One of the least appreciated and least understood contributors to polarization in the United States today is identity politics.
Identity is a modern concept built around the belief that we have inner selves that are not being adequately respected by the society around us. It builds on a universal human need for self-esteem and the affirmation of our inner dignity. It is a master concept that links many political trends in the world today, from nationalism to Islamism to populism.
Identity politics got its start in the United States in the wake of the civil rights movement, feminism, and the movements for LGBT rights, disability rights and others from the mid-1960s onward. Each of these groups had been marginalized in American society and demanded recognition of its equal dignity. By the 1980s, the left had begun to see inequality in terms of the rights of these distinct groups, rather than broad social classes.
The old working class that had been at the core of the progressive coalition from the 1930s onward was, in the meantime, losing jobs and status as a result of globalization and technological change. Simultaneously, a new upper class, defined by higher education and urban residence, had emerged, many of whose members had very different attitudes from the old working and middle class toward religion, family and patriotism. This new elite encompassed the leadership of both political parties as well as a large part of the mainstream media, think tanks and other key parts of the Washington establishment.
America needs to pull back from the identities favored by liberals and conservatives to an integrative one based on the country’s founding principles.
Especially after the financial crisis of 2008, many members of the declining middle class came to believe that this new elite looked down on them while it promoted a globalized world and the interests of favored identity groups like African-Americans, immigrants and women over their own. Economic decline is not just about resources; it is also a matter of lost dignity and self-respect, which is why identity politics turns into an intense politics of resentment. The populist right has come to adopt the identity framing first used by the left: Americans in “flyover country” are victims whose interests and concerns have been disregarded by the political and media elites; they need to “take back” a country in which they have become a marginalized minority.
The election of Donald Trump as president both reflects and has contributed to this identity polarization. Trump intuited the resentments of many Americans and catered to them during his campaign, as when he said at one rally, “The only important thing is the unification of the people” because “the other people” (i.e., identity groups like African-Americans and immigrants) “don’t mean anything.” Since he became president, his words and actions — often divisive on racial and gender grounds — have legitimated the increasing prominence of white nationalist groups that were formerly not taken seriously.
The solution is a revival of a sense of national identity that is both inclusive and meaningful.
Many commentators have wondered how Trump has survived incidents that would have sunk other politicians, like insulting Mexicans or boasting about groping women, even as he has failed to deliver on many of his campaign promises. His core supporters like him, however, precisely because he is not politically correct or intimidated by the identity politics practiced on the left; he is the only politician who really understands their feelings and resentments.
American democracy is not well-served by identity polarization. Unlike controversial economic issues, identities are perceived as fixed and hard to negotiate. The solution is a revival of a sense of national identity that is both inclusive and meaningful. National identity has been associated with ethnic intolerance in the past, but it need not be; America slowly and painfully built a civic identity around the principles of constitutional government, rule of law and human equality by the mid-20th century. America needs to pull back from the identities favored by liberals and conservatives to an integrative one based on the country’s founding principles — for example, by emphasizing an immigration policy that seeks to integrate newcomers into this overarching national narrative.
Francis Fukuyama is a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Mosbacher Director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.