Saksham Khosla is a first-year International Development concentrator at SAIS and an editor at SAIS Perspectives. He previously conducted research on social protection, governance, and financial inclusion in India at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Carnegie India.

Dr. Francis Fukuyama, Mosbacher Director of the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, discussed his new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, at the first Development Roundtable of the 2018-19 academic year.

Dr. Fukuyama began by describing three factors that combined to drive the rise in populism around the world. First, globalization caused a deterioration of the societal position of low-skilled workers in advanced economies even as the middle class in India and China grew rapidly. Second, increasing political polarization reduced bipartisan support for passing legislation and increased the demand for strong executive leadership to break through gridlock. Third, citizens in many countries around the world had demands for recognition – rooted in a universal human desire for dignity – that were not receiving adequate political affirmation.  

This last driver, the demand for respect by marginalized groups, became an integral part of both left-wing and right-wing political movements in recent decades. Dr. Fukuyama noted that these movements become problematic when they undermine commonalities across different groups and create unbridgeable divides. As a policy response, he argued for establishing an integrative national identity based on fundamental democratic values through measures like national service and a greater emphasis on assimilating immigrants.

Following his remarks, SAIS Perspectives spoke to Dr. Fukuyama about the drivers of, and responses to, identity-based political movements. 

Perspectives: You locate the intellectual roots of the term “identity politics” within Plato’s Republic, but the movements it describes have become the focus of academic and political debate only over the past few decades. What is driving this renewed focus on identity?

Dr. Fukuyama: I think that there are several things that have driven it. There were certain parts of the world which were always very focused on identity, and things have not changed all that much. For example, most countries in the Middle East have really big problems with national identity. Several, including Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan that have basically fallen apart as states because there was not any kind of internal agreement over national identity, and so you have had traditional identity groups fighting with one another.

That is different from the identity issues that have arisen in developed countries, which are driven more by the impact of globalization and economic inequality that has produced a downward mobility for a lot of working-class people in those societies.

There is a yet different form of identity in large and more stable countries like India, China, and Japan where it manifests itself as traditional nationalism. In a sense, Abe in Japan or Xi in China or Modi in India all present themselves as decisive strong rulers that are defending the national identity and the national interest of their country. In the case of someone like Modi, the project is a little bit different because he wants to change the identity of India. The India that was formed after independence by Gandhi and Nehru was a classic multicultural liberal society and I think that the agenda of Modi and the BJP is to make a more Hindu country, which is a fairly dramatic shift in the way India conceives of itself, and one that I think makes a lot of people uncomfortable because there are a lot of non-Hindus there. But even someone like Abe in Japan also has a different understanding of the narrative of 20th century politics, which again is not the one that a lot of prior Japanese politicians have held. So, all of these are manifestations of identity politics.

Perspectives: You mentioned in the book and your remarks that assertions of identity can vary from those that present positive, emancipatory, and legitimate claims to state recognition, and more cynical claims that weaponize the language of identity politics in ways that erode democratic ideals. How might political actors distinguish between these different claims?

Dr. Fukuyama: I think you have to look at the particular context in which the claims are being made. So when African-Americans in the 1960s wanted recognition, you were living in a United States that had legal segregation in the South and there was a lot of discrimination on the basis of race; those were very powerful and important claims. I think that the claims of women and the #MeToo movement today really represent an important change in cultural values and the way that men and women interact, which is also very legitimate. I think that most people would agree that the kind of right-wing identity movement that has arisen in recent years is pushback by a community that had been powerful before and is losing power. But even in that case I think it is important to listen to the claims because a lot of it is coming from people who actually do have a real claim to be underrepresented and underrecognized in a certain way. In fact, if you are a rural white person that has lost a job due to globalization you have not actually been represented by political parties over the last twenty to thirty years, and I do think their complaint about being invisible to elites is really not an absurd one. Obviously, that is different from being a black person in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, in 1962.

Perspectives: Were your prescriptions – greater immigration, national service, inculcating a creedal national identity – recommended primarily for American policymakers or do they hold broader relevance?

Dr. Fukuyama: No, they are intended for everybody. If Iraq had a strong democratic national identity that would solve many of its problems, because people would say “I’m loyal to Iraq,” and not to Kurdistan, the Shiite south, or the Sunni heartland and so forth. I think a strong national identity that is liberal and open is important for everyone. It is also important in Europe where a lot of identity is based in ethnicity. That is one of the reasons they have a hard time assimilating immigrants because they do not have cultures that are open to that kind of flexible sense of identity. Identity is not just an American issue – it is really an issue for everyone.

Perspectives: Is there a role for public officials, like local or federal judges, bureaucrats, and legislators, in responding to identity politics?  

Dr. Fukuyama: There is a kind of a positive role in building identity through the education system that has been underplayed. I think that citizens in a democracy need to be taught a certain amount of civics about how democratic institutions both work and are supposed to work, and that is a function that has been neglected. Understandings of the rule of law are being challenged by a lot of people on the right these days in the United States, Hungary, Poland, and Turkey; the people that work in those institutions need to stand up for them and citizens in general need to understand why they are important in any kind of a democratic order.

SAIS Perspectives is grateful to Dr. Fukuyama for taking the time to speak with us, and to the International Development program for organizing the Development Roundtable.  To read about other Development Roundtable events, click here.

PHOTO CREDIT: Molly Adams, from Flickr Creative Commons, licensed under CC BY 2.0.