A political genie offers you one wish. What would it be? What single act of change would have the greatest positive impact on our society?
Chaos and vitriol engulfing public life obscures a pearl of promise. The end of the Cold War and the subsequent emergence of a prosperous new era of globalization has opened up previously unimaginable windows of opportunity to remake our social order. In a sense, the genie has arrived and we face a choice.
Francis Fukuyama has waded into the fray, producing the most cogent and complete argument yet against what he calls “identity politics.” He urges Democrats to return to redistributive, industrial-era class appeals instead of pressing for “multiculturalism.” Fukuyama is no leftist. Like David Frum, he is a former neo-conservative who at one point supported GW Bush Administration. Like everyone else with a brain and a conscience, he finds himself increasingly aligned with the left by default. Like Frum, he sees the rise of so-called identity politics as a threat, and would advocate compromise on civil rights issues and immigration to protect a singular national identity.
Fukuyama, Frum, and the growing chorus of identity alarmists could not be more wrong about our present dilemma and our future needs. If we could ask that political genie for one wish it should be this: immediately tear down every Confederate statue. The nation that unlocks the power of authentic pluralism will dominate the 21st century. Our greatest single obstacle to achieving that future is our racial legacy.
As usual with professor Fukuyama, his logic is air-tight once the assumptions are framed. The problem starts with those assumptions.
First, he defines identity politics as a creation of the left, dating to the post- civil rights era. Thus, the racism that has engulfed the right is merely a predictable response to the rise of multiculturalism on the left. “Assimilation of foreigners” into a “mainstream culture” is an essential element of any immigration program. And “inconsistent enforcement of immigration laws” is the center of our present immigrant panic, the point at which he thinks any response to this outbreak of xenophobia should begin.
This framing is problematic not just because these unsupported claims are false. By starting with these assumptions, he drives past the most important forces rocking liberal democracies globally. Pluralism, civil rights, and multiculturalism did not land at the center of our political world out of expediency or a failure of ambition. Thanks to powerful incentives unleashed by the post-Cold War economy, cultural diversity has become a wealth engine. Fukuyama’s unsupported assumptions, which are established truisms of a dead industrial era, are not merely false, they are disastrous. There is money in diversity and money always wins.
Claiming that identity politics began with the civil rights movement is a strange choice. Here’s how Fukuyama frames this claim:
This [the civil rights movement] presented each marginalized group with a choice: it could demand that society treat its members the same way it treated the members of dominant groups, or it could assert a separate identity for its members and demand respect for them as different from the mainstream society. Over time, the latter strategy tended to win out.
This is a conventional white-washing of Martin Luther King’s appeal. In that retelling, King was merely demanding that African-Americans be granted, at last, the chance to become white people, just like the Irish and the Italians and Jews maybe eventually even the Asians. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the civil rights movement and of pluralism as a concept, aided by the iron taboo of acknowledging the existence of racism as a force in American cultural life. By this logic, letting black people sit in any seat on the bus was supposed to solve racism. Continuing to complain today about your children being brutalized by police is “identity politics” implicitly justifying the rise of Neo-Nazi groups as a response. After America has been so generous as to let you apply for the same jobs as white people, Charlottesville is what you get for complaining.
Further, the pretense that identity-based political appeals are some modern innovation in American politics is unthinkable to anyone who has ever worked on an actual political campaign, or for that matter, attended a St. Patrick’s Day parade. All politics is identity politics. It has never been otherwise.
Nationalism, by contrast, is an innovation and an increasingly antiquated one. There was no clear concept of a Germany or a German until that identity was invented. Take a look at a map of central Europe from 1850 and you’ll find no single bloc of Germans. Germany was a project of identity politics in the service of industrial-era nationalism.
The same focus on identity produced a Turkey out of dissonant, diverse identities living under an Ottoman Empire. Creation of a Turkish identity was a particularly brutal process, still not completed across much that nation-state’s geography.
Catalans and Basques continue to chafe against their imposed Spanish identity. Scots and Quebecois never relinquished their hold on an identity separate from their nation. Here in the US, demands of the nationalist era were resolved by the creation of a more expansive “white” identity, helping to heal the rifts of a civil war and prepare the country for full industrialization. That expanded definition of whiteness was tuned to incorporate previously indigestible chunks of a melting pot, previously relegated to second-class status under an earlier Protestant order. Those earlier identities never disappeared, but those who benefited from a slightly wider window of inclusion learned to love the benefits of whiteness, and to protect their acquired privileges.
By this logic it’s easy to see the demands of groups like Black Lives Matter as either impatient or unreasonable. Instead of demanding recognition, respect, and dignity as black people, they should be capitalizing on the chance to become white (reads: “Americans”). They should follow the path of the lace curtain Irish. Play golf, lower your voices, eat bland food, and learn to appreciate the artistic power of Barry Manilow. Pluralism, such as it existed in the industrial era American order, meant allowing many different kinds of people to become more or less white.
White racist backlash is excusable because minorities are breaking the American contract. Everyone gets to participate in American life as long as they adopt the identity and culture of what Fukuyama calls “mainstream society.” In return, America has promised to grant nearly equal treatment to everyone who successfully performs as white, as long as they aren’t visibly non-white. It is the responsibility of good, patriotic, non-white or non-Christian Americans to bend their life and identity to not only respect, but protect the dominant white Christian culture. To do otherwise is to invite violence, for which you’ll have no one but yourself to blame.
Thing is, this model worked for a while. As with the German and British and Turkish and innumerable other nationalist experiments, forging and solidifying a monolithic national identity unlocked the rewards of an industrial economy. The assumption that a singular cultural identity is important to national success has roots in lived experience. It seems intuitive that it’s easier to govern a more monolithic nation than a nation of many cultures.
In an industrial order, identities that mattered were capital, bourgeois and labor. Others were extraneous and frequently a nuisance. Nation-states, like Germany, that successfully replaced fragmented identities with a superseding national identity mediated by class tended to thrive while others, like the Balkan states, struggled. Fukuyama assumes the dangers of pluralism and multiculturalism because in an industrial economy they were an obvious threat. Things change. Successful cultures adapt to those changes. Industrial era economic assumptions no longer hold. Those who seek to master the demands of an information economy with the tools of the industrial era will be the future’s greatest losers.
Review these two photos. On top is last year’s class of White House interns, reflecting the logic and values of Fukuyama’s nationalistic identity. Below is a picture of Google’s 2017 PhD fellows. Notice a difference? Which group do you think will deliver the most powerful economic impact for their country?
We are living through an economic transformation overturning the logic of the industrial age. Where an earlier order rewarded resource extraction, mass undifferentiated labor, and capital, a new order is emerging based on data, parallel processing, and talent. Prosperity in the dying order rose from seizing natural resources, mobilizing a docile workforce and developing infrastructure. Exponentially greater wealth is now being produced by organizations that convert talent into innovation at relatively low levels of capital input and dramatically lower resource demands. An enormous competitive advantage now exists for nation-states capable of developing their own intellectual talent. An even greater advantage is open to those who can attract talent developed elsewhere. Political pluralism now feeds economic power to a greater degree than we ever imagined.
This emerging economic order is an existential threat to the prosperous and successful ethno-states of Europe and East Asia. It is a potential boon to the less nationalist, less ethnically coherent democracies in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. America sits on the bubble. Our previous semi-pluralistic compromise-identity based on whiteness is failing. Those who benefited most from whiteness are in open revolt against every element of modernity. There is no way forward without defeating them. Nothing threatens America’s capacity to prosper in the information age like our attachment to race.
Adopting Fukuyama’s formula for a superimposed nationalism at the cost of immigration and pluralism amounts to a Munich-like concession before the fight. Despite our apparent setbacks, no nation enjoys better natural advantages in the emerging order. Our yet-unrealized national creed celebrates a universal vision of human rights so ambitious as to be barely credible when it was written. All of the material and mythological elements of a functioning, workable pluralism have been handed to us, ready to be exploited, right down to a federal system built for massive scale and tremendous flexibility. This is not a moment for compromise. It is a time to press forward and invite conflict on favorable ground.
Want to build a powerful, wealthy, humane America that will lead the world in the 21st century? Start by removing every artifact of the Confederacy from public veneration. Strike this weed at its roots.
Inviting a highly contentious fight over noxious symbols won’t deliver health care to working families. Or will it? Ask yourself why we are the world’s only prosperous country without universal health care or a functioning social democracy. The answer sits beneath those Confederate statues.
Fukuyama’s formula can be summarized to this. Subsume the needs of previously oppressed groups beneath a blanket national identity. Compromise our economic need for greater immigration to mollify our racists. Use that reinforced national identity as a platform for the development of a social democracy. Aided by the peace and harmony produced by that social democracy, the oppression of blacks and Hispanics and women and so on will decline. European countries are demonstrating the fallacy in this formula.
Europe already features the most generous social democracies imaginable, but they are recoiling in racist horror at the fear of losing their social cohesion to immigration. That immigration happens to be the lynchpin of their economic future, the only route to maintain their prosperity and their generous welfare states in the emerging order. But having failed to develop an identity beyond a monolithic culture, they are now trapped and reeling. Don’t make their mistake.
You can’t get to the opioid crisis without addressing the crisis in health care in the US. And you can’t wrestle with the real problems blocking the kind of common-sense health care reforms taken for granted elsewhere in the world without talking about race. There is no way forward into a more humane, prosperous future without having a family fight over race and identity. A new American patriotism is down on one knee this Sunday afternoon. That is a vision of our most hopeful, freest, most prosperous future. In the defining conflict of our time, pluralism will win, or America will lose.