Last week, a self-described Trump supporter left a lengthy voicemail for Francis Fukuyama. She was taking issue with his assertion that the “American people” are defined not by race or ethnicity, but rather by a shared belief in the principles upon which our nation was based.
“She was really upset,” recalled the Stanford University political scientist. “She said the Constitution says America belongs to the people who fought in the revolution, and their descendants. I suspect by ‘descendants,’ she actually meant ‘white people.'”
“At the end of her diatribe, she basically said I should go back to Japan, or wherever I came from. [Editor’s Note: He was born in Chicago.] I used to hear this sort of thing when I was a little kid, before the civil rights era. But over the last few years, that kind of rhetoric is crawling out of the woodwork more and more.”
Inadvertently, that woman was illustrating the main point of Fukuyama’s new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Power of Resentment. To her, citizenship is tied to a specific ethnic identity, and she has internalized that group’s grievances.
Fukuyama argues this tendency to ground your sense of self in race, gender, or sexual orientation first took root on the left, often in reaction to genuine injustice, and has now spread to the right. No wonder our politics are so polarized: We all feel we’re being dissed, and we take it very personally.
In an interview from his Stanford University office on Monday, he discussed this increasing fragmentation, how it showed itself in the recent controversy over now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and how we could get to a shared identity as Americans.
In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, and his ultimate confirmation as a Supreme Court judge, are you more pessimistic about the future of American democracy?
Yes, I definitely am. I think what the hearings demonstrated is the fact that Americans are polarized in a very deep way. The people who watched Dr. Ford and said “I believe her,” and those who watched Kavanaugh and said “He’s a victim of the Democrats” were looking at exactly the same images, and hearing exactly the same words. But they interpreted them in dramatically different ways.
How you interpreted them depended upon your identity, and, increasingly, our identity is defined in partisan terms. If you have a certain set of beliefs, you must also [share the view of fellow partisans] regarding the veracity of a woman’s testimony.
There are fears that the new Supreme Court will implement a radical right-wing agenda that lacks popular support. Do you think that is likely?
If the court tries to dismantle what people consider settled law in a dramatic fashion, it’s going to produce a very big political controversy, in a way that will threaten the court’s legitimacy. But it seems to me [Chief Justice] John Roberts wants to protect its independence and integrity. The way he settled the Obamacare case [where he joined the liberal justices to uphold the legality of the Affordable Care Act] indicates he does not want to see the court politicized in that fashion. So it’s not inevitable that the court will move in a dramatic direction.
I recently spoke to a political scientist who argued the next Democratic president who has a Democratic Senate should immediately expand the Supreme Court from nine to 11 seats. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne made that same argument on Monday. Is that a good idea, or a dangerous one?
I think that would just inflame the partisan divide. I actually think this is a good opportunity to think about structural changes in the way we appoint justices. There are other reforms we need to think about before we go to that one. The first thing I would do is get rid of lifetime tenure [of justices]. That would dramatically reduce the stakes in these battles.
You could also formalize a lot of the procedures by which the prospective justices are vetted. Democrats are angry about the way Republicans used their control of the Judiciary Committee to cut short deliberations. You can write into law exactly how the committee needs to proceed in future cases. You could also write into law that the Senate has to consider a nomination within six months. That would make what the Republicans did to Merrick Garland [a President Barack Obama nominee who was denied a hearing for nearly a year] illegal.
Should that be a priority for congressional Democrats?
It would be perfectly legitimate. But the Democrats are going to have a long to-do list as they write into hard law the norms…