Francis Fukuyama and Identity

While I was compiling a list of my favorite books of the year, I realized that I needed a separate blog post to discuss Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Recognition

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment by Francis Fukuyama (2018)

My interest in Francis Fukuyama originally came from his debate with Shanghai-based Fudan University professor Zhang Weiwei, a prominent proponent of the Chinese political model. After spending a lot of time reading Fukuyama’s work, his political research—despite all the controversies—seems very enticing to me. Identity came out shortly after I finished Fukuyama’s acclaimed book, The End of History and the Last Man, so I immediately got a copy in early September.

Among three essays published on The American Interest celebrating the 25th anniversary of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, the one by political scientist Francis Fukuyama—titled “Huntington’s Legacy”—is the most noteworthy. Fukuyama, a student of Huntington’s, famously proposed his version of the “end of history” theory in his 1989 essay “The End of History?” published on The National Interest. The year after, Huntington wrote on Foreign Affairs “The Clash of Civilizations?” in response.

Both later became books: The End of History and the Last Man was published in 1992; Clash in 1996. This year, I had the chance to reëxamine both of their arguments through the two texts.

Fukuyama wrote in his August essay regarding their “debate”:

“Since Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations has been contrasted with my own End of History in countless introductory International Relations classes over the past two decades, I might as well begin by tackling at the outset the issue of how we’re doing vis-à-vis one another. At the moment, it looks like Huntington is winning.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Huntington’s Legacy”

But Fukuyama still believes that only the world of Islam has “identifiable numbers of people who think in such civilizational terms.” He suggests that identity, in lieu of civilization, should be the core of Huntington’s arguments. 

“Identity is a much broader and more flexible concept with which to understand contemporary politics rather than religiously based culture or civilizations. Identity is the modern concept that arises out of the belief that one has a hidden inner self whose dignity is at best being ignored or at worst being disparaged by the surrounding society. Identity politics revolves around demands not for materials goods or resources, but for recognition of the dignity of one’s ethnicity, religion, nation, or even one’s unique characteristics as an individual.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Huntington’s Legacy”

He transitions into his criticism of identity politics—which he delineates in Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.

“In both the United States and Europe, the Left which had been built during the first part of the 20th century around working class solidarity came to embrace these new identity groups, even though this tended to alienate older working class voters.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Huntington’s Legacy”

Fukuyama blames both the Left and the Right, arguing that alt-right white nationalists have also fit themselves into an identity group that is in opposition to marginalized minority groups on the Left:

“The rise of identity politics on the Left has stimulated and legitimated new assertions of identity on the Right. Donald Trump has received support for being politically incorrect, that is, for not respecting the identity niceties that characterize contemporary American political discourse. In doing so he has greatly abetted the rise of white nationalists and the alt-right, which see themselves as persecuted and marginalized minorities in much the same way as the leftwing identity groups.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Huntington’s Legacy”

A key point in Fukuyama’s End of History is that mere economic satisfactions do not suffice humans. We see this argument coming back in Identity, in which Fukuyama bases his arguments on the philosophical debates of dignity and recognition. He returns to the concept of thymos, Plato’s third part of human soul.

He uses the word “invisible” to describe Donald Trump’s voter base: The prevalence of identity politics marginalizes a certain group of conservative WASPs—not only are they victims of unemployment and other economic problems, they are also looked down upon by liberals. 

In the last chapter of End of History, Fukuyama contended that while megalothymia (the desire to be recognized higher than others) is inherent to human beings, it can be achieved via channels other than politics—such as business. Guess who was the lucky real estate developer that he had handpicked? 

He argues that, if only driven by economic interests, Trump’s supporters should have supported social liberalism—i.e., the Democratic Party. But mere economic interests do not satisfy them, as human beings naturally desire political recognition. 

Fukuyama has interesting political views. On one hand, he is a liberal—he has publicly supported Barack Obama’s presidency and the Democratic Party; but he sure isn’t a conventional one. While he believes in a strong state—on which he wrote extensively in Political Order and Political Decay—he also favors a strong national identity. He believes that America’s creedal national identity (i.e., a de-ethnicized version of Protestant values), not multiculturalism, should remain America’s shared national identity. He wants immigrants, children of immigrants in particular, to assimilate to American culture through public education.

Fukuyama contended that the American creedal identity actually justifies his pro-immigration stance: 

Compared with Europe, the United States has been far more welcoming of immigrants, in part because it developed a creedal national identity early in its history. As the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset pointed out, a U.S. citizen can be accused of being “un-American” in a way that a Danish citizen could not be described as being “un-Danish” or a Japanese citizen could not be charged with being “un-Japanese.” Americanism constitutes a set of beliefs and a way of life, not an ethnicity.

Francis Fukuyama, “Against Identity Politics”
“Against Identity Politics” on September/October 2018, Foreign Affairs

In “Against Identity Politics,” an essay he wrote for Foreign Affairs this September, he argued that Europe’s multiculturalism “minimizes the importance of integrating newcomers into creedal national cultures”:

“Today, the American creedal national identity, which emerged in the wake of the Civil War, must be revived and defended against attacks from both the left and the right. On the right, white nationalists would like to replace the creedal national identity with one based on race, ethnicity, and religion. On the left, the champions of identity politics have sought to undermine the legitimacy of the American national story by emphasizing victimization, insinuating in some cases that racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of systematic exclusion are in the country’s DNA. Such flaws have been and continue to be features of American society, and they must be confronted. But progressives should also tell a different version of U.S. history, one focused on how an ever-broadening circle of people have overcome barriers to achieve recognition of their dignity.”

Francis Fukuyama, “Against Identity Politics”

In the Ezra Klein Show, Fukuyama calls out Ta-Nehisi Coates. He maintained that Coates’s argument of racial discrimination being in America’s DNA neglects the progressive efforts in American history. 

In a book review published on The New Yorker, Louis Menand perfectly summarizes the view of Fukuyama’s critics:

“Fukuyama acknowledges that identity politics has done some good, and he says that people on the right exaggerate the prevalence of political correctness and the effects of affirmative action. He also thinks that people on the left have become obsessed with cultural and identitarian politics, and have abandoned social policy. But he has surprisingly few policy suggestions himself.

[…] Fukuyama concedes that people need a sense of national identity, whether ethnic or creedal, but otherwise he remains an assimilationist and a universalist. He wants to iron out differences, not protect them. He suggests measures like a mandatory national-service requirement and a more meaningful path to citizenship for immigrants.”

Louis Menand, “Fukuyama Postpones the End of History”

While I do not agree with some of Fukuyama’s standpoints, I do believe that he’s made a remarkable point here: 

The Democratic Party, in particular, has a major choice to make. It can continue to try to win elections by doubling down on the mobilization of the identity groups that today supply its most fervent activists: African Americans, Hispanics, professional women, the LGBT community, and so on. Or the party could try to win back some of the white working-class voters who constituted a critical part of Democratic coalitions from the New Deal through the Great Society but who have defected to the Republican Party in recent elections. The former strategy might allow it to win elections, but it is a poor formula for governing the country. The Republican Party is becoming the party of white people, and the Democratic Party is becoming the party of minorities. Should that process continue much further, identity will have fully displaced economic ideology as the central cleavage of U.S. politics, which would be an unhealthy outcome for American democracy.

Francis Fukuyama, “Against Identity Politics”