Everyone has a theory for why Donald Trump won in 2016: Clinton corruption, Democratic Party incompetence, James Comey, Russian trolls, voter suppression, the Electoral College, or Susan Sarandon (just to name a few). And as many have noted, which theory people emphasize usually has more to do with their political perspective than with political reality. In other words, what they think is wrong with America is, coincidentally, what they think got Trump elected.
Such is the case in two new books—Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment and Martha Nussbaum’s Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis. Fukuyama blames “left-wing identity politics” and the left’s “abandonment” of class politics for cultural liberalism. Nussbaum blames all of us for being consumed with “problematic emotions” such as fear, hatred, and disgust. Both books fetishize intellectuality and evenhandedness. So it’s not surprising that both have the same defects: erroneous statements on history and philosophy, cheap and sloppy moral equivocations, and calls for calmness and rationality without giving readers anything to feel calm or think rationally about.
Identity politics and tribalism, Fukuyama’s argument goes, are taking over how we think about society and culture. People are labeled—gay or straight, male or female, white or black, immigrant or native, Republican or Democrat—and are morally assessed according to those labels. A movie or television show is good if it “empowers” the right people, and bad if it doesn’t. In cases of moral or criminal accusations, those labels determine for others whether the accused is guilty or innocent, whether immediate condemnation or forensic deliberation is called for.
Yet there’s little elaboration of what Fukuyama means by pejorative phrases such as “identity politics” and “political correctness.” At one point he defines identity politics as any politics that isn’t explicitly economic or “class-based.” But that doesn’t bring much clarity. Identities, as Fukuyama admits, are embedded within material interests, and “identity issues” can be talked about in all sorts of ways (politically, economically, culturally, scientifically, medically). Gay and lesbian couples want the social and financial rewards of marriage; African Americans don’t want to pay frivolous fines or fear for their lives when encountering the police.