Fukuyama and Lilla on the Older Left vs. the Fractiousness of the Politics of Identity

Identity politics has been a hot-button issue lately, galvanizing people across the political spectrum, and the high-visibility responses it has generated have mostly been from the alt-right; I have seen very few good short articles that have been produced from moderates or those on the left.

Here, I cite from two authors regarding the fractiousness of current identity politics, one of whom is on the political left (Lilla) the other of whom seems to share that broad identity, even though he was once associated with Neoconservatism for a short time (Fukuyama).

The citations seemed to overlap; here they are.

Facebook seems rather good at determining a user’s political orientation, and it judges me to be “Liberal” — not “Very Liberal”, not “Moderate”, not “Conservative”, not “Very Conservative”, but just “Liberal”.

This seems to me to be correct. You can imagine the sense of alienation I felt, then, after I saw some videos from self-styled progressives advocating for some positions that seemed wacky, making the clownish and gimmicky alt-righters who reacted to these videos seemed sane by comparison, even if they were sometimes generally misanthropic. Both seemed unnerving. I figured they were both marginal. Then I began my third graduate degree, and found people advocating for positions they never would have dreamed to advocate for in the Department of Philosophy or the Classics Department or the School of Theology at my former University — positions associated with identity politics.

I found the courses that focused on this maddening; I was horrified at what seemed like some of the stances taken, and the climate attached to it, where people wanted (a) to be groomed to offer the “correct” opinions to deploy at the right moment in front of the right people who were gatekeepers, in order to gain access to institutions and jobs and cliques, rather than (b) to do the difficult and self-interrogating work involved in trying to understand anything. Many people want to have strong opinions, and to feel a sense of moral urgency, without being up to the task of holding any opinions responsibly, or clarifying the difference between (1) what is justice and (2) what is rancor, and the pleasure of collecting offenses, and indulging the libido dominandi.

I agreed –and still agree– with what seemed like the central goals of these professors and students, who called themselves, quite explicitly, “warriors for social justice” — of course we should seek justice, of course we should make sure people are included and not marginalized (particularly those who have been disadvantaged or even ignored), of course we should strive to make sure people feel welcome and to ensure that they belong and have a place, of course we should strive for more equitable political and economic arrangements, of course we should aim to make sure that we can foster cultures in which people can find themselves recognized, &c. I identified as certainly left-leaning on most issues. I still read the Frankfurt School (particularly Adorno, particularly Minima Moralia) as often as I can, &c.

So where was the catch?

It took me months to begin to sort out where the several catches were. I won’t go into them here. I will say that the first book that I found to be a huge relief was Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal (whose book apparently has its roots in an essay and the responses that generated). I had come to some of the same conclusions by processing the readings from class through conversations with friends about what I had been experiencing; now I am halfway through Francis Fukuyama’s Identity, which purports to explain the connection between Brexit, the rise of Trump, and identity politics, as all connected.


Here are two quotes. The first, from Fukuyama.

Fukuyama thinks that we seek recognition of dignity more than our economic models of rational calculation make room for, and seeks to account for the split between recognizing corporate identity and dignity on the one hand, and the recognition of individual identity and dignity on the other hand, in the long nineteenth century.

He seems to see the pursuit of the recognition of the dignity of groups as a “plan B” goal after the failure to recognize the only truly universal dignity, that of each individual. Here he is on the fractiousness of identity politics for political life, and how it has sapped the left:

Economic distress is often perceived by individuals not as resource deprivation, but as a loss of identity. Hard work should confer dignity on an individual, but that dignity is not recognized — indeed, it is condemned, and other people who are not willing to play by the rules are given undue advantages. This link between income and status helps to explain why nationalist or religious conservative groups have been more appealing to many people than traditional left-wing ones based on economic class. The nationalist can translate loss of relative economic position into loss of identity and status: you have always been a core member of our great nation, but foreigners, immigrants, and your own elite compatriots have been conspiring to hold you down; your country is no longer your own, and you are not respected in your own land. Similarly, the religious partisan can say something almost identical: You are a member of a great community of believers who have been traduced by nonbelievers; this betrayal has lead not just to your impoverishment, but is a crime against God himself. You may be invisible to your fellow citizens, but you are not invisible to God. […]

[T]he [90] nationalist right has in recent years captured voters who had formerly voted for parties of the left, both in the United States and in Europe. The latter, after all, traditionally has a better practical answer to the economic dislocations caused by technological change and globalization with its broader social safety net. Moreover, progressives have in the past been able to appeal to communal identity, building it around a shared experience of exploitation and resentment of rich capitalists: “Workers of the world, unite!” Stick it to the Man! In the United States, working class voters overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party from the New Deal in the 1930s until the rise of Ronald Reagan; European social democracy was built on a foundation of trade unionism and working-class solidarity.

The problem with the contemporary left is the particular forms of identity that it has increasingly chosen to celebrate. Rather than building solidarity around large collectivities such as the working class or the economically exploited, it has focused on ever-smaller groups being marginalized in specific ways. This is part of a larger story about the fate of modern liberalism, in which the principle of universal and equal recognition has mutated into the special recognition of particular groups. [1]


Lilla wants to capture a new “dispensation” that can unite Americans as citizens, the only identity we all share, around common ethical principles about who “we” are as Americans, across left and right, just as the “Roosevelt dispensation” offered (freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of worship, freedom of speech), and as the much-inferior “Reagan dispensation” offered (which I remember much worse than Lilla’s description of the Roosevelt dispensation, but which went something like: government bungles everything, leave everything to the individual, and let the state stop trying to be a parent). Lilla, indeed, calls identity politics “Reaganism for lefties”, because of how individualistic and self-interested he sees it as being, and how, instead of uniting Americans in a common vision, it distrusts institutions in general, and seeks to whittle people away from larger social groups into narrower and narrower bands of belonging — the “nuclear family” for Reaganism for righties, the “identity group” for Reaganism for lefties.

Writing a year before Fukuyama, Lilla echoes Fukuyama’s sentiment, above, but with more urgency and humor:

the reason the Democrats are losing ground is not that they have drifted too far to the left. Nor, as the progressives are already insisting, is it that they have drifted too far to the right, especially on economic issues. They are losing because they have retreated into caves they have carved for themselves in the side of what once was a great mountain.

There is no clearer evidence of this retreat than the homepage of the Democratic party. At the moment I’m writing, the homepage of the Republican site prominently features a document titled “Principles for American Renewal”, which is a statement of positions on eleven different broad political issues. The list begins with the Constitution (“Our Constitution should be preserved, valued, and honored”) and ends with immigration (“we need an immigration system that preserves our borders, upholds the law, and boosts our economy”). There is not such document to be found on the Democrats’ homepage. Instead, when you scroll to the bottom of it, you find a list of links titled “people”, and each link takes you to a page tailored to appeal to a distinct group of identity: women, Hispanics, “ethnic Americans”, the LGBT community, Native-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders… There are seventeen such groups, and seventeen separate messages. You might think that, by some mistake, you have landed on the website of the Lebanese government — not that of a party with a vision of America’s future. [2]

I have so many thoughts about this topic of the politics of identity that I could write, but, for now, these quotes. Can we recover a vision of ourselves that unites everyone from all identity groups in a common vision?

May it be so; Κύριε ἐλέησόν, may it be so.



Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018), 89-90


Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2017), 11-12


Header image found here.

3 thoughts on “Fukuyama and Lilla on the Older Left vs. the Fractiousness of the Politics of Identity

  1. Just the issue a lone is as you day a hot button issue…..and I might add what are we are the poor slob allow to do is vote…seem like a lame excuse for a major problem but we still must stand for ower beliefs…the only way this situation is to vote and. That will is our statement lmk
    L8 .8,

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Excerpt #22 — Steven Smith on Neo-Kantian Liberals & Their Neo-Hegelian Communitarian Critics | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: Identity Politics: Impact versus Intent, 1 of 4 | Into the Clarities

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