“One of the core conclusions of Fukuyama’s Identity is that identity politics—the ‘demand for [political] recognition of one’s identity,’ whether that be a racial, ethnic, religious, or national identity—is here to stay.”
uch like his presidential campaign, the central theme of President Joe Biden’s inaugural address could be summed up in one word: Unity. “Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people.” Around what, exactly, does President Biden want to unite the American people? Two things—one worthy of unity, the other not as much.
The less worthy of complete consensus is his policy program. James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10 that “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it,” as we thankfully are in a democratic republic such as ours, “different opinions will be formed.” Forging unity on how exactly to respond to climate change or the economic travails wrought by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) is not going to happen. We should not call for unity at junctures where good-faith debate, disagreement, and compromise are, in fact, needed.
As National Review’s Kevin Williamson wrote in response to President Biden’s inauguration, “The United States does not suffer from a lack of sufficient unity. The United States thrives on the opposite of unity: disagreement, debate, competition, rivalry. Totalitarian countries have unity. Democratic republics have disagreement. That is why we have elections and legislatures. Disagreement is good. If you know how to do it.” Williamson is correct; however, an amendment is in order: Democratic republics thrive on disagreement and debate within certain boundaries. Everything cannot be up for grabs, which is why we have certain Constitutional provisions, such as the Bill of Rights, that place certain rights beyond the reach of majorities. As George F. Will notes in Statecraft as Soulcraft while reflecting on Abraham Lincoln’s resistance to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and his insistence on the verity of the Declaration’s ode to equal human dignity, “there can be closed questions in an open society. Indeed, a society that has no closed questions cannot count on remaining an open society.”
And this brings us to the second, more admirable, form of unity that President Biden advocates—a unity around the American creed of constitutionalism, democratic process, and a reliance on politics, not violence, to settle disputes. President Biden stated, in what I suspect might become the most enduring line of the address, that “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” Disagreements are to be expected, even desired, but they must be confined “within the guardrails of our Republic”—guardrails like democratic procedure, non-violence, and the rule of law.
But is this all the grounds of unity that we have?
As I recently argued here in the pages of Merion West, a commitment to our constitutional inheritance must be a part of our national unity, our shared national identity. But principles and process alone are not enough. We need deeper, more rooted, visceral sources of unity if we are to stick together; we need a common identity, a common sense of us.
To put it lightly, this is a challenge.
Modern America is rife with historically conditioned and socially salient differences running along fraught lines of race, worldview, and culture. As writers like Ezra Klein have pointed out, these differences are no longer politically suppressed like they once were thanks to hateful structures like Jim Crow. Free speech, the franchise, and diversified cultural power have enabled America’s social diversity to seep into its politics in meaningful ways. In the name of justice and representative democracy, we should celebrate the fact that our politics is increasingly reflective of the vast array of American voices. On a more worrisome note, though, as the University of Maryland political scientist Lilliana Mason has argued, our partisan identities are growing increasingly adept at capturing these differences. This is why we can conceptualize American politics as a competition between two tribes, and we can worry about the possibility of a national crack-up.
The Natural and Modern Roots of Identity Politics
In times like these, when the citizenry has seemingly splintered into hostile sub-national tribes, it is imperative that we turn to thinkers who have critically reflected on the question of identity and can proffer relevant takeaways. One such thinker is Francis Fukuyama, a Stanford professor and prominent public intellectual. Fukuyama’s 2018 book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment can help us get a better grasp on our eroding sense of unity and how we might resurrect a modern, workable, meaningful national identity in the American here and now.
One of the core conclusions of Fukuyama’s Identity is that identity politics—the “demand for [political] recognition of one’s identity,” whether that be a racial, ethnic, religious, or national identity—is here to stay. To trace the emergence of the politically salient concept of identity, Fukuyama reaches back to the tripartite division of the soul into desire, reason, and spirit in Plato’s Republic. Thymos, or spiritedness, is “the seat of today’s identity politics.” Fukuyama writes: “Because human beings naturally crave recognition, the modern sense of identity evolves quickly into identity politics, in which individuals demand public recognition of their worth.” Fukuyama is careful to note that while the desire for external recognition of one’s worth is deeply embedded in human nature, the concept of identity could only emerge with the help of certain strains of modern thinking—such as Rousseau’s separation of the inner, supposedly genuine self from a constraining outer world. Fukuyama concludes that “while the concept of identity is rooted in thymos, it emerged only in modern times when it was combined with a notion of an inner and an outer self, and the radical view that the inner self was more valuable than the outer one.”
Fukuyama is careful to note that the demand for dignity can take two forms, both of which were encompassed by the French Revolution: “One stream demanded the recognition of the dignity of individuals, and the other the dignity of collectives.” The demand for individual dignity and recognition due to one’s humanity has laid the groundwork for liberal democracy. Assertions of “collective identity” have not faded, though, especially in places where economic and technological changes have left individuals feeling rootless and lost: “the demand for recognition often takes a more particular form, centering on the dignity of a particular group that has been marginalized or disrespected. For many, the inner self that needed to be made visible was not that of a generic human being, but of a particular kind of person from a particular place and observing particular customs. These partial identities could be based on nation, or they could be based on religion.”
The task at hand is to construct a national identity—a sense of unity—that is pervasive enough to not be exclusionary but specific enough to not be meaningless.
External, historically conditioned group markers like race have also provided the grounds for particularity. Fukuyama takes stock of the post-1960s flourishing of identity politics in the United States, where previously “invisible and suppressed” groups organized around their common characteristic. This was (and still is) especially prevalent on the Left, where the focus shifted from economic redistribution to the redistribution of social recognition and esteem: “The left continued to be defined by its passion for equality, but that agenda shifted from its earlier emphasis on the conditions of the working class to the often psychological demands of an ever-widening circle of marginalized groups.” These “recognition struggles” on the Left helped to stimulate an identity politics strain on the Right because, after all, “[t]he dynamic of identity politics is to stimulate more of the same, as identity groups begin to see one another as threats. Unlike fights over economic resources, identity claims are usually non-negotiable: rights to social recognition based on race, ethnicity, or gender are based on fixed biological characteristics and cannot be traded for other goods or abridged in any way.”
An Integrative, Fruitful Identity Politics as the Way Forward
This zero-sum nature of a politics principally grounded in group recognition struggles does not portend well for America’s future. But it is fanciful, notes Fukuyama, to pretend that the demand for honor and recognition of the collective will magically fade. As such, “The remedy is to define larger and more integrative national identities that take account of the de facto diversity of existing liberal democratic societies.”
The task at hand is to construct a national identity—a sense of unity—that is pervasive enough to not be exclusionary but specific enough to not be meaningless. As he embarked on his principal challenge of “addressing the crisis of division” in the United States, President Biden himself slipped into invocations of meaningless grounds of unity during his inaugural address, asking: “What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans? I think I know. Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.” These are honorable values, but they are a bit vague. Constructing a meaningful, integrative national identity amid our many identities requires more substance.
Part of that substance must entail the political principles to which President Biden alluded in his remarks—values such as democratic republicanism, constitutionalism, and an acceptance of the legitimacy of politics as opposed to violence. As Fukuyama writes, “National identities can be built around liberal and democratic political values.” That said, “national identity also extends into the realm of culture and values.” The American creed alone is insufficient:
“The contemporary fate of the United States—and that of any other culturally diverse democracy that wants to survive—is to be a creedal nation. But it also needs an understanding of positive virtues, not bound to particular groups, that are needed to make that democracy work. While it would be wrong today to link identity to race, ethnicity, or religion, it is correct to say that national identity in a well-functioning democracy requires something more than passive acceptance of a creed. It requires citizenship and the exercise of certain virtues. A creedal identity is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success.”
Given the fact that we “cannot get away from identity or identity politics,” the task at hand is to “create identities that are broader and more integrative.” This is the fundamental challenge for America in the years ahead. How can we satiate the demands for individual- and group-level dignity in a manner that is not inherently exclusionary or antagonistic? How can we satisfy the dictates of thymos in a way that leaves our constitutional system and national unity intact, even strengthened?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but it is imperative that we—and our political and intellectual elites—begin openly asking them. We cannot fall back on platitudes. We have to couple our invocations of the political principles of the American creed with discussions about how to attach citizens’ spirits, passions, and visceral senses of belonging to those principles.
Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98