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Donald Trump and the return of class: an interview with Francis Fukuyama

“What is happening in the politics of the US particularly, but also in other countries, is that identity in a form of nationality or ethnicity or race has become a proxy for class.”

lead SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In 1989, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s essay “The End of History?” for the National Interest declared the triumph of western liberal democracy: “what we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” But for Fukuyama, Donald Trump’s electoral defeat of Hillary Clinton marks a new age of populist nationalism: “a watershed not just for American politics, but for the entire world order.”

In the chorus of experts that seek to offer explanations for the US presidential election results, Fukuyama’s analysis has forcefully engaged with the concept of class. On several occasions following the election, Fukuyama has uncompromisingly emphasised that a class division precedes all other divisions related to identity. In a recent article for the Financial Times, he writes: “Social class, defined today by one’s level of education, appears to have become the single most important social fracture in countless industrialized and emerging-market countries.” Meanwhile, the US Democratic Party is now “the party of identity politics: a coalition of women, African-Americans, Hispanics, environmentalists, and the LGBT community, that lost its focus on economic issues.”

Natalia Koulinka: Does the concept of class have a chance to return victoriously to academic as well as public discourse?

Francis Fukuyama: It is more complicated than that. My argument is that class really determines the way people think about politics. The anti-elite anger felt by people who have, at best, high school education, and who have done less well economically, is real. However, many of them do not see themselves as part of the proletariat. They do not think of themselves in economic terms altogether, but rather, in identity terms and foremost in terms of racial identity. So, what is happening in the politics of the United States particularly, but I also think in other countries, is that identity in a form of nationality or ethnicity or race has become a proxy for class. In short, these forms of identity substitute for a class identity.

Identity in a form of nationality or ethnicity or race has become a proxy for class.

Thus, many working-class people in the United States do not like Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party because, these people say, this is a party of minorities – of African-Americans and Hispanics, gay and lesbians and so forth. These people may think, ‘all of these groups have big advantages over me. The system is giving them, not me, special treatment, because I am white’. From this line of reasoning, they conclude that it is they who are the minority that have been oppressed and discriminated against. In other words, a discrepancy exists between the fundamental reality, which is social class, and the way people actually think about it. By the way, this is not a new phenomenon. Recall the First World War. In 1914, the socialist and communists all hoped that workers of the world would unite, but instead, they all marched off as Englishmen, or Frenchmen or Germans. This is an example of the power commanded by a national identity, even though the class division retains a very strong power, too.

NK: An explanation for the greater attractiveness of national identity can lie in the fact that it readily lends itself to romanticisation. Socialism as a doctrine of the utmost egalitarian society is much more resistant to it.

FF: I agree.

NK: Could you elaborate more on the role you ascribe to education in your explanation of the US election results? Are you saying that it is a lower level of education and not, for example, the material conditions of people that should account for the vote result?  

FF: No, no! Material conditions are important. However, how one does economically, what kind of job one can have in today’s American economy depends completely on education. It is most probable than not that a higher education, especially in science and mathematics, will result in a good, well-paid job while lack of education promises little hope because most of such jobs have been overtaken by technology. To connect this back to politics, education acts on people’s politics indirectly, through the economy, to shape the way people eventually vote.  

NK: Many experts mention ‘Brexit’ in relation to the election results in the United States. But a more thorough look back into the past reveals similar events that took place much earlier. For example, in 1994, the attempts to implement a neo-liberal economic policy in Belarus met such strong resistance that it, too, determined the result of the first presidential elections in the country. In the less distant past, the presidential elections in Bulgaria and Moldova come to mind as well. All of these cases tell us the same story, but for some reason we have chosen to ignore it. You seem to point to a similar problem. “The real question,” you write, “should not have been why populism has emerged in 2016, but why it took so long to become manifest.” How would you answer this question?  

FF: In the United States, a culture of political entrepreneurship requires politicians to convince people that they are able to represent them, that they understand their problems and are going to fix these problems. In this regard, the point that I was making is that no candidate from either party had really done that for the working class. The Democrats had lost touch with the working class a long time ago. As for Republican Party, it is basically dominated by corporate America.

This is what happens in politics in plain terms: political entrepreneurs seize the opportunity to mobilise people around a particular issue. They start speaking to a particular group and then all of a sudden that group realizes, ‘yes, we are victims of the system! Yes, the elites are conspiring against us!’ I think that is what Donald Trump did. The same thing happened, for example, in Serbia. Why did Serbia turn out so much worse than other countries in Eastern Europe? I think Milosevic was a political entrepreneur himself who saw that big opportunity to get people angry about the situation of the Serbs and get them all mobilised. That was how he rose to power. However, there is no inevitability in this. Sometimes events develop in this direction, sometimes they do not.

NK: Isn’t it a tragedy for working-class people that they have to accept a billionaire as their representative?

FF: I do not think that matters. It is much more the message. I do not think they care that he is personally rich. I mean, it is just like in the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt headed the populist movement to create the modern welfare state and attacked Wall Street and all these big banks. At the same time, he himself was an aristocrat, came from a rich family, was very well brought up and educated. Nevertheless, people liked him because they thought that he understood their problems and was indeed their representative. To repeat, I do not think Trump’s personal wealth is an issue really.

NK: You write, “In the US, Britain, Europe and a host of other countries, the democratic part of the political system is rising up against a liberal part, and threatening to use its apparent legitimacy to rip apart the rules that have heretofore constrained behaviour, anchoring an open and tolerant world.” Do you mean that there are two types of democracy?

FF: No, not two types of democracy but two big components to it. Its democratic part has to do with elections and popular choice in general, while its liberal component is about the rule of law, the protection of individual rights, that sort of thing. I am convinced that to have a full liberal democracy you have to have both of those. To put it differently, people have to be able to choose but their choice has to be limited by law and by a certain common understanding of the limits of politics. I see that populism is pushing against that.

I do not think they care that he is personally rich.

Consider, for example, cases with mass media. In all of these populist countries, the press is one of the first targets. The first thing that governments popularly elected with some kind of democratic majority want to do is to shut down critical media voices. Donald Trump is not an exception. At his meeting with the New York Times, he got talking about crooked media. I think this is very similar to what Erdogan is doing in Turkey, Putin has done in Russia, and Orban in Hungary.

NK: So in proportion to the liberal component, how large is the democratic share of ‘liberal democracy’?

FF: I think the elections proved that it is fundamentally democratic, even though we have a big problem with money in politics, and I think many Americans will accept that it is a problem. However, if money could have actually determined the outcome of elections, then Jeb Bush should have been the Republican nominee, while Bernie Sanders would not have had any chance against Hillary Clinton. Yet Sanders did extremely well and could have beaten Hillary Clinton, while Donald Trump ended up as president. The latter happened not because he spent a lot of his personal wealth on the campaign. He actually spent relatively little. All this proves, I think, that in the ultimate sense the American people still fundamentally decide.

At the same time, I have to say that money in politics distorts the representation of the popular will by giving certain groups more political clout than others. But this is true for most countries. I mean, poor people in most countries have very little political power because they do not know how to organise and push for their own interests. Corporations, labour unions, as well as many other groups, on the contrary, are well organised and know how to use the political system to their advantage. This is what substantiates my argument that the system is not fully representative. Nevertheless, it still remains democratic, I think.

About the authors

Francis Fukuyama is an American political scientist, best known for his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992). He is Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Natalia Koulinka is a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She trained as a journalist at the School of Journalism at Belarusian State University, where she worked as an instructor for several years. In 2008, she won a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University, where she co-founded the Stanford Post-Soviet Post.

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