Modern liberal societies have weak collective identities. Postmodern elites, especially in Europe, feel that they have evolved beyond identities defined by religion and nation. But if our societies cannot assert positive liberal values, they may be challenged by migrants who are more sure of who they areby Francis Fukuyama / February 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
Modern identity politics springs from a hole in the political theory underlying liberal democracy. That hole is liberalism’s silence about the place and significance of groups. The line of modern political theory that begins with Machiavelli and continues through Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and the American founding fathers understands the issue of political freedom as one that pits the state against individuals rather than groups. Hobbes and Locke, for example, argue that human beings possess natural rights as individuals in the state of nature—rights that can only be secured through a social contract that prevents one individual’s pursuit of self-interest from harming others.
Modern liberalism arose in good measure in reaction to the wars of religion that raged in Europe following the Reformation. Liberalism established the principle of religious toleration—the idea that religious goals could not be pursued in the public sphere in a way that restricted the religious freedom of other sects or churches. (As we will see below, the actual separation of church and state was never fully achieved in many modern European democracies.) But while modern liberalism clearly established the principle that state power should not be used to impose religious belief on individuals, it left unanswered the question of whether individual freedom could conflict with the rights of people to uphold a particular religious tradition. Freedom, understood not as the freedom of individuals but of cultural or religious or ethnic groups to protect their group identities, was not seen as a central issue by the American founders, perhaps because the new settlers were relatively homogeneous. In the words of John Jay (in the second “Federalist Paper”): “A people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles.”
In the west, identity politics began in earnest with the Reformation. Martin Luther argued that salvation could be achieved only through an inner state of faith, and attacked the Catholic emphasis on works—that is, exterior conformity to a set of social rules. The Reformation thus identified true religiosity as an individual’s subjective state, dissociating inner identity from outer practice.