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Francis Fukuyama on Identity, Dignity and Threats to Liberal Democracy
17 January, 2019
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The struggle for recognition, according to political theorist Francis Fukuyama, is what the politics of today is all about. In his latest book, the author explores how identity, whether it be class, race, or gender, and people’s inherent desire for that identity to be recognized, could threaten the future of liberal western democracy.

“Within democracies, individual groups want to be recognized as, well, in the United States as African Americans, or as women, or as LGBT, or any number of other categories, and I think this is a lot of what our politics is about,” the author explains.

Political theorist Francis Fukuyama speaks to Hromadske. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

One example of Fukuyama’s theory in action is the UK’s contentious decision to leave the European Union. In this case, Fukuyama states, the issue of identity is connected to economic issues.  

“Many working class people are losing income, they're losing jobs, and, as a result, they lose status and feel that they're not recognized by elites, that their situation is not appreciated,” Fukuyama told Hromadske.

But it’s not always class that leads to divisions within society. Fukuyama states that immigration and the perceived threat is poses to certain ethnic groups is another factor behind populism, which, in turns, poses a threat to liberal western democracy.

“I think that's the sense in which this assertion of a traditional ethnic identity is really important to a lot of the modern populism and the National Front in France, or the AFD in Germany and other groups like that,” Fukuyama comments.

However, in a country divided by ethnicity, the concept of civic nationalism, which emphasizes the importance of a shared citizenship rather than ethnicity, could be helpful in promoting liberal democracy.

“I think there's also a good, liberal form of identity as well, that accepts the diversity of people, it's not exclusive, it's not aggressive, but it does say: Yes, we are a democratic community, we have shared ideals and political values and, as a community, we need to support them,” Fukuyama told Hromadske.

Frank, your forthcoming book talks about identity, and identity has been discussed for a while, but, there are always discussions between economic issues of why people are disappointed, but you claim that this is underestimated. So what is the main concept? What is the main idea?

The idea behind identity, the modern concept of identity, is that I have a true self that is hiding deep within me and other people don't recognize it, other people don't accord my real self the dignity that it really deserves. One of the first forms of identity was nationalism. So, for example, Serbia was buried within the Austro-Hungarian empire, and so Serbian nationalists felt: we're not recognized as a people, as a community. And they demanded recognition and they demanded independence and recognition. And I think this is what drives a great deal of modern politics is this demand for the recognition of one's hidden dignity. I think it's what underlying Islamism; people feel that Islam is being disrespected, and needs to be respected. I think nationalists feel that way, and I think within democracies, individual groups want to be recognized as, well, in the United States as African Americans, or as women, or as LGBT, or any number of other categories, and I think this is a lot of what our politics is about; it's the struggle for recognition...

Politics is based on assertions of identity rather than economic issues. The two are connected however because many working class people are losing income, they're losing jobs, and, as a result, they lose status and feel that they're not recognized by elites, that their situation is not appreciated. And I think that generates anger and resentment, and you see that in the Brexit vote, that they're complaining about the elites, the educated elites, that live in London. Trump once said that he loves uneducated people, and those are the people that show up for their rallies, and they feel that live in San Francisco or New York really have very good lives and they don't pay any attention to them. So I think it's this demand for recognition.

Hromadske journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk (L) and political theorist Francis Fukuyama speak during an interview in the past. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

How is this? What could this demand be? What kind of recognition? What is the answer to that?

I think it's, first of all, that you not be invisible. So, many of the problems of this kind of person – someone that lives out in the countryside, someone that's losing a job in a deindustrialized town – nobody pays attention to them, the government doesn't offer them any services, the government doesn't act like they're real human beings, and the elites don't speak about these people with respect. And I think that's part of what drives the anger.

And is that part of populism? How do you then also explain modern populism?

What is it exactly, because this word is very general and everybody uses this [explanation], but, if we talk about it as a political concept today, which people would like to confront, so you need to know exactly you are confronting, besides doing the impossible.

There are several parts of it. The part that's related to identity is that, especially in a lot of developed democracies in western Europe, in the United States, other places, there's been a tremendous amount of immigration, so there's a lot of people who are culturally different. And I think the old ethnic groups that used to define the national identity of Germany, or Denmark, or the United States feel like they are no longer in control of things anymore because of the waves of illegal immigrants that are coming in that are culturally very different. Obviously Islam in Europe has become a really big lightening rod for anger that populist politicians have used. So I think that's the sense in which this assertion of a traditional ethnic identity is really important to a lot of the modern populism and the National Front in France, or the AFD in Germany and other groups like that.

If you put on that, it looks like many people do not speak about populism as a threat, as a threat to the state and liberal democracy. If we speak in that regard about the immigrants,  is that exactly the threat or is there something else?

Well, the threat is the style that populist politicians adopt so that many populist politicians feel that they have a direct connection to the people, and they don't need institutions, they don't need political parties, they don't need rule, they don't need the courts, they don't need bureaucracies because they represent the people. And, when any of these check-and-balance institutions get in their way, they want to smash the institutions. So in Hungary and Poland, for example, both of those countries, the populist party that came to power has tried to undermine the judiciary by reducing its independence, they've attacked the media, they don't like criticism. And all of these institutions, I think, are important for the maintenance of a real liberal democracy.

How do we build this discussions regarding all the issues surrounding identity?If we take immigration, for example, because there is a limit when there's immigration and racism, there is a limit of what you can accept. So where are these border lines?

I think, first of all, you can't have a democracy if the people are not sovereign, and one of the areas where they should be sovereign is in controlling who the people are, and so they have a right to control their borders and decide who is a member of their community and who isn't. Now, what we'd like in modern democracy is that that choice be open, it be tolerant of people that are different ethnically and culturally, as long as they accept the basic political tenets and ideals of their society --  things like rule of law, or basic principle of equality. And as long as you have that idea of a civic identity, I think it's critical because societies need to be bound together by common shared values. If people can't communicate, if they can't deliberate and discuss and they don't feel that they're part of the same community, even if they disagree on specific issues, then you're not going to have a democracy and that's what I think the threat is that posed by identities.

So what is the answer to that?

Well, I think, you need a national identity, so national identity is oftentimes identified as bad because its associated with Nazism and the extreme forms nationalism took in the first half of the twentieth century. But I think there's also a good, liberal form of identity as well, that accepts the diversity of people, it's not exclusive, it's not aggressive, but it does say: Yes, we are a democratic community, we have shared ideals and political values and, as a community, we need to support them. And, therefore, it's integrative rather than dividing people according to race, ethnicity, historical condition and so forth.

Can you give an example? You're really introducing the concept of civic nationalism. How does it differ from nationalism in the modern world? Not in a classical sense, not how it differs from nationalism of the twentieth century, but today.

For example, I think both the United States and France are example of countries that have a sense of civic nationalism. In France it comes out of the French Revolution -- basically, anyone, who has a French education, can speak the language, knows the history, can be a French citizen and treated equally. So, for example, the great Senegalese Leopold Senghor, he's an African, he was born in Africa, he became a French citizen, he wrote beautiful French literature and he was admitted to the Academie Francaise, which is the highest honor that you can give a writer in France, and was accepted as a citizen despite the fact that he is a black man because the French understanding of citizenship and identity is not based on race, it's based on these acquired characteristics. And I think in the United States, the reason we're a hugely diverse society. My grandfather came from Japan more than a hundred years ago and settled, and his son became a citizen, I'm a citizen, and the country treats us like any other American coming from other parts of the world. And so that's what I think it means to have a civic identity that is democratic, consistent with democratic values, but yet binds people together into a single political community.

But would you observe that, in particular, this civic nationalism is substituted with a different kind of nationalism in the US – considering current developments in particular?

I think it's being threatened. I think that a lot of Donald Trump's supporters are quite nationalist. But the problem is also on the left, as well, because a lot of groups, more progressive groups, also feel that the United States represents racism or colonialism, or other bad things, and they don't want to be part of this national community. So I think the left and the right both participate in this dissolving of a civic national story. And I think that what we need to do in the United States is try to put that back together.

In terms of modern populism, or recent elections, the ones that are coming up in France or even in Austria – the places where we can see parties winning against the far right, have you observed that they can elaborate on elements of this civic nationalism. How does it represent itself in political life, in the media? What is this narrative? What could the narrative be?

I think it's reflected in taking pride in your country, in being willing to assert that you have a set of values that you think is values that is better than other people's values because it is liberal, because it is open and tolerant and democratic. I think that civic nationalism emphasizes what people hold in common, rather than emphasizing what keeps them apart, especially when what keeps people apart is something like race or ethnicity because that's the way you were born, you can't change your ethnicity. On the other hand, you can change your civic identity, you can say: yes I do sign up for the values of this society and I do want to be in a common political order with my fellow citizens.

What is concerning for us, for instance, in the case of Ukraine – and of course, it's sometimes overestimated – is  the issue of language. So what we somehow have is this strong demand that you need to know Ukrainian, and that could be considered exclusive. So what do you think? What are the concerns in this sense?

You need to have common cultural values, and, oftentimes language is one of those values that people hold in common. I mentioned this in regard to France. On the other hand, if you have a country like Ukraine, in which Ukrainian is not a universal language and which people are attached to Russian and other languages, it does become a divisive issues. So I don't want to give Ukraine advice on this particular sensitive issue, but I think that it would be a mistake to force Ukrainian, for example, on everybody, or to make it an exclusive language, because that actually is not something that's going to unify the different people that live in the society.

Is this the idea that civic nationalism is unity regarding some values, rather than some form of cultural heritage?

It's a little bit hard to know where the values begin and culture ends because the two are very much related. And so, in many respects, shared values are a culture, it is a common culture. Sometimes culture comes out of things that can't be changed very much, like the religion one was born in, but, that, in some societies, is the basis of shared values. But I think that given the real divisions that exist in many contemporary democracies, it's important to construct the shared values around liberal ones, meaning things like the rule of law, that can be shared by people, even if they have different cultural backgrounds.

A lot of the populists today talk about this idea of not being able to trust the leadership, but they also have this idea of anti-corruption, in particular. And they all present themselves as corruption fighters. For instance, we often forget Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus was an anti-corruption fighter, he used to run the anti-corruption committee in the Belarusian parliament when he came to power. So, at the same time, there are these liberals who are working on this fight against corruption globally, it's like there is a huge global campaign. How do you deal with that? Do you also see this concern? We all have to stand against corruption, but we definitely see the people who are very eloquent in fighting corruption. Like in Poland, PiS came to power with the anti-corruption fight, that government used to be corrupt.

Look, in the long run, the only way you can fight corruption is with real rule of law, meaning an independent judiciary, that can prosecute people that are accused of corruption, that is separate from government power. That's the only long term solution to the problem of corruption and most of these populists don't want that, they don't want an independent court system, they don't want anyone that's going to accuse them of corruption. Therefore, what they're doing is using corruption as a political weapon against their opponents, and it's a weapon that only points in one direction, it points at their opponents, it doesn't point back at them. Whereas, a true rule of law is something that applies the same to everybody.

With regards to the anti-corruption fighters, is it more about trying to change the narrative to building institutions, rather than punishing the elites, punishing those who are corrupt?

I think it's important that the focus be on the rule of law. And impartial rule of law is really what you want, naturally, the only solution to corruption.