Vol. 29 No. 6 (July 2019) pp. 63-68

IDENTITY, THE DEMAND FOR DIGNITY AND THE POLITICS OF RESENTMENT, by Francis Fukuyama. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2018. xvii + 219pp. Cloth $26.00. ISBN: 978-0-374-90674-0.

Reviewed by H.G. Callaway, Department of Philosophy, Temple University. Email:

In his new book, IDENTITY, THE DEMAND FOR DIGNITY AND THE POLITICS OF RESENTMENT, Stanford University political scientist Francis Fukuyama addresses themes which might more properly be considered matters of political and legal philosophy. In particular, though he affirms the importance of the concepts of human dignity and identity, more or less as these are commonly understood in contemporary political debates and judicial decisions, he also sets himself against the contemporary phenomenon of identity politics which he views as a danger to liberal democracy. “The rise of identity politics in modern liberal democracies,” writes Fukuyama, “is one of the chief threats that they face;” and moreover, “unless we can work our way back to more universal understandings of human dignity, we will doom ourselves to continuing conflict” (p. xvi). Readers learn in the Preface that “This book would not have been written had Donald J. Trump not been elected president in November 2016” (p. ix). Fukuyama warns of “political decay,” though he holds it had set in well before the shocks of Brexit and Trump in 2016, “as the state was progressively captured by powerful interest groups” viz. vetocracy, “a rigid structure that was unable to reform itself” (p. ix). In the Preface, Fukuyama also draws lines to his earlier works, including his essay “The End of History?” (1989), his related book, THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN (1992) and his impressive recent volumes, THE ORIGINS OF POLITICAL ORDER (2011) and POLITICAL ORDER AND POLITICAL DECAY (2014).

This review will focus on some legal and constitutional issues arising from debates and political conflicts centered on identity, human dignity, recognition and identity politics; however, it is important to understand that Fukuyama links the concept of human dignity and the demand for recognition to his claim that modern liberal democracies have “not fully solved the problem of thymos” (p. xiii). Taken from the ancient Greek, and conventionally translated as “spirit, spiritedness, courage,” Fukuyama writes that, “thymos is the part of the soul which craves recognition of dignity,” “isothymia is the demand to be respected on an equal basis with other people,” and “megalothymia is the desire to be recognized as superior” (p. xiii). “It is not surprising,” Fukuyama wrote in a previous work, “That so many political philosophers have seen the central problem of politics as one of taming or harnessing the desire for recognition in a way that would serve the political community as a whole” (Fukuyama 1992, p. 163).

We have to do with recent elaborations of the ancient theme that while thymos or “spiritedness,” including the demand for recognition—and indignation at injustice—, are fundamental to politics, this same human quality has often proved to be destructive. According to Fukuyama, identity politics in its present forms is destructive of liberal democracy. The danger is that the desire to be “recognized as superior” may link to, and play off of, the “demand to be recognized on an equal basis with other people;” and the leftward demand for recognition of group cultural identity or ethnic equality will reignite the political fires of ethnic and religious nationalism, “the politics of resentment”—and even Caesarism (pp. xiv-xvi). The political message concerning growing inequalities within countries around the world (see pp. 74-80), has not been delivered to classes and their traditional leftward representatives, but to nations and religions, because, “to be poor is to be invisible to your fellow human beings, and the indignity of invisibility is often worse than the lack of resources” (p. 80). Otherwise put, the book’s thesis is that narrow, factional, ethnic politics, [*64] even when ostensively aimed at greater justice, tends to produce what James Madison called “majority factionalism” in response (See Madison 1787, FEDERALIST PAPERS, No. 10, p. 54). Fukuyama advocates broader, more inclusive, voluntary and flexible concepts of political identity not linked to biological origins, nationality, cultural background or religion—and better suited to the defense of human dignity.

The concept of human dignity is prominent in European law; and Fukuyama notes that the German constitution or “Basic Law,” Article I, Section I, provides that “The dignity of man is inviolable” [Die W├╝rde des Menschen ist unantastbar]; and “To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all public authority” (quoted, p. 51). The South African constitution similarly states that “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected” (quoted p. 51). Like provisions can be found in the constitutions of other countries including India, Italy, Ireland, Japan, and Israel; further, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000) states that “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.” Still the concept of human dignity receives a precise definition in none of these documents; “… there is little common understanding of what dignity requires substantively within or across jurisdictions” (McCrudden 2008, p. 655; pp. 722ff). That is part of what makes broader legal use of human dignity problematic. People strenuously disagree about what counts to or is required by human dignity, and this is especially evident in larger, multiethnic and multiracial societies. The demand for recognition, often enough, is simply an assertion of power. It should be noted that the concept of human dignity made no appearance in the European Convention on Human Rights (1950), and in consequence was not included in the U.K.’s Human Rights Act (1998) which made the European Convention the law of the United Kingdom.

The word “dignity” makes no appearance in the U.S. constitution either, and its usage in other founding documents such as the FEDERALIST PAPERS, chiefly concerns the dignity of public officials, institutions and high offices. One might easily imagine that the broad European, constitutional usage arose by generalizing from a consensus on the dignity of the “great and good” to an insistence on the dignity of all. This was no doubt stimulated by the memory of World War II, the destruction of Europe and the horrors of Hitler’s National Socialism. The Europeans are understandably wary of threats to human dignity. Yet more substantial interpretations of the concept vary from one country to another with the thicker cultural contexts. The U.S. constitution does stipulates that, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people” (ix. Amendment). However, the basic idea is that “governments are institute among men” to secure their (equal) rights, in the formulation of the Declaration of Independence (pp. 156-157), and this premise is consistent with official expansion of recognized constitutional rights. The Supreme Court’s recognition of a “right to privacy” is an example; while it might plausibly be argued that a “right to privacy” belongs to human dignity (a point not without interest for proposals to regulate mass surveillance via the internet), there is no U.S. Constitutional text suited to derive new constitutional rights equal in force to the enumerated rights. The “right to privacy” derives, in the decision on ROE V. WADE, from the constitutionally protected right to liberty and due process. (See also GRISWOLD V. CONNECTICUT; and LAWRENCE v. TEXAS.) The court ruled in ROE that the due process clause provides a “right to privacy,” though it must be balanced against other interests, such as protection of the health of women and protection of prenatal life.

Fukuyama rightly sees Christian Democratic and Kantian roots in contemporary European doctrines of human dignity (pp. 37-39), which often aim to ground human rights as subsidiary—supported by the claims of human dignity taken as primary (p.56; cf. Rao 2008, pp. 206-207.) In consequence of the contrasts, for example, what counts as constitutionally protected free speech in the U.S. is sometimes subject to prosecution elsewhere (p. 188). Though the concept of human dignity is evoked to justify and support human rights, it also functions to curtail them or limit the scope of [*65] otherwise recognized human rights. In German constitutional law, “human dignity is at the top of the Basic Law’s value order,” and it “occupies the position that liberty may be said to play in the American Constitutional order” (Kommers 1997, p. 359). The American constitutional tradition, including the protection of First Amendment rights and developments by amendment may usefully be viewed, in this context, as encouraging vigorous public debate suited to a traditionally more adversarial style of politics in the large-scale, ethnically and religiously diverse Madisonian republic. What counts as properly a matter of “dignity” on the other hand, seems to vary with the devotion or intensity of political advocates domestically, and with policy decisions or resolutions in various, more consensus-oriented, ethnically defined European polities. Viewed in this light, the European concept of a constitutional protection of human dignity might be viewed as extending (something like) the traditional protection of high officials against insults to their honor (as, for example, in seditious libel law) to everyman. No one doubts, of course, that everyone has an interest in avoiding insult and enjoying the esteem of compatriots. But it may be doubted that we will preserve the judicial protection of First Amendment rights, if they are to be legally balanced or traded off against contrary interests.

“Liberal democracy” functions as a disciplinary term of art in Fukuyama’s writings, and he aims to include all those systems based on electoral democracy and the rule of law combined with market economies. Room must be made for thymos and human dignity generally. His critical assessment of American “identity politics” is only part of the story, then, and Fukuyama understands the European Union as playing an important role in diminishing the traditional dangers and excesses of European ethnic nationalism (p. 62). Fukuyama proceeds by a quasi-constructive mode of comparative international politics; and as things stand, emphasis on human dignity, though substantially undefined, is a commonality of the liberal-democratic world. Obviously, Fukuyama would like to see the liberal democracies flourish and expand in numbers. Turning to the contrasts, Fukuyama does take note of a major division between dignity understood by reference to liberal individuality, individual self-development and self-realization, as contrasted with the dignity of collective or communitarian identities, whether religious or national (p. 91; cf. Kommers 1997, pp. 307-308). He argues that by means of progressive democratic inclusion, liberal individualism has “evolved in a collective direction” such that the two strands “ended up converging in surprising ways” (p. 92).

The convergence is far from total, however, and unreflective or uncritical usage of the term “human dignity,” may sometimes create an illusion of greater convergence or clarity than is actually at hand. Consider for instance high court decisions regarding abortion—a topic Fukuyama does not consider. The basic point is that arguments from dignity enter on both sides. According to the first abortion decision of the German Constitutional Court (1975),“developing life also enjoys the protection which Article 1 (1) accords to the dignity of man.” (Abortion Case 1, 39 BVerfGE, 1). (This was two years after the U.S. Supreme Court made its decision in ROE V. WADE.) The call on human dignity in the first German judgment was later substantially reiterated in a second 1993 decision of the German Constitutional Court, stating that, “The Basic Law requires the state to protect human life, including that of the unborn. This obligation to protect is based on Article 1, paragraph 1” (Abortion Case 2, 88 BVerfGE, 203). However, the first decision required criminalization of abortion, except where the life of the mother is endangered or in cases of rape, while the second decision allowed the state to protect unborn life, merely via mandatory counseling and a waiting period. The first decision, like the second, drew on an argument of “inviolable” human dignity and the need to protect it, but the two decisions differed greatly on the implications of this requirement. The differences amounted to a significant liberalization of the abortion law. Meanwhile, despite several decades of litigation, and drawing on the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and other statements of the need to protect human dignity, the European Court of Human Rights has never been able to decide if human dignity requires protection of the fetus or not (McCrudden 2008, p. 709). [*66]

What these divergences of judicial decisions tell us is that even on the most expansive and communitarian readings, the protection of human dignity does not suffice to answer all the common questions and debates about human rights—and the right to life in particular. The German Constitutional Court mentions the “right to life” of the unborn, but immediately balances this against contrary interests (Kommers 1997, p. 350). Although more communitarian readings of dignity do favor forms of collective “identity politics,” that is one of the problems with such readings. They have eventuated in more populist and nationalistic political configurations in Europe. One cannot help but notice that the E.U. is currently suffering the shocks of Brexit, Russia’s effective blockage in Ukraine of further East European expansion, the growth of right-wing populist and nationalist movements in Western Europe and “illiberal democracy” in Eastern Europe. Still, according to Fukuyama, “That the demand for dignity should somehow disappear is neither possible or desirable” (p. 163). In consequence, Fukuyama’s criticisms largely fall on rigidly collective or communitarian concepts of human dignity as expressed in identity politics of the right or the left.

The point will perhaps be better understood by reference to the theme of American national identity and Fukuyama’s references to political scientist Samuel Huntington’s last book, WHO ARE WE? (2004). A passive and purely creedal American identity (of constitutional loyalty) is not sufficient, according to Fukuyama, and nor can we get along without a common identity, rooted in virtues and cultural values. According to Fukuyama, “…diversity cannot be the basis of identity in and of itself; it is like saying our identity is to have no identity; or rather that we should get used to our having nothing in common and emphasize our narrow racial or ethnic identities instead (p. 159). “Would America be the America it is today,” Huntington asked, “if in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico or Brazil” (quoted, p. 160, from Huntington 2004, p. 59). Is there nothing of the particularities of American social and political tradition worthy of being cultivated and preserved? What comes to mind is the practice of building new groups, across old divisions, for new purposes and for meet emerging problems. This would certainly tend to challenge the hold of vetocracy. Fukuyama recommends a strengthening of American national identity by common values and emphasis on the rights and obligations of citizenship (pp. 173-174); he criticizes bilingual education (p. 173) and in general he favors less rigid, more flexible, open concepts of political identity. Still, it is important to take note of Fukuyama’s criticism of “expressive individualism,” based on the need of common values in social and political life (pp. 55-56).

Though the concept of human dignity is not found in the U.S. Constitution, it has none the less made its appearance in U.S. judicial arguments and decisions. In relation to Fukuyama’s book, it is of interest to pose the question of whether U.S. judicial usage of “human dignity” has functioned to strengthen or discourage identity politics. We may ask, for example, if liberty is for the sake of dignity or if dignity must serve liberty. Again, how are we to understand liberty? Here we find Fukuyama’s brief criticism of retired Justice Anthony Kennedy’s views in PLANNED PARENTHOOD V. CASEY (1992). What Fukuyama finds problematic is not the outcome of the case but Justice Kennedy’s supporting argument that liberty includes “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of human life” (quoted p. 55). For Fukuyama, this is a radical concept of human autonomy elaborating Justice Kennedy’s concept of human dignity—which he compares to the radicalism of Nietzsche. At the least, it does not sound much like the traditional (and quasi-Aristotelian) “pursuit of happiness.” Kennedy is well known for his appeal to foreign and international conceptions of human rights in the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Justice Kennedy is also sometimes thought a “libertarian,” but emphasizing his pro-corporate opinion in CITIZENS UNITED (2010) and given his influential role in BUSH V. GORE (2000), it might plausibly be thought that he is an institutionalist at heart, taking the view that only powerful institutions can support the [*67] diversity and degrees of individual variation one might come to expect in society—given sufficient emphasis on dignity and autonomy. Though Fukuyama does not go so far, one might consider the substantially undefined concept of human dignity a kind of wild card inserted into the otherwise orderly, decorous and tradition-bound enumeration of constitutional rights.

It is worth noting that Fukuyama does not want to blame the cultural left for the rise of populist nationalism at home or abroad, though he notes the left’s role in shifting political focus away from traditional concern for economic issues and support of the broad interests of the industrial working classes. He does favor strong institutions and bureaucratic “state capacity” and he seems to entertain no positive conception of populist movements (e.g., the role of the People’s Party and William Jennings Bryan in the background of early twentieth-century American Progressivism—and the taming of the Gilded Age). He regards populisms chiefly in terms of the irrational, the charismatic addiction to strong men and/or in terms of ethnically or religiously based nationalism and exclusion (pp. x-xii). In spite of that he is willing to criticize our international elites for ignoring the economic and social effects of globalization on ordinary people—their stagnant incomes, loss of opportunity and loss of social status.

Fukuyama readily identifies with the international, cosmopolitan elites and the international system built up by the broad strokes and economic expansion of globalization. U.S. conservatives tend to resist his internationally oriented concept of “liberal democracy,” and Fukuyama’s break with the U.S. neo-conservatives over the second Iraq war has polished his liberal reputation (See Fukuyama 2006, AMERICA AT THE CROSSROADS). In the end, one may doubt that we can presently conceive or implement an American (and international) institutional system or “world order” adequate to the objective of world governance (and control of the financial instabilities of globalizing neo-liberalism) that will plausibly fit or sustain the American conception of democratic self-government based on constitutional rights, (domestic) “consent of the governed,” and the ideal of “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” “Liberal nationalism,” especially in neo-liberal style, appears an unstable political configuration—tending to break down in one or the other direction. Fukuyama is wary of ethnic nationalism, since “they often play by democratic rules, but harbor potentially illiberal tendencies due to their longing for unity and community” (p. 69).

What has often seemed in the offing is a form of governance whose chief supporting constituencies are the great institutions (public or private, domestic and international) that government creates, finances, encourages and/or itself controls (and related rent-seeking)—though these large-scale institutions may also be plausibly regarded as standing at the root of Fukuyama’s dreaded “vetocracy” in which “minority views can easily block majority consensus” (p. 177). Our divisive, oft dysfunctional contemporary national politics focuses not on promoting the (domestic) general welfare and the common good, but excessively focuses on relations of political patronage to, and support from, our well organized, influential large-scale institutions. From that perspective, the practice of “identity politics” sometimes appears chiefly to propose supporting recruitment criteria for the institutional elites. Have the attempts to organize, liberalize and democratize the dysfunction and dangerous conflicts of the international system through neo-liberal globalization effectively imported the conflicts into domestic politics? Following Fukuyama, identity politics constitute a danger to liberal democracy, by threatening the commonalities of values and inclusive domestic social unity; this danger in turn points to a (neo-liberal) lack of balance between reliance on the supporting institutions of world-scale markets in globalization and the policy requirements of domestic tranquility. Readers of IDENTITY will be especially interested in Fukuyama’s final chapter, “What is to be done?”


European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. (2000) “Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union,” OFFICIAL JOURNAL [*68] OF THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITIES, C 364,18.12. 2000, pp. 1-22.

Fukuyama, Francis. (1989) “The End of History?” THE NATIONAL INTEREST, Summer issue, pp. 3-18.

―(1992) THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN. New York: The Free Press; Simon and Schuster.


―(2011) THE ORIGINS OF POLITICAL ORDER. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

―(2014) POLITICAL ORDER AND POLITICAL DECAY. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Huntington, Samuel (2004) WHO ARE WE? THE CHALLENGES TO AMERICA’S NATIONAL IDENTITY. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Kommers, Donald P. (1975) THE CONSTITUTIONAL JURISPRUDENCE OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF GERMANY; 1997. 2nd ed. Raleigh, NC; London: Durham University Press.

Madison, James (1787) FEDERALIST PAPERS, No. 10. “The Same Subject Continued, The Union as Safeguard against Domestic Faction And Insurrection,” reprinted in Earle, E. M. ed. (1937) THE FEDERALIST PAPERS. New York: Random House, pp. 53-61.

McCrudden, Christopher (2008) “Human Dignity and Judicial Interpretation of Human Rights,” THE EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 655-724.

Rao, Neomi (2008) “On the Use and Abuse of Dignity in Constitutional Law,” COLUMBIA JOURNAL OF EUROPEAN LAW, Vol. 14, pp. 201-254.


Abortion Case 1, 39 BverfGE 1 (1975).

Abortion Case 2, 88 BverfGE 203 (1993).

BUSH V. GORE, 531 U.S. 98 (2000).


GRISWOLD V. CONNECTICUT, 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

LAWRENCE V. TEXAS, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).


ROE V. WADE, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

© Copyright 2019 by author, H.G. Callaway.