I’m sure you’ve heard the term “the end of history.” It comes most recently from American scholar Francis Fukuyama and his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. The gist of his argument (and feel free to expand on this if you have actually read the book) is that liberal democracy in the form of states with rule of law, free speech, and free and fair elections has carried the modern day, so to speak, in the historical contest or competition for the most efficient and desirable political and economic governing system. The French Revolution was a messy and violent affair, but when the dust settled the Ancien Regime was permanently discredited. You have probably noticed a conspicuous lack of small authoritarian states run by corrupt dictators that proclaim themselves to be The Corrupt and Authoritarian Dictatorship of X. Nope. They all proclaim themselves to be The Democratic Republic of X.

Fukuyama just published a piece at The Atlantic defending his thesis in the context of 2022: “More Proof That This Really Is the End of History.” He notes that “Russia and China both have argued that liberal democracy is in long-term decline, and that their brand of muscular authoritarian government is able to act decisively and get things done while their democratic rivals debate, dither, and fail to deliver on their promises.” That’s a familiar critique of how actual democracy works, the trains are late and all that. Is global democracy really in decline and at risk? Fukuyama’s rejoinder is this: “Over the past year, though, it has become evident that there are key weaknesses at the core of these strong states.” He argues that “supporters of liberal democracy must not give in to a fatalism that tacitly accepts the Russian-Chinese line that such democracies are in inevitable decline.”

Here are the two weaknesses in those regimes that he highlights (underlining added):

The weaknesses are of two sorts. First, the concentration of power in the hands of a single leader at the top all but guarantees low-quality decision making, and over time will produce truly catastrophic consequences. Second, the absence of public discussion and debate in “strong” states, and of any mechanism of accountability, means that the leader’s support is shallow, and can erode at a moment’s notice.

So here’s my question. Those features characterize the LDS Church as well as the authoritarian states Fukuyama critiques. One can argue that yes, those are weaknesses for the LDS Church as well and represent a threat to the long-term viability or at least the continued success of the institution. Or one can argue that no, those are actually *strengths* of the LDS system, that in the LDS system a single all-powerful leader results in high-quality, not low-quality, decisions and that the absence of public discussion and accountability improves leadership and overall institutional health rather than the opposite.

Leaders at the Top

One of the problems with a single all-powerful political leader is that they just won’t go away. China managed, post-Mao, to put in place a practice where the senior leader served a couple of terms, then passed on leadership to a successor. But Xi Jinping is discarding that system and is remaining in office. Russia, too, can’t seem to get rid of Putin. In America, Trump didn’t want to leave, even after losing a free and fair election, but in the end (all of his various schemes to the contrary having failed) he did. I guess America can now downgrade its longstanding claim of a tradition of “a peaceful transfer of power” to “a more or less peaceful transfer of power.”

The LDS system is strangely mixed. At most levels, those in leadership roles quite happily leave office voluntarily. Bishops, stake presidents, mission presidents, and temple presidents all seem content, even pleased, to terminate their service and give up what institutional power they have when their term of service ends. Only at the very top, at the apostolic level and particularly in the office of the President, do leaders serve for life. I suspect that if an age limit of 80 were put in place through legitimate and appropriate channels, all of these would follow the example of lower leaders and quietly leave office at the appointed age.

But that’s not the system. The senior leaders serve for life. Which opens the system up for Fukuyama’s critique that such a system leads to “low-quality decision making” that “over time will produce truly catastrophic consequences.” Any low-quality decisions you can think of? Ditching the name “Mormon” perhaps? Does the continuing anti-LGBT posture of the senior leadership (it’s wrong to say that’s the position of the membership at large) and the resulting loss of large chunks of the current youth cohort constitute an institutional catastrophe?

Discussion and Accountability

What about the second of Fukuyama’s points? He ties “the absence of public discussion and debate” and the absence of any mechanism of accountability not to low-quality decisions but instead leading to “the leader’s support is shallow and can erode at a moment’s notice.” I’d be inclined to think the lack of public discussion, like the first point, is a problem because it leads to low-quality decisions, not to lack of support. Within the LDS system, you might argue that any resulting lack of support impels those so afflicted to leave the Church. So from the point of view of the Church, that’s sort of a self-correcting problem, at least until the exit rate gets high enough that membership starts to shrink and tithing revenue declines.

But you can make the same point for Putin’s recent conscription decree. From the outside, seeing tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of young Russians leaving the country to avoid conscription to go fight and quite possibly die in Putin’s Ukraine War is an obvious sign of Russian weakness and failure. From the inside, I’m sure some are arguing that it’s just fine that such unpatriotic and unreliable people leave Russia and they probably would have made bad soldiers anyway. The better view is that successful countries and successful institutions maintain loyalty and participation of their citizens and members. Wholesale defections are never a sign of strength.

For the LDS system, there is another rejoinder. Hey, it’s 2022, there is plenty of public discussion of LDS topics, decisions, and practices. There is Sunstone and Dialogue. There are blogs and podcasts and Salt Lake Tribune editorials and Netflix documentaries. But all of that is outside the LDS Church proper. Members are implicitly guided and sometimes expressly directed to avoid those kinds of discussions. Imagine a General Conference session where the conducting officer announces a point of present discussion and some disagreement among top leaders, with Elder X speaking next to advocate a new and possibly beneficial view of the doctrine or practice, followed by Elder Y speaking in favor of retaining the traditional doctrine or practice. Then inviting the membership to submit letters with their own views to the senior leaders as they continue their discussion before coming to a decision at some point in the future.

A final point. Most corporations fall somewhere in the middle on both these Fukuyama criticisms. Institutions are different from governments and states. Yes, there are Boards of Directors above CEOs in corporations, but CEOs nevertheless exercise considerable power in the corporation. Yes, sometimes there are business meetings where different proposals are debated or a pending proposal is critiqued to identify weaknesses or problems. But there are plenty of meetings where the manager or VP or CEO has made a decision, things are moving forward, and it is a very bad idea for you to pipe up and point out problems with the new product or program. So you can argue that, like corporations, the LDS Church has a powerful but not all-powerful leader, and that in the Church there are some meetings where broad input is welcome and some meetings where it isn’t.

The Bottom Line

Is there one? I confess I started with the Fukuyama article because I have read more than a few books and articles the last couple of years that bemoan the sudden ascendancy of authoritarian states and leaders on the global stage, even right here in River City. So I liked Fukuyama’s optimistic (for the fate of liberal democracy in the world) conclusion:

Celebrations of the rise of strong states and the decline of liberal democracy are thus very premature. Liberal democracy, precisely because it distributes power and relies on consent of the governed, is in much better shape globally than many people think.

It might be stretching it to apply his points to the LDS Church, but I think it is fair to compare and contrast governmental institutions and operations (political science) to civil institutions (organizational behavior). Maybe we learn somthing. But we’re not talking about starting from scratch, designing a new church. There is a given status quo. Tradition endures because any change is a risk as well as an opportunity for improvement. It’s one thing to say “Things could be better.” It’s another thing to come up with specific proposals or initiatives — starting from where we are right now — that promise benefits that outweigh the likely costs.

So here are some possible discussion points.

  • Would delegating more power away from the First Presidency to local authorities, whether to Area Presidencies or stake presidents, be a good thing or a bad thing?
  • Is it better to have more power-sharing between the Twelve and the President (as was traditionally the case), as opposed to the current system where almost all power is in the President, be an improvement?
  • How can the Church be more open to public discussion without going overboard in a rush of criticism? Can you open the discussion door just a little bit or would it swing wide open?
  • How can the Church offer venues of public discussion that are truly open (that is, where one doesn’t get a call from the bishop the following week to reprimand you for participating in open discussion)?