Active McFarland: Exercising Democracy

The Politics of Identity: Insights from Francis Fukuyama

Ron Berger

This article was originally published on Wise Guys, Oct. 27, 2018.

In his slim but useful book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018), Francis Fukuyama offers insights into one of the most perplexing questions of our times, the issue of identity and identity politics. In doing so, Fukuyama takes us on a tour of the globe, though his emphasis is on Europe and the United States. He also roots his interpretation in the tradition of Western philosophy and intellectual thought that goes back to the Greeks and runs through such European notables as Luther, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel. The contemporary context of Fukuyama’s concerns is the rise of autocratic leaders, including Donald Trump, and the receding or backward slide of democratic traditions around the world.

Fukuyama believes that a “great deal of what we conventionally take to be economic motivation driven by material needs or desires is in fact a … desire for recognition of one’s dignity or status.” This is why people on the political left, among others, do not understand that what they believe to be economic self-interest is not the psychological element that most governs voters’ choices. The oft-asked question, why do citizens vote against their self-interest, misunderstands what self-interest, as its root, entails.

Fukuyama bases his argument on the assumption that while the human psyche contains the capacity for reason, and hence the capacity to act in ways that enhance rational self-interest, it also contains a capacity for judgment about one’s self worth, an instinctual drive that complicates what self-interest may entail. Fukuyama understands the latter in terms of the Greek concept of  thymos, the part of the human psyche that “craves recognition of dignity.” Thymos, in turn, may be divided into two subtypes: isomythia, the desire “to be respected on an equal basis” with others, and megalothymia, the desire “to be recognized as superior.”

Fukuyama finds evidence of thymos as a dimension of the human psyche in biochemical research that reveals heightened levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin associated with feelings of pride and self-esteem, evidence that also exists in chimpanzees that achieve alpha male status within their local hierarchies. At the same time, there is a decisive sociocultural dimension to the manner in which thymos manifests itself over the course of human history. In early cultures, for example, dignity was attributed to relatively few people, such as warriors who were “willing to risk their lives in battle.” In modern societies, on the other hand, dignity is believed to “an attribute of all human beings.” And in some societies, dignity derives from “one’s membership in a larger group of shared memory and experience.”

According to Fukuyama, the contemporary concept of “identity” emerges out of this biological and sociocultural foundation. He credits the psychologist Erik Erikson for popularizing the concept in the 1950s through his life-stage theory of child development. But what is most important for Fukuyama is the distinction between one’s inner self and “an outer world of social rules and norms that does not adequately recognize that inner self’s worth or dignity.” He adds that only “in modern times has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable, and that the outer society is systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former.” In turn, “identity politics,” a term that emerged in the 1970s, involves individuals’ demands for public affirmation of their self-worth. This demand, Fukuyama argues, entails two movements. One is a demand for the dignity of individuals as inherently deserving of human rights, such as expressed in the American Declaration of Independence’s assertion “that all men [sic] are created equal, … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, … among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The other is a demand for the dignity of collectivities or groups whose members have been marginalized or disrespected in some egregious way. It is the latter that is the stuff of contemporary identity politics that undergirds much of our contemporary political conflicts.


Globalization and its discontents provide the broad political-economic context for Fukuyama’s analysis of identity politics. In general, globalization entails the “growth of economic interdependence among nations.” The benefits of this growth, however, have been associated with increasing inequality within Western countries, including the United States, as economic capital flowed to countries with cheaper sources of labor. The beneficiaries in these societies are those who have been able to obtain skills that require higher degrees of education, particularly in the area of information technology. Simultaneously, the prospects of the old industrial working class have declined. This class, which Karl Marx once called the proletariat, had previously obtained middle-class status (in terms of wages and benefits) due to the successes of unionization. But now this class’ economic prospects are in decline.

Fukuyama notes that during the 1990s, following the break-up of the Soviet Union and its allied nations, liberal and leftist parties in Europe and the United States (e.g., Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party) began to accommodate themselves to the new global reality and move further to right as they embraced the logic of market economies, including the neoliberal agenda of increasing privatization of the public sphere and deregulation of the economy. Simultaneously, the political left shifted its emphasis away from class-Thebased issues toward its “support for the rights of a broad range of marginalized groups”—women, people of color, sexual minorities, religious minorities, etc., and the proliferation of multiple “intersectionalities” of these categories. “Identity, which had formerly been a matter for individuals, now became the property of groups,” and “multiculturalism,” the idea that society was composed of diverse groups who were entitled to promulgate their unique cultures, took hold. Fukuyama thinks that this shift from class to identity as the overarching paradigm of the left was due in part to “the increasing difficulty of crafting policies that would bring about large-scale socioeconomic change.” In the process, the traditional white working class felt increasingly marginalized by the leftist agenda, even though that agenda includes economic reforms that would benefit that group.

It has long been a contention of political sociology, and one with which Fukuyama agrees, that relative rather than absolute deprivation is the progenitor of most political conflict. In the contemporary context, the declining prospects of the white working class, and the loss of dignity associated with this decline, has led to considerable resentment. Fukuyama cites Katherine Cramer’s research in Wisconsin and Arlie Hochschild’s in Louisiana as particularly insightful on this issue. Hochschild, for instance, highlights her informants’ belief that others have “cut in line ahead of … ordinary Americans who have been waiting patiently” for their share of the American dream, leaving them feeling like “strangers in their own land.” This group is particularly vulnerable to political demagoguery that highlights immigration as a threat to their economic, cultural, and psychic well-being.

When politicians on the political left, Bernie Sanders included, suggest the need to find ways to appeal to this constituency, they are sometimes met with complaints from potential allies. Ta-Ne Ta-Nehisis Coates, for example, has little sympathy for white working-class voters who complain about their declining economic prospects; this has long been the circumstance of the black working-class. Why is it, he asks, that what “appeals to the white working class is ennobled,” but what “appeals to black workers, and all others outside the tribe” is dismissed as identity politics? Thus Coates is critical of those who “would much rather have a discussion about class struggles” than racial struggles that implicate whites in the oppression of racial minorities and that “might require specific policy solutions.”

Amidst this debate, Fukuyama points to an irony of left-wing identity politics: by leaving the white working class outside of its concerns, it isolates itself from the one identity group that has historically been the largest constituency of the political left. Some on the left dismiss this dilemma by arguing that an emerging majority of nonwhite voters will soon usher in an era of progressivism and Democratic Party majorities. This was John Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s thesis in their book The Emerging Democratic Majority, published in 2002. However, Judis now thinks it was a mistake to ever assume that Democrats will win elections without appealing to a substantial number of white voters. As nonwhite groups assimilate, Latinos and Asians especially, they increasingly align their identities and interests with whites and cannot be expected to inevitably vote in any particular way. Multiple racial/ethnic coalitions will be needed for the hoped-for voting majority to come to fruition.


During his career as a public intellectual, Fukuyama has aligned himself with neoconservatives on matters of foreign policy, as well as with defenders of the Western academic canon vis-à-vis those who have sought to diversify the conventional orthodoxy. Thus, there may be a tendency among some on the left to dismiss his critique of identity politics as the ruminations of a conservative. But Fukuyama does not think there is anything “wrong with identity politics as such; it is a natural and inevitable response to injustice. It becomes problematic only when … [it becomes a] substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the thirty-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality.”

Fukuyama asserts that an additional problem with identity politics is that it has been adopted by white nationalists of the political right, especially as it has been advanced by Donald Trump. He observes that Trump “has been careful not to articulate overtly racist views. But he has happily accepted support from individuals and groups that hold them. … Since his rise, white nationalism has moved from a fringe movement to something much more mainstream in American politics.”

Fukuyama agrees with those on the left that nations need “to protect the marginalized and excluded,” but he also thinks that nations

need to achieve common goals via deliberation and consensus. The shift in agendas of both left and right toward the protection of ever narrower group identities ultimately threatens the possibility of communication and collective action. The remedy for this is not to abandon the idea of identity, which is too much a part of the way that modern people think about themselves and their surrounding societies. The remedy is to define larger and more integrative national identities that take account of the de facto diversity of existing liberal democratic societies.

Fukuyama believes that the notion of national identity got a bad name because it came to be associated with a “narrow, ethnically-based, intolerant, aggressive, and deeply illiberal form.” But, he argues, national identity can also

be built around liberal and democratic political values, and the common experiences that provide the connective tissue around which diverse communities can thrive. … Such an inclusive sense of national identity remains critical for the maintenance of a successful modern political order. … Democracies will not survive if citizens are not in some measure irrationally attached to the ideas of constitutional government and human equality through feelings of pride and patriotism.

In his recent book The Common Good, Robert Reich buttresses this argument by calling for a national conversation about “the moral obligations of citizenship.” He advances the notion of the common good to refer to the responsibility of individuals in a society to look out for their mutually beneficial interests. Reich notes that the common good is a reservoir of trust that is built over generations, whereby societal decisions are based not just on what serves the people in the present, but on how those decisions will serve future generations.

Judis believes that the current nationalist revival can be understood as a reaction to the hitherto mentioned downsides of globalization. But while the “reaction has been most potent on the political right,” there is a need for a liberal form of nationalism that can challenge this reaction. The problem on the left is that it has dismissed nationalism as the province of small-minded bigots who are undermining the national interest, rather than trying to advance a vision of “what is legitimate and justifiable in nationalism.” Judis highlights the critical importance of meeting this challenge, if only because the “perception of a common national identity is essential to democracies and to the modern welfare state, which depends on the willingness of citizens to pay taxes to aid fellow citizens whom they may never have set eyes upon.”

Fukuyama concludes by noting that there is no “escape from thinking about ourselves and society in identity terms. But we need to remember that identities … are neither fixed nor necessarily given to us by our accidents of birth. Identity can be used to divide, but it can be also used to integrate. That in the end will be the remedy” for the dilemmas of identity politics in our time.

Other Sources

Ta-Nehisis Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017).

Katherine Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness and the Rise of Scott Walker (2016).

Arlene Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016).

John Judis, “Redoing the Electoral Math,” The New Republic (Oct. 2017).

John Judis, “What the Left Misses About Nationalism,” New York Times (Oct. 15, 2018).

John Judis & Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002).

Robert Reich, The Common Good (2018).

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