We all saw the same thing. Yet, what we saw differs sharply in our mind’s eye, and in our retelling of the story.
Over the past two weeks, all Americans had access to the same impeachment inquiry hearings. We all saw the same witnesses testifying. We all heard the same Members of Congress asking the same questions (or making the same speeches).
And yet, taken individually, what we saw and heard during those hearings differed widely.
Why is there this contradiction if we all saw and heard the same testimony presented to the same Congressional committee? One answer to that conundrum may lie in the increasingly narrow ways in which we identify ourselves.
It just so happened that I was reading Francis Fukuyama’s smart and insightful 2018 book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment during the hearings. A Japanese-American political scientist, Fukuyama’s thoughtful take on how our nation, and how much of the world, came to a place where we are identifying ourselves with a series of smaller and smaller tribes while also expanding our resentments into larger and larger grievances, is timely. I found it to be, ultimately, hopeful as well.
As he notes in his preface, this book would not have been written without Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016. But Fukuyama sees the challenges we are facing as pre-dating Trump’s election. American institutions such as the rule of law and democratic accountability “were decaying as the state was progressively captured by powerful interest groups and locked into a rigid structure that was unable to reform itself.”
According to the author, populism and nationalism—both forces behind Trump’s election—are not necessarily bad ideas. It is just that in Trump’s hands, as in the hands of authoritarians around the world, all the wrong instincts and prejudices come forward.
In examining what encourages people to make harmful turns toward populism and nationalism, Fukuyama takes the position that the sense of being dismissed, being invisible to others, drives human affairs much more than does economic interests. New York Times columnist Timothy Egan made a similar point recently, in a column on how the “insufferably woke” help Trump. Fukuyama writes that, “To be poor is to be invisible to your fellow human beings, and the indignity of invisibility is often worse than the lack of resources.” He also points to the invisibility that comes in the form of racism, which sees people of color as somehow less human. This diminution of inherent value happens on the individual level, but it can also be found in nations and their leaders. Russia, Hungary and China all have rulers who are driven by past national humiliations. Fukuyama notes that Osama bin Laden was driven by the treatment of Palestinians. And, in a sentiment that helps explain some of the last two weeks of hearings in the Congress, many on the right, while claiming to loathe identity politics, are driven by their own perception of being dismissed. In each of these instances, the dismissed are demanding—in their own, often destructive ways—to be recognized, to be heard, and to have power.
In setting out his thesis and describing the modern concept of identity, Fukuyama dives into the weeds in his first few chapters. But his work took off for me when he stated, “The broadening and universalization of dignity turns the private quest for self into a political project.” There are numerous and varied examples, from the right and the left and from all around the globe, to describe the disasters that have arisen from resentment of our fellow citizens and, globally, our fellow humans. Yet the final section of the book is hopeful. It turns when we realize that the “protection of ever narrower group identities ultimately threatens the possibility of communication and collective action.” It finds the remedy not in abandoning the idea of identity, but “to define larger and more integrative national identities that take account of the de facto diversity of existing liberal democratic societies.”
The larger national identities begin “with a shared belief in the legitimacy of the country’s political system,” and also extend into the realm of culture and value. Fukuyama argues that national identities shouldn’t be built around “narrow, ethnically based, intolerant, aggressive, and deeply illiberal forms,” but instead around “liberal and democratic political values, and the common experiences that provide connective tissue around which diverse communities can thrive.” Out of the crucible of the Civil War, the U.S. began to live up to its promise as a creedal nation. Fukuyama first asserts that it needs to return to reemphasizing that proposition, but he also maintains that it is necessary that we gain “an understanding of positive virtues, not bound to particular groups, that are needed to make democracy work.”
The final chapter lays out what is to be done to achieve this new sense of national identity. He has strategies pointed toward the left and the right, and toward how to assimilate immigrants to a country’s creedal identity. While the U.S. benefits from diversity, Fukuyama maintains that we cannot build our national identity “around diversity as such. Identity has to be related to substantive ideas such as constitutionalism, rule of law, and human equality.”
Last Thursday I saw this play out in real life as Dr. Fiona Hill, a naturalized U.S. citizen, took a stand for the primacy of the constitution and the rule of law. She did so throughout her testimony, as John Cassidy writes in The New Yorker, by “making a broader point about the need to defend the stated values of her adopted country, and the threats it faces—internal as well as external.”
Fukuyama ends his book with a similar look forward.
“Identity is the theme that underlies many political phenomena today, from new populist nationalist movements, to Islamist fighters, to the controversies taking place on university campuses. We will not escape from thinking about ourselves and our society in identity terms. But we need to remember that the identities dwelling deep inside us are neither fixed nor necessarily given to us by our accidents of birth. Identity can be used to divide, but it can and has also been used to integrate. That in the end will be the remedy for the populist politics of the present.”
Our leaders that help heal this time of division in the country must work to articulate, and then live by example, the core belief—stated so eloquently by Lewis Lapham—that what joins Americans one to another “is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry” but rather our “complicity in a shared work of the imagination.” We need to get back to imagining the type of country that matches our ideals.
More to come…
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