Francis Fukuyama is tired of talking about the end of history. Thirty years ago, he published a wonky essay in a little-read policy journal and became an overnight intellectual sensation. His argument, that the triumph of Western-style liberal democracy marked "the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution," remains an iconic declaration of the post-Cold War world. He’s been defending it ever since. He’s regularly asked if some event — September 11, the 2008 financial crisis, Donald Trump’s election — has invalidated his thesis. His answer is no.
As Fukuyama sees it, the confusion stems from a misreading (or a failure to read) the last few chapters of his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press). It was there that he fretted about the ability of liberal democracies and market economies to satisfy the human desire for recognition. Liberal democracy can deliver peace and prosperity, but what happens if peace and prosperity aren’t enough?
It’s a question Fukuyama returns to in a new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The answer, he suggests, is all around us: A global surge of identity politics, which has in turn fueled populist nationalism, authoritarianism, religious conflict, and democratic decline. "Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today," he writes.
From his home in Carmel, Calif., Fukuyama, a professor of political science at Stanford University, spoke with The Chronicle Review about identity politics, global politics, being a student of both Paul de Man and Allan Bloom, and how higher-education leaders have failed to defend fundamental ideals.
Q. Let’s start where you start Identity: Donald Trump. The book is a response to his election. He also made an appearance in The End of History and the Last Man.
A. One of the arguments I made in The End of History was that it’s good to have a democracy linked to a market economy because it acts as a sponge for the ambitious energies of people who could otherwise become Julius Caesar or Adolf Hitler. That’s the context in which I mention Donald Trump. Our political system has to absorb such people and render them safe. At that time, it looked like our system was doing that. He could be a real-estate developer or, later, an entertainer. That wasn’t enough for him, and he went into politics. Now we’ve got a real problem. Our constitutional system was designed to prevent the rise of fantastically ambitious individuals, to limit them through a system of checks and balances. That’s the test we’re up against right now.
Q. Are you feeling optimistic?
A. Check back after November.
Q. You’re critical of how political struggles are framed as economic conflicts. In your view, it’s identity that better explains politics.
A. This theme goes back to Plato, who talked about a third part of the soul that demanded recognition of one’s dignity. That has morphed in modern times into identity politics. We think of ourselves as people with an inner self hidden inside that is denigrated, ignored, not listened to. A great deal of modern politics is about the demand of that inner self to be uncovered, publicly claimed, and recognized by the political system.
A lot of these recognition struggles flow out of the social movements that began to emerge in the 1960s involving African-Americans, women, the LGBT community, Native Americans, and the disabled. These groups found a home on the left, triggering a reaction on the right. They say: What about us? Aren’t we deserving of recognition? Haven’t the elites ignored us, downplayed our struggles? That’s the basis of today’s populism.
Q. Is there anything inherently problematic about minority groups’ demanding recognition?
A. Absolutely not. Every single one of these struggles is justified. The problem is in the way we interpret injustice and how we try to solve it, which tends to fragment society. In the 20th century, for example, the left was based around the working class and economic exploitation rather than the exploitation of specific identity groups. That has a lot of implications for possible solutions to injustice. For example, one of the problems of making poverty a characteristic of a specific group is that it weakens support for the welfare state. Take something like Obamacare, which I think was an important policy. A lot of its opponents interpreted it as a race-specific policy: This was the black president doing something for his black constituents. We need to get back to a narrative that’s focused less on narrow groups and more on larger collectivities, particularly the collectivity called the American people.
Q. To what extent is this fragmentation in our politics exacerbated by certain tendencies on campus?
A. This is a complicated question because specific incidents are picked up by conservative media and blown up to be representative of higher education. Friends of mine say: It’s obvious there is no freedom of speech left in universities. That seems excessive. The question is important, however. What happens in universities sets the tone for a lot of other elite institutions. What happens on campus ultimately does filter down to the rest of society.
Q. You tie some campus developments to a therapeutic turn in American life.
A. It began to unfold back in the ’60s and ’70s, when identity came to the forefront. People felt unfulfilled. They felt they had these true selves that weren’t being recognized. In the absence of a common cultural framework previously set by religion, people were at a loss. Psychology and psychiatry stepped into that breach. In the medical profession, treating mental health has a therapeutic mission, and it became legitimate to say the objective of society ought to be improving people’s sense of self-esteem.
This became part of the mission of universities, which made it difficult to set educational criteria as opposed to therapeutic criteria aimed at making students feel good about themselves. This is what led to many of the conflicts over multiculturalism. This played out in a vivid way at Stanford.
Q. In the book, you quote a leader of Stanford’s Black Student Union in the late ’80s arguing that the university’s Western-civ curriculum "hurts people mentally and emotionally in ways that are not even recognized."
A. Instead of saying we want to read authors that are outside the canon because they’re important educationally and historically and culturally, the way it’s framed by that student leader is that the exclusion of those authors hurts people’s self-esteem: Because my people are not equally represented, I feel less good about myself. That is part of the motive that drives administrators and professors to expand the curriculum, to fulfill an understandably therapeutic mission. But I think it can get in the way of universities’ fulfilling their educational missions. What makes students feel good about themselves is not necessarily what’s most useful to their education.
Q. Do you see identity politics as a threat to free speech?
A. Charles Murray spoke at Stanford this winter. I was his interlocutor. We had a protest, but he got to say what he wanted to say. People listened. Charles Murray told me he’s been speaking all over the country, and that the Middlebury incident, while a bad one, wasn’t representative of the way he’s been received on campuses.
So I’m ambivalent. A lot of topics are difficult to talk about on campus, but I wouldn’t say we have a general crisis of free speech. We still can debate a lot of issues.
Q. What about the role of social media?
A. Social media is perfectly made for identity politics. It allows you to close yourself off in an identity group, get affirmation of everything you say, and not have to argue with people who think differently. It’s hard to tell what’s cause and effect. I used to think that the driver was society itself, and that technology only accelerated it. But I’m beginning to think causality moves the other way: that we wouldn’t be where we are if not for the internet and social media. This is something future historians will have to unpack.
Q. There has been a movement in recent years to increase "viewpoint diversity" in the academy. Is the relative paucity of conservatives in the professoriate a problem?
A. If you understand "conservative" in the right way, meaning thinkers who have different ideas and are not simply ideologues, we do need more of that.
Q. You used to be a conservative. Did you ever feel unwelcome or disadvantaged in academe?
A. No. Never. Partly because I was never terribly partisan. I ideologically aligned with the neoconservatives around The Public Interest and Commentary in the ’80s and ’90s. I wrote for The Wall Street Journal. No one tried to shut me up. Because I’ve taught at policy schools, it was a little bit more tolerant than, say, certain humanities departments.
Q. You believe identity politics can be steered toward a broader sense of shared identity. What role can universities play?
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A. Universities have lost a sense of their role in training American elites about their own institutions. I’m really struck by this at Stanford. If you read through all the things Stanford thinks it’s doing, it’s global this and global that. We’re preparing students to be global leaders. It’s very hard to find any dedication to a mission of promoting constitutional government, rule of law, democratic equality, in our own country. I’m not saying every student should take an American-government class — that’s not going to work for a lot of reasons. But universities need to better prepare future leaders in our own country.
Q. You have an unusual background for a political scientist. You majored in classics at Cornell, then did graduate work in comparative literature at Yale, where you studied with Paul de Man. Later you spent time in Paris sitting in on classes with Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Any memories from this journey through deconstruction?
A. I decided it was total bullshit. They were espousing a kind of Nietzschean relativism that said there is no truth, there is no argument that’s superior to any other argument. Yet most of them were committed to a basically Marxist agenda. That seemed completely contradictory. If you really are a moral relativist, there is no reason why you shouldn’t affirm National Socialism or the racial superiority of Europeans, because nothing is more true than anything else. I thought it was a bankrupt way of proceeding and decided to shift gears and go into political science.
Q. You pursued your Ph.D. at Harvard, where you got to know Samuel Huntington, who is seen by some as a "prophet of the Trump era" for allegedly anticipating and stoking the rise of white nativism. Were you at all put off by Huntington’s late-in-life book on immigration, Who Are We?
A. I disagreed with his overall view of immigration, which was restrictionist, because I don’t see the empirical evidence that immigration is bad. Overall, I think it’s good. What he has been unjustly accused of is racism. He didn’t say that immigrants are bad because they’re not white Europeans. He said that white Europeans had a specific culture that they brought to North America that was very important for the subsequent functioning of liberal democratic institutions in the United States. That’s a view I agree with.
Q. You went through a public falling-out with your fellow neoconservatives over the Iraq war. What was it like to break ranks?
A. It felt like a liberation. Two things made me no longer a conservative. One was the Iraq war; the other was the financial crisis in 2008. Both came out of conservative ideas that I had supported, and both were complete disasters. That led me to a more fundamental rethinking of a lot of things.
When you’re younger, you may think you’ve got independent ideas, but you do depend on the affirmation of friends and colleagues. Once I made the break, I was liberated because I wasn’t constantly looking over my shoulder wondering: What are the folks at Commentary going to say about this?
Q. In America at the Crossroads, your 2006 book on neoconservatism, you write about how the student protests of the ’60s shaped the outlooks of early neoconservatives like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Seymour Martin Lipset, who found themselves in opposition to student radicals. The events at Cornell in 1969 had a big impact on Allan Bloom, a mentor of yours who was on the faculty at the time. In recent years we’ve seen a revival of student activism perhaps unmatched since the 1960s. Should we expect a future cohort of liberal academics to move to the right?
A. I see us going around in an eternal return of the same. Campus politics hasn’t progressed all that much. We’re seeing a return of a lot of the same ideas. This time around, however, the reaction it’s producing is less productive because it’s been taken over by right-wingers who are not intellectuals. In the 1980s, you had a lot of serious conservative intellectuals. I don’t see anybody like that on the right. It’s too bad, because we need good ideas from thoughtful people on both sides.
Q. A majority of Republicans and right-leaning independents now think higher education has a negative effect on the country. Is higher ed to blame for this perception problem?
A. When faced with the sort of threats to free speech that trigger conservative reactions, a lot of professors and administrators tend not to be outspoken. And they ought to be. I admire the president of the University of Chicago [Robert Zimmer], who has been out front on these issues. We need more presidents like him. They should say they’re not going along with any of this nonsense. We’re a university, we’re dedicated to the free debate of ideas, so that’s what we’re going to do.
Q. I want to end on a personal note. Your grandparents and uncle were held in internment camps during World War II. Are you thinking about that family history more in the Trump era?
A. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since September 11, when certain ethnic communities fell under broad suspicion as a result of developments overseas. It’s gotten a lot worse, because we have a president who is, I believe, a racist, and has certainly been willing to accept support from racists. It’s very dangerous that he’s awakened this overt xenophobia. It makes me really mad.
Evan Goldstein is editor of The Chronicle Review. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.