Francis Fukuyama earned his place in philosophical history by declaring “the end of history” on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism.
Nowadays Fukuyama, an engaging traveler through the world of ideas, poses this great question: Where are we going?
In New York on Sept. 11, Fukuyama seemed to answer that question by telling an audience: Nowhere very good.
The global crisis laid out in Fukuyama’s latest book “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” is that identity politics — advanced tribalism, if you will — is eroding democracy.
Fukuyama writes that the United States invaded the Middle East, during the Iraq War, to Americanize the Middle East, but the Middle East has Middle-Easternized the United States. Not only is there no national identity in Iraq now, he argues, but we are also losing our Americanism to identity politics, with its baggage of racism and division.
He points to two decidedly democratic events as harbingers of a less democratic future: Britain’s vote in June 2016 to leave the European Union and the election that same year of President Donald Trump, disaster following on disaster, identity triumphing over political union.
In the case of Brexit, English nationalism upstaging the larger values of a unified Europe; and in the Trump election, the white working class voting against the other constituent parts of the nation.
Listening to Fukuyama answering questions at the New York event, organized by Philip Howard and his Common Good organization, one could be plunged into feeling that the famous American mixing bowl had become unmixed, breaking down, as Fukuyama gently suggested, into competing groups, supporting just those who belong to their group — all of this set off by white fear of the end of their hegemon in America. Hence, the hysteria over immigration.
The difference between the immigration alarm in Europe and in the United States, he said, is that Europe sees not just an invasion of different people with different customs, religions and languages, but also an assault on the cradle-to-grave welfare systems. Fukuyama said Europeans do not mind paying 60 percent of their incomes in tax because they believe they get a lot for it. That, he said, is what they see coming from immigration: People coming to live off the generous social structure for which they have not paid.
Immigrants from Africa going to Sweden — in the news because of its electoral swing to the right — must think they have entered nirvana: total freedom from want. Not quite the same as people coming across our Southern border, seeking safety and work.
Fukuyama sees the United States in danger from identity grouping overwhelming our commonality as a nation.
I wonder about that. When I landed on these shores as a young (legal) immigrant in 1963, I wrote to a friend in England — and I remember this clearly — saying: “This is no melting pot. This is a fruit salad.”
Well, that is still so, and it works until it is perverted by minority manipulators. For example, there has always been a racist element. It is just that Trump and his allies have blown on these embers and brought forth flame. Race dividers feel emboldened under Trump, just as they seethed under President Barack Obama.
It is worth pondering that before Trump, we twice elected an African-American president and that said something about us — something quite different from what Fukuyama is saying about us in today’s race-heavy, fact-short political debate.
Some at the New York meeting suggested that the pendulum will swing back. Yes, it will but not to the status quo ante. It will be to a new place.
Personally, I believe the Trump success was fueled not so much by resentment as by a pervasive sense of irrelevance. It expresses itself politically, but its root may be with the isolation felt by those who have to deal with monopoly businesses from the cable company to the online retailer. Think the politicians ignore you, try those who have market dominance: banks, health insurers, online vendors and telecoms among others.
Fukuyama calls for dignity as a kind of antidote to identity politics. He might want to extend that excellent thought beyond just the political arena.
Photo: Photo by Paul Weaver on Unsplash