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Journal of Democracy 8.3 (1997) 146-149

The Illusion of Exceptionalism

Francis Fukuyama

The East Asian Prospect

It is striking that in all of the rich literature on democracy and democratic transitions published in recent years, including in the Journal of Democracy, it is difficult to find a single social scientist who will any longer admit to being a "modernization theorist." I find this odd because most observers of political development actually do believe in some version of modernization theory. Of course, we must get past the simple-minded and overly deterministic formulations of modernization theory that posited that all societies would, in effect, end up like suburban America in the 1950s. Yet while modernization can take many detours, alternate routes, and backward steps, there are in fact good empirical grounds for thinking that modernization is a coherent process that produces a certain uniformity of economic and political institutions across different regions and cultures. A growing body of empirical data reinforces the correlation posited decades ago by Seymour Martin Lipset between democracy and development. The work of Adam Przeworski and his colleagues, published last year in the Journal of Democracy, contains the striking conclusion that above a level of about $6,000 in per-capita GDP annually (in 1992 purchasing-power-parity U.S. dollars), there is not a single case of a democracy reverting to authoritarian rule. As Przeworski himself argues, economic development is neither necessary nor sufficient to bring about democratic transitions, since they occur with roughly equal frequency at all levels of per-capita GDP, but industrialization and wealth certainly are helpful in maintaining democracy.

Industrialization facilitates democracy for a number of reasons. Most important, a modern industrial economy creates a complex division of [End Page 146] labor that in turn lays the basis for civil society. Contemporary specialists in comparative politics tend to exclude from the definition of civil society not just the state and the family, but also the capitalist economy. While there are understandable reasons for excluding private firms in this fashion, I believe it is a historical and conceptual mistake. The development of a vigorous private sector is important to the development of a strong civil society, as firms provide a locus of social identity and serve to socialize people in certain cooperative habits.

In the earlier tradition of classical political economy, writers like Adam Ferguson, James Steuart, and Hegel all believed that civil society overlapped substantially with the capitalist economy. The theoretical exclusion of the capitalist economy from civil society began in this century with Antonio Gramsci and has been perpetuated by Jürgen Habermas and others with an interest in delegitimating capitalism itself. But highly organized capitalism is important to the democratization process because it both uses and creates social capital, and diverts energy from struggles for recognition that would otherwise take place in the political or military sphere and destabilize democracy.

In any event, there is a worldwide empirical trend linking economic modernization and stable democracy. Thus the question for Asianists is: Why would Asia be an exception to this overall pattern? I believe that the burden of proof should be on those who argue that Asia is going to create well-educated, middle-class societies with high levels of material prosperity, security, and technological sophistication, but in which demands for some form of greater political participation will neither arise nor be met. We should set a high standard of proof for why Confucianism or some other factor will be an insuperable obstacle to democracy but not to other parts of the modernization package.

Cultural Arguments

Two sets of arguments are put forward for "Asian exceptionalism," the first of which is cultural and the second of which is political. The cultural argument revolves around the assertion that most Asian societies lack a concept of the individual in anything like the Western sense. It is probably true, as Samuel P. Huntington argues, that we in the West tend to underestimate the degree to which modern democracy was born in the cradle of a Christian culture, and that the latter culture was one source of both Western universalism and Western egalitarianism. 1 With its origins in individual conscience and revolt against established authority, the Reformation also had a major impact on the development of Western notions of individualism. It was very different from both premodern Western traditions and Asian ethical traditions like Confucianism, which hold that individuals are born into the world not free but encumbered by a host of social duties and obligations. [End Page 147]

The problem with this kind of cultural argument is that developed cultural systems like Christianity, Islam, and Confucianism are highly complex. On a theoretical level it is hard to predict how they will lead to particular political or institutional outcomes. A good illustration of this may be found in the implicit debate between the two Lees, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan. Lee Kuan Yew has attracted considerable attention by arguing that Confucianism supports a certain kind of political authoritarianism. 2 Lee Teng-hui has called on his Confucian scholars to prove just the opposite--that there are, in fact, precedents for democracy in Confucian thought. 3 Strategies like this are adopted in all cultural systems. Christianity can be and has been made to support slavery and hierarchy and authoritarianism as well as the abolition of slavery and the promotion of democracy and equal rights.

Arguing from cultural principles is therefore not a useful or productive way to proceed. It is more important to look at the empirical, sociological question: What is the present-day impact of cultural systems on people's attitudes toward authority and political life? If we look at the impact of Confucianism on existing societies, it seems clear that the different aspects of Confucianism are, as a practical matter, readily separable. Tu Wei-ming has distinguished between what he calls political Confucianism, which was a doctrine that mandated a certain form of hierarchical political authority centered around the emperor and mandarinate, and what he calls the Confucianism of everyday life, which has to do with family relations, the work ethic, and so forth. 4 As a matter of empirical observation, one can exist without the other: the Confucianism of everyday life has coexisted with a wide variety of political regimes and forms of authority. Many cultural systems are like that: it is possible to pick and choose those cultural elements that fit with the political order one is trying to build, retaining everyday Confucianism (for example) because it is critical for economic development, while not allowing it to determine the surrounding political structure. Certainly we have many examples of Chinese and other Asian communities in Canada, Britain, and the United States that remain in some deep sense culturally Asian within the context of a modern democracy. Hence it seems very hard to argue that Asian values are in any fundamental sense hostile to Western democracy.

Political Impediments

The second category of problem preventing the spread of democracy in Asia is a purely political one. The success or failure of democracy depends heavily on the demonstration effect of available models of political systems. Much of the current disenchantment with democracy on the part of Chinese elites has to do with their observation of the [End Page 148] former Soviet Union in the postcommunist era. The question of which model of governance will win out is up in the air; much will depend on the future economic success and political stability of both China and the United States. It is hard to predict how successful China will seem relative to the United States in another generation.

Let me make two points about what may affect the relative standing of these two countries. First, foreign policy is likely to become much more important. We often forget how crucial simple political stability is both to economic development and to the democratization that flows from it. A large body of literature emerged in the middle of this century that tried to explain why Japan industrialized successfully while China did not. Many scholars used cultural arguments to explain the difference in outcomes. In retrospect, the debate was ill-conceived; the difference between Japan and China was simply that the former enjoyed a much greater degree of political stability and continuity than did the latter. There are reasons to believe that we will not be able to take political stability in Asia for granted in the coming generation as we have in the preceding one. If so, this will have important implications for the trajectory of Asia's political development.

The second point about political models concerns the United States. One of the reasons that the whole "Asian values" debate arose in the first place was that in social terms the United States was not nearly as attractive a model to many Asian elites in the 1990s as it had been in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, many Americans would agree that American society has taken a turn for the worse in this period, as indicated by the support Singapore received from many Americans for its corporal punishment of Michael Fay, the American teenager convicted of vandalism a few years ago. Asians see in the United States symptoms of excessive individualism and self-indulgence, deterioration of the family, and all of the pathologies that stem therefrom. On the other hand, the book of U.S. culture is still being written. American culture is related, of course, to American political institutions, but not in any mechanistic way. Many Americans see their own contemporary culture as being as problematic as Asians regard it. If they succeed in making it more appealing to themselves, its appeal in Asia will increase as well.

Francis Fukuyama is Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. Previously he was a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation. He is the author of Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (1995) and The End of History and the Last Man (1992).


1 . Samuel P. Huntington, "Religion and the Third Wave," The National Interest 24 (Summer 1991): 29-42.

2 . Fareed Zakaria, "Culture Is Destiny: A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew," Foreign Affairs 73 (March-April 1994): 109-26.

3 . Lee Teng-hui, "Chinese Culture and Political Renewal," Journal of Democracy 6 (October 1995): 3-8.

4 . Tu Wei-ming, Confucian Ethics Today (Singapore: Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore, 1984).