The Ties That Used to Bind
The Decay of American Political Institutions

We have a problem, but we can’t see it clearly because our focus too often discounts history.

Appeared in: Volume 9, Number 3 | Published on: December 8, 2013

Francis Fukuyama is Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute of Stanford University. This essay is based on material from Political Order and Political Decay, forthcoming in September 2014 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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  • TheCynical1

    Yes, liberty has a price, and it’s costly.

    Yes, many costs noted here should be avoided if we can help it. But many other frustrating costs, otherwise known as checks and balances, are the nature of the beast. Isn’t it better to let all of the philosopher kings wage their all-out wars against one another, instead of you and me.

    Ironically, a truly free society can never be a utopia; on many controversial issues of the day, a minority of the people would always be free to do things opposed by a thwarted and angry majority.

    The fallibility and non-perfectibility of humans, so nicely illustrated in this article, makes the case for a limited, divided (and noisy and inefficient) constitutional republic.

  • Anthony

    So we have a problem….

    As politics is the realm productive of public policy (as well as governmental structure) the troubles of the essay trace trace back inevitably to politics in America 2013. Here we fine (if one may infer from essay) polarized officeholders influenced by lobbyists, elites, the organized, etc while entangled in dysfunctional constitutional structure. Alas, the Democratic system (in America) comes full circle and presents a parody of itself on the governmental level.

    Yet while institutional inadequacy (what Fukuyama calls decay) is involved, it is by no means the whole story; the collective as essay terms it appears in no rush to change the “operative system” encased in formalistic checks and balances (more ought to be said about complicity of electorate’s inability to gauge and properly utilize the system offered sans Tudor like beginnings).

  • graywolf

    If America has a “weak” central bureaucracy, I’d hate to live in a country with a strong one.
    “Freedom” is a much different word in America than in Europe.

    • Anthony

      Francis Fukuyama’s essay is much more than comparing central bureaucracies among Democracies (in this instance Europe).

  • ljgude

    As an American who has lived half his life in a Parliamentary democracy (Australia) i was quite put off by the proposal that American bureaucracy needs more power. Yikes. But in Australia my experience of bureaucracy has been that it is altogether much better run and efficient. I never thought of it as the Australian bureaucracy having more power, but yes that is true. When the government makes a decision to do something it moves quickly into the implementation stage through the bureaucracy. Despite my native distrust of bureaucracy, my experience of American bureaucracy, and Congress, is much as described. While I still think that limitations on government power are necessary I can also see there is something terribly wrong in Washington and recognize many of the problems such as interest group influence on Congress as a major part of our problem. A perfect example of the problems that Francis Fukuyama is pointing to here is America’s recent attempt to reform – remember that word REFORM – Healthcare. Through my Australian eyes I am accustomed to a public health system that covers everybody, backed up by an optional private health system that covers treatment in private hospitals with choice of doctor. When I look at the ACA what I see is that it does not reform the American Public health – Medicare and the system of public hospitals that must treat the destitute regardless. It is just a rearrangement of the private insurance system to increase the number of people covered by private insurance. I know that the public part of US medicine is not well regulated and that overall our health costs in US on a per capita basis are double those in Australia and other OECD countries. No one seriously proposed reforming the already existing public medicine in the US – according to the article Bitter Pill by Steven Brill US healthcare industry spends more than the defense industry lobbying congress. What appears to have happened is that Congress and the administration reformed the wrong end of the Healthcare system and so far all they have accomplished is to seriously disrupt the private healthcare industry annoying a significant portion of the populace. The most pathetic tell is that the ACA itself admits defeat on cost control by capping healthcare spending to 17.5% by 2017. The second most expensive Healthcare system in the world is Switzerland at 11% of GDP. It is an insurance based system rather than the public-private hybrid found in most OECD countries. So I still don’t like the idea of more powerful bureaucracies, but I know I do want more effective government. I know it is possible from my everyday experience of little things like the Post Office or the DMV, and big things like access to medicine or my age pension.

  • Jim__L

    If a politician’s policy is to rob Peter to pay Paul, and then he has a face-to-face / heart-to-heart with Peter, afterwards he and Peter will set aside their differences and agree to rob Paul.

    (Allow Paul to have an opinion and the result will be gridlock, which apparently we’re now calling “vetocracy”.)

    The reason the Middle of the Road hasn’t been found yet is not the lack of power on the part of politicians, is it the fact that between any two people there is a different Middle. Heck, there can be more than one Middle even between the same two people — Is the “middle of the road” a mix of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism like libertarianism? Or is it a mix of social conservatism and fiscal liberalism like compassionate conservatism?

    “Compromise” used to mean Tip O’Neill gets his social spending and Reagan gets his defense spending, and taxes can stay low because no one likes taxes much. Now that at least some of us have come to our senses and realized that out-of-control debt could actually destroy the country, Compromise has gotten a bit scarce. (Although today they’re toying with the prospect of re-establishing “compromise” by selling the Pax Americana down the river. Wow. What could possibly go wrong?)

    Fukuyama dismisses without adequate discussion the idea that “public policy” covers far too many subjects with far too much power already. Also dismissed without a word is the idea that organizations that require actual civic engagement are superior to organizations that only require financial contribution (or simply checking the “right” box on a ballot.) Totally ignored is the concept that maybe if people got to keep more of their own money instead of paying it in taxes, they could direct it to causes they were actually happy with, and instead of those causes vetoing each other they would make progress according to their base of support. Maybe he’ll share his thoughts about all those topics in his forthcoming book.

    I’m also more than a little concerned about his admiration for what he calls the “modern state”, which most of us would better recognize by the cognomen of “nanny state” — organized according to what used to be called the “Fuehrerprinzip”, in less fashionable times.

  • brandonrg

    “The first is that, relative to other liberal democracies, the judiciary and the legislature (including the roles played by the two major political parties) continue to play outsized roles in American government at the expense of Executive Branch bureaucracies. Americans’ traditional distrust of government thus leads to judicial solutions for administrative problems. Over time this has become a very expensive and inefficient way to manage administrative requirements.”

    I’m struggling with this claim on the legislature part. We have a Presidential system. Just about everybody else has a parliamentary system. Doesn’t the parliamentary system give much more direct control over the executive than our system does?

  • keithofrpi

    Although I greatly admire Prof. Fukuyama, I find this essay unconvincing for three reasons. First, I must wonder at his unfavorable comparison between the US system and that of European countries. Are we so much worse off than Italy, Greece, Portugal, France, and the UK? Are we similar enough to Germany to compare? Second, were not the factors that he points to predominant at earlier periods? While lobbying the federal gov’t has increased remarkably, it has always been part of our political culture. And so have the courts. Moreover, our administrative agencies are not generally inherently weak. Third, what about such more recent developments as globalization, the automation of menial work, and changes in the ideals of Americans? I think they have an important bearing. For instance, many of the positions taken by the likes of Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, and more extreme tea party goers contradict the concerns and ideals of the US Constitution and of our civic heritage. Their selfish meanness of spirit seems to be gaining hold here. Doesn’t that matter as much as the factors Fukuyama singles out?

  • intempore

    Of course there is no silver bullet account of why democratic institutions are failing – the reason they in decline is because their existence is premised on silver bullet solutions. It’s an irony. Accept there are no final answers and institutional efficacy gets called into question. To gain traction, government must therefore promise the impossible, while making out there aren’t.

    The consuming disappointment and frustration directed at institutional decline is merely a convoluted front for intellectual and moral complacency, a way of avoiding the adult conversation. Shouldn’t government, as it were, fail us? Are not institutional limits confirmation the personal element is an indispensible factor in the management of human affairs? Wouldn’t it be more disconcerting if agents of the state actually possessed definitive solutions?

    The dysfunction, the manifestation of “too much” democracy, is a not-so-subtle attempt at transmitting the subtle message: it’s time for Western civilisation to let go its institutions and practice what it said it was always about: trust in the individual.

  • “The third is that under conditions of ideological polarization in a federal governance structure, the American system of checks and balances, originally designed to prevent the emergence of too strong an executive authority, has become a vetocracy. The decision system has become too porous—too democratic—for its own good, giving too many actors the means to stifle adjustments in public policy.”

    Gee, that must be why Bush couldn’t drag us into Iraq, impose NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND, push ‘ownership society’–universal housing for freeloaders–, and vastly expand medicare. And that must be why Obama couldn’t ‘bail out’ the Wall Street banksters to the tune of trillions. That must be why Obama couldn’t force Obamacare on all of us.
    And that must be why US refuses to send billions each year to Israel with the full support of both parties and refuses to steer US foreign policy to serve ‘what is good for the Jews.’

    Uh… all those things happened? Really? When? Surely not in a nation paralyzed by ‘too much democracy’.

  • Bernecky

    Francis Fukuyama: “One of the reasons that the American public sector has been so hard to reform is the resistance of public sector unions.”

    How can those who are the citizens of a democracy and responsible for The Union create other unions without engaging in sedition? Those who’d try would append “public sector” to their movement, to make it not only palatable but deserving of respect. The damned thing was superfluous to begin with; it flaunts an ability to waste resources; nothing alters the fact that the damned thing’s seditious.

    These people already have jobs–jobs that set them apart from, because they opted to be representatives of, those who have less. This is sufficient distinguishment. If it isn’t, they’re free to leave and to allow those without jobs to take their places.

    Here’s all that you would’ve heard from me if I hadn’t had to fight Fukuyama for the mic:

    When the first conservative was seeking permission to leave the world of the working stiff (because he wished to establish a realm for the self-employed), the first thing he promised to take with him was the cost of doing business. –Why else would the first liberal have agreed to carry that guy’s load for so long as one minute.

  • Doug Doakes

    Fukuyama ignores the changing demographic of government bureaucracy. It is increasingly the caliber of former ACORN incompetents.

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      Citation required.

  • Markangelo

    The duplicity happened ages ago.
    The powerful set up a sham representative government
    realizing it would be easy to manipulate
    because 70% of the populace does not vote.
    A benevolent monarchy works better.

  • stevesailer

    Dr. Fukuyama repeatedly emphasizes, with good reason, the importance of the civil service reform of 1883 and the subsequent rise of “civil service examinations.” After all, civil service examinations are a backbone of the kind of efficient, effective, and strong government that Dr. Fukuyama prefers.

    Strikingly, he doesn’t seem to be aware that the Carter Administration junked the federal civil service examination in January 1981 in the Luevano lawsuit on the grounds that it had disparate impact on Hispanics and blacks. The Administration promised a new civil service examination on which non-Asian minorities wouldn’t score lower, but it’s been 32 years and not one has been developed.

    Thus, according to the FAQ on

    “Civil Service Exam — There is no longer a single civil service exam to cover all government jobs. In addition, many jobs with the federal government no longer require written tests.”

    I bring this example up to suggest that 21st Century America has more fundamental problems besetting governance than just those mentioned by Dr. F.

  • David Wilson

    I thought that this was an excellent article by Mr Fukuyama. When I contrast US politics with that of the UK (where I spent the first fifty years of my life) the biggest single difference is the power of the political parties. Forty years ago, Prime Minister Harold Wilson, troubled by left-wing rebels among his own MPs, threatened to remove their “dog licences” – in other words, to strip them of their party label – making it virtually impossible for them to be re-elected. In the European sense of the term, there simply are no “Party Leaders” in the US, and I believe that this is the cause of much of the anarchy (for both good and ill) which is seen here.

  • stevesailer
  • Jeff Painter

    Weak legislatures and powerful bureaucracies don’t eliminate the problem
    of narrow interest groups controlling decision-making. Among the
    liberal democracies, the most powerful bureaucracy and the weakest
    elected government may be found in Japan – where policies favoring
    special interests (banks, farmers, mechanics, and many more) have
    severely weakened the economic health of the mass of people.

  • PaulDavisTheFirst

    I find it suprising that Fukuyama would spend time noting the “exceptional” use of the legislature in the US. The countries that he compares the US to do not have a written constitution that establishes a republic in the same way. Crucially, the basic concept of marking certain decisions, policies and so forth “off limits” to any majoritarian process is a relatively unique one within the set of liberal democracies. It is therefore not suprising that when groups within the US feel that they have had their rights infringed by majoritarian policies, they would turn to the courts and not the branches of government that have sanctioned or created those policies.

  • jonmonroe

    Francis Fukuyama reminds me of Jeffrey Sachs. Both are theoreticians who lack the theoreticians discretion about meddling with the real and established, the complex and political. Both also have an unfortunate habit of being right only when admitting they were wrong. Sachs destroyed the political and economic commencements of the regimes of the former Soviet Union, Fukuyama initiated the End of History nonsense that animated the pretensions of the ignoramuses of the right wing. Apparently, he does not realize that historicizing the institutions of a country has an unfortunate side effect of opening them to political play — we are already headed down that road. we do not need a push. We need brakes.
    There are not enough hours in the day to lecture Mr. Fukuyama about the importance of not applying simplistic measures of efficiency to political institutions whose very job is to provide arenas for productive inefficiency. Perhaps he has not found time to learn that the purpose of checks and balances is not to create efficient, “good” government, as the Chinese occasionally remind us that they have and we do not. Perhaps the excessive detail and mundanity of ordinary political solutions and incremental reform bore him to tears. Like many bloated egotists, he needs to make his mark and make it big.
    Mr. Fukuyama is not to be studied or lectured to. Both are wastes of time. He is to be ignored.

  • William Keith

    A possible swift act that could remedy part of the problems Prof. Fukuyama describes is for Congress to restrain itself from broadly dispensing standing in future legislation, and (though this would be more problematic) restrict standing for claims arising under previous laws. Careful and clear delineation of intended, focused groups that would have standing would be a wise habit to cultivate, it would seem.

  • Peripatetic

    I look forward to reading Fukuyama’s book. Hopefully the book will address the following.

    1) At many points, Fukuyama compares the efficiency of the American state to other European and Asian states. My question: since America has a much larger population and geography, why wouldn’t we expect America to face collective action problems that are worse *in kind* than those facing smaller, less-diverse countries?

    2) Suppose America had an ideal democracy, a highly efficient state with little interest-group interference, and a limited judiciary. Now suppose the majority regularly split its vote 50-50 between two major parties. Wouldn’t we expect a split of majority opinion to massively gum up the works of an ideal democracy since the Sovereign power itself was split? Wouldn’t we expect legislative bodies in which just a few people could tip the balance between the two major groups and thus exert disproportionate influence? In short, why isn’t the best explanation for our institutional “decline” that the American population refuses to give one party complete and decisive control?

    3) Fukuyama criticizes those who, worrying about the growth of the state, respond to this growth by
    expanding court enforced regulations. He thinks that both Progressives and Libertarians are actually increasing government inefficiencies because they turn to the courts for their solution. But why doesn’t Fukuyama explore theories that respond to the growth of the state by claiming that this
    growth is unconstitutional, not just that the growth needs to be better regulated?

    4) Fukuyama offers two arguments against “pluralism”: (i) only interests powerful enough to create lobbying organizations have a voice, and (ii) such pluralism ends deliberation because it reduces politicians to mere transmission belts of narrow interests. But (i) will be a problem in any large democracy (indeed, it was already a problem in ancient Athenian democracy), and (ii) ignores the fact that politicians can only exert national influence by creating *coalitions* among many interests…and this requires lots of discussion and deliberation.

    • Matt

      1) While the homogeneity of a country often makes it more governable because its politics are less polarized, the size of the country shouldn’t impact collective action issues. Collective action issues result from groups/societies as small as 50 or 100 – as long as everyone acting in their self interests has negative ramifications for the group as a whole you have collective action problems.

      2) Well, your premise regarding a 50/50 split is a little off. First, a government should still be able to function, even if the population is evenly divided – that is what elections are for. Second, by every objective measure in the last election, Americans overwhelming preferred Democrats to dictate national policy. Obama was easily reelected with 51% of the popular vote (compared to 47% for Romney), and even in the House, where the Republicans have a majority of seats (54% to be exact), they lost the overall popular vote rather easily (over a million votes), and by even more if you control for uncontested races. Herein lies perhaps the greatest flaw in our electoral system – national preferences aren’t reflected in the lawmaking bodies that are supposed to represent the will of the people. Nearly every other democracy in the world elects their leaders proportionally and/or compensates parties to make sure there aren’t distortions of national preferences and representation in the national legislature. It’s about time the US gets on board with this.

      3) I’m not sure where you are getting this ‘growth is unconstitutional’ nonsense. Nowhere in the constitution does it set specific parameters regarding the size of the state.

      4) The problem with pluralism is that some groups have a megaphone, while others barely a whisper. Indeed, there needs to be a system that facilitates thoughtful debate among the various interests in a society. Unfortunately, pluralism does a terrible job of accomplishing this task.

  • herschel

    As I see things most of our problems arise because we the people world in general and the people of the US in particular do not share a common vision of the human condition. Historically such a vision has been provided by various theologies, the traditional theories of everything (including us). At present, theology suffers from two problems. On the one hand it is a captive of the ancient mythological, mysterious and magical religions. On the other hand it is rejected by evidence based academia for just this reason. Christianity for instance, posits a mysterious God, other than the world, and claims (without acceptable evidence) that it alone has certain communication with this God. Theology can be redeemed by the simple expedient of hypothesizing that the Universe is itself divine, so that all our experience becomes experience of God. On this basis theology can become a real science, and we can set about constructing a scientifically based view of what we are doing here and how we should manage ourselves to approximate to heaven on Earth. This is a very tall order of course, but an essential rerooting of the tree of human belief if we are to guarantee our ultimate survival.

  • John Rusk

    In the interests of promoting dialog and deliberation, and reducing polarization, it would be great if the (American) concept of Principled Negotiation could be incorporated into public debate, journalism and even education (so the public and the interest groups will know more about how to really discuss things – moving toward mutually-agreed solutions instead of entrenching initial views). I wrote a longer description here:

  • fmgarzam Monterrey Mexico

    There goes the neighborhood.

    Those problems are made worst for aspiring liberal
    republican (not just electoral) democracies–those that
    take the USofA as an example, a reference or benchmark.

    The virtues of them, the people, and those
    of its state, are projected in a feeble way to foreign audiences.
    Whereas vices, either in projection or in doing, do loudly resonate.
    The later are more easily imitated or used as argument for undue

    And I am talking how it looks just one hundred miles away from the
    Texas border, it gets worst with cultural and physical distances.

  • victoria wilson – mn

    Like Fukuyama says we have a problem. But I think it is because our institutions are being challenged, not because they are decaying. Our compatriots have access to more information more quickly. Technology allows the opportunity to communicate with elected officials and one another more readily. A higher standard of living allows citizens the extra time they need to investigate issues, form opinions, voice them and even organize others. The days of turning over the public’s business to elected officials and counting on their moral compasses to guide us through are over.

    The public wants a better understanding of the game. They are able to judge in a big picture way the trade-offs of various choices and they can sense when the playing field is inequitable. They want to see government shrink once mandates are fulfilled, just as voluntary associations do. They want to better understand the framework over which our public business is comported.

  • qet

    Some of these arguments perplex me. Seeing that FF begins by deploring the short shrift given to history in modern analyses, it is surprising to find FF himself giving the same short shrift. US history and European history are incommensurable in most respects. The US has had a rights-based political culture since its inception; it is this feature that sets it apart from all other states and nations historically. FF alludes to this somewhat by noticing that in Europe a strong state preceded democractic politics, but in my view he fails to draw the proper conclusions from this fact. Another historically unique feature of the US that FF could have explored further is a structural one–the written constitution, which aside from its enumeration of the aforementioned rights, establishes the judiciary as an independent and presumptively co-equal authority. The combination of a structurally separated and empowered Judiciary together with an individual rights-based culture means that the idea that a more European-style bureaucracy here would lead to a reduction in litigation is naive. And, there is a distinction to be drawn between being governed and being administered. Europeans equate the two but Americans do not. European culture accepts without reflection a level of State presence in daily life that Americans have historically found appalling. Our crisis today arises not from the decay of our political institutions but from the decay of our political culture–the Left has succeeded over the past 50 years in inculcating a general belief in and expectation of the State as Prime Mover, as the only legitimate source of social action and as the direct provider of all material and, increasingly, spiritual goods. So a population whose expectations have been reshaped along European lines confronts a State shaped along far different lines, lines corresponding to a now-defunct political culture. So the reforming of political institutions is only one of two possible solutions, the reforming of political culture being the other. Yet most of this country’s esteemed intellectuals cannot separate the fundamental nature of our old political culture with its historically accidental accompaniments–slavery, Jim Crow, women confined to the home, etc. (you know, the usual parade of horribles thrown in the face of anyone who dares lament the current political culture in this country).

  • Kavanna

    I find this essay very strange and very uncogent.

    As a number of commentators have mentioned, the US has a presidential system. There’s no question that that is the reason the executive branch has grown and grown in the last century. Congress nowadays no longer frames laws; it simply supervises the bureaucracy, fitfully. The executive branch has grown so large that abuse of its powers is, these days, par for the course. Just check out whatever the latest Obama abuse is.

    Other countries have more effective or less paralyzed executive branches because they have parliamentary systems that require and nurture strong parties. The executive functions simply grow out of the parliament.

    The paralysis that Fukuyama refers to is just a result of the decay of the parties, which are weaker now than ever. What we call parties today, especially the Democrats, are conglomerations of pressure groups with a new quasi-monarchical figure at the top every four or eight years.

    There’s a strong argument for the US to adopt a parliamentary system, at least one balanced out by a strong president, like France. It would greatly strengthen the parties as vehicles of coalition and compromise. There’s little incentive now for this. The campaign finance restrictions alone make it imperative that politicians perpetually run for office, not govern. Unfortunately, it would take a revolution or a collapse of our current regime to make this even possible.

  • Richard_Ellmyer

    “So we have a problem. ” Really? That’s it? After wading through a very, very long article all we get is, “So we have a problem?” We knew that going in. So Fukuyama’s point is what, And So It Goes? Brilliant.

    Richard Ellmyer
    Portland, Oregon

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