Off the Shelf: The Search for Dignity

Francis Fukuyama (File photo: Larry Downing/Reuters)
What Francis Fukuyama’s new book gets right, and wrong, about nationalism and identity politics

Has anyone else noticed a decline in the number of New Yorkers who wear Yankees caps and gear in Manhattan? Of course, I have no data beyond my own impressions. I’m sure that overall, sales of such gear are up. But in 2003 I felt like I could not go anywhere without reminders of the ways in which Manhattanites were invested in the team, and that is not so much the case anymore. If I get over to Philadelphia or to Boston, I find support for the local teams almost omnipresent. (Hold that thought; I’ll come back to it in a minute.)

When I don’t envy him, I pity Francis Fukuyama. His first smash book, The End of History and the Last Man, offered a thesis less triumphalist and more disquieting than anyone seems to remember. People think it was a book of end-to-end post-Cold War liberal gloating, and that its thesis helped launch the Iraq War. He’s sometimes absurdly blamed for all the folly and waste that followed.

In fact, it is a far more disturbing book than it’s made out to be. Worst of all for Fukuyama, the false memory of its thesis is still more influential than the real one. I sat once in a room full of public-spirited liberals who were still reeling from Brexit and Trump, but mostly still believed that the contest of politics was more or less over, save for blips like the one just endured. And one participant’s quite serious suggestion for solving populist anger was to redirect displaced and non-market-competitive men toward the business of “artisanal” products. She held her hands up in mocking quotation marks. Artisanal products like banana bread. The new elite would pretend to value these pathetic efforts of the former proletariat to contribute to the world and thereby restore the social bonds necessary for a functioning state. Let them serve us cake. Seriously.

With this memory in mind, I appreciated that Fukuyama defends himself and The End of History in the opening pages of his new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, which signals a development and change in his thinking.

Fukuyama begins with an arresting thesis about identity politics. “Identity grows, in the first place, out of a distinction between one’s true inner self and an outer world of social rules and norms that does not adequately recognize that inner self’s worth or dignity,” he writes. “Individuals throughout human history have found themselves at odds with their societies. But only in modern times has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable, and the outer society systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former. It is not the inner self that has to be made to conform to society’s rules, but society itself that needs to change.”

This is the beginning of a somewhat simplified history of conceptions of the self that travels quickly through the Protestant Reformation to the philosophy of Rousseau. Fukuyama locates the motor for new populist and nationalist movements in human nature, in the desire for recognition and esteem, a desire that was hyper-charged and given almost imperial ambition by the therapeutic turn in education and politics of the late 20th century.

Where I start to detect a problem is when Fukuyama offers his definition of nationalism. “Nationalism is a doctrine that political borders ought to correspond to cultural communities, with culture defined largely by shared language,” he writes. He’s not wrong, exactly, but I think his conception is too tight.

In tracing the emergence of nationalism in modernity, Fukuyama turns to “[Johann] Herder, [who] argued that each human community is unique and separate from its neighbors. [Herder] notes that climate and geography have had huge impacts on the customs of different peoples, each of which expresses its own ‘genius’ in the ways they have adapted to local circumstances.” Fukuyama sees the precursor to the modern search for dignity in the moment when “Herder argued that the Germans needed to take pride in their own culture and traditions rather than seeking to be second-rate Frenchmen. “

This is one of the most outstanding features of nationalist polemic, and the most popularly misunderstood. At the top, nationalism is usually not a meat-headed and narrow belief that “my nation is best in every way,” but instead springs out of a recognition of the power or greatness of a neighboring nation. A nationalist usually begins by lamenting that his own people don’t consider themselves as good or as dignified as the more powerful nation next door. He laments that his people are settling for mediocrity, consenting and cooperating with the rule of colonial masters, or simply consigning themselves to the slow erosion of their traditions. The Irish nationalist Michael Collins liked the serious-minded British negotiators more than some of his romantic colleagues. Distressingly, Adolf Hitler, angry over his nation’s humiliation, was inspired to try and rectify it by America’s bloody pursuit of Manifest Destiny.

But beyond a deep-seated psychological need for recognition that has been given license, there are other reasons for nationalism’s current rise. Populists and Nationalists have been quick to borrow the Left’s language of diversity. Hungary and Poland argue for a diversity of political visions within the EU. Anti-immigration parties argue that mass immigration makes the capital cities of Europe more like each other and less distinctive. Romantic populists, especially in Europe, resent the soft imperialism of American multinational corporations’ planting logos across the world’s public spaces, and exercising their power to determine far-flung countries’ tax policies. Nationalism is offering people an outlet for resistance to the homogenizing power of capitalism: an ethic of cooperation, honor, and membership in societies where the expanding liberal logic of rights, and the efficiency of markets, seek to denationalize loyalty.

Fukuyama follows rather conventional lines when outlining globalization’s grant of superabundant rewards to a smaller class of winners. He’s also admirably realistic about the limits of what liberal democracies can offer:

Real-world liberal democracies never fully live up to their underlying ideals of freedom and equality. Rights are often violated; the law never applies equally to the rich and powerful as it does to the poor and weak; citizens, though given the opportunity to participate, frequently choose not to do so. Moreover, intrinsic conflicts exist between the goals of freedom and equality: greater freedom often entails increased inequality, while efforts to equalize outcomes reduce freedom. Successful democracy depends not on optimization of its ideals, but balance: a balance between individual freedom and political equality, and between a capable state exercising legitimate power and the institutions of law and accountability that seek to constrain it.

I wish he had also looked a little deeper into the emerging global cities, and the globalization of some existing megacities. The era of nation states fostered the growth and importance of second- and third-tier metropoles and regions. The emergence of global cities that have more at stake in one another’s success than in the success of their own countries can feel like a return to an earlier, less-democratic period of history. My mind drifts back to the visible decline of Yankees fandom in Manhattan.

My own definition of nationalism is more slippery and unprincipled than Fukuyama’s. That is, I take nationalist sentiment as an enduring feature of modern political life. Most of the time this sentiment, which is distinct from patriotism, is nothing more than peaceable relations between neighbors, sharing law in a shared territory. But in the presence of an irritation, it is converted into a conscious politics, and inspires nationalists to accomplish some specific end. A persistent irritant will bring about a persistent nationalist politics. (See how the pressure of Moscow fuels the enduring Banderite tradition of nationalism in Western Ukraine.)

Traditionally, intellectuals have judged nationalism by its irritated character, or by what they take as its self-seeking and irrational sentiments. I would propose instead to judge nationalist movements by their aims and means. Nationalism can seek liberation and self-determination from empire and be summoned to create anti-corruption movements at home. It can also advance irredentist claims abroad and inspire terrorists. It just depends.

To take a few European examples from the 20th century, we should be able to make intelligent distinctions between the desire to establish a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin via an alliance with the Liberal party and the desire to seize the city of Lviv for Poland via military conquest. Both of these still should be distinguished from the desire to achieve lebensraum for the Germanic volk via the liquidation of Jews and the conquest of Europe. These are all movements that draw on nationalist sentiment, but they do so for aims that can be judged by other criteria.

There is a need for such distinctions and judgement in evaluating books like Fukuyama’s, as well. Under one label of nationalist populism, we see grouped together trade protectionism, Donald Trump, Brexit, Viktor Orban’s Hungary, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Poland’s Law and Justice Party. On the other side we pile up the liberal world order of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, the EU, the Iraq War, the European Central Bank, and the Troika.

There is something perverse about all this. A pro-EU French government opposed the Iraq War. The current liberal champion of Europe, Emmanuel Macron takes a harder line on immigration than his socialist predecessor, François Hollande, who in turn took a harder line than his conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. Barack Obama warned the EU, and Germany in particular, that American military protection could not be counted on forever. While opposition newspapers close in Orban’s Hungary, there is a huge qualitative difference between Fidesz’s deciding to withdraw advertising dollars from critical newspapers and the Russian state’s willingness to poison and kill its critics. The current government of Poland is implacably hostile to Russia and wants to see NATO strengthened. And it was Warsaw’s previous liberal government that launched armed raids of newspaper offices.

The most common characteristics of the new populist and nationalist critiques might be understandable in less lofty terms than identity. The financial and social costs of emigration from what was once called the Third World have dropped precipitously in recent decades, and the resulting wave of immigration began straining the assimilative power of First World countries with low birthrates. Secondly, many center-right or center-left politicians were discredited for their role in the leadup to the 2008 financial crisis, or resented for their role in implementing the subsequent policies of austerity. Thirdly, sometimes anti-nationalist parties just experience failure, as has almost certainly happened in Central Europe. The corruption scandals of the liberal Civic Platform go a long way toward explaining Law and Justice’s success in Poland, just as the boobish incompetence of communists and fascists go a long way toward explaining the broader triumph of Fidesz in Hungary.

Fukuyama is sometimes admirably realistic when sketching the limits of what liberal democracies can offer:

Being a citizen of a liberal democracy does not mean, moreover, that people will actually be treated with equal respect either by their government or by other citizens. They are judged on the basis of their skin color, their gender, their national origin, their looks, their ethnicity, or their sexual orientation. Each person and each group experiences disrespect in different ways, and each seeks its own dignity. Identity politics thus engenders its own dynamic, by which societies divide themselves into smaller and smaller groups by virtue of their particular “lived experience” of victimization.

And that is why I found his conclusory chapter somewhat baffling. In a chapter cheekily titled, “What is to Be Done?” Fukuyama writes:

How do we translate these abstract ideas into concrete policies at the current moment? We can start by trying to counter the specific abuses that have driven assertions of identity, such as unwarranted police violence against minorities or sexual assault and sexual harassment in workplaces, schools, and other institutions. No critique of identity politics should imply that these are not real and urgent problems that need concrete solutions.

Beyond that, there is a broader agenda of integrating smaller groups into larger wholes on which trust and citizenship can be based. We need to promote creedal national identities built around the foundational ideas of modern liberal democracy, and use public policies to deliberately assimilate newcomers to those identities. Liberal democracy has its own culture, which must be held in higher esteem than cultures rejecting democracy’s values.

And, Fukuyama writes,

It would help if the EU democratized itself by shifting powers from the Commission to the Parliament and tried to make up for lost time by investing in European identity through the creation of the appropriate symbols and narratives that would be inculcated through a common educational system. This too is likely to be beyond the capability of a union of twenty-eight members, each of which remains jealous of its national prerogatives and stands ready to veto such a program.

Nowhere does Fukuyama come around to see that “liberal internationalist” is not just a political description but a powerful identity of its own. And it is the liberal internationalist who is irritated by recent developments and seeks a specific goal that we can judge, namely to restrict democratic peoples in their choice of governments.

Fukuyama wants to reject identity politics based on ethnicity and religious creeds, but what he proposes is the imposition of liberal–democratic creedal identities on historic nations. Instead of real nationalism, he argues for an imposter version that liberals control. Instead of religion, he argues for divinized citizenship, a form of societal membership based on liberal–internationalist-approved values, symbols, and creeds that contains all the seeds of tyranny itself. This is a liberal–democratic spirit that seeks to forbid Poland, the U.K., or the U.S. from voting out a government or choosing a policy if liberals decide that course of action is in any way significantly less committed to their creeds and symbols.

If such an ideology is the alternative, I’ll take the old form of nationalism, where you can be an American socialist or an American conservative and still share loyalty and neighborliness, based not on a strict set of values but on shared language and history. Seems considerably more free and peaceable, doesn’t it?

Most Popular


In Defense of Coleman Hughes

Picture the scene: A young man walks into a congressional hearing to offer witness testimony. His grandfather was barbarically brutalized by people who are now long dead. The nation in which he resides built its wealth of his grandfather’s brutalization. The question: Should his fellow citizens pay the young ... Read More

College Leaders Should Learn from Oberlin

Thanks to their social-justice warrior mindset, the leaders of Oberlin College have caused an Ohio jury to hit it with $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages in a case where the school couldn't resist the urge to side with its “woke” students against a local business. College leaders should learn ... Read More
Film & TV

Toy Story 4: A National Anthem

The Toy Story franchise is the closest thing we have to an undisputed national anthem, a popular belief that celebrates what we think we all stand for — cooperation, ingenuity, and simple values, such as perpetual hope. This fact of our infantile, desensitized culture became apparent back in 2010 when I took a ... Read More

Joe and the Segs

Joe Biden has stepped in it, good and deep. Biden, if he has any hope of ever being elected president, will be dependent on residual goodwill among African Americans from his time as Barack Obama’s loyal and deferential vice president — so deferential, in fact, that he stood aside for Herself in 2016 even ... Read More