Jacques Derrida and Roland Burke, but I decided that that really wasn’t for me. And so I made the switch into political science, and I went to the opposite end where I wanted to do things that were very practical and policy-oriented. And so that’s where I ended up.

And my first job actually was not in academia at all. I worked for the State Department and then for the... In the Policy Planning Staff, and then for a think tank in Santa Monica called the RAND Corporation.

Jed: Yes, I’ve heard of that. So how did you make the switch from the more sort of theoretical and humanistic fields that you started at at Cornell into more practical, policy-oriented things. What made you...

Francis: Some of it is not that [chuckle] hard to explain. I think, especially beginning in the 1970s, it just became very, very difficult to get a job being a classics professor or in comparative literature or English or any of those fields. I don’t regret actually having gotten that kind of education, but it wasn’t really a plausible career. And in the time since then, it’s become less plausible. It’s just very hard to get a job in humanities as an academic these days. So that was one consideration. But the other thing was that we were towards the end of the Cold War, and it did seem to me that there were really large issues that the country was facing and things that really required sustained attention. And so that was another motive.

03:03Switching to Political Science and the career path it led to

Jed: Yeah, well, I could see that those motives were really driving you. Was it difficult to switch fields? You strike me as somebody who has a lot of brain power. So were you able to just throw yourself into a new field and rise up to the top of it, or did it take a lot of work? And what kind of advice would you give to somebody who might be switching from one major to a different major?

"But the main advice I would give is just don’t specialize and don’t get to pre-career too early because I think a lot of times you don’t know yourself and you don’t know the field."” – Dr. Francis Fukuyama

Francis: Well, for me, I don’t think it was that difficult. At that time, I think departments were a bit less competitive than they are now, and so you came in with fewer prerequisites, but that also gave you more latitude to learn things. I think these days there are, for example, a lot of expectations that people enter graduate school with a lot of quantitative skills and that sort of thing, and that wasn’t really the case when I got started. But the main advice I would give is just don’t specialize and don’t get to pre-career too early because I think a lot of times you don’t know yourself and you don’t know the field. And when you’re younger, I think it pays to try to sample and range a bit more broadly. You’ll have plenty of time to specialize when you get older.

Jed: Yes, well, and that’s actually true for a lot of the people that we’ve interviewed. I mentioned that we interviewed Alina Mungiu-Pippidi . And she said that she was actually headed into being a medical doctor and a psychiatrist before she finally got to become the political scientist that she always wanted to become. So it does seem that it’s possible to get a broad education and that that has served people like yourself and like Alina very well down the road to have that broad background. So that’s really encouraging.

Now, what has allowed you to become successful? Once you made the switch into political science and you worked for places like RAND, what was your career path after that?

Francis: Well, it was a kind of unique one that I think would be pretty hard for anyone to replicate. I had been working at RAND through most of the 1980s. I was a specialist on the former Soviet Union, the foreign policy of the former Soviet Union. And as things began to change under Gorbachev in the late 1980s, I was paying a lot of attention to that, and I happened to write an article for a small journal entitled The End of History with a question mark. Now, the end of history actually refers to the philosopher Hegel and to Carl Marx, both of whom thought that history was directional and that it pointed towards a certain end. And so I wrote up this article not expecting anyone to read it, and instead it became a kind of international... [chuckle]

Sensation and was talked about nonstop. It came out in the summer of 1989, a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And having anticipated that, I then got a contract to write a book, which became a book called The End of History and the Last Man that was published in 1991. And at that point, I was freed from any kind of conventional career track. So if you become an academic these days, you start out as an assistant professor. You have to scramble for the next five years in order to get tenure. That’s a very high hurdles, I’m sure you’re aware, to cross.

Jed: Yes, I had to go through that.

Francis: And I actually didn’t have to go through any of that because I had been working in a think tank for the first 10 years of my life, and then after the publication of the book, I was offered... Well, I wrote another book called Trust. And at that point I was offered a job with a chair and tenure that came with it, so I didn’t have to make that struggle as an assistant professor. But it’s something I actually would not recommend for anyone, any young academic to try to replicate because it actually is [chuckle] very dangerous to move in that kind of a direction because the likelihood is... I was just lucky in the time that I published that article and the book. It was right at the end of the Cold War. No one can guarantee that kind of luck in the future. And in the meantime, you won’t get tenure if you wanna become an academic.

Jed: So you’re recommending people who are assistant professors not to try to write the next book about The End of History and the Last Man because the chance of that getting the kind of recognition your book got is pretty low. Everything has to be timed just perfectly. So doing the normal assistant professor things of publishing in journals and getting grants and all that stuff, that’s what you would recommend.

Francis: Yeah, yeah. For better or worse.

Jed: Since a lot of our listeners are undergraduates or even high school students, would you recommend that they think about a career in a think tank like you did in RAND, or is that a good thing?

Francis: Well, it’s an alternative use of a PhD. Usually getting a PhD is a ticket to becoming an academic and teaching in a college or university, but there are a lot of people that don’t want to go that route. Maybe they don’t like teaching. They really like research, and think tanks are one alternative or there are research institutes. The RAND Corporation is actually funded by the federal government as part of the Air Force and Army and Pentagon defense budgets. It also does healthcare and education and domestic policy research. But there are a number of other places like that that employ people with PhDs, like Sandia or Los Alamos, that are funded by the Energy Department that were really created as nuclear weapons labs but now do the research on a whole range of things, or Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley, Fermilabs, and so forth. And so these are actually... We don’t think of a lot of those as think tanks, but in effect they are.

Jed: Yeah, no, that’s great.

Now, do you like teaching? And have you had to do that since... Was your first position in academia at Stanford, and you’ve just stayed there or...

Francis: No, no. My first position was at George Mason University in what’s now their School of Public Policy. And then I went on to Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. And yeah, I taught in all of those places. I teach at Stanford. I like teaching. I actually learn a lot from my students, and I wouldn’t give it up.

10:10A books influence

Jed: So did your book influence people on both sides of the Iron Curtain? We think about Alina. She was a Romanian who was fighting for freedom, for democracy, and she attributes you as somebody who influenced her a lot. Do you think that the book had equal influence in both sectors? Or how would you say it was seen?

"I think in an established democracy like the United States or many European countries, people take democracy for granted, and they can complain about it and dislike various aspects of it because they really haven’t had the direct experience of living under a nasty dictatorship."” – Dr. Francis Fukuyama

Francis: Yeah. In a way, it had more influence in former communist countries because I was speaking the language. Karl Marx believed in the end of history, but he thought the end of history would be communism. And I was saying it looked like it was gonna be liberal democracy instead. And that corresponded, I think, with the hopes of a lot of people in that generation, that they would come out of communist dictatorship and live in free societies. And so that’s one of the reasons that that article had a great deal of resonance.

I think in an established democracy like the United States or many European countries, people take democracy for granted, and they can complain about it and dislike various aspects of it because they really haven’t had the direct experience of living under a nasty dictatorship. But that wasn’t the situation in Eastern Europe in 1989.

11:29After the block of communism fell

Jed: No, no. Alina was talking about Ceausescu, and the difficulties of getting... I didn’t realize it took six years. I was alive back then and even I was even spending time in the former Soviet Union, but I just forgot. I guess I just had forgotten how long it took to get rid of some of those regimes.

Now, you made a big impact in sort of understanding the former Soviet Union, but what have you done since then? [chuckle] What has your scholarship looked like after the end of that block of communism fell?

Francis: Well, again, this is something unique that I was able to do because the first book that I published, but my publisher came to me, The End of History and the Last Man had become a best seller and was published in 25 different languages, and so he said, "Well, what would you like to write about?" And normally, as an academic, you don’t have that luxury because you have to stick within the narrow confines of the sub-discipline that you’ve attached yourself to, but I was in this great situation where I could write about anything I wanted to. And the second book, Trust, was actually based on my interest in how culture affected economic growth and activity, I mean why some countries seem particularly good at making automobiles or semi-conductors and others weren’t. So that led to that book. And then at that point, I found that I could kind of write anything I wanted. And so there are a number of issues that had come up, like biotechnology, the genome was sequenced for the first time in 2001, and so that...

Jed: Absolutely, yeah.

Francis: Or 2000, around that time, and it led me to write a book called Our Posthuman Future thinking through the social and political consequences of genetic engineering and the whole biomedical revolution.

"…we all take it for granted that when you open up the faucet, water will come out, or you plug in your recharger for your iPhone and there’ll be electricity, and in those societies you couldn’t take that for granted."” – Dr. Francis Fukuyama

And I would say that in the last 10 or 15 years, my single focus has really been on what’s called political development, which is really about how political institutions originate and develop over time, evolve, and this was really stimulated by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq because American foreign policy suddenly found itself in a position of trying to create almost out-of-nothing state mechanisms in both of those countries, so the state had collapsed in both Afghanistan and Iraq after the invasion, and they didn’t have running water and they didn’t have basic order, and it turned out that people really didn’t understand where those institutions came from because we all take it for granted that when you open up the faucet, water will come out, or you plug in your recharger for your iPhone and there’ll be electricity, and in those societies you couldn’t take that for granted. So that led to a series of books.

I think the most important were these two books on political order, so one was called The Origins of Political Order, and the second was called Political Order and Political Decay, which is all about where do the basic institutions of the state, the rule of law, and democracy come from, and how did they evolve, and how did they get to where they are at the present, and that’s really been my focus really for the last few years.

Jed: Now, was it because of what you saw happening in Afghanistan and Iraq of their states crumbling and nobody there to understand how to build them back, or was it the aggressiveness of the United States to even do the invasions that got you interested in it? So was it the crumbling...

Francis: It wasn’t. Those books don’t focus on foreign policy.

Jed: Okay.

Francis: Those countries became a huge foreign policy problem for the United States because we were the occupying power and we had to rebuild their institutions, so the intellectual challenge was, how do you do that? How do you actually create a treasury or a health system when it doesn’t exist? But my interest was really not in American foreign policy, as much as in the more generic issue of, where do these institutions come from and how are they... My conclusion at the end of all of this was that foreigners are very seldom the ones that have the ability to create them, they really have to be created by the societies themselves.

In recent years with the rise of populism around the world, I’ve gotten more interested in the decay of modern political systems rather than their origins, because I think that’s what we are experiencing in many democracies around the world, which is a much less optimistic take on global politics, but I think that’s where we are.

16:41The modern system of democracy

Jed: Yes, now, this seems to be a theme of a lot of the political scientists that we’ve interviewed so far, that there’s a decay in the modern system of democracy. And can you speak a little bit more about where you see that happening? You mentioned populist movements, obvious ones being here in the United States, and also with Brexit in the United Kingdom, we just got off an interview with Kristian Skrede Gleditsch at the University of Essex, and he was saying along the same lines what you were saying... So tell us a little bit more about that.

Francis: Well, there’s a couple of sources of threats. So the first is that you now have these pretty strong consolidated authoritarian regimes, primarily China, but also Russia, that offer alternative models to the liberal democracy that we see in Europe and North America. But the more troubling development is populism, where you have an elected leader who claims to represent the people against all of the corrupt elites that have been running the country up until that point, and the real challenge there is much to democracy than to the liberal institutions. By liberal, I don’t mean it in the American sense of left of center, I mean it in this classical sense of the rule of law, constitutional provisions like separation of powers, like independent courts, an independent media, all of which are critical in a liberal democracy to protect citizens against abuses by the state because they limit the state’s power. And I think what we’ve seen in one populous country after another is the populist leader trying to undermine the independence of the courts to delegitimize the media, to basically weaken any institution that stands in the way of what he or she wants to do, and I think that’s really central challenge in Hungary and Poland and the Philippines and India, but also here in the United States.

18:49What would you recommend?

Jed: So let’s end our interview with that, what would you recommend for the United States and some of these other countries that are dealing with the threat of populous leaders who are trying to undermine the checks and balances of that country? What would you say?

"I would say the single thing you do is vote, [chuckle] because if you still have a functioning democracy, there is still one important check on this kind of power, which is an electoral check."” – Dr. Francis Fukuyama

Francis: [chuckle] That’s a really easy question to answer. I would say the single thing you do is vote, [chuckle] because if you still have a functioning democracy, there is still one important check on this kind of power, which is an electoral check. And one of the sad truths is that young people tend not to vote. They’re busy with their educations or their careers or whatever, and they don’t pay attention to public affairs, but I think it’s important that they do that and that they get out and take the trouble to make the proper choice and to vote, and I think that’s really, ultimately the solution to this problem.

Jed: And you don’t think that there are leaders in some countries that are so charismatic and the people that they represent are so disgruntled by what’s been currently done, that even if every single person in the country cast a ballot, those populist leaders would still be elected, you don’t think that happens?

Francis: You have to talk about specific countries, but I do think that in the United States, if everyone voted, we wouldn’t have populism, and I think that that’s probably true in a lot of other places, because populous may get up to 30, 40% of the electorate, but they almost never have a real majority. And so the problem is more apathy on the part of the non-populous where they just don’t care, they can’t be bothered to do their duty and vote, and that’s I think what allows the populous to succeed.

20:44Sign off

Jed: Well, that is a sobering reminder, especially in this election season, that we really need to take the time to become educated, but just to get out there and vote, because if everybody voted, we wouldn’t have the same problems that you’re describing.

Francis: Right.

Jed: Well, thank you so much Professor Fukuyama for the wonderful time you’ve taken with us, we really appreciate it.

Francis: Okay, thanks very much.