Fukuyama: A New American 'Identity' Could Be Antidote To Polarizing U.S. Politics

Sep 11, 2018
Originally published on September 11, 2018 6:16 pm

The phrase "identity politics" has come to be used as a political insult. It's now shorthand for pandering to voters according to demographics.

But political scientist Francis Fukuyama says that everyone is playing at identity politics now — that nationalism, radical Islam and other movements are fueled by people wrestling with identity in an economic world order that's letting them down.

The election of Donald Trump has ridden on the back of such identity issues, he says.

"His core supporters are people that feel that their understanding of a traditional American identity is being challenged," says Fukuyama. "That's why immigration has been so important to him."

Fukuyama is a senior fellow in international relations at Stanford University and director of its Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. His new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, is an attempt to examine the development and role of identity in contemporary politics.


Interview Highlights

On how identity is playing out in U.S. politics today

I think that the real problem in American politics is we've shifted from arguing about economic policies to arguing about identities, where you have a number of identities rooted, unfortunately, in biology, on both the left and the right, where you really can't compromise or negotiate. ...

If it's based on the way I was born, I can't change that, and so you're stuck with that identity. And I think that that's really toxic for democratic politics, because it makes communication, discussion, compromise, much more difficult, and it also erodes the necessary, commonly held beliefs that are necessary to maintain a democracy.

On how white America is now talking about its identity

I think it's perhaps not surprising, although, I must say, that it's very dispiriting. There's been racism and xenophobia for a long time. I think what's unique about this moment is that a lot of people on the alt-right, white nationalists, have borrowed the framing of left-wing identity politics to say "We white people are an oppressed minority." That's something I think is quite new in our politics.

On how the loss of dignity plays into identity politics

I think that this is something behind the Trump vote, that a lot of the working class people that had lost jobs, that were not living in coastal cities, not connected to the global economy — except as they were victimized by it — simply felt ignored by the elites that were doing very well. And I think it reflected the fundamental economic inequalities that have appeared over the last 30 years as a result of advances in technology and globalization. And so, the real claim, I think, was being invisible to people that were part of the elite.

On whether it's possible to step off this path

I think it's actually quite possible, because we're actually not born with identities. Our identities aren't necessarily biological. We construct identities all the time, and I think one of the tasks is to reconstruct an American national identity that is open to everybody, bound together on the basis of political principles — like the Constitution, like the rule of law, like the principle of equality and the Declaration of Independence. That's the kind of constructed identity that we need as an antidote to the kinds of polarizing identities that our politics has fallen prey to.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The phrase identity politics has come to be used as a political insult. It's now shorthand for pandering to voters according to demographics. But Francis Fukuyama says that everyone is playing on identity politics now; that nationalism, radical Islam and other movements are fueled by people wrestling with identity in an economic world order that's letting them down. His new book is called "Identity: The Demand For Dignity And The Politics Of Resentment." Francis Fukuyama is here to talk more about it.

Thank you.

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: Thank you.

CORNISH: You write that this book may not have been written if Donald Trump had not been elected president. How come?

FUKUYAMA: Well, yes. Donald Trump disrupted my personal intellectual agenda, just like he disrupted a lot of things in politics. He's posed a particular challenge, not just in terms of policies but to the very foundations of American democracy, by the kind of person he is, the kind of demagogic politics that he's promoted. But it has ridden on the back of identity issues - that his core supporters are people that feel that their understanding of a traditional American identity is being challenged. That's why immigration has been so important to him. And so this book is really just an attempt to think all of that through.

CORNISH: How do you see it playing out in U.S. politics today? And is it playing out for the worse?

FUKUYAMA: I think that the real problem in American politics is we've shifted from arguing about economic policies to arguing about identities, where you have a number of identities rooted, unfortunately, in biology on both the left and the right, where you really can't compromise or negotiate, you know...

CORNISH: Like, you can't negotiate with something if it is so tightly connected to just who you are - fundamentally who you are.

FUKUYAMA: That's right. I mean, if it's based on the way I was born, I can't change that. And so you're stuck with that identity. And I think that that's really toxic for democratic politics because it makes communication, discussion, compromise much more difficult. And it also erodes the necessary commonly held beliefs that are necessary to maintain a democracy.

CORNISH: Is it all that surprising that we've reached a point where you would have, like, white America talking about its identity?

FUKUYAMA: I think it's perhaps not surprising, although I must say that it's very dispiriting. There's been racism and xenophobia for a long time. I think what's unique about this moment is that a lot of people on the "alt-right," white nationalists that borrow the framing of left-wing identity politics to say we white people are an oppressed minority. That's something I think is quite new in our politics.

CORNISH: So how does the loss of dignity play into all this? Where do you see that as something that people aren't paying close enough attention to?

FUKUYAMA: I think that this is something behind the Trump vote; that a lot of the working-class people that had lost jobs, that were not living in coastal cities, not connected to the global economy except, you know, as they were victimized by it - simply felt ignored by the elites that were doing very well. And I think it reflected the fundamental economic inequalities that have appeared over the last 30 years as a result of advances in technology and globalization. And so the real claim, I think, was being invisible to people that were part of the elite.

CORNISH: At the end of the day, is there any way off this kind of path? Like, if it's tied to who we are and how we feel about ourselves, each and every person and voter, it's very hard to kind of lower those stakes.

FUKUYAMA: I think it's actually quite possible because we're actually not born with identities. Our identities aren't necessarily biological. We construct identities all the time. And I think one of the tasks is to reconstruct an American national identity that is open to everybody, bound together on the basis of political principles - like the Constitution, like the rule of law, like the principle of equality in the Declaration of Independence. That's the kind of constructed identity that we need as an antidote to the kinds of polarizing identities that our politics has fallen prey to.

CORNISH: Francis Fukuyama, thank you so much for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

FUKUYAMA: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS' "BETH'S THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.