Review: Identity by Francis Fukuyama

Historians and political scientists love to view history as cyclical, helping give rise to the old maxim that “history repeats itself.” But in 1989 Francis Fukuyama challenged that approach when he famously proclaimed that Western-style liberal democracy’s victory in the Cold War marked “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and “the end of history.”

In Fukuyama’s view, later elaborated in his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press), World War II represented a massive struggle between three distinct ideologies: liberal democracy, fascism, and communism. The war destroyed fascism, and 50 years later, Soviet communism failed. For him and many political scientists, history was over. Liberal democracy won and was here to stay. Fukuyama admitted that democracy may suffer “temporary” setbacks but argued, in the long run, it would become more and more prevalent.

Fukuyama’s grand theory envisioned that liberal democracy’s permanence would also bring globalization and a strong middle class. Since democracies engage in less warfare, war itself would even disappear. The new utopia might be a bit boring, but that is a small price to pay for peace and prosperity.

Nearly three decades later, the bold prediction has not yet proven true. Autocratically governed countries continue their ascent, most notably China and Russia, but also scores of other states throughout the globe. The Arab Spring was a dismal failure and democratic countries like Turkey and Nicaragua lurch back toward the international and historic norm of autocracy. Even in the United States, the world’s flagship liberal democracy, elections increasingly involve narrow choices between candidates on the socialist left and the authoritarian, nationalistic right.

These developments suggest our ideology continues to evolve. Are we unsatisfied with liberal democracy? If so, what drives that dissatisfaction? Fukuyama addresses these questions in his new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

In Fukuyama’s view, “Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today.” This demand for recognition and dignity drives a global surge of identity politics, which in turn fuels populist nationalism, authoritarianism, socialism, religious conflict, and democratic decline.

Although Identity seeks to tackle larger, timeless issues surrounding ideology, Fukuyama also works to explain the current moment of Donald Trump. Citing Plato, who suggested about a third of the soul demands recognition of one’s dignity, Fukuyama argues the current political challenges originate less with economic anguish and more with identity.

We hunger for our hidden inner self to be uncovered, acknowledged, and valued by the political system. Consider the plight and challenges which have long faced African-Americans, women, the LGBT community, and the disabled, just to name a few. Fukuyama notes the political Left embraced these groups, triggering a reaction from the Right seeking recognition of their own perceived struggles. Those on the Right—often white and male—feel ignored or devalued and those feelings form the root of modern populism.

Old political fault lines featured the Left’s focus on economic equality and the Right’s focus on limited government. Now, however, both sides engage in a war of identity politics with the Left concentrating on “promoting the interests of a wide variety of groups perceived as being marginalized,” while the Right redefines itself “as patriots who seek to protect traditional national identity, an identity that is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity or religion.” These identities and their feelings of marginalization now drive human affairs.

Fukuyama does see value in identity politics because it forces the privileged to see their effect on marginalized groups. Our approach to interpreting and solving this injustice, however, poses danger. Identity politics “has become a cheap substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the 30-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality.” For example, when so-called Obamacare came to the forefront of political debate, many opponents viewed it through a race-specific lense: a black president working to help his black constituents. Fukuyama yearns for a narrative focused less on narrow groups and more on larger collectives.

Fukuyama’s timely book, however, would have benefited from greater exploration of technology’s impact on identity politics and the current state of affairs. The internet, and social media in particular, enables echo chambers that feed negative aspects of identity group politics. It allows us to find affirmation without confronting conflicting views. Are these internet echo chambers and feedback loops a cause or effect of identity politics? Fukuyama never fully unpacks the issue.

To his credit, Fukuyama avoids idealistic aspirations of humans shedding all forms of tribalism and identity politics. He believes in the nation-state and offers solutions for cultivating “integrative national identities” rooted in democratic values. He advocates inclusive identities but recognizes the human need for community and some semblance of control.

Fukuyama’s Identity does not offer a silver bullet for modern political controversies, nor does it bolster his famous “end of history” thesis. Identity does, however, offer an insightful diagnosis for the current moment and some hopeful prescriptions. Regardless of whether any such book can serve as the panacea for our social and political challenges, we need more thinkers like Fukuyama wrestling with the way forward.