The Democratic Challenge from Within

We debate the size of the federal government and whether to intervene in foreign conflicts. We should tackle making sure our democracy is still in working order.Liberal democracy may be the only socio-economic system left standing on the modern world stage, but that hardly insulates it from serious challenges from within, according to Francis Fukuyama.

Communism has receded as an economic challenger and even states such as China that offer expanding economic opportunity to its people in return for obedience to one-party rule are finding it harder to retain control. Liberal democracy is in the global wind. 

However, in his new book, "Political Order and Political Decay," Fukuyama explores how you can lose while winning. He suggests America's political development is going in reverse — and not in ways that the federal government's sharpest critics allege. 

Fukuyama describes the decline with an American government that is weaker, less efficient and more corrupt — not bigger. The evidence of decline, he says, can be seen in a government unable or unwilling to tackle major challenges, while submitting itself to the will of well-heeled special interests at the expense of a population experiencing widening income inequality. 

In his earlier work, "The Origins of Political Order," Fukuyama said liberal democracy rests on three pillars – fair, multiparty elections; political accountability; and the rule of law. His latest work suggests that elections alone don't guarantee a liberal democracy and that their value can be undermined by resulting political dysfunction and chipping away at who actually can vote.

The United States, in its acknowledged role as the world's top superpower, finds itself engaged from one end of the globe to another in conflicts with the potential to explode into larger conflicts. In addition to draining resources and political energy, these conflicts deflect from serious reflection of our domestic condition. Ironically, it takes the beheading of American journalists to produce a modicum of political unity on Capitol Hill behind a military response.

The takeaway from Fukuyama's book is that you can't take democracy for granted. In many, it is only as good as people make it. The world's headlines – from genocide to sectarian strife to authoritarian despots – claim our attention and remind us of how lucky we are in America. That should be enough motivation to follow up on Fukuyama's suggestion that we address institutional decay in our system of government.

Arguing over how big government is should be replaced by how well it works and whether it delivers what citizens need and are willing to pay for. We are already witnessing a shift in attitudes about the Affordable Care Act as people begin to look past bogus claims of death panels and assess services that are now available. Our health care system is still far from perfect, offering a perfect example for constructive engagement on how to improve it, which would signal to the world and ourselves that we can tackle and conquer big problems.