Monday, July 8, 2019

Identity and Difference

Over the past week, I read Francis Fukuyama's 2018 book, Identity, so here are a few scattered thoughts about it ("scattered thoughts" being one of the prime modes of blogging):

The shadow of The End of History and the Last Man (an oft-misunderstood work) hangs over much of Fukuyama's work, and Identity is no exception.  Using the concept of "identity" as a lens, it explores elements of the modern condition that may keep a polity or even the whole globe from "getting to Denmark"--that is, to a market-oriented liberal democracy.  Fukuyama offers a tripartite account of the human soul: reason, desire, and thymos. According to Fukuyama, "thymos"--"the seat of judgements of worth" and the cause of a craving for recognition--poses certain challenges to liberal modernity.  While "isothymia" is "the demand to be respected on an equal basis with other people," "megalothymia" involves "the desire to be recognized as superior."  For Fukuyama, both valences of thymos are implicated in contemporary politics of identity.

After laying out this division of the soul, Fukuyama surveys evolving notions of identity, from the Protestant Reformation to Rousseau to contemporary therapeutic culture.  If you want a more in-depth discussion of the stakes of identity for Fukuyama, you could check out this interview he did with Matt Lewis. But, briefly, he argues that the demand for recognition by members of previously marginalized groups is part of the process of the demand for the universal recognition of equal dignity within liberal modernity.  Fukuyama is broadly sympathetic to such demands, though he also fears that the emphasis on identity politics as purely slicing and dicing the polity might end up undercutting some of the norms necessary for defending a liberal society--moreover, it might inspire a backlash.  In the final chapter, Fukuyama offers a variety of suggestions to try to confront some of the challenges of identity, such as a more democratic central governing body for the EU, mandatory national service in the US, assimilationist reforms to immigration policy, and an emphasis on creedal national belonging.

I might not necessarily agree with everything in Identity, but it does offer a thoughtful survey of some of the forces that have influenced contemporary notions of the self.  Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self plays an important role here, but this book more broadly bears a Hegelian stamp.  Hegel's account of evolving shapes of human consciousness seems an important theoretical frame for Identity, and Fukuyama has long acknowledged the influence of Alexandre Kojeve, one of the most influential 20th-century interpreters of Hegel and one of the founding proponents of the European Union.  (Speaking of Kojeve: The Strauss-Kojeve debate about tyranny remains, I think, rewarding reading.  Of particular note these days might be the theme in that debate about the role of sovereign states. In his "Restatement" to Kojeve, Strauss defends the idea of the world being populated by independent regimes: "the coming of the universal and homogeneous state will be the end of philosophy on earth.")

With the neoliberal order being increasingly embattled, some have doubled down on postnational tendencies.  Others have instead emphasized the importance of the nation for maintaining liberty.  Fukuyama falls into that second camp.  In the twelfth chapter, he outlines the various ways that an "inclusive sense of national identity" helps free societies function: it helps provide physical security, non-corrupt government, economic development, public trust, and a social safety net.  He goes even further: "The final function of national identity is to make possible liberal democracy itself."  The "social contract" of liberal democracy requires citizens to believe that "they are part of the same polity."  It's a popular thing these days to pit "liberalism" against "nationalism," but that headline-generating quarrel should not obscure the way that sovereign nations have proven important vehicles for the defense and exposition of liberty (as it is often understood).

And there's another point about identity here, too.  In the final paragraph of this volume, Fukuyama notes that "identity" is a double-edged concept: it "can be used to divide, but it can and has also been used to integrate."  It would be a mistake to walk away from this book thinking that Fukuyama wants to end "identity politics."  Instead, he wants to foster a form of national identity to balance out and complement other forms of identity.  (A similar point might be raised about Mark Lilla's Once and Future Liberal--he criticizes the left not for mentioning identity-related issues but instead for failing to give sufficient attention to forms of civic identity.)  As I've written before, one of the ways of addressing some contemporary identity-related tensions is to recognize the mutability of some of the identity silos that seem so solid to contemporary observers--and to realize that there can be robust forms of civic belonging that also recognize the diversity of human experience.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The "Socialism" Trap

At National Review, I look at the case that Republicans may be walking into a political trap if they allow attacks on "socialism" to crowd out an affirmative policy message.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Yearbook Politics

In some ways, the rise of yearbook politics is a tribute to the norms of the meritocracy.  Schools play an important role in meritocratic sorting, so it is perhaps unsurprising that many in the media and political classes (citadels of the meritocracy) should think that yearbooks are a valuable mechanism for moral sorting.  Just as someone is always a graduate of Harvard or Stanford or wherever, someone's yearbook stands as an indelible testament of who he or she is.

However, there's something profoundly limited about reducing someone to a yearbook profile from decades ago.  Such a reduction presumes that a person can't change; moreover, it also presumes that a person's yearbook profile is a sufficiently revealing document of who a person was even then.  In reality, human beings are complicated.  Well-intentioned people do offensive things all the time, and it would be morally absurd (and intellectually naive) to reduce a person to a single unworthy incident.  Also, people do change, which is why it can be a troublesome enterprise to say that someone's representation of themselves from decades ago represents who they are today.

The vulgarized predestination of yearbook politics might gratify moral vanity, but it's less clear that it serves the purpose of either ethical rigor or a responsive politics.  A politician's record in office (including his record of rhetoric) is far more relevant to the public interest than a yearbook from a lifetime ago.  A society that does not admit that people can change and rejects the possibility of moral improvement is one that will have a hard time sustaining republican self-governance. Character matters, but recognizing the full import of character means recognizing complexity and possibility.

Yearbook politics also points to a wider danger in our politics.  Many in the leadership class have expressed more interest in conducting moralistic inquisitions than taking on the responsibility of confronting the challenges of the present.  The constant refrain of "that's not who we are" might be comforting, but serious politics demands much more.  Earlier this week, I wrote about the importance of magnanimity for sustaining civic liberties, and I think that point still applies.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Varieties of the Liberal Experience

In National Review today, I have a write-up of Helena Rosenblatt's new book, The Lost History of Liberalism:
Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism is an important work of scholarship, a survey of the varieties of “liberalism” in the past two centuries. At a time when defenders of “liberalism” fear that their ideological enemies have the winds of history at their backs, Rosenblatt offers a helpful reminder of the diversity within the tradition of “liberalism” and of the ways that certain variants of liberalism can end up undermining its promise. Those who champion liberalism have often seen it as an embattled worldview (particularly on the European continent), but they have also sometimes inadvertently supplied arms against it.Rosenblatt offers “a word history” of the terms “liberal” and “liberalism.” As she notes at the outset, their meanings are deeply contested. In France, “liberal” is associated with “favoring ‘small government,’ while in America it signifies favoring ‘big government.’” Self-professed “liberals” call for extending the welfare state, while others claiming the same title argue that it’s an unjustified restriction on liberty. The Lost History of Liberalism is intellectual history, not ideological polemic, so Rosenblatt does not set out to determine which faction counts as the “real liberalism”; she seeks instead to explore the complexity of the tradition.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Finding Common Ground

In National Review, I explore the idea of a "party of the nation" as reconciling both populists and their critics.

Friday, December 14, 2018

RIP Weekly Standard

(In light of the announcement that The Weekly Standard is being shuttered, I offer the following appreciation. I've long enjoyed the magazine as a reader and--to my great fortune--as an occasional writer for it. So, in the paragraphs below, don't expect any gimlet-eyed, cynical analysis. Instead, prepare yourself for the soft-focus glow...)

If, as Emerson said, an institution is the lengthened shadow of a man, The Weekly Standard combined the witty iconoclasm of Bill Kristol with the rigorous reporting of Fred Barnes.  It had an impressive stable of staff writers, who could do everything from political profiles to policy explainers to techno-fad eviscerations (see, for instance, this Matt Labash piece on Google Glass).  A host of regular contributors--including Charlotte Allen, Harvey Mansfield, and William H. Pritchard--supplemented this in-house crew. A lot of careers were started at the magazine, and, I hope, those careers sustained at that magazine will be able to continue elsewhere.

The Weekly Standard played a leading role in public affairs.  Taking a hawkish stance, it rallied for the Iraq War and, later, the surge.  It was a crucial advocate for the eventual Republican vice-presidential nominees in 2008 and 2012.

But the contribution of a magazine of ideas is not just about influence over public policy--it's also about fostering an exchange of ideas.  While many obituaries will portray The Weekly Standard as a "neoconservative" or "anti-Trump" publication, it hosted a variety of views and Trump was only a dominate presence in the last few years of its run.

It served as a testing ground for new ideas from a variety of angles, and its editorial vision was open to heterodoxy.  For instance, the 2005 Ross Douthat-Reihan Salam essay "The Party of Sam's Club" called for the GOP to be more attentive to working-class interests; this piece was a forerunner of the reformocon (and maybe popucon?) movement.  Ten years later, The Weekly Standard featured as a cover story a case for the political insights of Donald Trump written by none other than Julius Krein, who would go on to start American Affairs (a journal that has helped prompt new thinking on a host of foundational questions).

Though I've so far emphasized the political side of The Weekly Standard, I should also note how solid the book section was.  It featured rigorous reviews that not only summarized a book but set it in a broader intellectual conversation.  To its intellectual credit, that section was the opposite of clickbait.

One of the core insights of conservatism is that institutions matter.  You don't have to agree with everything that appeared in its pages to think that The Weekly Standard played an important role as an institution for fostering serious debate about public and private life.  A time of tabloid hysteria makes the loss of any such institution even more painful.  This doesn't mean that other institutions won't rise to take its place.  The talented folk in the orbit of The Weekly Standard will, one hopes, find new opportunities. (And, though I've been talking about ideas, livelihoods are at stake here, too--and opportunities for other employers to recruit some top-class talent.)  Mourning has its limits, but, in due measure, it can be an opportunity to reflect on the virtues of what is gone.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Manufacturing Growth Up

Trade and manufacturing have been big political battlegrounds recently.  So I thought I would look at the number of manufacturing jobs generated by year and found a few interesting things.  By one measure, 2017-2018 has seen the strongest growth in manufacturing jobs since the 1990s.

The change in the number of manufacturing jobs from month to month is very noisy (there might be a big swing up followed by a decline in the next month).  Also, we are months away from having data on 2018 as a whole.  So, in the chart below, I look at the percentage change in manufacturing jobs year over year, by month (so, for instance, how much the number of manufacturing jobs changes from June of one year to June of the next).

This chart shows how miserable manufacturing-job numbers were from from 2000 until early 2010; within that period, the number of manufacturing jobs was either treading water or sinking in almost every twelve-month interval.  Starting in April of 2010, the U.S. began actually to gain manufacturing jobs, and 2010 to the present has begun the slow process of trying to rebuild from the manufacturing collapse of 2000-2010 (we still have millions fewer manufacturing jobs now than in 2000).

Another thing stands out in this chart: Starting in May of 2018, the United States began having a year-over-year growth of manufacturing jobs of over 2 percent.  From May of 2017 to May of 2018, it was around 2.1 percent; from June of 2017 to June of 2018, it was 2.2 percent (and so forth).  As this chart suggests, the last time the United States experienced this kind of manufacturing-job growth was in the mid-90s.

Looking a little closer at the past few years reveals something else.
By early 2017, the rate of job growth in manufacturing had begun to slip.  In fact, manufacturing jobs were lost in half the months of 2016, and there were fewer manufacturing jobs in December 2016 than there were in January of that year.  This changed in 2017; since January of 2017, there has been only one month of job loss in manufacturing, and the overall growth has been much more vigorous.

A few provisional thoughts arise from this:
  • Manufacturing was already on an overall upswing when Donald Trump became president.
  • But it had begun to decline at the end of the Obama administration, so it's not clear that Trump inherited the best manufacturing growth from Obama.
  • Manufacturing has grown at a relatively aggressive rate in the past 18 months, at a pace unmatched in the past 20 years.
  • The continued strong rate of manufacturing growth in 2018 suggests that the current trade negotiations between the United States and many its principal trading partners has not yet inflicted great pain on the manufacturing sector's employment picture as a whole. (This is distinct from its effect on other employment sectors.)
(The underlying data for these graphs come from FRED; the calculations are my own.)