In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, an extended argument that the combination of liberal democracy and market capitalism could represent the end state for the evolution of human governance.
The book was an influential, much-discussed hit, with its central idea—"the end of history"—becoming popular shorthand for the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism. In the process, Fukuyama became one of the nation's most widely recognized thinkers.
Fukuyama, notably, did not argue that other, more totalitarian forms of government could never return—only that in the very long term, market capitalism would prove more durable. Yet more than a quarter-century later, with the rise of populist political campaigns and democratic unrest throughout the Western world, some have wondered whether his most well-known idea remains relevant. In Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University and fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies tackles what he sees as one of the primary driving forces behind these challenges: the rise of identity politics.
In September, Fukuyama spoke with Reason's Nick Gillespie about his new book, the Donald Trump presidency, why economic gains aren't enough to hold a society together, and whether or not we've really reached the end of history.
Reason: Start by giving me the elevator pitch for Identity, which you say you wouldn't have written if Donald Trump hadn't won the 2016 election.
Fukuyama: My view is that the nature of global politics is shifting to an identity axis and away from the economic left-right axis of the 20th century that was defined largely by ideology. And by identity I mean these fixed characteristics that link us to certain groups, usually based on things like ethnicity, race, religion. It could be gender.
Sexual orientation now in the United States and other developed countries. I think that that is not good for democracy, because these fixed characteristics are supposed to be determinative of your politics. And in a way, that's a problem in many countries like Iraq or Syria or Libya, where everyone is tied to a fixed identity group and therefore you can't have a modern political system.
Your book revolves around a couple of key concepts. Can you please explain them briefly?
Isothymia is the desire to be recognized as equal to other people. If you're disrespected or [treated as] invisible, you want to be recognized. In the United States context, that's the Declaration of Independence: "All men are created equal." And every marginalized group that says, "You don't see me as a human being," I think that's what's driving that.
Megalothymia is not a universal characteristic, but it's universal to almost every political order.…You get certain individuals who are not satisfied with equal recognition. They want to be better than everyone else. For a democratic political system that's a particular problem, because you've got to somehow limit the ability of an individual like that to hurt the rest of the political system.
Are you arguing in the book that certain identity groups are now taking on that role, where they're demanding to be recognized, or that their grievances be recognized, as separate and greater than other groups?
The first manifestation of modern identity politics was European nationalism. And there you start with the desire of the Germans [in the 19th century] to live within their own community, because they're all scattered around Central and Eastern Europe; they don't have a single state under which they're all ruled. And then they get that state.
So they just want to be recognized like other peoples, but then the isothymia evolves into megalothymia where they say, "Well, actually, we ought to dominate the Slavs and all these other people surrounding us."
"Certain individuals…are not satisfied with equal recognition. They want to be better than everyone else. For a democratic political system, that's a particular problem."
You have spent a lot of time studying the political philosopher Georg Hegel. How does that factor in when you talk about global identity politics?
Well, the part of Hegel that's critical to this is his observation that politics is driven by the desire for recognition. He doesn't get into the world that we live in where you've got this pluralistic recognition of all these little groups. He didn't live in that kind of society. What he saw were masters and slaves.
The masters wanted recognition from the slaves, but it wasn't a satisfying recognition, because you're only being recognized by a slave—somebody that's not a full human being. He saw this play out in the course of the French Revolution, where the slaves were rising up against the masters, and he said that ultimately, the only solution to this problem is universal recognition, where every human being recognizes every other human being as an equal. And that's basically the foundation for a liberal society.
What I think he didn't anticipate is all of these partial recognitions or smaller group recognitions that have become so important in the way that we think about ourselves today.
You write that a lot of political life is only weakly related to economic resources. What do you mean by that?
I think that dignity politics is not about an absolute level of resources. It really is your standing relative to other people. People hate being less than other people, and sometimes they want to be more than that. The reason we desire a lot of material resources is not that we really just have to have that beautiful Ferrari. But it shows that I am better than you because you've only got a Tesla or whatever.
But what happens when everybody can buy the car that they want? Or pretty close.
I think the nature of relative status is that it's a perpetual arms race that no one can ever win. We used to have millionaires. Now we've got billionaires, we've got multi-billionaires.
In the book you rely somewhat on work by Cornell economist Robert Frank, who talks a lot about "positional consumption," which is all about status. But I'm curious if that's actually an accurate reading of how most people live. Aren't most people just kind of happy to be able to live a variation of the life they want?
Flashy material resources are only one axis of status competition. There's plenty of others. How your kid is doing, whether they're the captain of the football team—there's so many ways in which you can demonstrate superior status. I think this is as true in poor communities as it is in rich ones. It's really not related to an absolute level of consumption.
"Distrust of government traps you in a kind of low-level equilibrium where you say, 'The government's not working. Why pay my taxes? Why give it more resources? Why give it more authority?' And then because it doesn't have resources or authority, it doesn't do a good job, and people say, 'Ah! See?'"
Take the case that recently went in front of the Supreme Court about the gay couple that wanted a Christian baker to bake them a wedding cake. Was that about dignity?
I think in general the gay marriage movement is dignity politics right from the get-go. Because if it were simply about resources, you could have joint property or survivorship inheritance under a civil union.…Conversely, I think the people that were opposed to it wanted to say, "We believe the traditional family should have more dignity than a gay or lesbian union." That's what the fight was about.
You argue that nationalism, and also to a certain degree religious identities, in the U.S. and Europe are tied to economic anxiety. Especially among an anxious American white middle class. Is there a disconnect between talking about economics and more symbolic, identity-focused political transactions?
I don't think so. My mentor, [the late political scientist] Samuel Huntington, made this observation back in Political Order in Changing Societies. He was actually extending an observation of Alexis de Tocqueville about the French Revolution. He said the most dangerous people are people that thought they were middle-class and are losing that status. They got fired from a job, they don't make as much money as their father, whatever. But the status loss is really what makes them angry—that they thought they were solidly representative of the average person in their country, and it turns out they're being dragged into an underclass.
I think that's really what distinguishes the populism that you see in North America and Northern Europe from the kind of populism you see in Latin America. Because in Latin America, the populism really is driven by poor people.
Exit poll data from 2016 showed that Trump lost among voters from households making less than $50,000. Hillary [Clinton] got them. So they're the poor in this context. And then he beat her among voters from households making between $50,000 and $200,000. Arguably that's the middle class, but that is an enormous range—$200,000 is a lot of money anywhere in the country.
Within that range there's really different motives. If you're a factory worker that lost your job because it was outsourced to China, you may be at the bottom of that range. That's different, I think, from a pretty secure middle-class professional making $150,000. But you can still be driven by cultural fears because you don't like the nature of the new society that's emerging around you where all these different people that don't look like Americans to you are suddenly being given, in your view, advantages and so forth.
You write that identity politics in America is primarily an attribute of the left. It's replaced a traditional focus on economic security and transfer of resources from the well-off to the desperately poor, a kind of class-based argument, with all of these different types of identities. What is driving that? You say in the book that this started happening in the '60s. What's interesting is that that was the tail-end for a lot of immigration. The Irish, the Italians, the Jews had either been assimilated or were about to be. But today, American Indians, Asian Americans, black Americans all have moved toward identity politics.
First of all, the thing is powered by actual injustice. These are all groups that are actually marginalized in various ways, disrespected, and so they have a perfectly reasonable demand that they be treated differently.
I think the process of identity group formation has its own logic, where you want to affirm not just that we're like everybody else but that we have our own characteristics and maybe, actually, we're better in some ways.
To me, Black Lives Matter makes total sense. I don't see them as saying, "We are superior to you." Which left-wing identity groups are saying, "Shut up and listen to me because I should be the only one talking"?
I don't think you've seen assertions of superiority in quite that fashion. But you certainly have seen assertions of cultural distinctness and then the demand that you respect those differences. That's true of both African Americans and women.
"My mentor, Samuel Huntington, made this observation.…He said the most dangerous people are people that thought they were middle-class and are losing that status."
Martin Luther King's demand was just to be treated like other Americans, like white Americans. But in the black power movement, there was a view that black culture is not white culture. It has its own virtues and it needs to be respected as a group identity, rather than individual black people being treated as Americans.
It's even more pronounced in the feminist movement, because right from the beginning there's a train of thought that says, "Yeah. Women really are fundamentally different, and in certain respects they're better. They're not violent, they're more empathetic, they have their own ways of approaching social cooperation. It's really the men that are imposing this very aggressive, violent, patriarchal culture on the rest of society."
You are not arguing that identity politics is just simply wrong.
What you're arguing is that it's a problem when it gets to a point where it says, "Because of my group identity I should not be criticized. I should not be forced to submit to any kind of cultural norm." Where does identity politics cross a boundary?
There's a couple of different boundaries. The assertion that all cultural groups are basically equal is problematic. This has been a real issue with Muslim immigrant communities in Europe. I want to be very careful because this is kind of delicate ground. It is true that there's a culture in these communities that does not treat women well. It does not treat homosexuality the way that mainstream society does. There's anti-Semitism. All of these problems are embedded in their cultural values.
You can take one of two positions. You can say we live in a liberal society where our values are to respect the rights of individuals, or [you can say] we live in this kind of pluralistic, multicultural society in which all cultures are equally valuable, even if some of those cultures oppress individuals that are members. I just think in a liberal society you cannot possibly take that second position.
You write that identity politics are driving political correctness and the unwillingness—particularly on college campuses but we see this throughout public discourse—to have conversations. To interrogate or even just ask an honest question about somebody's assertion of an identity is to disrespect them. What are the ways that we get out of this stultifying moment that we're in?
Well, I have a very simple solution, which is we need to talk more about integrative identities and particularly national identity. In many cases, that actually means fixing the national identity.
In Europe, especially in continental Europe, you have identities that are tied to ethnicity. In Germany today, a German citizen of Turkish origin who doesn't speak a word of Turkish—only German—gets up and says, "I'm a German." People will look at him a little bit strangely and say, "Well, actually, you're not a German. You're a Turk." Culturally there still is not an acceptance of a non–ethnic German as a real German. That needs to change.
It's kind of a twofold thing. Immigration I think is positive. The diversity is very bracing and it stimulates a lot of creativity. But in the end, if you don't actually shape these groups to your basic underlying political values, then you're headed down a dangerous road.
One of the things that you touch on in the book is the role of new media. We live in a globalized, networked world where you can find people like you anywhere. But there's also a negative potential. How are the internet and social media driving fragmentation?
This whole idea of a filter bubble—that because you can search out people with identical views to your own and you can shut out, deliberately, other people's voices—it tends to amplify the [worrying] kind of group-oriented beliefs. And because the internet is so expansive, you can find the six people among the 6 billion out there in the world that actually believe the crazy things that you believe. But I think the underlying drivers started well before the internet and social media got going.
Part of what drives identity politics is a sense that "the government doesn't care about people like me."
There's a whole game theory background to this, where trust can arise in an iterated game, where you're constantly playing against the same people, and then certain people screw you so you stop cooperating with them, but other people are honest so you do cooperate with them, and so you develop a norm of trust spontaneously. And I think that could happen with the government as well.
Part of the reason I think there was such a high level of trust in the U.S. government in the early 1950s is they had gotten the United States out of the Depression; we won World War II; and you had these big public works projects like the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate bridge or the Interstate Highway project.
Do you think the government might actually do what is needed to encourage trust and confidence—maybe not in its efficacy, but at least that people are acting in good faith?
Well, I think you'd need a different administration. [Trump] personally, I think, does everything he can to decrease trust in himself except for his core supporters.
It's hard for the federal government to do this. I think you could have that buildup of trust at lower levels of government, because there are a lot of municipal governments that do actually work pretty effectively, and so you might get some bottom-up movement in that respect.
"Immigration I think is positive.…But in the end, if you don't actually shape these groups to your basic underlying political values, then you're headed down a dangerous road."
Bill Clinton famously declared the end of the era of big government, but big government is kind of like General Motors. It'll never be the pace setter that it once was, but it'll continue on. Or is it more like Sears, where it just disappears because it can't reform itself?
You know, if you look around the world, there are other rich democracies that work pretty well. People trust their government. Canada, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, most of Scandinavia. These have governments that are very big. They do a lot of stuff. But they're seen as doing it well.
I would like to think that libertarians won the argument that government is ineffective and bad most of the time. I write a lot about how that erosion of social trust, ironically, leads to calls for more government, because people in low-trust countries want more regulation of every aspect of their lives.
The distrust of government traps you in a kind of low-level equilibrium where you say, "The government's not working. Why pay my taxes? Why give it more resources? Why give it more authority?" And then because it doesn't have resources or authority, it doesn't do a good job, and people say, "Ah! See?"
But we are also at the end of the Bismarckian welfare state. It's just unsustainable from an economic point of view, unless you restrict immigration.
A lot of European countries, their welfare states are going to survive.
Well, we'll see how many Muslims are living in Sweden in another 10 years. Obviously the turn to identity politics starts before the Cold War. But after the Cold War ends, there's a sharp uptick on religious and nationalist grounds. How does that either contradict or validate your thesis in The End of History?
The last several chapters are really about identity. I talk about thymos, and I talk about megalothymia and isothymia as forces that could potentially upset this democratic end of history, because generic recognition as a human being, which is what democracies do, is not enough for people. They want special forms of recognition, and that's where I left the book. I said nationalism and religion are not going disappear and also we may not have solved the Donald Trump "great man" problem.
Are we making too much of Donald Trump's election? He won as narrowly as anybody has ever done in American history. I would say that Hillary blew the election. She really ran one of the worst possible campaigns. Is he a new force, or is he a weird emanation of old coalitional politics that have been breaking down?
I think he is both cause and effect. We were very polarized before he ever arrived on the scene. We had lots of government dysfunction. He's not the creator of this and it'll survive him.
If Hillary Clinton had been elected, she would have had a terrible time governing, because the Republicans would probably control a good part of Congress, and like Obama in his last six years, she wouldn't be able to do anything. There'd be all this back-and-forth really nasty hatred on both sides.
Could it have turned out like the first Clinton presidency, with people finding a lot of common ground?
The polarization got started in the Clinton years, but it's just so much worse now. I really doubt that that would have been an outcome from a Hillary Clinton victory. On the other hand, Trump is so intent on breaking every single norm of presidential behavior [and] of policy in every conceivable dimension. Some of those norms can be repaired relatively easily. But others I think will probably take a much longer time.
What's an example of a norm that's really consequential that he's breaking?
The one that obviously worries a lot of people, including me, the most is just his willingness to attack your own legal system and to try to delegitimize it just to save your own skin. The attacks on the press are something that's also being copied by a lot of dictators around the world. Duterte in the Philippines or Putin [in Russia] or Erdogan [in Turkey]. They all say, look, the U.S. president hates his opposition press too. We're just shutting it down. Those things I think are probably pretty damaging and lasting.
Other things? I'm actually kind of worried that, because he's such a norm violator, if the Democrats come into power, the pendulum is going to swing in completely the opposite direction, and they will put into formal law these norms that had [prior to Trump's election] just been informal. You'll end up with an excessively constrained president, and I actually think that executive power doesn't work without a certain amount of executive discretion.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and style. For an audio version, subscribe to the Reason Podcast.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Ideology Is Out, Identity Is In".