Summary of Fukuyama's "Against Identity Politics"

Francis Fukuyama in his article "Against Identity Politics: The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy" analyses the identity movements in the USA and Europe, and its implications for democracy.

Summary of Fukuyama's arguments


1. The rise of identity: Human beings are not just motivated by a desire for material goods but also for dignity and respect. The rise in demand for dignity can be understood as emanating from two reasons: loss of dignity of the jobs of the working class due to globalization; identity-based movements like feminist movement race movements etc., having achieved significant success in civil and economic aspects, are now focusing on the issues that they face on a daily basis, the lack of dignity. 

2. The changing focus of the left: As the economic situation of the working class improved, the US left ran out of issues to mobilize people. It thus embraced identity movements as a new mode to mobilize people.

3. Dangers of identity politics: 

i) Diverts focus away from economic issues: "Tendency of identity politics to focus on cultural issues has diverted energy and attention away from serious thinking on the part of progressives about how to reverse the 30-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality." Similarly, it has taken the focus off the problems of the major section like opioid crisis etc.

ii) The relentless identity-based division makes the democratic project unviable: "Democratic societies are fracturing into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society as a whole. This is a road that leads only to state breakdown and, ultimately, failure. Unless such liberal democracies can work their way back to more universal understandings of human dignity, they will doom themselves—and the world—to continuing conflict."

iii) Makes compromise difficult in policy decisions: "Identity politics has made the crafting of such ambitious policies more difficult. Although fights over economic policy produced sharp divisions early in the twentieth century, many democracies found that those with opposing economic visions could often split the difference and compromise. Identity issues, by contrast, are harder to reconcile: either you recognize me or you don’t. Resentment over lost dignity or invisibility often has economic roots, but fights over identity frequently distract from policy ideas that could help. As a result, it has been harder to create broad coalitions to fight for redistribution: members of the working class who also belong to higher-status identity groups (such as whites in the United States) tend to resist making common cause with those below them, and vice versa."

iv) A threat to free speech: "Left’s identity politics poses a threat to free speech and to the kind of rational discourse needed to sustain a democracy. the preoccupation with identity has clashed with the need for civic discourse. The focus on lived experience by identity groups prioritizes the emotional world of the inner self over the rational examination of issues in the outside world and privileges sincerely held opinions over a process of reasoned deliberation that may force one to abandon prior opinions. The fact that an assertion is offensive to someone’s sense of self-worth is often seen as grounds for silencing or disparaging the individual who made it."

"Every society has certain views that run counter to its foundational ideas of legitimacy and therefore are off-limits in public discourse. But the constant discovery of new identities and the shifting grounds for acceptable speech are hard to follow. In a society highly attuned to group dignity, new boundaries lines keep appearing, and previously acceptable ways of talking or expressing oneself become offensive."

Fukuyama's solutions to the dangers of identity politics

1. Creedal policy: "Democracies need to promote what political scientists call “creedal national identities,” which are built not around shared personal characteristics, lived experiences, historical ties, or religious convictions but rather around core values and beliefs. The idea is to encourage citizens to identify with their countries’ foundational ideals and use public policies to deliberately assimilate newcomers."

2. Civics education in schools that promotes creedal policy.

3. Change citizenship laws: Make citizenship law territorial based (born in the territory) rather than based on ethnicity.

Will removing anti-defection provisions be effective?

The Anti-Defection act in India prohibits Members of Parliament from voting against party line if the orders them to do so, through what is called a whip. Understandably, many argue that this is against the spirit of democracy because MPs cannot represent their own views or constituent's views. Hence, many call for a recall of this specific provision.

Though I agree and support the proposal to recall this specific provision,  I am sceptical of the view that it would reverse the current situation in a significant way. The Indian political architecture makes it difficult for individual MPs to voice their opinion contrary to the party line, even without the anti-defection provisions. 

1. An MP's election depends significantly on winning the ticket to contest from the party. It's difficult to win as an independent candidate. It makes the party ticket crucial. But, the problem is that the distribution of the party ticket is not based on internal democracy but on the whims of the leader, winnability and a host of other reasons. Thus, any form of disobedience has huge costs as it affects the chances of getting a party ticket next time. In this context, I am not sure any MP would go against the party line on significant issues.

2. Many cite the US's case of Republicans opposing President Trump's proposals in the legislature as an example of legislators going against the head of the government. Indian case is however different. In the US, the presidential election and the legislators' election are de-linked. Both are separate elections. Hence, a US legislator is not dependent on the Presidential candidate to get elected. 

In the Indian case, MP's election and PM are interlinked. Indian MP cannot afford to go against the Prime Minister's stance as it can hurt PM's electoral prospects, thereby irking the PM.

3. Shorter election cycle time between the notification and result means that there is less time to persuade people on individual merit. One has to thus depend more on the party, leader image and other things. This dependence on party and leader increases the cost of going against the party line on significant legislative issues.

4. A large part of Indian legislators' work is to bear the burden of governance failure. In other words, due to delays and obstructions in governance (certificate distribution, registering FIR, getting land records etc), people approach the MP hoping to get things done with the MP's intervention. Essentially, the bureaucracy has a virtual veto over these things. They can stall the procedure as long as they want. They listen to the bureaucrat only as a matter of respect or out of the fear that the government might reprimand the bureaucrats if they do not listen to the governing party's legislators.

Going against the party line will reduce the legislator's capacity to get things done in government offices. Hence, no legislator can afford to go against the party line on significant issues.

5. A similar problem exists in the case of governmental contracts. Legislators help their supporters and funders get government contracts in lieu of supporting the legislator during the elections. Going against the party line reduces the legislators' capability to get contracts for their funders and supporters. Cannot get contracts for his funders.

6. Even if the legislator decides to go against all these and votes as per conscience on a significant matter, there is simply no benefit for doing so. Legislative work is not rewarded by people in Indian politics. It's not a metric based upon which people support or vote. As discussed earlier, addressing personal grievances, getting contracts for supporters and funders etc are significant factors in a legislator's election. 

7. Empirically, it would be interesting to see the number of cases where MPs voted against their party line when a whip (mandating vote along party lines) was not issued.

If we are to make the repeal of anti-defection provisions effective, legislators' dependence on the party and MP has to be reduced. It can be done by addressing governance failure in the provision of service and promoting internal democracy. They reduce the cost of going against the party line.

New e-commerce rules: Whither evidence-based policy?

There is a lot of talk about evidence-based policymaking. It is usually discussed in the context of development programmes and the effectiveness of interventions. Frankly, evidence-based policymaking is the toughest to do in the development sector. There are just too many variables around.

The disproportionate focus on development sector as a platform to promote evidence-based policies is making us skip the obvious places where there is a scope for the use of evidence. The most recent example being the new e-commerce rules (clarifications) that prevent marketplaces like Amazon and Flipkart to sell their own products on their platforms. One of the rationales behind such rule is that Amazon and Flipkart are resorting to predatory pricing.

Now, the allegation of predatory pricing is a very specific one. It can also be easily studied as compared to the development sector. One would expect some level of study to establish the predatory and unfair practices before bringing out regulations based on such claims. None of it was done in the e-commerce case! A mere assertion, probably based on anecdotes was good enough for coming out with such policy.

In summary, advocates of evidence-based policy should focus on the low hanging fruits first rather than exclusively on the messy development sector, where the is a question even on what constitutes evidence, leave aside the difficulties in collecting data and proving it.

It's time to address societal overreach, not just judicial overreach

We often talk of judicial overreach but not societal overreach. Judicial overreach is where judiciary goes beyond its mandate and encroaches the space of legislature - mandating national anthem etc. Similarly, societal overreach is when a section of society curtails the liberties of others by imposing their beliefs (horizontal overreach), or makes demands on the state, going beyond the mandate of what a citizen should and can expect the state to do (vertical overreach). 

Societal overreach usually takes three forms.

One, imposing one's beliefs on others in the social sphere. In an ideal world, people should be minding their own business. But, when a section society overreaches, it imposes their belief systems on others. Classic examples are not renting houses to non-vegetarians in a residential complex, not allowing girls into boys' flats etc. This is the horizontal overreach, where a section of society imposes their beliefs on fellow citizens.

Two, inviting government's interference in acts of personal failure, or acts that one thinks are not good. The recent event of a parent demanding the government to ban PUBG because their kid is wasting time is a good example. Here, the government is invited to interfere to address the personal failure of a parent. Other examples include demands on the state to ban books, movies and art that offends a particular section of society.

Three, demanding the government's subsidy for things that one think as expensive. Journalists' demand to exempt them from toll tax is an example of this kind.

The first form of societal overreach, horizontal overreach, where society acts on fellow citizens is well known and acknowledged. But the second and third form of overreach, the vertical overreach, where a section makes demands on the state beyond what a citizen can expect the state to do, is under-recognized.

It is interesting to compare the judicial overreach and societal overreach.

The root of judicial overreach is activist judges who seek to impose their personal beliefs on others through their judgments. Similarly, societal overreach is due to the expectation of a part of society to impose their norms and value judgments on others. The difference is that while judiciary uses its powers to impose its own beliefs on others, society expects the state to do the job for them. Usually, this takes the form of demands that seek the banning of books, movies etc. that one does not like.

The judicial overreach is justified citing the legislature underreach, in cases where the legislature failed to perform its duties. The societal overreach is justified citing the societal or personal underreach, where society or individuals fail to control themselves. The case of PUBG is an example of demanding the state to intervene for the personal failure of the parents.

Just like judicial overreach where there are some genuine cases that justify judicial intervention, there are cases that justify the state's intervention when individuals or society fails. But, just like the case where judicial overreach becomes problematic after a point, societal overreach becomes problematic too.

Several problems with societal overreach are as follows:

One, societal overreach encroach the liberties of the minority. Given the political compulsions that make it risky to anger the crowds, governments end up yielding to such demands from society. Such actions encroach upon the rights of the minorities.

Two, societal overreach creates a society that doesn't know how to take responsibility for one's own actions. It infantilizes the citizens. The practice of getting offended by everything and demanding the state to take action is an example of a societal overreach infantilizing citizens. In a mature democracy, citizens should be mature enough to tolerate counter opinion. Needless to mention, the usual disclaimers to free speech apply.

Three, societal overreach makes the state weaker by burdening it. States have limited capacity. By placing additional unwarranted demands on the stage, it reduces the capacity and bandwidth of the state that it can allocate to important issues.

In the case of demands involving subsidies, demands for subsidies on not-so-important aspects like toll tax reduces the state's spending capacity on other crucial aspects like education and health care.

Four, societal overreach drives the practice of social movements towards extinction. If the state is seen as the medium for change, there is no incentive for anyone to pursue social reform. Also, the state-centred solutions are top-down that can create unanticipated consequences. Of course, there is a legitimate need for state intervention when an individual's fundamental rights are at risk due to societal failure, as the case of social discrimination, there's a limit to such state intervention. The state cannot be invoked for every single personal and societal failure. The state cannot be the solution for everything.

Fifth, the worst combination is when societal overreach meets judicial overreach and both come down upon citizens with vengeance. It's when we kiss goodbye to the constitutional republic.

Addressing societal overreach requires a judiciary that upholds fundamental rights eliminating the constraints imposed by the society on the individuals, strong law and order to protect individual liberties. Apart from that, a societal reformation that teaches people to mind their own business and to make people realize that others are under no obligation to not do things that offend others. Unfortunately, we lack all the three, with occasional glimmers of hope from the judiciary.