Mark Kaufman

Francis Fukuyama, a recovering neocon who made a lot of bad arguments in The End of History and the Last Man, is finally right about one thing: Democracy as practiced in the United States and across the globe is on the decline. In his latest book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, the Stanford political scientist is right to say that the world appears to be lurching toward fascism, but he's wrong about why that's happening.

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The first half of Identity is tremendously edifying. He summarizes the history of the idea of identity as it evolved in Western philosophy, following a line from Socrates to Kant and Hegel. Fukuyama shows how different societies recognize the reality of "inner selves" and protect their dignity in foundational documents.

All of that is great. But in the last half of the book, Fukuyama rehearses a tired argument full of false equivalencies, one that would be familiar to anyone who read a hot take two days after the election of Donald Trump.

Fukuyama argues that identity politics "on the left and the right" fracture the population and distract people from the real problem: growing income inequality. As evidence for this point, he alleges that "progressives today have no ambitious strategies for dealing with the potentially immense job losses that will accompany advancing automation, or the income disparities that technology may bring to all Americans, white or black, male or female."

You don't have to lean too far to the left to bat away this critique. In 2016, Hillary Clinton almost ran on universal basic income—the "Alaska for America" plan—but she didn't for fear of being called a socialist by Trump supporters who would openly admit to liking Bernie Sanders. Moreover, a number of Democrats ran with policies like Medicare for All or free in-state college tuition in the midterms, all of which would disproportionally benefit minorities while helping poor whites.

As for Fukuyama's point about identity politics fracturing the population and preventing collective action: While it may be true that the same psychological mechanism animates identitarians "on both sides," the political expressions of white nationalists and Black Lives Matter activists, for example, aren't equally bad for democracy. Minority advocates want to improve democratic institutions. Their concerns interlock with one another, and their identities give them unique insight that helps build better policy for everybody, even the poor whites who hate them. But the "white identitarians" calling for segregation based on race want to dissolve the union.

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Fukuyama's discussion of immigration reveals his blind spot. Repeating Trump's line, he argues that the right wants to cut immigration and the left wants open borders. This assertion flies in the face of recent history. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer offered Trump money for his big, beautiful wall in exchange for a deal on Dreamers, and Trump turned it down. Why? Because he, the Republican Party, and the corporate interests they serve need to keep the immigration debate alive in order to maintain power.

That kind of cynical politics is what's threatening democracies here and across the globe. The identitarians "on the left" only help us see that happening a little better.