The Future of History: Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?

By Francis Fukuyama
Foreign Affairs, January/February 2012

Something strange is going on in the world today. The global financial crisis that began in 2008 and the ongoing crisis of the euro are both products of the model of lightly regulated financial capitalism that emerged over the past three decades. Yet despite widespread anger at Wall Street bailouts, there has been no great upsurge of left-wing American populism in response. It is conceivable that the Occupy Wall Street movement will gain traction, but the most dynamic recent populist movement to date has been the right-wing Tea Party, whose main target is the regulatory state that seeks to protect ordinary people from financial speculators. Something similar is true in Europe as well, where the left is anemic and right-wing populist parties are on the move.

The Absent Left

One of the most puzzling features of the world in the aftermath of the financial crisis is that so far, populism has taken primarily a right-wing form, not a left-wing one.

In the United States, for example, although the Tea Party is anti-elitist in its rhetoric, its members vote for conservative politicians who serve the interests of precisely those financiers and corporate elites they claim to despise. There are many explanations for this phenomenon. They include a deeply embedded belief in equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome and the fact that cultural issues, such as abortion and gun rights, crosscut economic ones.

But the deeper reason a broad-based populist left has failed to materialize is an intellectual one. It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo economic change and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society.

The main trends in left-wing thought in the last two generations have been, frankly, disastrous as either conceptual frameworks or tools for mobilization. Marxism died many years ago, and the few old believers still around are ready for nursing homes. The academic left replaced it with postmodernism, multiculturalism, feminism, critical theory, and a host of other fragmented intellectual trends that are more cultural than economic in focus. Postmodernism begins with a denial of the possibility of any master narrative of history or society, undercutting its own authority as a voice for the majority of citizens who feel betrayed by their elites. Multiculturalism validates the victimhood of virtually every out-group. It is impossible to generate a mass progressive movement on the basis of such a motley coalition: most of the working- and lower-middle-class citizens victimized by the system are culturally conservative and would be embarrassed to be seen in the presence of allies like this.


Elites in all societies use their superior access to the political system to protect their interests, absent a countervailing democratic mobilization to rectify the situation. American elites are no exception to the rule.

That mobilization will not happen, however, as long as the middle classes of the developed world remain enthralled by the narrative of the past generation: that their interests will be best served by ever-freer markets and smaller states. The alternative narrative is out there, waiting to be born.

(Francis Fukuyama is a Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.)

In this essay, Francis Fukuyama describes the historical background of the middle class, bringing us to the troublesome present in which the stability of the middle class is in question. He suggests that we need a new political and economic ideology that “could provide a realistic path toward a world with healthy middle-class societies and robust democracies.”

The views of Fukuyama are not without controversy. Indeed, he has changed his own views over time (e.g, his views on neoconservatism and the Iraq invasion). Nevertheless, his writings are quite provocative and are helpful in broadening conceptualizations of societal problems and their potential solutions.

It is difficult to provide enough content in a few excerpts to provoke gainful contemplation on how we should approach the middle-class crisis – a crisis which is important to understand if we ever hope to ensure health care justice for all. For that reason, the entire article should be downloaded, savored and shared. Although Foreign Affairs charges $2.95 for the article (link above), this one is worth giving up today’s latte.

When you read it, consider what you already know in disciplines such as economics, political science, and sociology, but do not be bound by them in your contemplation. We have to get beyond simplistic, rigid analyses such as boxing solutions into either a government approach or a private market approach. That type of thinking has resulted in our polarized political gridlock that has prevented us from moving forward with health care reform that would best serve not only the middle class, but everyone.

Think in the broadest terms about what new political and economic ideology might lead us in the right direction. According to Fukuyama, “The alternative narrative is out there, waiting to be born.”

Fukuyama is famous for proposing that liberal democracy represents “The End of History” but not the end of events. Let’s see if we can create the events that would make our democracy work for the betterment of us all, by contemplating “The Future of History” and then acting on our thoughts.