Why so? Enter renowned American political scientist Francis Fukuyama. He sees this new polarised world as the result of an increasing divide between a left-wing consumed by identity politics and a right-wing politics fuelled by a populist rhetoric. Each side exacerbating the other.
Francis Fukuyama first came to prominence through his influential essay ‘The End of History?’ which announced that liberal democracy had reached a state of homeostasis and that we could now welcome the arrival of a post-ideological world order. Since he wrote that in 1992 the world has changed immeasurably; 9/11, the Arab Spring, the 2008 financial crash, globalisations retreat not to mention technologies onward march has redefined the world we live in, and its sent intellectuals into retreat desperately trying to put the pieces of the puzzle back together.
For all his prophetic imminence, we don’t think Francis Fukuyama could have guessed that a reality TV show host with a predisposition to racism and misogyny would have assumed the position of leader of the free world. Is this all just a blip on the larger timeline of liberal democracy or is there something more sinister and long-term at play?
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cheer during a campaign rally, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, in Erie, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
As a well-known intellectual, how do you see this particularly polarising moment globally? Are you being embraced by the left and pushed away by the right?
As far as I can tell the right is not going to pay attention to anything I say. I don’t think I’m going to get many vocal critics on that side. The larger body of serious critics are going to be on the left, and they do believe in some form of identity politics, they are the ones who are going to push back the most.
It’s hard, the last time I was involved in a central debate was after the Iraq invasion in 2003. I wrote a book called America at the Crossroads in which I took a hard line against Saddam Hussein. But as we got close to the invasion, I decided we just weren’t in any position to do this, and I became very critical of the Bush administration. As a result, I got a lot of criticism for ever having supported the invasion. I think there are some leftover hard feelings from that.
I’m finding this to be a particularly awkward time to be someone who is of left-leaning. It seems that the left is just as much of the problem as the right at the moment.
I think this is as true in Britain as it is in the United States. Polarisation in society has dramatically increased since 2016. In your case, it’s the residue of the Brexit vote. In our case, it’s this polarisation that our president is pushing. I think Donald Trump is a reflection of a pre-existing polarisation between left and right in the United States. He got elected by a minority because of our electoral system. Rather than moving to the centre he has done everything he can to exacerbate the existing tensions.
I think he is the first truly racist President in my personal experience. And as a result, he’s pushed the left much further to the left. I think he’s trying to do this deliberately because he doesn’t want a viable candidate opposing him in 2020. It’s made for a difficult period in our politics where if you’re going to take a centrist position it’s not possible because people are lined up against extremes.
"This is just a really unhealthy situation for democracy to be in when people line themselves up according to these birth categories."
On identity politics rearing its ugly head
How have we got to this point historically? Did the conditions of our current situation begin in 2016?
This is a process that I try to describe in the book. I think that modern identity politics did begin on the left. It began in the 1960s as an outgrowth of a lot of the social movements that appeared at that point; the LGBT rights movement, the Civil Rights movement for African-Americans, the feminist movement. All of these groups who had been marginalised in society were quite rightly demanding recognition for their issues and specific experiences. And I think that tended to shift the agenda of the left as a whole, which had previously been firmly anchored in the working class.
In Europe, a lot of it was Marxist, in the US a lot of it was based in labour unions. With the rise of identity politics, I think the left began to mobilise according to specific groups and their issues. When Martin Luther King began the civil rights movement he argued that Black Americans just wanted to be treated like White Americans, they wanted to be part of the American dream.
Over time that began to evolve into an argument made by some, the Black Power movement for example, that Black Americans were not like White Americans – they had their own specific cultures and value systems. The rest of American society had to accept them for the ways that they were different. A lot of groups have slid in that fashion, at first wanting acceptance as part of society, then a certain faction peeling off and saying we don’t want to be the same we want to be recognised in so far as we’re different. That’s when identity politics begins to be problematic.
I think that’s the basic story that was developing in the generation before Donald Trump. I think it’s triggered a corresponding backlash among the established groups; we see this with the rise of the right-wing anti-immigrant groups in Europe who want to hold onto an older sense of national identity.
In the US we see this in the rise of alt-right white nationalism that is trying to drag American identity backwards into something that is defined by race, as American identity was before the civil rights movement. Overall this is just an unhealthy situation for democracy to be in when people line themselves up according to these birth categories. You don’t have an overarching sense of national identity that tries to reintegrate people into a democratic community.
One of the things that makes this particular issue particularly unusual is the idea of dignity, the idea that everyone wants to be recognised with equal agency, and have a platform from which to speak. This is particularly disturbing and dangerous because it allows everyone a platform to shout and for there to be no civil dialogue. What do you think about that?
Well, the demand for dignity and respect isn’t anything new, I think it’s an essential component of human psychology. In my book I talk about the phenomenon of Thymos that Plato identifies, this is the human characteristic of wanting other people to recognise us and respect us. For what features do we demand that recognition?
Modern democracy is based on a demand for recognition, so if you think about Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian Fruit Seller who had his cart confiscated by the authoritarian Ben Ali regime back in 2011. He couldn’t get any recognition from the government so he doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire and that was really the trigger of the Arab Spring.
And a lot of the so-called colour revolutions in favour of democracy in Georgia and Ukraine and elsewhere were driven by the demand that an authoritarian government recognise the fundamental dignity meaning the agency and human-ness of their subjects.
The thing that’s happened in recent years is once you make that transition into a real liberal democracy, it’s not enough for people; they take it for granted. I think you can see this in Eastern Europe where before 1989 you’re living under an authoritarian regime, and you want fundamental rights as a human being. Then you make the transition to democracy, and you stop worrying about that.
Image by Stephane GRANGIER/Corbis via Getty Images
In the past, you’ve talked about the issues that have contributed to the disenfranchisement of people in America. One of the things you’ve said that would perhaps mend that divide is rectifying Obamacare, but the same people who voted for Trump have said Obamacare is an evil socialist plot. So how do you correct the issue when they don’t want to listen?
Well, that’s a fascinating question. And I think it’s playing out right now in American Politics as we move towards the November Mid Term Election. Because it’s turning out that a lot of those low-income voters were benefiting from Obamacare and were persuaded by Republican political leaders that this was an evil socialist plot. But now if they have a pre-existing condition, they are finding it hard to buy insurance. And now these people are saying “hey maybe this wasn’t socialism at all, maybe this was something I need.”
So we’ll have to see but I think that if the Democrats are smart they will focus on this kind of broad social policy issue that really benefits a lot of people in need regardless of skin colour, ethnicity and so forth and make that the centrepiece of why they are arguing that people should vote for them.
Is the perpetuation of myths by the media emboldening this support?
There are several points here. If you look at the last ten or fifteen years of policy, the elites have made some huge mistakes; the financial crisis in the US in 2008, the euro crisis in 2010, the migrant crisis more broadly in Europe were all created by policy mistakes of the elite and they hurt ordinary people.
Wall Street is doing fine, the city of London, besides Brexit, is in great shape. If you don’t acknowledge that a lot of the resentment is actually driven by something real, then you’re not going to get to the core of the problem.
There is also the media hyping things, and I think we get into complex territory here because I do think the conservative media tends to take incidences of for example refugees committing crimes and blow it out of proportion.
But again, there is something real going on beneath the surface. A case in point is the incidence a few years ago in Cologne of refugees sexually assaulting women, which the German press did not report for several days because they did not want to stoke Islamophobia. I think that kind of political correctness has been damaging because it discredited mainstream media, though their intentions were understandable. And of course, they were covering up a real problem of trying to integrate the numbers of refugees that they’d taken in. I think there is a lot of mythmaking and exploitation.
"Modern democracy is based on a demand for recognition."
On the fundamentals of human desire
Also, one of the incalculable things in the future is whether you’re going to get other people like Emmanuel Macron who will defend the liberal order, maybe reformulate it in ways that are more acceptable for people and then persuade people that’s the way forward. I think it’s essential that we don’t get overly discouraged because of these longer-term structural trends because I think that the way democratic politics works is subject to a lot of agency and things can be turned around.
I think what was at the heart of Trump’s election was his intuition that there is this hatred for the elites. What he constructed so well was this archetypal bogeyman that we cannot see, but he’s taking your jobs and future away.
Well, I think that one of the things that are going to happen in the coming years is that the elites are going to have to adapt, if they don’t they are going to be in trouble. The degree of inequality that has been produced by a modern, very liberal, globalised, capitalist economy is huge. So we’re going to have to make a lot of policy changes to buffer people against that, and that adjustment does take a lot of time.
I do think that there’s going to have to be a lot of rethinking about immigration, I think that is as important as these economic factors in driving people to vote against the European Union, certainly in Britain that was a huge factor for people who voted to leave. There are going to have to be adjustments because the current situation in Europe is not sustainable.
Image by Stephane GRANGIER/Corbis via Getty Images
Do you think the EU will stay together?
I think it will for the time being. I think the big issue now is Italy because they’ve just elected this populist government which if it fulfils it campaign promises is going to burst the Eurozone much more thoroughly than Greece ever threatened to do.
But I’m not surprised there is a populist government right now because with the closing of the Balkan route most of the refugees from the Middle East and Africa are going to Greece and Italy and just piling up on the islands and in the cities of those members of the EU that are among the weaker. So I think if there is no adjustment made to help them out, you’re not going to get to the underlying causes of populism.
I want to understand what Russia gets out of all this? They seem to be gaining a lot in the short-term but what is their long-term strategy? And how would you define their identity as a nation state?
It’s interesting because Russia today is different from the old Soviet Union. In the case of the former Soviet Union, they had a clear ideology that was very messianic and in theory they wanted to export it to the rest of the world.
However, Putin has backed himself into a kind of nationalist ideology, but there’s not a lot of messianism about it.
I don’t think he’s trying to Russianize Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa or places further afield. I believe that the ideology he’s stumbled into is this necessary kind of conservative nationalism. You know the Russians are a Christian country that supports conservative social values, so no gay marriage and all that sort of thing.
And by the way that makes them attractive to a lot of conservatives in Europe and in the United States which is partly why the Republican Party has been warming to Putin in the last couple of years.
But I don’t think that Putin or his circle believe in anything terribly profound. I think his ideology is something that’s more useful to them rather than something that they’re committed to in a way that you had committed communists in the old days of the Soviet Union.
What they want to do is weaken everybody else and show that the West is not as powerful. They are joining in with both feet and trying to exacerbate all these problems because they want to weaken Western democracies.
They hate the hectoring moralistic tone that many Western politicians adopt towards their human rights abuses. They want to get back at these countries by doing everything they can to make Western democracy look like terrorists. They have had particular success with that.
"The German press did not report [the sexual harassment incident] for several days because they did not want to stoke Islamophobia. I think that kind of political correctness has been really damaging."
On the infamous New Year's Eve mass groping incident
Going back to the point you made about elites rethinking their approach. Would it be correct to equate the liberal world order with the elites themselves? And if that’s the case, the whole thing would require a significant re-think?
Well, I guess it would depend on what you mean by a major re-think. We went through a period in the 1990s and early 2000s of a kind of hyper-liberalism in which there was an effort to tear down existing trade and investment barriers.
Let me give you a concrete example of this, there was a belief in the early 2000s that if you let China into the WTO, its economy would liberalise and that would support democracy in China, and there would be an ultimate convergence between China and the rest of the democratic world as a result of this. I think nobody believes that right now, I think there’s a recognition that the entry of China into the WTO led to the loss of 2 or 3 million American jobs. I don’t think people will accept those kinds of policies any longer.
There’s a kind of general recognition that globalisation needs to be slowed down in some ways, that it’s alright for countries to have certain types of national barriers based on their understanding of social protection or environmental protection.
So we need to re-think elite policies rather than elite systems?
Well, there’s always going to be elites. I do think that we need a fundamental re-thinking of the social contract because there’s been such a concentration of power and resources in the hands of a tiny number of people and it’s distorting our democratic political system. I live in Silicon Valley so I think one of the urgent things is these tech companies; Amazon, Google, Facebook and so forth are just too damn big. We’ve got to figure out how to re-do our anti-trust laws to take account of the changes in technology that have occurred over the past century that require them to be modernised for current circumstances. That’s a task that really needs to be done.
Where do we go from here? Because it seems like some of the biggest issues we have today identity politics, immigration, automation and climate change are splitting us apart. How do we create a meaningful, harmonious system out of the issues we are seeing today?
It’s a combination of things. I think we need to focus on re-integrating a highly polarised society. That’s why I emphasised the need for a liberal national identity as a focus for a lot of our politics. I think in policy terms we need to find ways of slowing down globalisation without undermining its basic benefits in terms of the way we do trade and investment, we need to re-think the social contract as a way of getting at these hyper-concentrated sources of power and spreading it out a little more evenly. Those would all be components of what I think a sensible response to the current time would be.
Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition is out now through Profile Books