Identity politics and the end of history

Identity politics and the end of history

Photo Credits: www.kremlin.ru [CC BY 4.0] / COMMONS

Nearly 30 years ago, Francis Fukuyama famously declared that liberal democracy would be the final stage in human social development. Now he’s reconsidering.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama declared humanity reached its final stage in ideological development, an “end of history” moment in which the collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph of the West had cemented liberal democracy as the final form of government. Nearly 30 years later, Fukuyama is backtracking on this idea, seeing recent global political revolutions as a threat to the security of the traditional liberal order.

Fueled by the growth of left-wing identity politics and right-wing nationalism, Fukuyama’s prediction of the triumph of classical liberalism has disintegrated under the weight of sectarian interests. The very nature of these categorical divides ensured that the demands of these groups cannot be adequately satisfied through economic means. Instead, it requires solutions beyond traditional political appeasement. Center-left political movements, in particular, have moved away from class-based politics toward representing the interests of a variety of different — and sometimes competing — minority groups. This serves as an affront to Fukuyama’s remedy of market-based liberalism, whose solutions transcend the usual lines of identitarian politics.

If identity politics are the leftist antithesis to Fukuyama’s final frontier of liberalism, then right-wing populism, and the creeping authoritarianism that has accompanied it, is its equivalent. The last decade in particular witnessed the rise of nationalist political movements in both the United States and Europe. Countries such as Hungary, Italy and Israel have seen right-wing nationalists make significant political gains, moving from electoral irrelevance to major leadership positions in their respective governments. Much of this evolution is due to the extensive demographic transformation that occurred over the 21st century. Right-wing populism has risen, likely as a result of the influx of new populations into once-homogenous regions, whether via the European migrant crisis or through extensive immigration to the United States.

So while new global right-wing movements may not be nearly as blatant in their endorsement of identity as their leftist counterparts, there still remains a strong element of in-group preference among them. Many of the white Americans who supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election, for example, may not think of their political priorities in an explicitly racial manner, but their voting trends have been shown to correlate with suspicion of immigration and a heightened sense of white racial identity — electoral factors that have become increasingly influential.

Fukuyama has recognized the transition away from class-based politics and toward ethnocentric interests, discussing this evolution in his 2018 work “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.” In it, he identifies civic nationalism as critical to participation in liberal democracy, a stark contrast to the individual, identity-based politics that he sees as uniquely threatening to the stability of nation-states. Fukuyama claims that full citizen identification and assimilation are the only antidotes to the fault lines created by multicultural democracies, endorsing a universal civil identity based on shared values and civic service.

The fact that Fukuyama has to discuss these issues in detail in 2019 shows the fragility of his initial theory. Other prominent academics are discussing it in detail too — each with different solutions. Political scientist Eric Kaufmann’s “Whiteshift sees assimilation and appeasement as vital in restoring normalcy to democratic politics, while conservative Israeli theorist Yoran Hazony’s “The Virtue of Nationalism argues that nationalism is the only effective method left for protecting citizens’ freedom.

The ultimate conclusion of all these works is that liberal democracy, long heralded as the morally superior, final frontier of human governance, seems to be increasingly threatened by the advent of group-based identity. Accordingly, the response of national governments to such a development can no longer be one of ignorance and indifference. Instead, political leadership must search for viable solutions to the mounting issue of identity politics, a conundrum that is likely to grow amid a diversifying society whose desires cannot necessarily be adequately satisfied through material needs.

Written by: Brandon Jetter — brjetter@ucdavis.edu

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