The Identity Illusion


Tribalism and clannishness are coeval with human social life. Yet the recent worldwide outbreak of fundamentalisms, nativisms, nationalisms, and separatisms suggests that something portentously new is afoot, a kind of global backlash against the perceived failures of liberal societies. One familiar example, in both America and Europe, is panic in the face of a real or threatened influx of culturally diverse immigrants. That the president of the United States finds political advantage in stoking such anxieties is another sign of our identity-troubled times. Francis Fukuyama in Identity and Anthony Appiah in The Lies That Bind share an admirable ambition: to change the way we see membership and belonging in the hope that this will help defang religious bigotry, ethnic prejudice, and other ill-disposed forms of group self-understanding and thus allow individuals with dissimilar traits and backgrounds to coexist peaceably and enrich each other’s lives.

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Francis Fukuyama, Paris, 2015

Fukuyama is right to reject criticism that his first book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), was an expression of liberal triumphalism. Its gloomy insistence on the spiritual meaninglessness likely to befall late capitalist societies, in which atheist consumers have nothing serious to live for, rules out such breezy optimism. But he did imply, paradoxically, that after the wholly unanticipated collapse of communism there would be no more surprises about “the default form of government for much of the world, at least in aspiration.” What he now sees, but could not have foreseen at the time, was that the high tide of liberal democracy would last a mere fifteen years: “Beginning in the mid-2000s, the momentum toward an increasingly open and liberal world order began to falter, then went into reverse.” Identity politics, he has now concluded, explains why liberal democracy has ceased to impress much of the world as the ideal form of political and social organization.

He confesses at the outset that Identity would not have been written had Trump not been elected president, revealing the extent to which “white nationalism has moved from a fringe movement to something much more mainstream in American politics.” In the overwrought fears of “hard-core immigration opponents” who reject all proposals to grant undocumented aliens a path to citizenship, Fukuyama sees a “proxy” for white middle-class anxieties about loss of status in the globalized economy. To make sense of white nationalism, he argues, we must recognize that personal economic reversals are often experienced as a painful loss of social status and that joblessness and declining incomes, compounded by family breakdown and an explosion of deaths by overdose, make downwardly mobile citizens feel socially “invisible.”

After surveying a few economic trends that he believes have fueled xenophobic nativism in Europe as well as America, Fukuyama shifts to apportioning blame. Left-wing multiculturalism turns out to be the principal culprit: “Identity politics as currently practiced on…

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