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by John Fonte

In this preview of an article due for publication in the Summer issue of FPRI’s Orbis, the author takes a markedly conservative position on a controversial question that has arisen since September 11, 2001. He suggests there has arisen a conflict within the democratic world between liberal democracy and transnational progressivism, between democrats and what he calls post-democrats.
Countering views, anyone?

Nearly a year before the September 11 attacks, news stories provided a preview of the transnational politics of the future. In October 2000, in preparation for the UN Conference Against Racism, about fifty American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) called on the UN “to hold the United States accountable for the intractable and persistent problem of discrimination.”

The NGOs included Amnesty International-U. S.A. (AI-U. S.A.), Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Arab-American Institute, National Council of Churches, the NAACP, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and others. Their spokesman stated that their demands “had been repeatedly raised with federal and state officials [in the U. S.] but to little effect. In frustration we now turn to the United Nations.” In other words, the NGOs, unable to enact the policies they favored through the normal processes of American constitutional democracy—the Congress, state governments, even the federal courts—appealed to authority outside of American democracy and its Constitution.

At the UN Conference against Racism, which was held in Durban two weeks before September 11, American NGOs supported “reparations” from Western nations for the historic transatlantic slave trade and developed resolutions that condemned only the West, without mentioning the larger traffic in African slaves sent to Islamic lands. The NGOs even endorsed a resolution denouncing free market capitalism as a “fundamentally flawed system.”

The NGOs also insisted that the U. S. ratify all major UN human rights treaties and drop legal reservations to treaties already ratified. For example, in 1994 the U. S. ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), but attached reservations on treaty requirements restricting free speech that were “incompatible with the Constitution.” Yet leading NGOs demanded that the U. S. drop all reservations and “comply” with the CERD treaty by accepting UN definitions of “free speech” and eliminating the “vast racial disparities… in every aspect of American life” (housing, health, welfare, justice, etc.).

HRW complained that the U. S. offered “no remedies” for these disparities but “simply supported equality of opportunity” and indicated “no willingness to comply” with CERD. Of course, to “comply” with the NGO interpretation of the CERD treaty, the U. S. would have to abandon the Constitution’s free speech guarantees, bypass federalism, and ignore the concept of majority rule—since practically nothing in the NGO agenda is supported by the American electorate.

All of this suggests that we have not reached the final triumph of liberal democracy proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama in his groundbreaking 1989 essay.

In October 2001, Fukuyama stated that his “end of history” thesis remained valid: that after the defeat of communism and fascism, no serious ideological competitor to Western-style liberal democracy was likely to emerge in the future. Thus, in terms of political philosophy, liberal democracy is the end of the evolutionary process. There will be wars and terrorism, but no alternative ideology with a universal appeal will seriously challenge the principles of Western liberal democracy on a global scale.

The 9/11 attacks notwithstanding, there is nothing beyond liberal democracy “towards which we could expect to evolve.” Fukuyama concluded that there will be challenges from those who resist progress, “but time and resources are on the side of modernity.”

Indeed, but is “modernity” on the side of liberal democracy? Fukuyama is very likely right that the current crisis with radical Islam will be overcome and that there will be no serious ideological challenge originating outside of Western civilization. However, the activities of the NGOs suggest that there already is an alternative ideology to liberal democracy within the West that has been steadily evolving for years.

Thus, it is entirely possible that modernity—thirty or forty years hence—will witness not the final triumph of liberal democracy, but the emergence of a new transnational hybrid regime that is post-liberal democratic, and in the American context, post-Constitutional and post-American. This alternative ideology, “transnational progressivism,” constitutes a universal and modern worldview that challenges both the liberal democratic nation-state in general and the American regime in particular.

The key concepts of transnational progressivism could be described as follows:

The ascribed group over the individual citizen. The key political unit is not the individual citizen, who forms voluntary associations and works with fellow citizens regardless of race, sex, or national origin, but the ascriptive group (racial, ethnic, or gender) into which one is born.

A dichotomy of groups: Oppressor vs. victim groups, with immigrant groups designated as victims. Transnational ideologists have incorporated the essentially Hegelian Marxist “privileged vs. marginalized” dichotomy.

Group proportionalism as the goal of “fairness.” Transnational progressivism assumes that “victim” groups should be represented in all professions roughly proportionate to their percentage of the population. If not, there is a problem of “underrepresentation.”

The values of all dominant institutions to be changed to reflect the perspectives of the victim groups. Transnational progressives insist that it is not enough to have proportional representation of minorities in major institutions if these institutions continue to reflect the worldview of the “dominant” culture. Instead, the distinct worldviews of ethnic, gender, and linguistic minorities must be represented within these institutions.

The “demographic imperative.” The demographic imperative tells us that major demographic changes are occurring in the U. S. as millions of new immigrants from non-Western cultures enter American life. The traditional paradigm based on the assimilation of immigrants into an existing American civic culture is obsolete and must be changed to a framework that promotes “diversity,” defined as group proportionalism.

The redefinition of democracy and “democratic ideals.” Transnational progressives have been altering the definition of “democracy” from that of a system of majority rule among equal citizens to one of power sharing among ethnic groups composed of both citizens and non-citizens. James Banks, one of American education’s leading textbook writers, noted in 1994 that “to create an authentic democratic Unum with moral authority and perceived legitimacy, the pluribus (diverse peoples) must negotiate and share power.” Hence, American democracy is not authentic; real democracy will come when the different “peoples” that live within America “share power” as groups.

Deconstruction of national narratives and national symbols of democratic nation-states in the West. In October 2000, a UK government report denounced the concept of “Britishness” and declared that British history needed to be “revised, rethought, or jettisoned.” In the U.S., the proposed “National History Standards,” recommended altering the traditional historical narrative. Instead of emphasizing the story of European settlers, American civilization would be redefined as a multicultural “convergence” of three civilizations—Amerindian, West African, and European. In Israel, a “post-Zionist” intelligentsia has proposed that Israel consider itself multicultural and deconstruct its identity as a Jewish state. Even Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres sounded the post-Zionist trumpet in his 1993 book , in which he deemphasized “sovereignty” and called for regional “elected central bodies,” a type of Middle Eastern EU.

Promotion of the concept of postnational citizenship. In an important academic paper, Rutgers Law Professor Linda Bosniak asks hopefully “Can advocates of postnational citizenship ultimately succeed in decoupling the concept of citizenship from the nation-state in prevailing political thought?”

The idea of transnationalism as a major conceptual tool. Transnationalism is the next stage of multicultural ideology. Like multiculturalism, transnationalism is a concept that provides elites with both an empirical tool (a plausible analysis of what is) and an ideological framework (a vision of what should be). Transnational advocates argue that globalization requires some form of “global governance” because they believe that the nation-state and the idea of national citizenship are ill suited to deal with the global problems of the future.

The same scholars who touted multiculturalism now herald the coming transnational age. Thus, Alejandro Portes of Princeton University argues that transnationalism, combined with large-scale immigration, will redefine the meaning of American citizenship.

The promotion of transnationalism is an attempt to shape this crucial intellectual struggle over globalization. Its adherents imply that one is either in step with globalization, and thus forward-looking, or one is a backward antiglobalist. Liberal democrats (who are internationalists and support free trade and market economics) must reply that this is a false dichotomy—that the critical argument is not between globalists and antiglobalists, but instead over the form global engagement should take in the coming decades: will it be transnationalist or internationalist?

The social base of transnational progressivism constitutes a rising postnational intelligentsia (international law professors, NGO activists, foundation officers, UN bureaucrats, EU administrators, corporate executives, and politicians.) When social movements such as “transnationalism” and “global governance” are depicted as the result of social forces or the movement of history, a certain impersonal inevitability is implied. However, in the twentieth century the Bolshevik Revolution, the National Socialist revolution, the New Deal, the Reagan Revolution, the Gaullist national reconstruction in France, and the creation of the EU were not inevitable, but were the result of the exercise of political will by elites.

Similarly, transnationalism, multiculturalism, and global governance, like “diversity,” are ideological tools championed by activist elites, not impersonal forces of history. The success or failure of these values-laden concepts will ultimately depend upon the political will and effectiveness of these elites.

A good part of the energy for transnational progressivism is provided by human rights activists, who consistently evoke “evolving norms of international law.” The main legal conflict between traditional American liberal democrats and transnational progressives is ultimately the question of whether the U. S. Constitution trumps international law or vice versa.

Before the mid-twentieth century, traditional international law referred to relations among nation-states. The “new international law” has increasingly penetrated the sovereignty of democratic nation-states. It is in reality “transnational law.” Human rights activists work to establish norms for this “new international [i.e. transnational] law” and then attempt to bring the U. S. into conformity with a legal regime whose reach often extends beyond democratic politics.

Transnational progressives excoriate American political and legal practices in virulent language, as if the American liberal democratic nation-state was an illegitimate authoritarian regime. Thus, AI-U.S.A. charged the U. S. in a 1998 report with “a persistent and widespread pattern of human rights violations,” naming the U. S. the “world leader in high tech repression.” Meanwhile, HRW issued a 450-page report excoriating the U. S. for all types of “human rights violations,” even complaining that “the U. S. Border Patrol continued to grow at an alarming pace.”

Many of the same lawyers who advocate transnational legal concepts are active in U. S. immigration law. Louis Henkin, one of the most prominent scholars of international law, calls for largely eliminating “the difference between a citizen and a non-citizen permanent resident.” Columbia University international law professor Stephen Legomsky argues that dual nationals holding influential positions in the U. S. should not be required to give “greater weight to U. S. interests, in the event of a conflict” between the U. S. and the other country in which the American citizen is also a dual national.

Two leading law professors (Peter Spiro from Hofstra and Peter Schuck from Yale) complain that immigrants seeking American citizenship are required to “renounce all allegiance” to their old nations.” Spiro and Schuck even reject the concept of the hyphenated American and endorse what they call the “ampersand” citizen. Thus, instead of traditional “Mexican-Americans” who are loyal citizens but proud of their ethnic roots, they prefer postnational citizens, who are both “Mexican & American,” who retain “loyalties” to their “original homeland” and vote in both countries.

University professor Robert Bach authored a major Ford Foundation report on new and “established residents” (the word “citizen” was assiduously avoided) that advocated the “maintenance” of ethnic immigrant identities and attacked assimilation as the “problem in America.” Bach later became deputy director for policy at the INS in the Clinton administration.

The financial backing for this anti-assimilationist campaign has come primarily from the Ford Foundation, which made a conscious decision to fund a Latino rights movement based on advocacy-litigation and group rights. The global progressives have been aided—if not always consciously, certainly in objective terms—by a “transnational right.” It was a determined Right-Left coalition led by libertarian Stuart Anderson, who currently holds Bach’s old position at the INS, that killed a high-tech tracking system for foreign students that might have saved lives on September 11. Whatever their ideological or commercial motives, the demand for “open borders” (not simply free trade, which is a different matter altogether) by the libertarian right has strengthened the Left’s anti-assimilationist agenda.

The EU is a large supranational macro-organization that embodies transnational progressivism. Its governmental structure is post-democratic. Power in the EU principally resides in the European Commission (EC) and to a lesser extent the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The EC, the EU’s executive body, initiates legislative action, implements common policy, and controls a large bureaucracy. It is composed of a rotating presidency and nineteen commissioners chosen by the member-states and approved by the European Parliament. It is unelected and, for the most part, unaccountable.

A white paper issued by the EC suggests that this unaccountability is one reason for its success:”[the] “essential source of the success of European integration is that [it] is_independent from national, sectoral, or other influences.” This “democracy deficit” represents a moral challenge to EU legitimacy.

The substantive polices advanced by EU leaders on issues such as “hate speech,” “hate crimes,” “comparable worth” for women’s pay, and group preferences are considerably more “progressive” in the EU than in the U. S. The ECJ has overruled national parliaments and public opinion in nation-states by ordering the British to incorporate gays and the Germans to incorporate women in combat units in their respective military services. The ECJ even struck down a British law on corporal punishment, declaring that parental spanking is internationally recognized as an abuse of human rights.

Two Washington lawyers, Lee Casey and David Rivkin, have argued that the EU ideology that “denies the ultimate authority of the nation-state” and transfers policy making from elected representatives to bureaucrats “suggests a dramatic divergence” with “basic principles of popular sovereignty once shared by both Europe’s democracies and the United States.”

In international politics, in the period immediately prior to 9/11, the EU opposed the U. S. on some of the most important global issues, including the ICC, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Land Mine Treaty, the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty, and policy towards missile defense, Iran, Iraq, Israel, China, Cuba, North Korea, and the death penalty. On most of these issues, transnational progressives in the U. S.—including politicians—supported the EU position and attempted to leverage this transnational influence in the domestic debate. At the same, the Bush administration on some of these issues has support in Europe, particularly from parts of the British political class and public, and elements of European popular opinion (e.g., on the death penalty.)

After 9/11, while some European nation-states sent forces to support the U. S. in Afganhistan, many European leaders have continued to snipe at American policies and hamper American interests in the war on terrorism. In December 2001 the European Parliament condemned the U. S. Patriot Act (the bipartisan antiterrorist legislation that passed the U. S. Congress overwhelmingly) as “contrary to the principles” of human rights because the legislation “discriminates” against non-citizens. Leading European politicians have opposed extraditing terrorist suspects to the U. S. if those terrorists would be subjected to the death penalty. Even a long-time Atlanticist, like the Berlin Aspin Institute’s Jeffrey Gedmin, questions the “basis for a functioning alliance” between the U. S. and Western Europe.

Both realists and neoconservatives have argued that some EU, UN, and NGO thinking threatens to limit both American democracy at home and American power overseas. As Jeanne Kirkpatrick puts it, “foreign governments and their leaders, and more than a few activists here at home, seek to constrain and control American power by means of elaborate multilateral processes, global arrangements, and UN treaties that limit both our capacity to govern ourselves and act abroad.”

Talk in the West of a “culture war” is somewhat misleading, because the arguments over transnational vs. national citizenship, multiculturalism vs. assimilation, and global governance vs. national sovereignty are not simply cultural, but ideological and philosophical. They pose Aristotle’s question: “What kind of government is best?”

In America, there is an elemental argument about whether to preserve, improve, and transmit the American regime to future generations or to transform it into a new and different type of polity. We are arguing about “regime maintenance” vs. “regime transformation.”

The challenge from transnational progressivism to traditional American concepts of citizenship, patriotism, assimilation, and the meaning of democracy itself is fundamental. If our system is based not on individual rights (as defined by the U. S. Constitution) but on group consciousness (as defined by international law); not on equality of citizenship but on group preferences for non- citizens (including illegal immigrants) and for certain categories of citizens; not on majority rule within constitutional limits but on power-sharing by different ethnic, racial, gender, and linguistic groups; not on constitutional law, but on transnational law; not on immigrants becoming Americans, but on migrants linked between transnational communities; then the regime will cease to be “constitutional,” “liberal,” “democratic,” and “American,” in the understood sense of those terms, but will become in reality a new hybrid system that is “post-constitutional,” “post-liberal,” “post-democratic,” and “post-American.”

This intracivilizational Western conflict between liberal democracy and transnational progressivism accelerated after the Cold War and should continue well into the twenty-first century. Indeed, from the fall of the Berlin Wall until the attacks of September 11, the transnational progressives were on the offensive.

Since September 11, however, the forces supporting the liberal-democratic nation state have rallied throughout the West. In the post-9/11 milieu there is a window of opportunity for those who favor a reaffirmation of the traditional norms of liberal-democratic patriotism. It is unclear whether that segment of the American intelligentsia committed to liberal democracy as it has been practiced on these shores has the political will to seize this opportunity. In Europe, given elite opinion, the case for liberal democracy will be harder to make. Key areas to watch in both the U. S. and Europe include immigration-assimilation policy; arguments over international law; and the influence of a civic-patriotic narrative in public schools and popular culture.

I suggest that we add a fourth dimension to a conceptual framework of international politics. Three dimensions are currently recognizable. First, there is traditional realpolitik, the competition and conflict among nation-states (and supranational states such as the EU). Second is the competition of civilizations, conceptualized by Samuel Huntington. Third, there is the conflict between the democratic world and the undemocratic world. My suggested fourth dimension is the conflict within the democratic world between the forces of liberal democracy and the forces of transnational progressivism, between democrats and post- democrats.

The conflicts and tensions within each of these four dimensions of international politics are unfolding simultaneously and affected by each other, and so they all belong in a comprehensive understanding of the world of the twenty-first century. In hindsight, Fukuyama is wrong to suggest that liberal democracy is inevitably the final form of political governance, the evolutionary endpoint of political philosophy, because it has become unclear that liberal democracy will defeat transnational progressivism. During the twentieth century, Western liberal democracy finally triumphed militarily and ideologically over National Socialism and communism, powerful anti-democratic forces, that were, in a sense, Western ideological heresies. After defeating its current antidemocratic, non-Western enemy in what will essentially be a material-physical struggle, it will continue to face an ideological-metaphysical challenge from powerful post-liberal democratic forces, whose origins are Western, but, which could be in the words of James Kurth, called “post-Western.”End.

WATCH ON THE WEST, Volume 3, Number 6, May 2002. Published by permission of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684 (

John Fonte is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. This piece is adapted from his article, “Liberal Democracy vs. Transnational Progressivism,” which is scheduled to appear in the Summer 2002 issue of Orbis, and is based on a presentation made last fall to FPRI’s Study Group on America and the West.


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