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.
According to Fukuyama, “identity issues” are about the “struggle for recognition” (a phrase from Hegel) and are “harder to reconcile” than economic ones. “Opposing economic visions” can “often split the difference and compromise,” but identity issues are much more polarizing: “Either you recognize me, or you don’t.” Yet it’s silly to assert that something represents, in Fukuyama’s words, “one of the chief threats” to democracy because it is difficult, or because it can’t be resolved by meeting in the middle. It also simply isn’t true that economic issues are less contentious than identity issues. Just look at our country’s bloody labor history. Or the hell that was raised over just the Affordable Care Act.
Fukuyama’s real problem with identity politics, however, is that he thinks it’s provoking a fascist backlash. He divides identity politics into left- and right-wing varieties and blames left-wing identity politics—which was “born” (Fukuyama’s word) in the 1960s—for the existence and growth of right-wing identity politics. “Perhaps the most significant problem with identity politics practiced on the left,” Fukuyama writes, “is that it has stimulated the rise of identity politics on the right.”
As Orwell said, there are ideas “so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.” Right-wing identity politics has been around since well before the 1960s. What else are sodomy laws, female disenfranchisement, “negro slavery,” segregation, and restrictive immigration but identity politics under Fukuyama’s definition? Sure, all of these had economic aspects, and most had economic justifications. But all were rooted in identity.
Beginning as she does with our inner selves, Nussbaum starts on more promising footing. “Fear is the emotion of an absolute monarch,” she writes, “who cares about nothing and nobody else.” Fear is the first emotion we feel. We are helpless when we are babies, and we overcome that fear only by demanding a sense of absolute security—humanly impossible though that may be—from our parents.
However, Nussbaum’s treatment of politics is no better than Fukuyama’s. She basically sees politics as a branch of table manners, in which there are right and wrong ways to do things, and right and wrong motivations for doing them. Therefore, if your politics are motivated by “problematic emotions” (disgust, fear, envy, anger, etc.), it doesn’t matter if your cause is just.
Nussbaum can’t say why emotional motivations are so important, because that would mean she could no longer float above political conflict in the safe realm of political discourse. Emotional motivations do matter in politics, but not because of any moral abstraction. When they matter, it’s for tactical reasons. If you have a perverse emotional motivation (say, fear), you’re less likely to get where you’re trying to end up. Nussbaum can’t say that, though, because that would imply that some political actors are aiming at the right goals (albeit perhaps poorly) when what she wants to mean is that everyone is equally guilty of perverse motivations.
When Nussbaum comes to concrete examples, she often strains to find two equal and opposing errors. For instance, she writes that “on the right we find hysterical blame of Muslims, on the left furious blame of those who denounce Muslims”; the right laments that immigrants “have taken our jobs,” while the left variant is that “wealthy elites have stolen our country.” But is hating Muslims the same as hating anti-Muslim sentiment? Is hating a system that allows someone to take your job and give it someone else the same as hating the person who was given the job? In both cases, one of these hatreds is reasonable, the other misguided.
Speaking for myself, I’ve never met anyone who hates “big business” out of envy (although I do have a friend who likes to quote Oscar Wilde’s maxim “Why should only the rich get to enjoy champagne?”). As the First Citizen in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus says, “I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.” And Whittaker Chambers, perhaps the most famous political convert of the twentieth century, underscored again and again to his conservative friends that no one ever became a Communist out of envy of the rich.
Reading Monarchy of Fear, one is struck by the historical and philosophical misconceptions advanced by a University of Chicago law and philosophy professor. Writing of the political contrast between Locke and Rousseau, Nussbaum asserts that Rousseau “prescribes a coercive homogeneity of thought and speech” in On the Social Contract, “not making room for the liberties of speech, press, and association that were so dear to…British thinkers such as John Locke.” But Locke made no room for those liberties when it came to atheists, Catholics, or slaves. He called for the censorship of all three and the total subjugation of the latter. He wrote the 1669 Carolina constitution that gave the slave master “absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.” The essential liberties of speech, press, and association were no dearer to Locke than they were to other so-called libertarian thinkers.
Nussbaum is encouraged by the popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton because its protagonist (Alexander Hamilton) was both an immigrant and a banker: “It’s a jolt, but a salutary one, to see young people cheering for the banker, and we should applaud Miranda for, among other things, undercutting the politics of envy by his surprising choice of a hero.” For Nussbaum, Hamilton represents the ambitious, self-made person who is focused on achieving his goals; Aaron Burr (the play’s antagonist) represents the resentful, envious person who is focused on the achievements of the Hamilton types. Nussbaum finds great significance in their duel: Hamilton shot to miss while Burr shot to kill. Hamilton just wanted to go on living; Burr wanted his enemy dead.
Purposefully not shooting at someone you know is shooting to kill you is a good metaphor for both Identity and Monarchy of Fear. Both Fukuyama and Nussbaum acknowledge that life is getting worse for many Americans. Suicide, drug use, inequality, fraud, loneliness—all are signs and symptoms of that fact. But instead of blaming or seeking out the people responsible for the mess, Fukuyama and Nussbaum fall back on clichés and moral posturing. “Rather than face those difficulties and uncertainties,” Nussbaum writes, “people who sense their living standard declining can instead grasp after villains, and a fantasy takes shape.” Ironically, that’s a good criticism of both her and Fukuyama’s books. Rather than face the difficulties and uncertainties, Fukuyama and Nussbaum opt for the most tired myths the punditry class tells itself about how and why we got where we are. Neither explains how we got Trump; both embody why there was no one there to stop him.