In his new book, Francis Fukuyama explores the surprising parallels between such disparate groups as Black Lives Matter and white nationalists
In his new book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Francis Fukuyama explores the surprising parallels between such disparate groups as Black Lives Matter and white nationalists — and why both are “a broad-based threat to modern liberal democracy.” The Stanford University political scientist talked to Andrew Coyne earlier this week. This is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.
Andrew Coyne: The core insight of your book is that the identity politics of the left, the populist nationalism of the right, Islamism, even Trump himself, all are driven by a demand for dignity, a demand for recognition and respect. But why are all of these happening now?
Francis Fukuyama: I think these movements have been triggered by economic developments, globalization. This neo-liberal period of increasing flows of goods, services, trade, investment, has benefited a small number of people but left quite a few behind. But it’s not just de-industrialization and offshoring of jobs — I think it’s also the physical movement of people, really extraordinary levels of foreign-born people moving into Western Europe and the United States. I think a combination of the insecurity caused by economic disruption plus rather rapid cultural change is what’s triggered the demand for recognition. And that was there to be exploited by opportunistic politicians.
People try to come up with purely economic explanations for, let’s say, Trump. But it’s not as simple as that, is it?
Identity politics were born on the left. Following all the big social movements of the 1960s, based on race, gender, gender preference, you had a lot of groups demanding better equality. They felt they were marginalized —which they were — and that’s what shifted the agenda of the left away from the broad working class towards the specific grievances of all of these groups. And I think over time, this sort of decomposition of the left triggered a reaction on the right, where white people are now saying, “Well, actually, we’re the victimized minority, we’re the ones that are invisible to the elites, and we’re the ones being left behind.”
How crucial is Trump himself to polarization we now see in American politics?
Trump has made the polarization worse in very specific ways, but it would be a problem even without him, and it’ll continue to be a problem once he departs. Which I hope will be sooner rather than later.
You are careful to note that many of Trump’s supporters do have legitimate grievances.
Well, what’s happened to the white working class has been a social disaster. In many rural communities, you’ve got this raging opioid epidemic. The latest estimate was that 72,000 Americans died in the last year. You’ve had social breakdown in terms of single-parent families and children growing up in extreme poverty. And I think a lot of this was actually invisible to people until the election of 2016. During the New Hampshire primary, for example, it turned out that the biggest issue in the state, a state that is almost 100 per cent white, was heroin addiction. Until then, what had happened to a lot of working class Americans had not been brought to the fore.
You also argue that before we grapple with some of the negative aspects of identity politics on the left, we have to acknowledge the legitimacy of complaints among racial and sexual minorities, and other marginalized groups.
There’s no question about that. The Black Lives Matter movement, the #metoo movement — these are built around real abuses that needed to be corrected.
Obviously, though, identity politics can also lead to a kind of fragmentation, a challenge to some pretty basic Enlightenment values of the universality of human rights, of the individual as the building block of society.
It can. Here’s a concrete example: Martin Luther King basically said, “Black people are just like white people. We want the same rights. We don’t want anything special. We just want to be treated as Americans are supposed to be treated.” But in certain interpretations of the black power movement, that shifted over into saying, “No, actually black people are not just like white people. We have our own culture, we have our own values. We have a separate way of living. And that’s what we want to have respected.” Then it gets translated to a lot of different groups. The problem is that a lot of those groups are defined by biology, or characteristics you’re born with and you don’t have very much choice over — like the religion that you grew up in. So in a certain sense, that returns us to this pre-liberal notion that we’re actually all different from each other in fundamental ways.
There seems to be a built-in tension in identity politics between those two demands. On the one hand, there’s this desire for integration into the larger whole. On the other hand, there’s this insistence on difference and apartness — on separatism, almost.
Yeah, and I think in a liberal society you don’t want to demand that everybody be identical. But there are certain versions of multiculturalism where that separateness begins to challenge core liberal values. The clearest case of this is a Muslim family where the daughter wants to marry somebody of her own choice and the family sends her back to Morocco or Pakistan for an arranged marriage. You have this clear contradiction between the cultural values of the immigrant community and a fundamental liberal principle, which is that each individual — including women — has the right to make their own choice in matters like who they marry. And in that case, I really do think that it’s a bad interpretation of liberalism to say that we have to respect community values rather than the rights of the individual who lives in a liberal society.
I’m struck by how often what’s called “diversity” is, on closer inspection, more about emphasizing the sameness of individuals within a group, about conformity.
This is another problem with certain interpretations of identity politics. Where you say that, because you’re born into a certain group that experience then determines what you’re going to think about politics, about culture, about a whole range of things. That’s a misunderstanding about how people are, they are actually capable of rising above these given identities and thinking for themselves.
It’s almost inevitable, though, if you’re going to stress the differences between groups, that you create these false archetypes, or stereotypes.
Yeah. An example is the idea that there is this uniform thing called “white privilege.” If you look at what’s actually going on in the United States right now, it’s really remarkable, there is such a variance in the fortunes between college-educated whites and working-class whites. They’ve gone in completely opposite directions over the last 30 years.
You’re quite critical of the political left for taking its eye off the ball, if you will, for getting so consumed with narrower and narrower group identities that it’s lost its focus on bringing justice to the impoverished, and to the lower classes.
It’s easier to argue about some of these identity issues than to actually do something substantive to help the situation of marginalized groups. My personal opinion is that in the United States — I think Canadians have been better at this — we really stopped thinking about social policy seriously a long time ago. It’s much easier, for example, to push for the funding of an ethnic studies department at a university than to actually think about how we help the concrete socioeconomic situation of a group as a whole.
Let’s talk about ways out of this morass. You place a fairly heavy premium on the idea of rebuilding national identity. But you are referring to a particular type of national identity — what we often call civic nationalism, versus ethnic or cultural nationalism.
Right. In Europe, you have a number of countries that define citizenship in ethnic terms. I don’t think that’s an acceptable way for a de facto multicultural society to think of itself. You need an identity that is not based on ethnicity, not based on religion, but is based on shared political values. So in the United States, this is a belief in the constitution, a belief in the rule of law, a belief in the principle of human equality. You’ve got to get that civic understanding of nationalism.
And yet you say that’s not enough, there’s got to be something more. What is the more you think is needed?
I think the thicker cultures are, the more binding they are. So I think that there are other kinds of positive virtues that you need to cultivate. A sense of civic obligation, for example, which is why I’m in favor of something like national service — this idea that, as a citizen of a democratic society, you’re not just a rights bearer that is constantly getting stuff from the government, you’re also somebody that actively has to contribute.
How do you manage the trick of of cultivating this kind of nationalism but not becoming exclusionary, or unwilling to cooperate with other countries — especially as so many of the issues we face are global.
International cooperation still has to be based on nations. The nation still provides this one characteristic that is not shared by either sub-national or supranational organizations, which is that it can legitimately use force to uphold laws, to protect citizens. So it’s very important to hold on to that. But that doesn’t mean that nations can’t voluntarily cooperate with one another. In fact, the global economy wouldn’t work if it didn’t have this whole layer of all sorts of international agreements and organizations. I don’t think you have to give up vital aspects of sovereignty to deal with the kinds of problems created by globalization.
Let me close with, maybe an obligatory question, but why do you think Canada has been the exception to some of these trends? We’ve certainly had our share of identity politics, but we haven’t had that populist nationalism to anything like the same degree.
I was hoping you’d get to that. I actually think that part of the answer to that may be the way that you handle immigration. First of all, you’ve got a skill-based immigration policy. And you don’t have anything like the level of illegal immigration to the U.S. I really think that some of the opposition to immigration here is based on xenophobia, racism, and so forth —but a lot of it is based on a sense that immigration is out of control, that we don’t control our borders. That is much less salient in Canada.