Francis Fukuyama: Identity politics

The demand for dignity and the nation state’s future

Thirty years ago the Iron Curtain came down. This change opened a tremendous range of opportunities. For individuals, societies, and businesses in the region of Central and Eastern Europe. Back then, the today world famous political scientist, Francis Fukuyama wrote the book The End of History and the Last Man, suggesting that the end of communism would lead to the prevalence of liberal democracy. His theories are still triggering debates to this very day.

This is the transcript of a lecture by Francis Fukuyama which he gave on 7 March 2019 in Vienna. It is the first in a series of four Tipping Point Talks in 2019, ERSTE Foundation’s contribution to the 200th anniversary of the savings bank idea in Austria.


Thank you to the ERSTE Foundation and to all of you for coming out tonight to talk about what I think is a pretty important problem, which is the crisis, the global crisis of democracy brought about by the rise of nationalist populism.

I was doing other research projects: I run a Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. For most of my life I have been thinking about how do we expand the realm of democracy and make more countries democratic, improve their quality, move from authoritarian governments to democratic ones. And then, all of a sudden, 2016 happened. A number of very disturbing developments occurred that year: the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the Brexit vote in Britain to go out of the European Union. And this came against the backdrop of a changing global environment. So, for the last 30 years since 1989 or 1991, we had been living in a growing liberal international order. This had been put together largely by the United States but with its allies in Western Europe, and the NATO alliance, in the Far East, it had an economic component, which was the system of free trade: the movement of goods, people, services, ideas, investment across international borders. And it had a political component, which was the alliances of the US in Europe and in Asia. And this was a really, really successful set of initiatives. The number of democracies in this period went from about 35 in 1970, and peaked at something like a 115 to a 120, depending on how you measure a democracy. By the early 2000s, the global output of the world economy quadrupled. In virtually every respect, economic conditions were getting better: not just in terms of incomes, rising middle classes in places like China and India, but better child health – infant mortality was going down.


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The ERSTE Foundation Tipping Point Talks 2019

Boris Marte, ERSTE Foundation

Francis Fukuyama: Identity Politics – The Demand for Dignity and the Nation State’s Future

On-stage discussion
How do we foster democracy in Europe 30 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain?

Alexander Van der Bellen, President of the Republic of Austria
Francis Fukuyama, political scientist
Julia De Clerck-Sachsse, EU diplomat
Ivan Krastev, political scientist
Karolina Wigura, philosopher
Chair: Almut Möller

All of these things were happening and yet, all of this reversed sometime in the mid to late 2000s. So, you had the rise of a couple of very self-confident and newly assertive authoritarian powers: Russia and China. But from my standpoint, the most disturbing thing was this emergence of populism within established democracies and in fact, within the two most established democracies: Britain and the US. And it seemed to me that it was vital to figure out why this was happening and what was going on because the entire third wave of democratisation looked like it was being reversed.

So, you will have to bear with me, I am a Political Science professor, I am going to give you a few definitions, because there are many understandings of populism. And I just want to run through three because it is important to be able to distinguish between them.

The first definition is an economic one: a populist is a leader, who promotes economic policies or social policies that are popular on the short run but disastrous on the long run. So, for example, Venezuela under Hugo Chávez opened eye clinics, and gave out free food, gasoline cost less than 10 cents a gallon in Venezuela. None of these were sustainable ones: the price of oil collapsed in 2014. Alright, so that is the economist definition of populism.

The third definition is that a populist, when they say “I support the people”, often times do not mean the whole people. They mean a certain kind of person, usually defined by race or ethnicity. Often times in terms of traditional cultural values or as a traditional sense of national identity. And that does not correspond to the actual population that might live in that country. So, again: Viktor Orbán in Hungary has said very explicitly that the national identity of Hungary is to be an ethnic Hungarian. Meaning, if you are not an ethnic Hungarian, you are not part of the nation. And on the other hand, if you are an ethnic Hungarian living outside of Hungary – and there is lots of them – you are part of the nation. And that is problematic for reasons that I think, are very self-evident.

So, this allows us to distinguish between different forms of populism. So, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela was a classic number 1 type populist, an economic populist, a left-wing populist. He also was, by definition 2, very charismatic. But according to definition 3, that really did not apply to him because he did not have a racial understanding of who a Venezuelan is. I think that Orbán probably captures… Well, he has populist economic policies but he certainly tries to be a demagogue, a charismatic leader. And he certainly has a very restrictive view of who is a Hungarian and who qualifies. I think, all of us in this room are familiar with the litany of leaders, new leaders that fall into this category. It is Orbán, it is the Law and Justice Party in Poland, it is Mr Erdoğan in Turkey. Now we have a populist coalition in Italy, and Latin America elected its first Northern European style populist in Jair Bolsonaro. Most Latin American populists are like Southern European populists: they are left wing, they are not ethnically exclusive, they are more economic populists. But Latin America has decided to join the crowd, and so they elected a leader that is, you know, racially prejudiced, that has a fundamentalist Christian understanding of what Brasil should be about. So, he actually belongs in Germany or Scandinavia, or a region like that. So, this is a way to distinguish between populists of the left that are number 1 and number 2, and populists of the right who tend to be number 2 and number 3.

Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama is Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), and the Mosbacher Director of FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. He is professor (by courtesy) of political science at Stanford University.

In his book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama postulated that an increase in freedom and prosperity would automatically lead to a demand for democratic governance around the globe. Yet it seems that in many respects, the paths to social and economic well-being diverge. Why is that the case? Is identity politics as it is practised in the European Union today a stumbling block rather than a step towards realising a nation’s vision?

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / eSel

That is the kind of phenomenon that we are trying to explain. And especially the rise of the right-wing populists for reasons that I will get to shortly. Now, the question then is why do you have this occurring in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century? And I think there are essentially three broad categories of reason. The first one is the conventional wisdom on this subject which says, it is the global economy. If you took a trade course in university you would have learned that a system of free trade raises the incomes of all of the participants. Everybody gets richer. As I said, global output quadrupled in a 30-year period. The economists were not wrong about that but if you had listened carefully to your Economics professor, you would have heard him or her say: not every individual in every country gets richer. And in fact, if you are a lower-skilled, less educated worker in a rich country, you are liable to lose out to a similarly skilled worker in a poor country. And that in fact, is what has been going on. So, with outsourcing, with foreign competition this globalised system of free trade that began to really intensify in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, led to the export of lots of jobs out of the rich world. And it led to an economic decline of an important part of the old working class. In the United States for example, between the late 1990s and 2015, average incomes for people in the lower 90% of the income distribution actually declined slightly. Which is really remarkable: a 2-decade period, in which people were actually having less income and the problem was actually in a way doubly bad for men. There was an important gender distinction here because one of the things that was also happening at the same time was that we were moving out of an industrial economy into a service economy where women just have a naturally greater role. And so, you had a male worker in a factory who lost his job, making less money flipping hamburgers in a fast-food restaurant, less money than his father or maybe even his grandfather, and then his wife or girlfriend being the major breadwinner in the family. It involves this big loss of income and a loss of status. This, I would say, is the conventional wisdom that would explain why this was going on.

A second category of reason has to do with politics. Right from the beginning, the rap against democracy is that it produces weak government. Democracies cannot make decisions. There are parliaments that talk, they jabber at each other, there is coalitions, there is interest groups, there is lobbying, and all of this stuff makes it really hard to actually be decisive. And so, there is a big desire on the part of a lot of ordinary people to have a strong man, a leader who can just cut through all this blather, make decisions and get things done. And in the United States we somehow, for some reason, think that rich, corporate people are that kind of leader, so there has been this tendency to want to pluck out businessmen to be leaders. I actually think that being a corporate CEO is about the worst training you can have for being a democratic leader, since corporations are actually pretty authoritarian, and especially, family businesses are incredibly. They are like little, you know, you have little emperors running them and that is actually not such great training to be a leader. Nonetheless, you have had a number of people that – against the backdrop of weak government – have been elected because people think they are going to be really tough. Abe in Japan, Modi in India, Donald Trump in the US.

The third reason is cultural, and that is the one that has to do with identity. And that is what my most recent book is about and I think that there has been a tendency to overstate the importance of the economic motivation and to not fully appreciate the importance of the cultural side of this. The fact that this is ultimately really a fight over identity. So, what is identity: the word identity and Identity Politics was really not used commonly until the 1950s. A psychologist, Erik Erikson, as far as I’m aware, was the first one that used the term, but it is actually a very old concept. And as I argue in my book, it goes back to a word, a Greek word that Plato used in the Republic: “Thymos”. Thymos is a part of the soul that craves respect and recognition of its worth. We do not want just material things like food, and drink, and housing, and so forth. We also want other people to evaluate us at the rate that we think we deserve and I think, – so with apologies to the economists in the room –the economists have a kind of blinkered understanding of human behaviour because they say: OK people have desires, they have preferences, and they are rational and they use their rationality to maximize their preferences. And that explains, you know, why human beings do what they do. Actually, if you go back to the “Republic”, Socrates says: Is not there this third part of the soul that is not concerned primarily with material goods but really wants respect? And does not that overpower the desire for material well-being in many cases, because respect is linked to the emotions? If you do not get respected at the rate that you think you deserve, you get angry and that drives you actually, to violence, to politics, to a lot of other things.

Now, the modern understanding of identity is a little bit different because “Thymos” as a universal human characteristic, all people have it to some degree, and it has existed in every historical period. But there is a particular modern version of identity that in my view really starts with Martin Luther. Luther said: in God’s eyes, what God cares about is your inner belief, your inner faith. God does not care about – it is easier to make this argument in a Protestant country, like in Hamburg a couple of days ago, than here in Vienna but you know – God does not care about all the rituals of the Catholic Church. He does not care whether you say the rosary or go to Mass, or do any of these, follow any of these rules that the Catholic Church says, because God cares about the inner believer and that is really what is going to save you, and that is what constitutes Christian faith. And the entire society around you can be false and wrong, and repressive because it is denying the authenticity of that inner self, which is a believer, and the only person that can see it is – perhaps you, but God above all, because it is not visible in your outer behaviour. And in a way, this sets up the modern understanding of identity, which is that we have a worth inside us that is superior to the evaluation of the surrounding society. In other pre-modern times you would have said: well tough, you know, you got to conform. The society sets these rules so you just grow up and learn that you have got to follow society’s rules. The modern version says: no, that is not right because what is valuable is that inner self, and the rest of society is wrong and false, and it is the one that has to change. So you get later versions of this, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argues that the whole historical process actually made us into a bunch of phonies, that it created these external rules that suppress the inner being. And the purpose, what fulfils us, is the emergence of that authentic inner self.

If you think about it, this relates to the structure of a lot of modern social movements. Something like the “Me Too” movement has the same structure in a way, about the valuing of the inner self. And so, what is the issue involved with sexual harassment? It has to do with the fact that men are not valuing women as whole human beings. Woman has knowledge, abilities, moral character. All of these characteristics. Man only cares about her sexual attributes and that is devaluing woman, but it is a modern view because the lesson that you draw from that is not that women just have to learn how to get along. The lesson is that the inner self is the one that is valuable, and the whole outside society has to change, and that is what is happening right now. Men are going through a cultural retraining, they are learning that actually their rules are not the right ones, and we need a different set of rules in relations between men and women that respect the dignity of the whole person in those kinds of relationships. That is the modern understanding of identity and that is what has powered a whole series of political and social movements in the last 200 or 300 years.

Photo: © APA / Ludwig Schedl

Photo: © APA / Ludwig Schedl

The first manifestation of Identity Politics, if you take my understanding of it seriously, is actually democracy itself. In 2011 you had this vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, in Tunisia. He had a vegetable cart, it was confiscated by a police woman, he went to the governor’s office and he said: where’s my cart, why did you take away my livelihood? No one would give him an answer. You know, the police woman spat at him, and he was in such despair at not even being able to get an answer from the government that he set himself on fire. That triggered the Arab Spring because many people in Arab countries – and every Arab country was a dictatorship at that point – saw themselves in Mohamed Bouazizi. The Tunisian government, the dictatorship of Ben Ali did not treat Mohamed Bouazizi with the minimal amount of respect that a human being deserves. And that is why they came out into the streets in their millions in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria, in Yemen, in many other parts of the Arab world, because an authoritarian government does not respect its citizens. If it is a mild authoritarian government like Singapore: they treat their citizens like children, the government knows better what is in your interest and you are not grown up enough to really make that choice yourself. So, we have to guide you. In a bad dictatorship it is much worse: you are not a human being, you are just cannon fodder or you are just part of the machinery of history that the government can use for its own purposes. A liberal democracy actually recognises us, recognises our dignity, and it does it by giving us rights: we have the right to speech, to association and ultimately to political participation through the vote. We have a share in our own self-governance because the government respects us enough to trust us with something like the franchise.

This is at the core of the democracy that I think all of us hold dear, and it is done on the basis of a universal recognition of citizens as morally equal. They are equally agents, all men are created equal, as the American Declaration of Independence says. However, there are other forms of recognition that are partial and in fact, historically, this universal liberal form of recognition competed right from the beginning, with the other major form of recognition in politics, which was nationalism. And in fact, coming directly out of the French Revolution, you had these two streams simultaneously. On the one hand, the French Revolution was about the rights of men and spreading the rights of men everywhere in the world. But on the other hand, it was also a manifestation of French nationalism. It was really the first modern nationalist movement. The French wanted to defend their country against all of the invading powers of Europe, and kick out the foreigners, and have a country that they themselves could control. And in fact, this liberal interpretation of recognition fought with a nationalist interpretation throughout the 19th century. In Germany, and here in Vienna in 1848, you had a liberal revolution but you also had a national revolution on behalf of the German people. And those two understandings of recognition really defined German history from that point going forward. And ultimately, a very aggressive intolerant form of nationalism took hold in many countries, leading to the catastrophe of the two World Wars in the early 20th century. So, that is an early form of Identity Politics, and it is that national understanding of identity, that is making a comeback in many countries.

I would argue that Islamism is also, it can be interpreted as a quest for recognition. And this would be particularly true, I think, for a lot of the young European Muslims that went to fight for Al-Qaeda or on the behalf of the Islamic State, because they had a real identity conflict. You know, they came from families that had emigrated to France, or the Netherlands, or Germany. They did not feel comfortable with their parents’ form of religiosity, they thought that it was too old fashioned and traditional, but they also did not feel well-integrated into the society, in which they were living. They suffered this kind of alienating inability to answer the question “who am I really?”. And I think what the Islamist did is to say: I will tell you who you are you are a proud Muslim, you are part of a large ummah, we are being persecuted and disrespected all over the world, and you can do something about that, you can join up and fight back and make Islam a proud civilisation once again. I mean it is a difficult judgment because, I think that some of Islamism is driven by genuine religiosity and piety, but a lot of it is also driven by this desire to know who am I, and to accept the form of identity that unites you with a community, that gives you a home and a sense of belonging. Those are all different variants of this struggle for recognition.

There is a particular form that emerged in liberal societies in the course of the 20th century, that brings us closer to what is going on in the present, which is the Identity Politics that people refer to when they complain about Identity Politics. But it really starts in the 1960s in the US, in many respects, where you had a number of important social movements: you had the civil rights movement for African Americans, you had the feminist movement, you had movements on behalf of the disabled, the LGBT movement. All of these represented groups that had been marginalised by the mainstream society. In the early 1960s, the mainstream society was white and it was male. And none of these groups had a place in that kind of a social order, and so there was a social justice struggle to be recognised and then to have real compensation in terms of access to the job market, equal treatment under the law, so on and so forth. All of these movements were responding to real social ills, and they were very important in actually correcting the ills like racial segregation in the United States. But something happened along the route to the current form of Identity Politics, which was a shift in the way that parties of the left began to think about inequality. In the 20th century inequality was seen often times – especially in Europe-– through a Marxist lens, in which the big struggle was between capitalists and the proletariat. And the proletariat in the 20th century in most developed societies were white people. In fact, white male workers. And that was the object of the left, and that was the group that the left wanted to help. As time went on, the understanding of inequality began to shift to pay more attention to these specific groups, women, racial minorities, other kinds of discriminated against groups. And in a sense, a lot of the parties of the left began to lose touch with the old white working class that had been their core support back in the 20th century. So, for example in the US: in the 1930s, under the New Deal with Franklin Roosevelt, something like 80% of rural white Southerners voted for the Democratic Party candidate. They voted for the more left-wing candidate because he was going to do redistribution and help them out economically. But as the conception of inequality began to shift in this identity direction, increasingly, the Democratic Party began to lose touch with that old white working class. And they started to defect to the Republican Party. This really was the reason Ronald Reagan was elected in the 1980s, because he appealed to white working class voters in a way that previous Republican candidates had not. Something similar happened in Europe with the focus of a lot of the left on either environmental issues or on, again, these kinds of – yes, identity issues were a little bit different in Europe, they often times have to do with immigrants or other discriminated against classes. And, something very similar happened, where the white working class that had been the core of support let’s say, for the French Communist Party, a lot of those people began to vote for the National Front or for another right-wing party. And this, I think, has led to the present.

Photo: © Marcel Billaudet / ERSTE Foundation

Photo: © Marcel Billaudet / ERSTE Foundation

I want to make something very clear: a lot of people have accused me of blaming the rise of right-wing populist nationalism on the left, and I am not doing that. I am just trying to present a history of what happened in the evolution of the way that we think about left and right. There are many reasons why you have this right-wing, and the economic ones are definitely there. There are many factors that led to the rise of this phenomenon but there was a borrowing of the concept of identity by people on the right, from the left-wing version. And so, 50 years ago if you were a white person in the US – you would not even have thought of yourself as a white person – you would have just thought: I am an American, because that is what an American is. Today, you are getting these white nationalists that say: I am actually a minority that is being discriminated against by elites. I belong to a group that is really not privileged at all, and this is being foisted on me by people that really are privileged, which are all of these educated people in universities, in the media, and so forth. So, identity, this framing of identity, has moved from the left to the right, so it is not the left causing this, but it is a shared understanding of victimization that has travelled from left to right.

One thing I want to emphasize in describing the rise of the populist right and people that vote for populist parties, is that to some extent, this understanding of them as disregarded and disrespected, is true. There is a tendency of many people to say: well, this entire group of populist voters are just a bunch of racists and xenophobes, and you know, they are white people that had been dominant in their societies, they are losing that position of dominance, they are resentful that they are losing that, and they are just trying to get back to their old social position. This is true, for a certain group of people in that category, but I think it is important to understand that they actually have a case that they were disrespected and disregarded by the elites. This is more reasonable if you look at, for example, what happened to this white working class in the US, a good part of it actually followed the black working class into a kind of social chaos. So today, among low-skilled white workers you have a vast increase in the number of single-parent families, increases in crime rates in neighbourhoods where they live, you have an opioid epidemic that killed over 70,000 Americans, and actually lowered life expectancy, male life expectancy for white people in the US, in the last couple of years. So, it is very hard to say that these people are not in fact, in some sense, doing extremely poorly. But the cultural aspect of it is what is particularly infuriating to people. There is a very nice book called “Strangers in Their Own Land” by sociologist Arlie Hochschild that teaches at Berkeley, she interviewed a lot of Tea Party voters in rural Louisiana, and she has this metaphor, the central metaphor in her book, where the way these people see themselves is they are all lined up in a queue, there is a door in the distance, over the door it says “the American Dream”. And they are all waiting to go through the door, called the American Dream. They are raising families, going to work every day. All of a sudden, they see people cutting in ahead of them in line. Some of them are black, some of them are women, some of them are gays and lesbians, some of them are Syrian refugees, and the people that are helping them cut the line are basically, frankly, people like you and me in this audience: they are educated, people in the Arts, in the media, and the two political parties, who really have not paid much attention to them. I think that you can hear echoes of that in the populist movements here in Europe as well, that there is a cultural snobbery of the educated, cosmopolitan, urban dwelling, sophisticated people that make up elites in modern societies, against people that have less education, that do not live in big cities, that have much more traditional social and cultural values. There is a degree of justified resentment at that kind of disregard.

So, this is where we have ended up. I think that the cultural drivers, which is this fear that immigrants are taking away our national identity, that is expressed by people on the populist right, is a theme that unites virtually all of the new populist movements. The reason that immigration is such a big policy issue for them, is precisely because they felt that they used to define the national identity, and that that is no longer true; and that national identities are now being undermined by, not just by the immigrants, but by the elites that support the immigrants and want those immigrants to come in. And that defines the political contest that is ahead of us.

So, we are going to have a panel. There are lots of things you could say about: what do you do about it. That is an obvious question that I get asked quite frequently, I have some ideas but it is a very tough question, but I do not think that you can actually begin to solve the problem until you have analysed it properly, And tried to understand, with a little bit of sympathy, what is actually driving people to vote for these parties. The stakes are very high because the stakes are really about liberal democracy itself. These parties represent not a threat to democracy, – you know, a lot of them are popularly elected – but they represent a threat to liberal democracy. That is to say: a legal and a constitutional rule of law that limits power. That is what has been eroding in Hungary, in Poland, in the United States, where Donald Trump has attacked the FBI and the intelligence community, the free press, as enemies of the people. That is really what is at stake for all of us. So, thank you very much for your attention, and I really look forward to the discussion to follow.

This text is the transcript of a lecture which was held on the occasion of The ERSTE Foundation Tipping Point Talks 2019 in Vienna on 7 March 2019.

This text is protected by copyright: © Francis Fukuyama. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Francis Fukuyama at The ERSTE Foundation Tipping Point Talks 2019. Photo: © Marcel Billaudet / ERSTE Foundation.

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