Can liberal democracies survive identity politics?


Almost two decades ago Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the victory of liberal democracy. Today he’s seeing the system shattered in large part by identity politics—the subject of his latest book. 

Identity politics describes when people adopt political positions based on their ethnicity, race, sexuality or religion rather than on broader policies. Though it started on the left, it has been more potent on the right: it fueled Donald Trump’s election and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. 

How did it became one of the most powerful forces in contemporary politics? The Economist asked Dr Fukuyama about the ascent of identity politics and how societies can regain a sense of unity. The interview is followed by an excerpt from the book.

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The Economist: Identity has always been a part of politics. Why is there suddenly so much talk about identity politics now? 

Mr Fukuyama: Over the past decade, the main axis of politics in Europe and North America has been shifting. During most of the 20th century, the main divisions were based on economic issues surrounding how much the state should intervene to promote equality, versus how much freedom to permit to individuals and the private sector. Today politics increasingly centers around assertions of identity. There has been a widespread populist revolt against globalization, based partly on its unequal economic consequences, but also on the threats to traditional national identities arising from high levels of migration. 

The Brexit leave voters were often willing to suffer bad economic consequences to their decision because they felt that protecting traditional British identity was more important to them. The populist nationalist regimes in Hungary feels it has more in common with Putin’s Russia than it does with liberal Germany, despite the ideological divide that used to separate it from the former Soviet Union. Many working class voters that used to support left-wing parties in Europe and the US have switched allegiance to new populist insurgents on identity grounds.

The Economist: You write in your book that “The rise of the therapeutic model midwifed the birth of modern identity politics.” What do you mean by that?

Mr Fukuyama: The modern concept of identity is built around self-esteem—that is, the idea that we have hidden selves that are undervalued by other people, leading to feelings of anger, resentment, and invisibility. By the mid-20th century, it was less priests and ministers to whom people turned for solace, but to psychiatrists seeking to raise people’s self-esteem. This therapeutic mission spread throughout society, to schools, universities, hospitals, and the social services offered by the state itself.  

This therapeutic turn coincided with the great social movements of the 1960s, which increasingly saw low self-esteem linked to the marginalization of African-Americans, women, gays and lesbians, and the like. The fights that we have today over issues of race, gender, gender orientation, and the like, are often more over offended dignity than over material resources.  

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The Economist: Are liberal democracy (with its focus on individual liberties) and identity politics (with its focus on group rights) compatible?  

Mr Fukuyama: It depends on the nature of the groups in question. Independence movements like those in Scotland, Quebec, and Catalonia may lead to the separation of a region and its emergence of a separate sovereign state, but the successor states will likely be liberal democracies protecting individual rights. In these cases democracy per se is not threatened, though the procedures that lead to separation must be democratic. 

On the other hand, some cultural groups can themselves violate individual rights, as when a Muslim family in the West forces their daughter to marry someone she doesn’t want to, or doesn’t let her work. In such cases, the group right improperly (in my opinion) undermines the individual right. Liberal democracies have no choice but to take the side of individuals over groups if they are to remain true to their principles.

The Economist: You write that a “creedal national identity […] needs to be strongly reemphasized and defended from attacks by both the left and the right”. What is a “creedal national identity” and what would it look like in practise? 

Mr Fukuyama: A creedal national identity is one based on a creed or idea, rather than on biology. An example of the latter is Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has said that Hungarian national identity is based on Hungarian ethnicity. That is an exclusionary identity that makes no room for citizens who live in Hungary but are not Hungarian. 

France and the United States, by contrast, had by the late 20th century developed creedal identities. In the French case it is the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity coming out of the French Revolution; one could become a French citizen if one was loyal to those ideals, regardless of race or ethnicity. The same for the United States, where following the Civil War we had come so see American identity as loyalty to the Constitution, the rule of law, and the principle of equality embedded in the Declaration of Independence. 

In my view, contemporary liberal democracies that have become de facto multicultural must develop creedal, as opposed to blood-based national identities if they are to survive as democracies.

The Economist: Have identity politics pushed some voters away from progressive politics? And if so, how can their votes be won back without diminishing the plight of minorities?

Mr Fukuyama: At the core of Trump’s support were working-class white voters who felt the Democratic Party had become a party of minorities and professional women that no longer took their concerns, like job loss from outsourcing, seriously. The same can be said for European working class voters who deserted the left over the latter’s support for multiculturalism. It should be perfectly possible to win these voters back, based on an appeal to broad economic status rather than narrower support from a collection of special interest groups. 

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Inequality should be addressed by social policies like Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which provided health care to all people regardless of preexisting conditions, regards of race, gender, disability status, and the like. And it is important from progressives not to let patriotism become the exclusive property of the right, or to let justifiable sympathy for refugees morph into a disregard for enforcement of existing immigration laws.

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Excerpt from “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2018), by Francis Fukuyama:

But perhaps one of the great drivers of the new American nationalism that sent Donald Trump into the White House (and Britain out of the European Union) has been the perception of invisibility. Two recent studies of conservative voters in Wisconsin and Louisiana by Katherine Cramer and Arlie Hochschild, respectively, point to similar resentments. The overwhelmingly rural voters who supported Republican governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin explained that the elites in the capital, Madison, and in big cities outside the state simply did not understand them or pay attention to their problems. According to one of Cramer’s interlocutors, Washington, D.C., “is a country unto itself…They haven’t got a clue what the rest

of the nation is up to, they’re so absorbed in studying their own belly button.” Similarly, a Tea Party voter in rural Louisiana commented, “A lot of liberal commentators look down on people like me. We can’t say the N-word. We wouldn’t want to; it’s demeaning. So why do liberal commentators feel so free to use the R- word [redneck]?” 

The resentful citizens fearing loss of middle-class status point an accusatory finger upward to the elites, to whom they are invisible, but also downward toward the poor, whom they feel are undeserving and being unfairly favored. 

According to Cramer, “resentment toward fellow citizens is front and center. People understand their circumstances as the fault of guilty and less deserving people, not as the product of broad social, economic, and political forces.” Hochschild presents a metaphor of ordinary people patiently waiting on a long line to get through a door labeled the american dream, and seeing other people suddenly cut in line ahead of them—African-Americans, women, immigrants—aided by those same elites who ignore them. “You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored you have to feel—invisible man and feel seen as—moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.” 

Economic distress is often perceived by individuals not as resource deprivation, but as a loss of identity. Hard work should confer dignity on an individual, but that dignity is not recognized—indeed, it is condemned, and other people who are not willing to play by the rules are given undue advantages. This link between income and status helps to explain why nationalist or religious conservative groups have been more appealing to many people than traditional left-wing ones based on economic class. The nationalist can translate loss of relative economic position into loss of identity and status: you have always been a core member of our great nation, but foreigners, immigrants, and your own elite compatriots have been conspiring to hold you down; your country is no longer your own, and you are not respected in your own land. Similarly, the religious partisan can say something almost identical: You are a member of a great community of believers who have been traduced by nonbelievers; this betrayal has led not just to your impoverishment, but is a crime against God himself. You may be invisible to your fellow citizens, but you are not invisible to God.

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This is why immigration has become such a neuralgic issue in many countries around the world. Immigration may or may not be helpful to a national economy: like trade, it is often of benefit in the aggregate, but does not benefit all groups within a society. However, it is almost always seen as a threat to cultural identity, especially when cross-border flows of people are as massive as they have been in recent decades. When economic decline is interpreted as loss of social status, it is easy to see why immigration becomes a proxy for economic change. 

Yet this is not a fully satisfactory answer as to why the identity nationalist right has in recent years captured voters who had formerly voted for parties of the left, both in the United States and in Europe. The latter has, after all, traditionally had a better practical answer to the economic dislocations caused by technological change and globalization with its broader social safety net. Moreover, progressives have in the past been able to appeal to communal identity, building it around a shared experience of exploitation and resentment of rich capitalists:

“Workers of the world, unite!” “Stick it to the Man!” In the United States, working- class voters overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party from the New Deal in the 1930s up until the rise of Ronald Reagan; European social democracy was built on a foundation of trade unionism and working-class solidarity. 

The problem with the contemporary left is the particular forms of identity that it has increasingly chosen to celebrate. Rather than building solidarity around large collectivities such as the working class or the economically exploited, it has focused on ever smaller groups being marginalized in specific ways. This is part of a larger story about the fate of modern liberalism, in which the principle of universal and equal recognition has mutated into the special recognition of particular groups.

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Excerpted from “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment”. Copyright © 2018 by Francis Fukuyama. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. All rights reserved.



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