Liberalism's Identity Politics: A Response to Professor Fukuyama
23 U. Pa. J.L. & Soc. Change 27 (2020)
24 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2020
Date Written: 2020
Francis Fukuyama in his new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, argues that over the past decade the main axis of politics globally has shifted from a focus on economic issues to a focus on identity politics—from issues of distribution to ones of recognition. He suggests that with this shift the world has seen the emergence of a new populist nationalism that threatens democracy around the world. It is this new nationalism, he posits, that is responsible, in part, for the election of Donald Trump in the United States and Brexit in the United Kingdom.
Fukuyama sees globalization as partially responsible for the rise in this nationalism, a form of identity politics. He argues that although identity politics grows out of the basic human need for recognition, its modern origins lie in part in the 1960s identity-based social movements against injustice. Fukuyama claims that the political Left subsequently adopted this form of politics, abandoning its historical aims of expanding economic wellbeing for large collectivities—for larger groups of people than identity politics allows. The adoption of this politics, he contends, spurred the political Right into also adopting and engaging in a politics of identity, manifest in the current resurgence of nationalism, including white nationalism in the West—what Europeans refer to as fascism. I disagree.
Fukuyama summarizes this line of argument in a more strident, less nuanced piece entitled, Against Identity Politics: The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy. The piece appeared in the Foreign Affairs magazine in October 2018. In this essay I will refer to both the book and this piece.
There is much in Fukuyama’s argument with which I agree. However, below, I argue his analysis is fundamentally flawed in that he incorrectly lays the blame for the rise of identity politics on the Left, and by implication on the movements for racial, gender, and sexual justice, among others. In doing so, Fukuyama ignores these movements’ distributional claims and broad-based advocacy for economic justice, the opposition to which is deeply structured into the liberal democratic project itself. He accomplishes this by painting these movements as engaged primarily in a politics of recognition—identity politics. This leads him to recommend a politics and policies which are unlikely to alter the structures that generate either globalization-induced inequality or identity politics. Further these recommendations are likely to render the Left less politically successful. I focus on the African American experience in the United States, as he does in part, by way of example.
Part I briefly outlines Fukuyama’s argument and his suggestions for overcoming the ill effects of nationalism on democracy. Part II explores the work of Nancy Fraser who wrote on the politics of distribution and recognition over twenty years ago. Fraser’s work provides some definitional clarity, particularly with regard to the issue of economic distribution. Her work also provides one way of assessing the stakes involved in some of Fukuyama’s suggestions. Part III provides another analysis and origin story for the rise of identity politics and its relationship to distributional injustice; locating these origins within the development of the liberal democratic project itself. This analysis further grounds a critique of Fukuyama’s stance on multiculturalism and political correctness. In conclusion, the essay suggests that the voices Fukuyama seeks to silence in his critique of identity politics may be the very ones with the vision, willingness and commitment to advance the kind of broad-based economic justice coalition for which Fukuyama advocates.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation