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“Brexit could create backlash for populist politics.”

Francis Fukuyama in conversation with Mario Wasserfaller

Magazine > Interview > “Brexit could create backlash for populist politics.”

US political scientist Francis Fukuyama is concerned about the rise of right-wing populism and nationalism. In his latest book, Identity, he tries to explain why liberal democracies have increasingly come under pressure in recent years and what Donald Trump has to do with this. If a disorderly Brexit became a reality, Fukuyama argues this would be “a total disaster” for Great Britain, but could also create a backlash against this kind of populist politics.

30 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, liberal democracies are struggling with problems like nationalism or right-wing populism. In this form, you did not see this coming in The End of History?, but neither did anybody else. Is identity politics a sufficient explanation for whatever happened since then on a global scale?

So we have a lot of different problems worldwide now, and I think they fall into several different categories. One is simply a shift in geopolitics. After 1991 there weren’t any large powerful authoritarian countries that were threatening democracy and now you’ve got China and Russia, both of which have grown, they have consolidated, they are very self-confident and they are pushing the boundaries of the American-European order that had been established. That’s something new.

The more troubling problem is the one that has arisen in the best established liberal democracies, Britain and the United States, which in 2016 had elections in which populist candidates or policies were chosen. Not by a great majority, but they came to dominate the politics of those two countries. And that, especially in the United States, given how important it is for maintaining a liberal world order, signals a very big shift. I think this is something quite surprising. And there I do think that identity is necessary to really comprehend what’s going on, because the conventional wisdom on why this happened was an economic explanation, it was about globalization. It was the fact that globalization had made everybody richer but not everybody benefited from it. In particular, working-class people were losing jobs and opportunities to people in China or India or whatever.

But there is an identity component which explains why populism has been so prominent on the right rather than on the left. Because the right was able to come up with a narrative that said, the reason that you’re suffering is because of foreigners. It’s because of this invasion of outsiders. It’s because of foreign competition. And the real loss is not even your job, it’s your sense of national identity, of who you are. You’re losing your sense of community with other people, this society no longer looks familiar. Other cultures are entering in and nobody gave them permission to do this. So I think that’s what is really driving a lot of this support for populism in my country, and in yours as well.

By the way, I would just like to point out that many people did not read the part of The End of History and The Last Man where I actually talked about Nietzsche’s Last Man who arrives at the end of history. His lack of aspiration is in a way belied by human nature, because human beings want things to aspire to, and a sense of justice. And that this is what could propel nationalism and religion and other forms of non-democratic politics in the future. It’s just that 30 years ago the dominant trend was towards democracy and right now we are moving away from it.

Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama, born in 1952 in Chicago, studied political science at the University of Harvard. He become known to an international audience after publishing his best selling book The End of History and the Last Man.

He is a teacher at Johns Hopkins university and was awarded the John Skytte price in 2015. He has published a range of books on US politics. Currently he is a professor of political science at Stanford university.

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / eSeL

So while the political right came up with a successful narrative addressing certain problems, what did the left do – or failed to do?

I think that there are a couple of answers to that. One is that in the 1990s most of the left parties in Europe and the United States began to move to the center. They made their peace with capitalism and with markets, so this is Bill Clinton, Tony Blair…the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) has been in a coalition with the conservatives for the last decade. And I think that many people who would have voted for a left-wing party felt that they were offering the same thing as the conservatives were. There was really no choice and so they weren’t inspired by anything the left could do.

But I think the other problem is that the left had redefined its agenda in a way that made it less appealing to the old working class of the dominant ethnicity in the country. So the left in the 20th century was all about the working class, the proletarian. And in fact the far left was Marxist and so they wanted a proletarian revolution. But I think that over time the left began to see inequality more in terms of specific groups like racial minorities or women or the LGBT community, and not so much in terms of these old white trade union-organized workers.

And that shift led a lot of the older white workers to say, well, they’re not offering anything to me or to my group. They don’t have that sense of community; I don’t seem to belong in the kind of community that they want. And so a lot of people that used to vote for example for the French communist party now vote for the National Front, for the right-wing group. Same thing in the United States, a lot of white working class voters that used to support the Democratic Party now vote for Donald Trump.

What would be, in a few words, the psychological explanation behind this new form of identity politics?

I think that people want a recognition of their dignity. So there is a Greek word that Plato uses, Thymos, which is a part of the human soul that craves the approval and the respect of other people. And it is different from economic motivation. It’s not about resources.

And this aspect has been overlooked so far, in your view?

We are under the influence of modern economics that doesn’t recognize this part of the human personality. But I think it’s really critical because people will sacrifice economic value in order to gain respect from their fellow human beings. We are very social creatures in the end. Democracy offers a minimal level of respect, so you have the right to vote, to speak, to associate and so forth. And that’s better than living in an authoritarian regime that doesn’t treat you like a human being.

But in the end, for a lot of people, that’s not enough. People want to be recognized in their individuality or in their common identity with other people that are similar to them. And this is where I think modern identity politics comes from. In particular, it really starts on the left because it starts among groups that are marginalized or discriminated against, they’re not accepted, they are not respected by the mainstream society and so they naturally want to assert their dignity. And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with that.

You say that identity politics has become a dominant and driving force in today’s politics, but per se it is neither good or bad?

That’s right. In the first place, identity is not a fixed thing. Somehow people think that their race and gender are these immutable characteristics. In fact, you can construct all sorts of different identities, and they can be narrower or they can be broader. And I think what’s happening in our politics is that we are emphasizing increasingly narrow identities based on these fixed characteristics. That’s what’s not a good thing for democracy.

“In the first place, identity is not a fixed thing.”

On the other hand, something like a democratic, open national identity is important. Because I think you can’t have a democracy unless people believe that they are part of community that trusts one another, that shares certain basic democratic values. The trick is to have a national identity that is not exclusive, that is not intolerant, but yet binds people together over a common set of values that allow them to operate as a democratic unit.

Isn’t this a tad idealistic in light of contemporary tendencies, where people or groups are rather stressing their differences from others than what they have in common?

It depends on the society. In the United States we’ve had this idea of American identity that emerged finally fully in the late 20th century where what it meant to be an American was not being of a certain ethnicity or race, it really had to do with believing in the constitution and certain basic core values.

In Europe, I would say, the problem is a little bit different, because national identity on the left became very unpopular. It was associated with racism and nationalism. So a lot of people on the left in Europe simply don’t want to talk about national identity, even as a category. And then on the right, what’s unfortunately happened, is that an old form of ethnically-based national identity has returned and becomes part of the agenda. So Viktor Orbán in Hungary says, Hungarian national identity is based on Hungarian ethnicity, which automatically excludes anybody who is not an ethnic Hungarian in that community.

So we’re caught between these two poles, between a new left and a new right. And I think what we need is a kind of centrist position that says, yes we do need national identity, we do need a sense of community, but it has to be one that actually includes the full diversity of the people who live in our country.

According to this idea of identity politics, it can be applied to almost every group with certain interests. But what about groups on extreme opposites of the spectrum, like the MeToo movement and perhaps a jihadist group? What do they have in common?

I want to make clear that I don’t consider these morally equivalent. The jihadist groups are doing terrible things and I think the MeToo-movement is seeking a basic form of social justice for women. I would say what they have in common is a common psychology, that both of them are based on people who fear they are not respected. The young fighter that goes to Syria to join the Islamic State believes that Muslims have been oppressed and disregarded, disrespected around the world and they want to correct that situation.

And I think that women who are pushing back against sexual assault and sexual harassment feel that men in their society don’t value them as complete human beings. They are treated as sexual objects and they want to change that. So psychologically, in both cases it’s about this missing sense of respect and it’s an assertion of the dignity of their group. The trouble is that the solution that the Islamists want is violent and very destructive.

Where do you see the limits to this notion of identities and identity politics, what does it fail to explain?

Identity is so embedded in the way we think about ourselves that I don’t think you are getting away from it. What is bad about it is when it becomes attached to a fixed category. So you say because I am born into a certain group I must think in a certain way, my politics has to be in a certain way, I can’t speak on certain issues because I’m the member of the wrong group. You’re not the member of the right group, you have no legitimacy in arguing with me.

“In general, what we need to focus on are more integrating forms of identity that actually try to recreate a common ground between different people.”

I think that this is where it becomes very problematic. It’s a useful category in many cases when it actually is a way of achieving dignity and common purpose to people that felt that they were not being recognized previously. So there are good forms of identity and there are bad forms. In general, what we need to focus on are more integrating forms of identity that actually try to recreate a common ground between different people.

Let’s talk about the big picture: Where is liberal democracy headed, is it in danger?

It’s very hard to make predictions. I do think that people who want liberal democracy should not get too pessimistic about current developments because democracy still has a lot of appeal and a lot of resources. One of the big problems with the new populists is that they do not offer a real solution to the anxieties that their voters are responding to. So closing yourself off to the world I think is not a formula for economic success. We are seeing that in Brexit right now, we’re getting very close to a disorderly withdrawal by Britain from the European Union. If that happens, it’s going to be a total disaster for them. And I think it’s going to create a backlash against this kind of populist politics.

Similarly, in the United States, President Trump seems to be heading towards a war of all against all in trade. And this is also not a way to manage the world’s largest economy. But of course there’s natural checks and balances. We saw that in the United States in the mid-term election in November, when the Democrats really made very large gains against the Republicans, because I think people are rejecting Trumpism.

Talking about the state of the world today often results in a rather bleak picture. What about positive examples?

Well, if you look at the world as a whole, it is actually doing pretty well. Over the last 15 years there’s been economic growth in all regions, there’s been rising middle classes. If you are concerned about global poverty, things have gotten a lot better. And I would say, even in these developed democracies that seemed to be so unhappy, things are not that bad compared to the 1920s, 1930s or even compared to the period of the 1970s when we had this oil crisis and hyperinflation and so forth. There’s been stagnation and frustration, but we’re living peacefully, we are not involved in civil wars, we don’t have the possibility of great-power conflict that dominated the politics of the first half of the twentieth century. So I think people do need to take a little perspective, where we are globally.

What does the EU need to survive in the long run?

The EU needs a couple of things. I don’t think that the underlying problem with the euro has really been fixed yet and I’m not quite sure whether the political motive to fix that is really sufficient right now. The other thing has to do with migration, because I don’t think that the migration system in Europe is an ideal one. The designers of the Schengen system had a good idea that was driven by economic considerations, that people should move freely within the Schengen zone, labor could go to areas where it was most needed.

The problem is that this maximizes the aggregate welfare of all the individuals in the Schengen zone, it does not necessarily maximize the welfare of individual countries. And so in some parts, like Britain, where you have a lot of inward immigration, it created this huge political backlash, because it leads to very rapid cultural change and insecurity. But the part that people are not sufficiently focused on is what it’s done to the countries in Eastern Europe – that it was sending people. I spent a lot of time in countries like Ukraine or Serbia or Romania where they’ve lost 20, 30 percent of their population. Some of the youngest and most talented people have all gone to be doctors or accountants in Britain. So it’s problematic from both sides, and I think a little bit of slowing down of that system may not be the worst thing in terms of the welfare of the individual countries that are involved in this system.

“I think the main issue for me, what Europe needs, is a kind of centrist position that rejects a racially- or ethnically-based sense of national identity but also recognizes the importance of national identity for a democracy.”

Plus, I do think that finally you have a big problem with outer borders in Europe. Open inner borders don’t work unless you have some way of securing the outer borders and that’s not also something that Europe has really fixed.

I think the main issue for me, what Europe needs, is a kind of centrist position that rejects a racially- or ethnically-based sense of national identity but also recognizes the importance of national identity for a democracy. I think that’s the thing that we need to focus on in Europe today.

What is your take on Austria at this time, what does it stand for politically, if you look from the outside in?

I think everybody is looking at Mr. Kurz to see whether he is really a dangerous right-wing populist or whether he is really a centrist politician who is simply trying to deal with the threat from a much nastier right wing. Right now from my perspective I don’t know enough to make a judgment of that.

At the end of the book you say that identity can be used to divide but also to integrate and this could be the remedy for populist politics. You proposed a few solutions, at the same time saying they might not be realistic. Which solutions could be realistic?

Well, most of my specific solutions are ones for the United States. In Europe, I would just say this very simple thing: I think that most European countries need to create a sense of national community, national identity that is based on liberal values, so it’s not based on ethnicity or race. That means changing the nature of citizenship, making it more open to outsiders. But also it has to do with the way that leaders talk about their own societies. The minimal component of this would be what you call ‘Verfassungspatriotismus’, ‘Verfassungsstaat’, where you have to have this basic belief in constitutional order, rule of law, these basic political institutions.

But beyond that it needs a kind of emotional content through the right kind of symbols that bind people together. Sometimes that happens in sports, sometimes through literature, language, through other sorts of cultural points of reference that allow people to say, yes, this is what it means to be a member of our community. Every country in Europe is going to have a different sense of that and it is going to be more difficult to do that in some countries than in others. But I think, ultimately, that’s what is needed.

Final question: How would you describe your own identity?

My grandfather came from Japan in 1905 to the United States. My father and I both grew up not really speaking Japanese, so I don’t speak the language myself. And as I was growing up I always thought that I was just an American. And I thought it was pretty nice that I could think of myself as an American and not as a Japanese American and not as somebody basically different. And that’s one of the good things of the US, that it’s not that hard to do that.

First published on 1 March 2019 on APA Science.

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Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Francis Fukuyama. Photo: © Djurdja Padejski