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Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (2018)  by F. Fukuyama

A provocative examination of modern identity politics? :: Its origins, its effects, and what it means for domestic and international affairs of state*

"In 2014, Francis Fukuyama wrote that American institutions were in decay, as the state was progressively captured by powerful interest groups. Two years later, his predictions were borne out by the rise to power of a series of political outsiders whose economic nationalism and authoritarian tendencies threatened to destabilize the entire international order. These populist nationalists seek direct charismatic connection to "the people," who are usually defined in narrow identity terms that offer an irresistible call to an in-group and exclude large parts of the population as a whole."

"Demand for recognition of 1's identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today. The universal recognition on which liberal democracy is based has been increasingly challenged by narrower forms of recognition based on nation, religion, sect, race, ethnicity, or gender, which have resulted in anti-immigrant populism, the upsurge of politicized Islam, the fractious "identity liberalism" of college campuses, and the emergence of white nationalism. Populist nationalism, said to be rooted in economic motivation, actually springs from the demand for recognition and therefore cannot simply be satisfied by economic means. The demand for identity cannot be transcended; we must begin to shape identity in a way that supports rather than undermines democracy."

"Identity is an urgent and necessary book — a sharp warning that unless we forge a universal understanding of human dignity, we will doom ourselves to continuing conflict."



[PDF] The End of History and the Last Man (1992) [WIKI] 




[1] It's Still Not the End of History (2014)

[2] The End of Identity Liberalism (2016)

[3] Harry Potter* counts more Enemies on the Left than the Right (2017)


Discussion 5 Comments

  • Irie Zen 6th Jan 2019

    PPP_olitics [1]

    It's Still Not the End of History (2014)

    Twenty-five years after Francis Fukuyama's landmark essay, liberal democracy is increasingly beset. Its defenders need to go back to the basics.

    Most of us in the West are liberals, whether we admit it or not. We want equal rights for all, reject racial differences, cherish the freedom of worship while preserving the freedom to disagree, and seek an economic order that suits the ambitions of the individual. But there's a growing sense that liberalism isn't delivering at home and that it's not as popular as we think it ought to be in the developing world. The problem is that hubris has blinded its defenders to the crisis consuming liberalism's identity, leaving them unable or unwilling, to respond to pressing challenges around the world.

    Twenty-five years ago this summer, Francis Fukuyama announced the "end of history" and the inevitable triumph of liberal capitalist democracy. His argument was simple: Democracy would win out over all other forms of government because the natural desire for peace and well-being set nations on a path to progress from which it was impossible to divert. If a state — even a Communist state — wished to enjoy the greatest prosperity possible, it would have to embrace some measure of capitalism. Since wealth-creation depends on the protection of private property, the "capitalist creep" would invariably demand greater legal protection for individual rights.

    As many critics pointed out, Fukuyama's logic was a bit too reminiscent of the pseudo-Hegelian historical determinism that Marxists and Fascists deployed to disastrous effect earlier in the 20th century, but when his article appeared in The National Interest, it was hard to disagree with him. The Berlin Wall was about to fall, the Soviet Union was collapsing, and the world was clamoring for the consumerist boom in an orgy of free-market excitement. Everything seemed to suggest that only liberal capitalist democracy allowed people to thrive in an increasingly globalized world, and that only the steady advance of laissez-faire economics would guarantee a future of free, democratic states, untroubled by want and oppression and living in peace and contentment.

    Today, it's hard to imagine Fukuyama being more wrong. History isn't over and neither liberalism nor democracy is ascendant. The comfy Western consensus he inspired is under threat in ways he never predicted. A new Cold War has broken out. China's "Marxist capitalism" suggests you can have wealth without freedom. And the advance of ISIS may herald a new, state-oriented Islamic fundamentalism.

    But most disturbingly, the connection between capitalism, democracy, and liberalism upon which Fukuyama's argument depended has itself been broken. In the wake of the credit crunch and the global economic downturn, it has become increasingly clear that prosperity is not, in fact, best served either by the pursuit of laissez-faire economics or by the inexorable extension of economic freedoms. Indeed, quite the opposite. As Thomas Piketty argues in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, free markets have not only enlarged the gap between rich and poor, but have also reduced average incomes across the developed and developing worlds. In the countries hardest hit by the recession — such as Greece and Hungary — voters have turned away from precisely that conception of liberalism that Fukuyama believed they would embrace with open arms. Across Europe, economic interventionism, nationalism, and even open racism have exerted a greater attraction for those casting their democratic votes than the causes of freedom, deregulation, and equality before the law. Liberal capitalist democracy hasn't triumphed. Instead, the failures of capitalism have turned democracy against liberalism. In turn, liberalism's intellectual self-identity has been left in tatters. 

    Sensing that Fukuyama's titanic argument has hit something of an iceberg, liberal theorists have desperately been trying to keep the ship afloat. A raft of books have hit the shelves trying to breathe new life into liberalism, amongst which Larry Siedentop's Inventing the Individual and Edmund Fawcett's Liberalism: The Life of an Idea stand out. Both accept that Fukuyama's hubris has been exposed by recent events, and are under no illusions about the challenges that liberalism faces. But instead of addressing those challenges head-on they have turned to the past for solace and validation. By labeling an arbitrary set of ideals "liberal" and trying to demonstrate how they have supposedly triumphed over all challengers down the centuries, they seek to craft a new historical narrative capable of "proving" the inherent righteousness of liberalism. Since "liberal" ideas have always triumphed, Siedentop and Fawcett argue, they are manifestly right, and while things might not be working out so well now, the logic of history shows that they will prevail in the end.

    Leaders across the political spectrum have been quick to adopt this form of historical determinism. In Britain, David Cameron's center-right government is proudly liberal, and has not been afraid to use history to mold the next generation of voters into an appropriately liberal form. Earlier this year, his former education minister, Michael Gove, tried to recast the First World War as an example of liberal values triumphing over Germany's proto-fascism, and as "proof" of the undoubted righteousness of the sort of militant liberalism that neoconservatives adore. Closer to home, Hillary Clinton — now in the first stages of a barely denied run for the White House — has adapted a similar outlook in the realm of foreign policy. Looking back at the great ideal of America as established by the Founding Fathers through rose-tinted spectacles, she has subtly distanced herself from Barack Obama's cautious realism abroad and instead used discrete references to the past to justify aggressively exporting liberal values across the globe as often as possible. Given that history has "proved" how great liberalism was in previous battles against tyranny, the argument goes, liberalism will inevitably win out if we pick enough fights and put enough muscle behind it. 

    But while this new liberal historicism may have a certain rhetorical appeal, it fails to convince. Instead of recognizing the weakness of Fukuyama's original approach, Siedentop, Fawcett, Cameron, and Clinton have simply dusted down the same old historical determinism, just without the economics. It isn't any more convincing than when Fukuyama tried it.

    It was the great liberal philosopher Karl Popper who first exposed the weaknesses of historicism as a mode of political justification in his devastating critique of Marxist and fascist determinism. It is ironic that his arguments now apply to the liberalism he sought to defend. Following Popper's argument, it's easy to see at least two fundamental logical problems with the historicist approach to liberalism. First is the claim that anyone in the past who expressed any degree of egalitarianism or concern for individual conscience is a liberal. The idea that there is a straight line of human progress that leads from Saint Paul through Luther, the Philosophes, and Lloyd George to Jack Kennedy is patently absurd: They all had different definitions of freedom and what it ought to accomplish. Second, the idea that there is a "historical law" guiding the development of societies is fanciful. Even if there were some weird sort of pattern which suggested that "liberal" ideas did indeed "win out" in the past, it wouldn't be anything more than a mere curiosity. It wouldn't prove anything about liberalism in itself, nor would it say anything about the future. It would just tell us what happened before. To read meaning or predictive power into any pattern in the past is, in fact, about as intellectually respectable as reading tea leaves.

    As the weaknesses of the new liberal historicists' arguments show, liberalism is struggling to recover from its post-Fukuyama malaise because its defenders are just being too lazy. Siedentop, Fawcett, Cameron, and Clinton seem to assume that everyone with an ounce of sanity must be a liberal, and that there is hence no need to defend liberalism against its shortcomings. But no amount of retrospective back-patting will convince those who simply don't think the same way. It's no wonder, given their intellectual arrogance, that so many liberals are surprised when large parts of the world rejects them — or that people spurn their wise counsel when markets collapse and life savings are threatened by the accidents of free-market capitalism.

    If liberalism is to survive and flourish, it has to be rescued from Fukuyama's grasp and from the perils of historical determinism. It has to be defined and defended all over again. This of course raises the question of what liberalism actually is — and it's notable that so many liberals skip this step in debate as though it was unimportant. In a recent issue of Foreign Policy dedicated exclusively to reevaluating Fukuyama's legacy, the unresolved problem of "the liberal identity" was conspicuous by its absence. Article after article foundered in their attempts to defend liberal alternatives to populism or socialism precisely because they offered no satisfactory post-Fukuyama understanding of liberalism. But it is impossible to defend liberalism against its critics without making it clear precisely what it stands for. Skeptics can hardly be won over if liberals can't tell them what they are being won over to or how it differs from the uninspiring mess created by Fukuyama and his continuators. 

    Surrounded by the confused, jargon-ridden babble of political commentators today, it is perhaps easy to forget that liberalism is defined by a commitment to liberty. At root, liberty is a concept grounded in the individual. It is the freedom to be all that one is, to actualize the fullness of one's potential as a human being endowed with the capacity for creativity and the ability to make autonomous value judgments for ourselves.

    It is, of course, true that liberty can be read many ways. As Isaiah Berlin observed, there is positive liberty, the freedom to do something; and there is negative liberty, the freedom from something; and depending on circumstances, one or the other can appear to be of greater importance. But while this distinction has tended to dominate debates in political philosophy since the Second World War, it is perhaps more useful to think back to the writings of Voltaire and the earliest Encyclopédistes and to remind ourselves that liberty in its purest form — both positive and negative — can be thought of as the realization of man's inherent dignity as a human being.

    This is more than just a matter of high-flown words. The concept of human dignity has two important implications, both of which were recognized by Cicero as far back as the first century B.C. but seem to have been forgotten today. The first is that we all share the same degree of dignity: No one has any less potential than any other, and no one's humanity is any less pronounced than anyone else's. The second is that our humanity imposes upon us the same basic needs. By virtue of our nature, we all require food, shelter, clothing, security, and a range of other basic goods necessary for sufficiency and survival. Though deceptively simple, these implications have profound meaning when we consider how individual liberty is to be translated into a social and political construct. If the liberty of each person is to be maintained and maximized, the principles of equity and the common good must be embedded in the structure of society. And since society is structured above all by law, the law must reflect these precepts. To have liberty is hence to live according to laws grounded on equity and the common good; and where law deviates to even the smallest degree from either, it necessarily becomes the instrument of private or factional interests, and liberty is lost. 

    Such liberty is, however, dependent upon the morality of the citizenry, especially those in office. While law may structure society, it is only the will of governors and people that gives it its character and force. It is only if everyone recognizes the dignity of the human person that they will recognize the inherent value of equity and the common good, and strive to defend and preserve not only their own liberty, but also that of all others in their society using law. As soon as the commitment to human dignity breaks down, society becomes a jungle in which it is everyone for himself; self-interest dominates, law becomes partial, and tyranny supplants liberty.

    In short, a liberal politics must be a moral politics. Liberalism will not work if too much emphasis is placed on total human autonomy at the expense of all others, nor if it is obsessed with materialism and consumerism. In contrast to the Fukuyama model of yoking liberal values to economic self-interest — a combination that, when given free rein, has often damaged society at large in recent years — a model that emphasizes human dignity allows for a more positive, relevant kind of politics that constantly struggles to assert itself. Instead of encouraging us to rest easy in the assurance that liberalism will certainly triumph, a conception of liberty based on human dignity recognizes that there is nothing inevitable about its success. While each of us may wish to be free as an individual, it shows that individual freedom is dependent on us all being free; and that means that we all have to cling to our shared humanity, our shared dignity.

    If liberalism has a future, therefore, it lies not in Fukuyama's shattered determinism or the more recent liberal historicism of Siedentop, Fawcett, and Clinton, but in each of us. It lies not in economics, or the tides of history. It lies in the recognition of the worthiness of humanity itself.

    • Irie Zen 6th Jan 2019

      OOO_pinion [2]

      The End of Identity Liberalism (2016)

      It is a truism that America has become a more diverse country. It is also a beautiful thing to watch. Visitors from other countries, particularly those having trouble incorporating different ethnic groups and faiths, are amazed that we manage to pull it off. Not perfectly, of course, but certainly better than any European or Asian nation today. It's an extraordinary success story.

      But how should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and "celebrate" our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism's message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.

      One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end. Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don't, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.

      The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood's efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.

      But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women's rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers' achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

      When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — "diversity issues." Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the "campus craziness" that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in "His Majesty"?

      This campus-diversity consciousness has over the years filtered into the liberal media, and not subtly. Affirmative action for women and minorities at America's newspapers and broadcasters has been an extraordinary social achievement — and has even changed, quite literally, the face of right-wing media, as journalists like Megyn Kelly and Laura Ingraham have gained prominence. But it also appears to have encouraged the assumption, especially among younger journalists and editors, that simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs.

      Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones. My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in recent years. How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism — about the "first X to do Y" — is told and retold. Fascination with the identity drama has even affected foreign reporting, which is in distressingly short supply. However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt's future, and indirectly, our own. No major news outlet in Europe would think of adopting such a focus.

      But it is at the level of electoral politics that identity liberalism has failed most spectacularly, as we have just seen. National politics in healthy periods is not about "difference," it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans' imaginations about our shared destiny. Ronald Reagan did that very skillfully, whatever one may think of his vision. So did Bill Clinton, who took a page from Reagan's playbook. He seized the Democratic Party away from its identity-conscious wing, concentrated his energies on domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance) and defined America's role in the post-1989 world. By remaining in office for two terms, he was then able to accomplish much for different groups in the Democratic coalition. Identity politics, by contrast, is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them.

      The media's newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the "whitelash" thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns. It also encourages the fantasy that the Republican right is doomed to demographic extinction in the long run — which means liberals have only to wait for the country to fall into their laps. The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this country, the more politically diverse they become.

      Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by "political correctness." Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.

      We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals' damn bathrooms.)

      Teachers committed to such a liberalism would refocus attention on their main political responsibility in a democracy: to form committed citizens aware of their system of government and the major forces and events in our history. A post-identity liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. A post-identity liberal press would begin educating itself about parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion. And it would take seriously its responsibility to educate Americans about the major forces shaping world politics, especially their historical dimension.

      Some years ago I was invited to a union convention in Florida to speak on a panel about Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous Four Freedoms speech of 1941. The hall was full of representatives from local chapters — men, women, blacks, whites, Latinos. We began by singing the national anthem, and then sat down to listen to a recording of Roosevelt's speech. As I looked out into the crowd, and saw the array of different faces, I was struck by how focused they were on what they shared. And listening to Roosevelt's stirring voice as he invoked the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear — freedoms that Roosevelt demanded for "everyone in the world" — I was reminded of what the real foundations of modern American liberalism are.

    • Irie Zen 6th Jan 2019

      CCC_ounter [3]

      The Liberal* who counts more Enemies on the Left than the Right (2017)

      The academic-turned-polemicist believes liberalism has lost its way but detractors accuse him of 'trolling disguised as erudition'. Here he answers back:

      Harry Potter* collects the harshest and funniest tweets about his work for his entertainment.

      Harry Potter* has spent much of his almost four-decade career trafficking in a certain kind of hyper-scholarly intellectual debate. His witty, densely argued essays analyzing Hannah Arendt, Derrida, and the French far right usually find a natural readership in places like the New York Review of Books or the Chronicle of Higher Education.

      Then, 10 days after the presidential election in November 2016, Potter*, a Columbia professor of humanities, published a New York Times op-ed, The End of Identity Liberalism. It became the Times' most read political op-ed of the year and marked his transition from academic and occasional public intellectual to polemicist.

      Addressed to liberal Democrats, the op-ed was both a call to arms and a rebuke. Trump's accession to the White House, Potter* argued, was a backlash against an obsession with identity politics on the part of the American left.

      "American liberalism," he wrote, "has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism's message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing."

      Wasting no time, 2,444 Times readers responded with comments. A wave of reaction pieces and rebuttals took up the debate. The same publicity photo of Potter*, peering at the reader through round, black, Harry Potter-style glasses, was suddenly everywhere.

      In August, Potter* doubled down on his argument with The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017), a short book and his first for a popular audience. "We need no more marchers. We need more mayors," he wrote. Only by articulating a political vision that speaks to all Americans, Potter* believes, can Democrats secure political power, turn the tide of Trumpism, and help minorities.

      Potter*, a liberal, wants to save liberalism from itself.

      Many progressives, however, are less than pleased with Potter*'s prescriptions. Some critics resent the notion of a middle-aged white male encouraging the left to turn away from social activism. There's also the question of ideological purity: Potter* began his career as a protege of neoconservative intellectual Irving Kristol. Most controversially, Potter*'s criticisms of identity politics come at a time when progressives believe minority groups need greater attention, not less.

      In debates on the progressive left, Potter* has therefore become a kind of shorthand, or meta-concept – a punching bag whose invocation is understood to stand in for smug bourgeois centrism.

      After his op-ed last fall, Potter* got his "first Twitter bath, all in acid", he later told an interviewer, with left-leaning Twitter users offering their two cents on his politics in disparaging and often explicit detail. "If I ever thought I wanted to read what Harry Potter* thinks, I would hit myself in the head with a hammer until the feeling went away," one of the more printable tweets suggested.

      In a rebuttal of Potter* for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Katherine Franke, a colleague of Potter*'s at Columbia, accused him of 'Making White Supremacy Respectable. Again' and compared him to former Klan leader David Duke. In a hostile review for the New York Times, Yale historian Beverly Gage called Potter*'s book "trolling disguised as erudition".

      During a recent interview in his university office in Manhattan, Potter*, 61, brushed off such criticisms, which he described as a "willful misreading" of his ideas. (As for Twitter, he collects the harshest and funniest tweets for his entertainment.) Potter*'s dark suit and tie, juxtaposed with his eccentric, rather professorial eyewear and rumpled hair, seemed representative of his new position with one foot in academia and the other in punditry.

      The Once and Future Liberal is not an academic text, he said; it's an "intervention, like in a psychological case where you sit down with the person in the family who's become an alcoholic".

      American liberalism has become addicted to a losing political strategy, he believes, and the window for effective intervention is closing.

      Macomb County, Michigan, Potter*'s birthplace just outside Detroit, was one of the rust belt counties that voted twice for Obama before going for Trump – a fact which complicates the progressive "whitelash" thesis that Trump voters were motivated by racial resentment.

      But Macomb was already famous in the political science world as ground zero of the phenomenon of the Reagan Democrats: working-class whites – union members and lifelong Democrats – who began defecting in the 1970s and 1980s to the GOP.

      These were Potter*'s people. His father worked on the line at Chevrolet, then learned to draft and became a draftsman at a tool-and-die shop. His mother was a nurse. His paternal grandmother, a staunch New Deal Democrat, kept a picture of FDR on the wall. Every year on Palm Sunday she would go to church and get a palm leaf to put behind the picture. It would stay up all year until she put up a new one. "If I worship anywhere, I still worship at that altar," Potter* told me.

      Potter* saw firsthand the deterioration of the relationship between the Democratic party and working-class whites in Michigan, a breakdown motivated in part by "the sense people had that there was a Democratic cultural elite that looked down on them and their religion and their family life and their traditional views".

      In an influential 1985 study of Macomb, Stan Greenberg, a pollster, argued that white rust belt voters lost faith in the Democratic party due to a perception that it advocated for other groups – black Americans, the very poor, recent immigrants, feminists – but not them.

      In 1974 Potter* started college in Michigan at Wayne State, working his way through, then won a scholarship to transfer to the University of Michigan. "Suddenly I was being lectured to about the working class by the children of Ford Motor executives." He wanted to use public policy to help people, so he decided to do a master's at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

      There Potter* was mentored by the sociologist Daniel Bell, who, like many of the famed "New York intellectuals" of the cold war era, was a liberal disaffected with elements of the left. Bell co-edited The Public Interest with another ex-leftwing intellectual, neoconservative Irving Kristol, and they hired Potter* as an editor. At the time neoconservatism was not associated with foreign policy as it is now; The Public Interest was known for its critiques of failed Great Society social programs. Many of the contributors, like Potter*, were Democrats.

      By the end of his time there, however, The Public Interest had drifted too far to the right for Potter*'s comfort. "Neoconservatism left me. As neoconservatism developed as it did into dogmatic tax-cutting, 'cut all benefits', foreign adventurism, I didn't recognize myself in that at all."

      He was also still strongly pro-union and pro-working class. "I [believed in] a party that was close to and expressed the aspirations of the working class and was not interested in trampling on their values, even if I didn't always share them."

      Potter* left The Public Interest in 1984 to do his doctorate, and has since carved a niche in academia as a "historian of ideas". As a scholar, his familiarity with conservative thinkers has served him in good stead. His best-known books include The Reckless Mind (2001), about 20th-century intellectuals drawn to totalitarianism; The Stillborn God (2008), on religion and the modern west; and The Shipwrecked Mind (2016), a study of reactionary thought.

      Potter* believes students' lack of exposure to conservative ideas does them a serious disservice. Progressive activists today are poorly equipped to combat the right, he thinks, in part because one cannot debate an adversary one doesn't understand. "You have to learn about what people actually think and not rely on a fantasy sense of what they think."

      The Once and Future Liberal describes modern American politics as falling into two historical eras, or "dispensations". The Roosevelt dispensation emphasized Americans' obligations to each other as citizens. Then the pendulum swung the other way. The Reagan dispensation viewed government as the cause of social problems, not their potential solution; individualism won the culture.

      Potter* believes the left's preoccupation with identity politics is an unconscious channeling of that individualism – "Reaganism for lefties". In The Once and Future Liberal he argues for a universal liberalism that transcends individual identity and builds coalitions. One passage criticizes the tactics (though not goals) of Black Lives Matter as a "textbook example of how not to build solidarity".

      In his widely read essay The First White President, published in October, Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that Potter*'s critique of progressive identity politics effectively excuses white identity politics: "What appeals to the white working class is ennobled. What appeals to black workers, and all others outside the tribe, is dastardly identitarianism."

      Thomas Chatterton Williams, a journalist known for his commentary on race, noted that The Once and Future Liberal's telling of 20th-century history fails to mention the race-baiting "Southern Strategy" that Republicans used to drive a wedge between Democrats and working-class whites. But Williams told me he largely agreed with Potter*'s assessment of the state of progressive politics. He sees the backlash against Potter* as "ridiculous and indicative of the self-defeating purity tests the left imposes on itself".

      For his part, Potter* sees the pushback as a commentary on the state of political discourse. "It's depressing to see the low intellectual level, the lack of reflection, the unwillingness to simply engage with the very pragmatic case that I make. Not only do we have to fight Republicans, and argue with each other," it turns out "we've also got to fight against this kind of self-satisfied expression of the political id."

      Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings fellow and gay rights advocate, defended Potter* in the New York Review of Books. Democrats are failing miserably at securing and holding power, Rauch argued, especially at the local level, and progressives are in denial: "Over the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency, Democrats lost, on net, more than one thousand elected offices, including thirteen Senate seats, sixty-nine House seats, twelve governorships, and more than nine hundred state legislature seats."

      Potter* thinks Danica Roem, who recently became the first openly transgender person elected to the Virginia legislature, is a good example of how Democrats can advance identity issues.

      "She's proudly and openly trans, but her campaign was not about being trans. She talked about the issues that affect most people, and would not be baited by her opponent into making [her gender identity] the issue."

      I asked Potter* about a recent Politico article by Michael Kruse, who interviewed voters in western Pennsylvania whom Trump had promised he would bring back the coal and steel industries. Almost every person Kruse talks to acknowledges that Trump probably won't make good on that promise – but that they'll probably still vote for him again in 2020 anyway.

      Instead of economic inequality, the issue that seems to make them most angry is the kneeling NFL football players, whom one person describes with a racial slur.

      Working-class white voters are "doing a kind of expressive voting", Potter* said. "It's all about symbols, and an assertion of what they are in the face of what they deem to be a hostile culture … People who don't make it in this country are going to feel bad about themselves, and when they feel bad they get defensive."

      "When people are in that kind of psychological position, you need to talk them down from the ledge and show them where their real interests lie."

      • This article was amended on 4 January 2017 to correct a reference to Potter*'s maternal grandmother. It should have said paternal grandmother. This has now been changed.

    • Dave Jones 6th Jan 2019

      If "working class voters" actually had some sense of class belonging, if they were a class "for itself" to use the old slogan, their complexion would never be mentioned in an article like this. They wouldn't fall for nationalist jingoism. They wouldn't get "defensive", they would get even.

      But the term "working class" in this article only refers to some vague income/ education level. It's a useless signifier, available to anyone who gets a salary for doing something.

      As for liberalism, a great theory that couldn't survive the marriage to capitalism. Abusive bastard, narcissistic sociopath really.

  • Irie Zen 6th Jan 2019