Francis Fukuyama, author, professor and senior fellow at one of Stanford University’s political think tanks, has a long and decorated list of books behind his name. Writing in the same vein and spirit of this current monograph, he has authored Political Order and Political Decay and The End of History. His political writing accomplishments have made him a staple of political thought and earned him the distinction of being a New York Times Best Selling Author. His two previous books include Poverty, Inequality, and Democracy, 2012 and The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, 2011. Both display similarities to the first section of this work, laying forth the context for identity politics as well as his growing interest and concern for the politically disenfranchised and underrepresented.
Writing on a drastic shift in politics in the twenty-first century, Fukuyama keys into one of the defining features of this political era, that being one of identity. Identity politics rests at the heartbeat of this book, and Fukuyama labors to give a context, critique a path forward citing the peculiarities, oddities and alarming trends this wave of politics has given rise to. The upsurge of identity politics, while a fairly recent term, is not a novel notion. To recapture this context, Fukuyama arranges his argument and book in the following fashion.
In the opening chapter Fukuyama identifies the concept of identity politics he will be discussing the remainder of the book to transition into his framework (chapter 2) for understanding the third part of the soul, the thymos. To do so, he goes as far back as Socrates in political thought to explain its meaning and significance. He gives the historical context where the thymos came to be attached, and roughly equated, with a modern understanding and use of identity. He then argues that the German Reformer, Martin Luther, and other influential thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel made contributions to his shape through history.
Pivoting from this framework, the author then shifts his focus in the subsequent chapters to explain the intertwining of the identity and the recent Arab Spring as they relate to democracy, freedom, and equality. At this juncture (chapter six), he makes a parallel argument that the rise of the French Revolution and the Arab Spring shared a common core element in a democratic movement, one of the need to recognize one’s dignity. The tension between universal recognition of individual rights and collective recognition as a nation find, in part, their credit owed to Rousseau. Fukuyama traces some of the anxieties between nationalism and individual (chapter seven) identity through the industrial revolution which displaced people to the urban, and upset homogenous networks, some based on race or religion (or both) in the cities.
From chapter eight on, Fukuyama now applies this apparent impulse of nationalism in the politics of people like Donald J. Trump, whose rhetoric has been nationalist and insulates itself from critique by appealing to noble notions of yester-year. This is embodied in the slogan itself, “Make America Great Again.” It is in this MAGA sentiment (chapter nine) that Fukuyama offers a key insight into how the fracturing of smaller sub-groups of political identifies and interest groups has endeavored, not merely for equality, but a special recognition above others. The application transitions slightly in an analysis of the individualistic identities as is common in North America and Europe. He makes the claim (chapter ten) that it is in the Christian tradition that the inner self is the source of sin, and by adhering to a higher moral code, this could be overcome. It is this context that the model of identity found in Rousseau deepens, but is in conflict with a crippling narcissism, what one might label selfishness when the inner-self is held so high.
From chapter eleven through the remainder of the book, Fukuyama shows the consolidation of fractured identities is traced into new ones. Namely, the example of the civil rights movement which collected a host of individuals under a single banner. Often in response, Fukuyama argues, is the nationalistic identity employed to push back on the ground gained by competing identities. For example, the Klu Klux Klan and other nationalists group appeal to a common identity in nationalism contrary to the woes of the Black Lives Matter type groups.
Rounding back to the Arab Spring in chapter twelve, the author then underscores the consequences when a country lacks no national identity, such as in Syria. National Identity, the author makes clear, is not an enemy but a necessary buttress for healthy politics and to protect the interests that can be found in the segmented groups of identity politics. The greatest areas that conflict is observed when it comes to a strong national identity but also protecting smaller groups, is in immigration. One can see the tension in this common conflict. Will these immigrants subvert the national identity that many have come to benefit form and secure freedoms? Or will it fracture our politics even more causing for less unity and unhealthy politicizing?
Chapter thirteen and fourteen lay forth the questions and final steps for a way forward in the era of identity politics. Fukuyama illustrates the difficulty in theorizing about national identities given the lengthy times, historical circumstances and influences that create nationalism. It is in this chapter that legitimate concerns of the political right are given credence. If immigration (as an example) is to continue, as well as the fracturing of identity politics, what is it that will hold our nation together? What is the creed of a people that is traditionally creedal but have competing ideas of equality and freedom? Far from being complete, the gist of this conclusion is that we are to continue to secure the demand for dignity. However, the author seems to give a note of caution of being fractured too much. There is a need to assimilate small identities into larger ones at a pace nationhood and individualism can walk hand in hand. As it is, individualism is growing at rate far faster than assimilation. His final hope is given that identities are the thing that and help to unite.
Fukuyama’s writing possesses a lucid and easy style, making what would normally be a heavy read feel light. The salient points from chapter to chapter leave the reader with much to reflect upon. He rightly raises concerns for the political atmosphere of nationalism and race. One does not have to look further than Collin Kaepernick’s protests of the national anthem, the removal of the confederate flag in southern states or the resistance to the Black Lives Matter protests to see a nationalistic rhetoric employed that appeals to kind of “lost golden age” of America’s past. Similarly, his concerns for dignity are balanced with the note of caution he strikes against the overly individualized identity politics. One of the most helpful aspects of his book is the broader historical framework he sets forth for understanding the rise of the need for dignity as it has transformed into a toxic demand. While this is a plus, its also perhaps to his detriment. For example, his treatment of Luther is not heinous, but it is a bit odd. Of the things Luther has been credited with, being the fountainhead of thought about the internal need to be recognized, is not among them. The closest sentiment that can be found is in Luther’s emphasis on the freedom of the consciousness. A charitable reading of Fukuyama at this point would connect the individualism found in Luther, not in Luther, proper, but in a misappropriation of Luther thereafter. Stemming from this misalignment of historical thought flows the rest of the author’s book.
While Fukuyama continues to make interesting points as he moves from Luther to Rousseau to and so on, his context is not necessarily wrong, but his interpretation is. His point to be made is on this trace of thought through the ideas of dignity and individualism. But could there be a more satisfying explanation for why the demand for dignity in identity politics is the way it is? What about the trends of post-modernism? The missing sub-text of Fukuyama’s historic work is the work of post-modernism to move toward affirming everyone’s individual story. This individualism, that has been elevated, makes more sense in light of the LGBTQ movements, especially of the “T”, that is, the trans-rights groups. The hyper individualism and the demand for dignity is insulated from critique almost exclusively in the subjectivity of truth that can be laid at the feet of post-modernism. This is not contrary to Fukuyama’s points, necessary, but it shows how Fukuyama has side stepped or missed simpler historical explanations.
To the author’s credit, there are no concise primer books in this arena to get people discussing, but his treatment is a bit too brisk, though it is very possible there will be future editions for him to smooth out the critiques of his work. For example, some of the groups that he associates with identity politics could perhaps be better labeled something else. While the LGBTQ’s agenda is centered around a physical and/or attractional identity, it differs from the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements. The former has the tendency to redefine themselves as non-conforming to old standards while the latter highlight the injustices by making an appeal to the same standards the other group is attempting to usurp. Stated differently, Black Lives Matter and Me Too are temporary movements aimed at justice, in general, while the broad strokes of the LGBTQ agenda, is not. This nuance is never nodded to by Fukuyama and while it is missing, it makes his argument, in general, less appealing. Both groups above have competing standards, even though they often are associated and assume to be allies of the same era.
While the author continues to make an excellent appeal to dignity, the missing standard from his appeal cannot be found, but should be considered. In other words, Fukuyama, like others, prizes dignity as a good thing. His Natural Law instinct is well intended, but if we can borrow a phrase that will press the antithesis, how does he know this is good? “By what standard” does he appeal to say this group ought to have dignity while nationalism is easily hi-jacked? Fukuyama appeals to a kind of Stoic philosophy to make his claims. But why is this any better than explicit standards? Perhaps because of its antiquity, but also perhaps because it is not inherently religious and cannot be laid at the feet of any one religion which helps him make his points without alienation. This is problematic for the Christian thinker, though. Not everyone agrees that this is the standard of which to appeal. And this brings the book back to a foundational issue. Not everyone is going to agree. Fukuyama would be better to look at what stirred Luther’s impulse which lead to his great actions. It was not about an internal struggle; it was about his conciseness be held captive by what the scripture said. Ad Fontes, and the movement Luther was steeped in, brought him back to the bible, not to stirrings of internal identity. Integral to this was the effects of sin which bind the will and reason. The toxicity of identity politics is not merely a misstep of historical thinking, it is, at bottom, related to fallen condition of humanity.
How should the Christian think of this work, then? With a grain of salt. When it comes to identify politics, Christians should be more concerned with what the God says about people lost in a false identity, like being transgender, lesbian, gay, etc. than the standards they create for themselves. The strength of Fukuyama’s work is his concern for the toxicity of identity politics and the excessive demand for dignity and the identity to be praised. Many of his common ground appeals will be well received because he is right. Dignity is a virtue worth defending. And he is also correct that the current state of identity politics is problematic. The weakness of his work, though, is mapping a way forward. Where Luther started is where many Christians should start. With the bible. This is not to say that one cannot employ arguments of Natural Law that do not explicitly match the bible’s teaching. It is to say, however, it provides a grounding and alignment from which to check the work of our Natural Law appeals. In all, this is a necessary work that will provide a good launching pad for future discussions. Too few are discussing identity politics in our current climate, and too few do so in a charitable tone as Francis Fukuyama.