The Politics of Identity: Insights from Francis Fukuyama

Ron Berger —

Francis Fukuyama

In his slim but useful book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018), Francis Fukuyama offers insights into one of the most perplexing questions of our times, the issue of identity and identity politics. In doing so, Fukuyama takes us on a tour of the globe, though his emphasis is on Europe and the United States. He also roots his interpretation in the tradition of Western philosophy and intellectual thought that goes back to the Greeks and runs through such European notables as Luther, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel. The contemporary context of Fukuyama’s concerns is the rise of autocratic leaders, including Donald Trump, and the receding or backward slide of democratic traditions around the world.

Fukuyama believes that a “great deal of what we conventionally take to be economic motivation driven by material needs or desires is in fact a … desire for recognition of one’s dignity or status.” This is why people on the political left, among others, do not understand that what they believe to be economic self-interest is not the psychological element that most governs voters’ choices. The oft-asked question, why do citizens vote against their self-interest, misunderstands what self-interest, as its root, entails.

Fukuyama bases his argument on the assumption that while the human psyche contains the capacity for reason, and hence the capacity to act in ways that enhance rational self-interest, it also contains a capacity for judgment about one’s self worth, an instinctual drive that complicates what self-interest may entail. Fukuyama understands the latter in terms of the Greek concept of  thymos, the part of the human psyche that “craves recognition of dignity.” Thymos, in turn, may be divided into two subtypes: isomythia, the desire “to be respected on an equal basis” with others, and megalothymia, the desire “to be recognized as superior.”

Fukuyama finds evidence of thymos as a dimension of the human psyche in biochemical research that reveals heightened levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin associated with feelings of pride and self-esteem, evidence that also exists in chimpanzees that achieve alpha male status within their local hierarchies. At the same time, there is a decisive sociocultural dimension to the manner in which thymos manifests itself over the course of human history. In early cultures, for example, dignity was attributed to relatively few people, such as warriors who were “willing to risk their lives in battle.” In modern societies, on the other hand, dignity is believed to “an attribute of all human beings.” And in some societies, dignity derives from “one’s membership in a larger group of shared memory and experience.”

According to Fukuyama, the contemporary concept of “identity” emerges out of this biological and sociocultural foundation. He credits the psychologist Erik Erikson for popularizing the concept in the 1950s through his life-stage theory of child development. But what is most important for Fukuyama is the distinction between one’s inner self and “an outer world of social rules and norms that does not adequately recognize that inner self’s worth or dignity.” He adds that only “in modern times has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable, and that the outer society is systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former.” In turn, “identity politics,” a term that emerged in the 1970s, involves individuals’ demands for public affirmation of their self-worth. This demand, Fukuyama argues, entails two movements. One is a demand for the dignity of individuals as inherently deserving of human rights, such as expressed in the American Declaration of Independence’s assertion “that all men [sic] are created equal, … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, … among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The other is a demand for the dignity of collectivities or groups whose members have been marginalized or disrespected in some egregious way. It is the latter that is the stuff of contemporary identity politics that undergirds much of our contemporary political conflicts.


Globalization and its discontents provide the broad political-economic context for Fukuyama’s analysis of identity politics. In general, globalization entails the “growth of economic interdependence among nations.” The benefits of this growth, however, have been associated with increasing inequality within Western countries, including the United States, as economic capital flowed to countries with cheaper sources of labor. The beneficiaries in these societies are those who have been able to obtain skills that require higher degrees of education, particularly in the area of information technology. Simultaneously, the prospects of the old industrial working class have declined. This class, which Karl Marx once called the proletariat, had previously obtained middle-class status (in terms of wages and benefits) due to the successes of unionization. But now this class’ economic prospects are in decline.

Fukuyama notes that during the 1990s, following the break-up of the Soviet Union and its allied nations, liberal and leftist parties in Europe and the United States (e.g., Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party) began to accommodate themselves to the new global reality and move further to right as they embraced the logic of market economies, including the neoliberal agenda of increasing privatization of the public sphere and deregulation of the economy. Simultaneously, the political left shifted its emphasis away from class-indexbased issues toward its “support for the rights of a broad range of marginalized groups”—women, people of color, sexual minorities, religious minorities, etc., and the proliferation of multiple “intersectionalities” of these categories. “Identity, which had formerly been a matter for individuals, now became the property of groups,” and “multiculturalism,” the idea that society was composed of diverse groups who were entitled to promulgate their unique cultures, took hold. Fukuyama thinks that this shift from class to identity as the overarching paradigm of the left was due in part to “the increasing difficulty of crafting policies that would bring about large-scale socioeconomic change.” In the process, the traditional white working class felt increasingly marginalized by the leftist agenda, even though that agenda includes economic reforms that would benefit that group.

It has long been a contention of political sociology, and one with which Fukuyama agrees, that relative rather than absolute deprivation is the progenitor of most political conflict. In the contemporary context, the declining prospects of the white working class, and the loss of dignity associated with this decline, has led to considerable resentment. Fukuyama cites Katherine Cramer’s research in Wisconsin and Arlie Hochschild’s in Louisiana as particularly insightful on this issue. Hochschild, for instance, highlights her informants’ belief that others have “cut in line ahead of … ordinary Americans who have been waiting patiently” for their share of the American dream, leaving them feeling like “strangers in their own land.” This group is particularly vulnerable to political demagoguery that highlights immigration as a threat to their economic, cultural, and psychic well-being.

When politicians on the political left, Bernie Sanders included, suggest the need to find ways to appeal to this constituency, they are sometimes met with complaints from potential allies. Ta-Ne Ta-Nehisis Coates, for example, has little sympathy for white working-class voters who complain about their declining economic prospects; this has long been the circumstance of the black working-class. Why is it, he asks, that what “appeals to the white working class is ennobled,” but what “appeals to black workers, and all others outside the tribe” is dismissed as identity politics? Thus Coates is critical of those who “would much rather have a discussion about class struggles” than racial struggles that implicate whites in the oppression of racial minorities and that “might require specific policy solutions.”

Amidst this debate, Fukuyama points to an irony of left-wing identity politics: by leaving the white working class outside of its concerns, it isolates itself from the one identity group that has historically been the largest constituency of the political left. Some on the left dismiss this dilemma by arguing that an emerging majority of nonwhite voters will soon usher in an era of progressivism and Democratic Party majorities. This was John Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s thesis in their book The Emerging Democratic Majority, published in 2002. However, Judis now thinks it was a mistake to ever assume that Democrats will win elections without appealing to a substantial number of white voters. As nonwhite groups assimilate, Latinos and Asians especially, they increasingly align their identities and interests with whites and cannot be expected to inevitably vote in any particular way. Multiple racial/ethnic coalitions will be needed for the hoped-for voting majority to come to fruition.


During his career as a public intellectual, Fukuyama has aligned himself with neoconservatives on matters of foreign policy, as well as with defenders of the Western academic canon vis-à-vis those who have sought to diversify the conventional orthodoxy. Thus, there may be a tendency among some on the left to dismiss his critique of identity politics as the ruminations of a conservative. But Fukuyama does not think there is anything “wrong with identity politics as such; it is a natural and inevitable response to injustice. It becomes problematic only when … [it becomes a] substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the thirty-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality.”

Fukuyama asserts that an additional problem with identity politics is that it has been adopted by white nationalists of the political right, especially as it has been advanced by Donald Trump. He observes that Trump “has been careful not to articulate overtly racist views. But he has happily accepted support from individuals and groups that hold them. … Since his rise, white nationalism has moved from a fringe movement to something much more mainstream in American politics.”

Fukuyama agrees with those on the left that nations need “to protect the marginalized and excluded,” but he also thinks that nations

need to achieve common goals via deliberation and consensus. The shift in agendas of both left and right toward the protection of ever narrower group identities ultimately threatens the possibility of communication and collective action. The remedy for this is not to abandon the idea of identity, which is too much a part of the way that modern people think about themselves and their surrounding societies. The remedy is to define larger and more integrative national identities that take account of the de facto diversity of existing liberal democratic societies.

Fukuyama believes that the notion of national identity got a bad name because it came to be associated with a “narrow, ethnically-based, intolerant, aggressive, and deeply illiberal form.” But, he argues, national identity can also

be built around liberal and democratic political values, and the common experiences that provide the connective tissue around which diverse communities can thrive. … Such an inclusive sense of national identity remains critical for the maintenance of a successful modern political order. … Democracies will not survive if citizens are not in some measure irrationally attached to the ideas of constitutional government and human equality through feelings of pride and patriotism.

In his recent book The Common Good, Robert Reich buttresses this argument by calling for a national conversation about “the moral obligations of citizenship.” He advances the notion of the common good to refer to the responsibility of individuals in a society to look out for their mutually beneficial interests. Reich notes that the common good is a reservoir of trust that is built over generations, whereby societal decisions are based not just on what serves the people in the present, but on how those decisions will serve future generations.

Judis believes that the current nationalist revival can be understood as a reaction to the hitherto mentioned downsides of globalization. But while the “reaction has been most potent on the political right,” there is a need for a liberal form of nationalism that can challenge this reaction. The problem on the left is that it has dismissed nationalism as the province of small-minded bigots who are undermining the national interest, rather than trying to advance a vision of “what is legitimate and justifiable in nationalism.” Judis highlights the critical importance of meeting this challenge, if only because the “perception of a common national identity is essential to democracies and to the modern welfare state, which depends on the willingness of citizens to pay taxes to aid fellow citizens whom they may never have set eyes upon.”

Fukuyama concludes by noting that there is no “escape from thinking about ourselves and society in identity terms. But we need to remember that identities … are neither fixed nor necessarily given to us by our accidents of birth. Identity can be used to divide, but it can be also used to integrate. That in the end will be the remedy” for the dilemmas of identity politics in our time.

Other Sources

Ta-Nehisis Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (2017).

Katherine Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness and the Rise of Scott Walker (2016).

Arlene Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016).

John Judis, “Redoing the Electoral Math,” The New Republic (Oct. 2017).

John Judis, “What the Left Misses About Nationalism,” New York Times (Oct. 15, 2018).

John Judis & Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002).

Robert Reich, The Common Good (2018).

9 thoughts on “The Politics of Identity: Insights from Francis Fukuyama

  1. Whether we acknowledge it or not we are living in a global (planetary) society. Is it fair to say that its widening gaps between haves and have-nots (and abuses underlying these) is probably the overriding basis for inequities and conflicts? Filtering down perspectives expressed in this essay, we are left recognizing that ANY measures taken by anybody to work toward common planetary goals which promote mutual dignity and respect for life will serve to help, little by little.

    The content of many of the pieces of the Wiseguys site over the past few years address such needed goals. Excellent piece on this occasion, Ron. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. People say that globalism began in the 1990s after the Cold War ended, but let’s not forget that colonialism was just a different form of globalism, the difference being that colonialism exploited the third world to the benefit of manufacturing workers in all western nations, including the United States. So, on a global scale, there always was enormous income disparity throughout the 20th century. Modern day globalism merely redistributed the wealth to the benefit of the underdeveloped world and at the expense of American manufacturing workers.

    It was Harry Truman and JFK who first articulated why the United States should help lift up the third world, albeit it was to save the world from communism. In Truman’s 1949 inaugural address he said, “we must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.” Four years later the CIA made a mockery of American democratic ideals when it led a coup to overthrow the democratically elected government in Iran. But, in establishing the Peace Corps in 1961, Kennedy said it was to “promote peace and friendship by helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

    Yesterday Donald Trump said this to his supporters: “In America, we love our families. We love our neighbors, and we protect our community. We trust in God. We protect the freedom of worship. And we believe in the power of prayer. We defend our Constitution. We defend our heritage. And we rally around our great American flag like nobody does. All of us here tonight are united by these same American values, and we are all fighting to defend these values in this election.” What a statesman! Democrats can’t dispute this fairy tale until Aesop writes another fable for us.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought I would add some relevant observations about the white working class from pollster Guy Molyneux (“Mapping the White Working Class,” The American Prospect, Winter 2017). Molyneux believes that “the white working class remains too large for any movement seeking majority support to ignore.” His research indicates that the white working class “is not a monolith, but contains a diversity of political views.” Molyneux found that about half of non-college educated whites identify as conservatives and are reliable Republican voters, while only about 15 percent are liberals who regularly vote for Democrats. However, about 35 percent of them, about 15 percent of the entire electorate, are moderates or “middle-of-the-roaders” who can go either way. While Trump won the conservative block by 85 percentage points, he only won the moderate block by a 26 point margin. That margin was double what Mitt Romney received in 2012 and had a decisive impact. Molyneux notes that if “Clinton had performed as well as Obama with those moderates, it would have doubled her national popular vote margin from 2 percent to 4 percent,” and almost certainly given her electoral victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

    Molyneux’s research also indicates that white working-class moderates are not as culturally conservative as some people think, and many of them hold libertarian views about abortion, sexuality, and drugs. To be sure, they hold skeptical views about government, especially the federal government, which they do not think works in their interests, but they are open to a progressive economic agenda that would address their belief that the economy is rigged. When these voters complain about a rigged economy, however, they are not just referring to the people at the top, but also to the people at the bottom who they think are being taken care of by government programs, at their expense. In their view, it is the people in the middle who are getting the short shrift because they “make too much” to get the help they need. Molyneux acknowledges that racial resentments are implicated in these grievances, but whereas 56 percent of conservative working-class whites think the nation’s growing racial-ethnic diversity is a negative development, only 36 percent of moderates believe this is the case. He concludes that the majority of this latter group would be open to voting Democratic, if candidates were able to persuade them that they really could help them improve their economic prospects and communities.


  4. Going back to what you said about the common good….

    The idea of using government services towards a common good is not new, but recent decades have created significant changes that affect how we are able to pay for government services. During the 1950s the highest federal income tax rate was 90%. That was at a time when the middle class was at its strongest, but there was a Cold War going on. The federal tax laws were filled with loopholes, but corporations and individuals were afraid to invest oversees where communism was a threat. State and local taxes were much lower then. Federal taxes began to decline in the 1960s and the Reagan Revolution began a rapid descent of the middle class. During the Cold War military spending drained much of the tax revenue away from spending toward the common good, but ironically the ending of the Cold War made the situation worse, because it made it much easier for corporations and individuals to shelter their money in corners of the world where Uncle Sam cannot touch it. As Robert Reich wrote in “Saving Capitalism”, not only are the wealthy paying less in taxes; the income gaps between the rich and the poor is much higher than it was before the Reagan Revolution—all because the Cold war ended.

    What I worry about the most is how to restore the middle class and how to tap into the tremendous wealth that exists in the world, without fearing that the wealthy will continue to find tax shelters in places outside the United States. That said, tax shelters do not and cannot stand in the way of a single payer or single provider healthcare system. I think that healthcare could be a winning electoral issue for the Democrats. Our shoddy healthcare system is a difficult problem to solve, but mostly all that is needed is the political will to do what every other civilized country in the world does.

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  5. A book which, though at a rather high level of abstraction, explains how in the post-Soviet era “identity” replaced class as political divide in the U.S. and many other nations, how the left lost the fealty of millions in the working class in the context of rising inequality, and how populist nationalism (as in the Trump movement) became ascendant in reaction to globalization and the challenge to globalism. My mind is still cogitating, I having just read your engaging review, Ron, but do I have the basic outline about right? In any case, well-done, Ron.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The following comment is from my cousin Stephen Ducat. Readers may also be interested in Stephen’s Wise Guys piece called “Trump’s Pathology Is Also His Brand”:

    There is much to consider in your rich and nuanced reflections on Fukuyama’s ideas. To link two of the threads your essay contains, the typology of the need for “dignity” can be also be applied to understanding different species of nationalism. On the one hand, there is what could be called megalothymic nationialism, which has prevailed through much of American history. This is a mode of national identity founded on the need to feel superior to other nations and peoples, which has reached its fevered apogee in the rage tweets of our current megalomaniacal president. It is grounded in a zero-sum notion of power, wealth, and recognition. This is the psychology that drives all relationships of domination – at least for those on top.

    Such a worldview is consistent with an exclusive form of tribalism, which we see mostly on the right. From this vantage point, tribal boundaries must remain impermeable in order to keep out the impure, defective, or threatening other. This why xenophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria is foundational to every fascist movement in the US and around the globe.

    This can be contrasted with isomythic nationalism, which might be more appropriately called patriotism. In this way of thinking, affirming the love of one’s country, land, and fellow citizens does not require an inferior, humiliated, or dominated other. It is the psychology of mutuality, whereby recognition of the other redounds to one’s benefit, not detriment.

    The form of tribalism that flows from this framework is of the inclusive variety. Boundaries with tribal others are selectively permeable, like the cell membranes of all life forms. There is an appreciation of one’s interdependence with other nations and peoples, an understanding that all groups live in a shared ecological matrix. We need one another not just to survive but to grow and thrive. This seems to have been the paradigm that led to the European Union, which, sadly, has been under relentless assault by the forces of malignant megalothymic nationalism, with Putin being the head of this particular spear.

    Thanks, Ron, for your compelling piece and the opportunity to riff on its provocative ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

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