Review of Identity

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During the past decade, a global trend toward democracy faltered, and movements toward authoritarianism and nationalism accelerated in many regions of the world. To explain these events, the distinguished political scientist Francis Fukuyama – best known for his 1992 book celebrating humanity’s achievement of liberal democratic government, The End of History and the Last Man – returns with a slim but potent new text. As Fukuyama probes the identity-based motivations fueling current developments, he admits that the desire for respect and recognition has often driven progress in politics, economics and the arts. But, he argues, it also stokes the fires of populist nationalist movements, Islamic extremism and the left-wing identity politics that have fragmented societies and, in Fukuyama’s view, distracted from urgent policy work.

About the Author

Francis Fukuyama is Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Mosbacher Director of its Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.


The Democratic Recession

Fukuyama sets out by retracing the historical developments that informed today’s political landscapes. Beginning in the early 1970s, he recounts, a tide of democratization swept the globe. Over the next four decades, the number of electoral democracies in the world more than tripled. By 2010, however, the tide began to ebb. The world’s total number of democracies declined, and many regions saw a surge in antidemocratic sentiment. Some established democracies – such as Hungary, Poland and Turkey – backslid towards authoritarianism. Nascent democracies in the Middle East – Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen – collapsed into civil war. Overall, Fukuyama claims, the idea of liberal democracy started to fall into disrepute. Russia and China became more unapologetically illiberal and the Islamic State gained influence. Then, in 2016, the British Brexit vote and the American presidential election revealed among British and US voters a growing preoccupation with immigration and loss of cultural identity. Anti-immigrant movements have, likewise, taken hold across Western Europe.

Fukuyama goes on asking: Why did this shift occur? As the first culprit he identifies globalization, which, he believes, has scattered its benefits unevenly: In some countries – notably those of the developed world – elites have prospered while middle-class workers lost jobs. Second, the financial crises of 2008 and their fallout for ordinary people sullied liberal democracy’s reputation. But, he argues, the reasons behind the democratic recession go beyond economic factors. Globalization also brought drastic social change, including movements of workers across geographic boundaries and shake-ups in class and gender roles. As a result, democracies have witnessed seismic shifts in their political landscapes. Economic concerns no longer define the right–left spectrum as they have for nearly a hundred years, with the left seeking fairer distribution while the right defends freedom of exchange. Now, Fukuyama claims pivoting to his central theme, identity politics rules. The left is championing rights and respect for marginalized groups, largely leaving behind its historical role of promoting economic fairness and broad-based solidarity. Meanwhile, the right is moving toward forms of populist nationalism often tied to ethnic, racial or religious identity. Fukuyama minces no word: “The rise of identity politics in modern liberal democracies is one of the chief threats they face.”

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