Democracy: A Problematic but still Preeminent Concept

As part of Purdue University’s 150th anniversary celebration, renowned thinker and writer Francis Fukuyama came to campus to discuss democracy, personal identity and the state of global politics.

Political theorist Francis Fukuyama discussed personal identity and its relationship to the current political climate when he visited Purdue on April 16 to present the inaugural Jack Miller Center Lecture.A thoughtful crowd gathered in Fowler Hall on April 17 to hear an armchair discussion between Purdue President Mitch Daniels and Fukuyama, the noted political theorist and author. His famous essay and 1992 book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” argued that with events such as the rise of Russian glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy had triumphed over Communism as humanity’s ultimate, and final, socio-political system.

Fukuyama is the Mosbacher Director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. His most recent book is “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” (2018, Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

The event, which was the inaugural Jack Miller Center Lecture and part of Purdue’s Giant Leaps Series, was hosted by the College of Liberal Arts and the Department of History. Liberal Arts Dean David Reingold was thrilled to host Fukuyama as part of the University’s sesquicentennial celebration of giant leaps and big ideas.

“Dr. Fukuyama is one of the most interesting thinkers we have in the world today,” Reingold said. “We are so pleased to have him speak on campus.”

An End to History

President Daniels opened by asking Fukuyama to elucidate his current thoughts on “the end of history,” a phrase philosophers use to denote to the final and definitive form of human government. In response to a frequently asked question, Fukuyama affirmed that, indeed, he believes a liberal democracy based on a market economy is still humanity’s most viable social system.

“The question: Is there a higher form of human, political, social, economic organization that’s going to supersede liberal democracy? I really don’t see that in the world right now,” he said.

Daniels asked Fukuyama his thoughts about historian Robert Kagan’s recent essay, “Strongmen Strike Back,” which argues that modern liberalism is in danger of being eclipsed by authoritarianism on the left and right.

And Fukuyama agreed Kagan is correct to highlight challenges to liberal democracy posed by “assertive and confident” authoritarian-type countries like China and Russia. In an example, he discussed the “worrisome and scary” social credits system in China.

Liberalism and Public Virtue

Daniels wondered if modern liberalism is compatible with tradition and culture. “Liberalism is about liberty for individuals,” Fukuyama explained. “And individual liberty means freedom from government interference.” But he emphasized that liberal societies are embedded in society: through families and the workplace. Along with personal freedoms, he strongly believes individuals have an obligation to the public interest. Unfortunately, he added, the traditional value of public virtue is “atrophied” today.

Daniels raised the issue of capitalism, which by its nature can dissolve structures like businesses and economic sectors. Fukuyama affirmed that, across the globe, this was a problem — and has been our experience the past 30 years. “That’s why we need governments,” he said. Without government constraints and social responsibility, Fukuyama said, we get “ruthless capitalism.”

Daniels asked if the impetus driving capitalism might be consumers who simply want inexpensive goods. Fukuyama agreed but cited examples of developed countries such as France or Japan, where people are willing to pay more for goods in order to preserve traditions and a sense of community. “It’s a societal decision.”

Daniels noted that this was sometimes used as an argument for protectionism: higher prices for preserving industries. But Fukuyama argued that too often it is not societies but large companies who argue for protectionism in order to protect their market share, not preserve communities.

Respect for Identity

When discussing the theme of his current book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment,” Fukuyama began by defining Plato’s concept of thymos, or “spiritedness and pride,” the need for respect that Plato considered a fundamental human need.

“All of us, as part of our natures, we have an inner self that should be respected by other people,” which overrides our material interests, Fukuyama said. “You cannot understand what’s going on in a lot of politics if you don’t understand this part of human nature.”

To illustrate the concept, Fukuyama gave the example of Martin Luther, a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation who elevated personal faith above public rituals like the Catholic rosary and mass. Luther’s idea was that people don’t have to change; traditional society has to change. Fukuyama related this to current efforts like the #Metoo movement. “Norms have to change,” he said.

Damage to Democracy

Daniels asked Fukuyama to discuss his ideas about “the politics of resentment,” a recently coined phrase referring to the white working class embracing conservative politics. Fukuyama called out the country’s relatively recent recognition, starting in the 1960s, of longtime social injustices felt by people marginalized by race, ethnicity and gender. The problem, he said, is that these individual identities became essential. And the demands for thymos, or recognition, were not for individuals but for many specific subsets of society, resulting in a proliferation of aggrieved identities.

During the last 30 years, Fukuyama said, political progressives have thus shifted their focus from the white working class to minority groups and these “partial identities.” Unsurprisingly, the white working class has shifted its allegiance to political conservatives, he said, parties that recognize their identity as working-class citizens on the receiving end of big capitalism. Fukuyama said that identity politics explains the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the rise of right-wing parties in European countries traditionally run by social democrats. “It’s really remarkable,” Fukuyama said.

Ultimately, he observed, identity politics is bad for democracy. “If you’re arguing over economic issues, for example, you can have a discussion with someone. But if the discussion is about my identify and yours, you can’t split the difference on an issue like that.”

A Solution: Creedal Identity

Daniels asked Fukuyama to discuss his alternative to identity politics: creedal identities. Fukuyama described the American identity as based on a common creed. Whether you’re born in the Unites States or are a naturalized citizen, he said, you can believe in a shared creed, an American creed that says, “’We believe in the constitution and the rule of law, in the idea that people are created equal.’”

A creedal identity is not a fixed characteristic like race or gender. Fukuyama lauded the American naturalization ceremony, where people from all over the world take an oath and then can say, “‘I’m an American.’ It’s very moving,” he said, and unique to the U.S. In Europe, countries do not have creedal identities, and therefore, ethnic tensions can be more problematic.

To solve the problem of divisive identity politics, Fukuyama said we need to defend our creedal identity, an identity that is accessible to all.

David Sanders, assistant professor biological sciences at Purdue, enjoyed the range of topics in the discussion and Fukuyama’s revealing responses. “The common creed, as he described it, it is a commitment to human dignity and human rights,” Sanders said. “It’s the notion that we are in fact created equal, and that religion, gender and sexual identity don’t matter in our society.”

Not everyone in the audience agreed. Talha Ahmad, a freshman in mechanical engineering who is interested in global politics, said he is not sure what Fukuyama means by creedal identity. “He was talking about a set of ideals that people hold, but as to what these ideals might be, he was a little vague.”

Wrapping up the 30-minute session with Daniels, Fukuyama discussed Brexit and institutional religion, summing up: “We still need virtue, a sense of obligation toward the community.”

In the following 30-minute Q&A with the audience, Fukuyama returned to the topic of technology and government, stating genetic engineering tools such as CRISPR and psychotropic drugs — in the hands of totalitarian governments — are something to worry about.

He fielded questions from the audience about market deregulation in the 1970s, the role of the media as a transmissive, not creative, agent, and the need for leaders who promulgate public virtue, such as Nelson Mandela. And when asked to define human rights, Fukuyama stressed the importance of being guided by human nature, and not merely decided by “society.”

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