Francis Fukuyama is worried by identity politics

Remember Francis Fukuyama and ‘The End of History’?  He’s back.  His latest tome is ‘Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment’. Agree with him or not (and Professor Scott Yenor at the Law & Liberty blog certainly doesn’t), he has a knack for framing the issues of the moment. This in turn is helpful in understanding the importance of the Trump phenomemon.

Identity politics can be defined as asserting a separate identity from the mainstream, one demanding at a minimum respect, and usually more. Fukuyama sees this as a ‘master concept’ that unifies much of what is going on in world politics and which poses a threat to the current political order. As a cerebral and centrist liberal (like many readers of this blog we hope), he sees the nation state, based on the universal liberal values of the rule of law, constitutionalism, and the equal protection of rights, as essential to order and good government.  He struggles to develop a meaningful framework for accommodating (up to a point) some of the current (left-wing) manifestations of identity politics, while excluding those of ethnicity, culture and religion which tend to be more popular on the right.

There are two main problems with this valiant attempt.  First, the distinctions he makes between valid and invalid forms of identity politics are not wholly convincing.  Japan is just one example of a nation state where ethnicity, culture and religion are entwined with national identity, while still doing a reasonable job of embodying liberal values.  Secondly, his audience doesn’t seem to be listening.  The more ambitious the scope of left-wing identity politics, the more it is likely to generate a reaction from excluded groups on the right.  This is an important element of Trump’s appeal to his supporters.

Fukuyama argues that because the demand for identity cannot be transcended, it must be shaped in a way that supports rather than undermines democracy. This seems eminently sensible, recognising the existence of uncongenial demands for identity is likely to be more useful than pretending they don’t exist.  But the task of agreeing which identities to include and which to exclude is altogether more difficult, and he may be underestimating the extent to which identity can be shaped from the top-down by currently governing elites.

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