Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
“Identity is an important contribution to the conversation on this timely and important topic. Progressives and conservatives alike would benefit from wrestling with Fukuyama’s perspectives . . .”
In Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, prominent political scientist Francis Fukuyama tackles the thorny issue of contemporary identity politics, tracing its historical development and providing a fair-minded assessment of its effect on modern liberal democratic politics.
The bulk of the book is organized as a chronological tour through the history of political thinking on the concept of identity, including a discussion of Socrates, Freud, Luther, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, the French Revolution, and the Arab Spring. Those who are interested in the contemporary context can begin reading in Chapter 8 without losing much of the narrative.
Chapters 8 and 9 pick up the story in the 20th century and discuss the perennial “what’s the matter with Kansas” paradox: Why hasn’t rising inequality resulted in more support for the political left in the U.S. and other democracies (a question that has particularly “befuddled Marxists”)? The answer, according to Fukuyama, is that most humans perceive invisibility to be worse than poverty. When push comes to shove, the poor and middle classes would rather be seen and treated with dignity and respect than enjoy a strong economic safety net.
Chapter 11 is perhaps the most significant and could stand on its own as an extended essay on the origin of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, but also Trumpian “Make America Great Again” populist nationalism. In brief, each of the historically marginalized groups that engaged in civil rights activism in the mid-20th century “had a choice of seeing itself in broader or narrower identity terms. It could demand that society treat its members identically to the way that the dominant groups in society were treated, or it could assert a separate identity for its members and demand respect for them as different from the mainstream society.” This is reflected in the difference between Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approach compared to that of Malcolm X or that of First vs. Second Wave feminism. “Over time,” Fukuyama observes, “the latter strategy tended to win out.”
This resulted in the reorientation of political identity from individuals to groups and the emergence of multiculturalist ideology that affords equal respect to individuals primarily vis-à-vis their culture groups, thus the origin of contemporary “identity politics.” This was a positive political development in many ways, Fukuyama argues.
For example, raising awareness of the very real societal problems of police brutality and sexual harassment has made positive contributions to changing both political policies and cultural norms. However, “identity politics for some progressives has become a cheap substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the 30-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality.”
This focus has also brought with it a weakened commitment to free speech and the “rational discourse needed to sustain a democracy.” Most worrisome, he argues, it has also encouraged the reactionary rise of identity politics on the right that tends to emphasize white racial identity and does little to discourage support from white supremacists.
While there is much that is commendable in Fukuyama’s analysis, not every particular is persuasive. One of the implicit “morals of the story” is that much of the modern resentment toward minority groups would be assuaged if political elites had been more successful at fostering economic growth and opportunity for the middle class over the past few decades.
This is problematic because social psychology has demonstrated that group-based social behavior is much more firmly ingrained in our brains than Fukuyama tends to acknowledge. Some identities are harder to subordinate to broader creed-based national identities than others.
Research has shown that human brains are hardwired to subconsciously encode the sex, age, and skin color of other humans within nanoseconds. Socially constructing identities that deemphasize gender and race, therefore, is much easier said than done, and progressives are right to focus on those identities as key loci of the distribution of privileges and advantages in politics.
That said, Fukuyama makes an important point that the pendulum has sometimes swung too far in the direction of group-based identity as a way of organizing our common civic life. Ultimately, a liberal democracy can function effectively only if there is a broadly shared consensus of common interests and values, where all voices are recognized equally in the public sphere.
He does not present an extremist view when he argues that progressives are sometimes too quick to dismiss and delegitimize the claims of those in the majority to have their voices heard and considered, while conservatives are sometimes too quick to assume that there are no longer real barriers for minorities to have their voices be equally heard and considered in the public sphere as well.
On the whole, progressive readers might appreciate that he does not downplay or delegitimize the very real harms that have been and continue to be, experienced by historically disadvantaged groups. He also minces no words in denouncing the racist strain of Trumpism: “little can be done to change their minds. They should not be catered to, but simply opposed on moral grounds.” For their part, conservative readers will likely agree with his critique of a leftist political ideology that emphasizes diversity for diversity’s sake and prioritizes a narrative of group-based victimization over inclusive, broad-based progress.
Ultimately, Identity is an important contribution to the conversation on this timely and important topic. Progressives and conservatives alike would benefit from wrestling with Fukuyama’s perspectives as they think about how best to organize the norms and values of our political discussions and, more broadly, our common life.