Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama was in Vienna in early March to talk about the global crisis of democracy. Gaining world fame for his “End of History” thesis following the collapse of communism, he has gone from a standard-bearer for neo-conservatism to voting for Barack Obama in 2008.

In his new book “Identity: the demand for dignity and the politics of resentment”, Fukuyama introduces new theories about what favoured the current rise of populism. His central thesis: It is not only economic motives that lead people to vote for populist parties, but mainly their quest for respect and dignity. He discussed his ideas with a high-level panel on Erste Campus, including with Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen.

The hall of Erste Campus – the bank’s headquarters on the site of the old Südbahnof behind the Belvedere – was filled to capacity, as Boris Marte, Deputy Chairman of the Board, came to the microphone. “Every chair in this room is singular,” he pointed out, “just as every individual is singular”.

The chairs were an idea in action, Marte’s playful preview to Fukuyama’s theory of how identity politics, of ethnicity, sexual orientation or race, may threaten liberal democracies.

Francis Fukuyama, who is Director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, considers the year 2016 a watershed, when Europe experienced a surge in anti-immigration parties, when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president, and the UK voted to leave the European Union.

Explaining this phenomenon, Fukuyama argues that the “old white working class” had been neglected by left-wing parties, with their political attention shifting to other marginalised groups instead, such as women, LGBT, disabled people, black people or immigrants.

Along the way “the left began to lose touch with the old, predominantly white electorate,” Fukuyama said. Working class whites at some point came to the conclusion that left-wing parties no longer represented their interests, that they didn’t respect their concerns or their dignity. This caused an exodus to nationalist, populist and mostly right-wing parties who began to “borrow topics from the left.”

This analysis has exposed Fukuyama to harsh criticism from many on the left who see this as placing blamed by him for having encouraged populist movements.

Prior to the current rise of populism, the world had been experiencing “a growing liberal order,” Fukuyama argued, of economic improvements and a worldwide rise in the number of democracies from around 35 in the 1970s to about 120 in early 2000s. Some of the assumptions behind his sunny analysis are, however, widely challenged, like his claim of household incomes rising until the 2008.  Most cite the beginning of the decline to 1972, the retreat from the gold standard, and the subsequent deregulation of the Reagan-Thatcher years inspired by the neo-conservatism in which Fukuyama was a leading voice.

To reverse the current populist trend, the political scientist made one core suggestion: “A long-term goal [of] the creation of a European identity that supersedes all other identities.” Such a civic or “creedal identity” would help create a sense of belonging, he said, hold a country together, and provide people with a feeling of recognition that would ultimately prevent the success of populist parities.

It was clear that President Van der Bellen took exception: Fukuyama’s theories could not be applied equally to each and every country, he reminded the audience during the ensuing discussion. “In the case of Austria, the analysis does not fit, because charismatic populism has existed for a long time and it is not a rising phenomenon of the past 10 or 15 years.”

Many in the audience seemed to agree. For example, one foreign policy expert remarked afterwards that Fukuyama’s theories “appeared very much U.S. centred” and not applicable to every European country.

The Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, a permanent fellow at Vienna’ Institute for Human Sciences and a member of the panel, also concurred on the complexity of European identity, joking about how a German, a French or a Swiss understands where babies came from: “For the German, they come from the sky, for the French, they come from the bedroom, and for the Swiss… it depends on the canton,” he said to an appreciative laugh.

Van der Bellen also criticised Fukuyama’s call for “a European identify that supersedes all others,” which he saw as simplistic. “I am a Tirolian, an Austrian and a European all at the same time,” Van der Bellen said. “I don’t think that I have to choose,” adding: “The idea that the state is – or should be – a homogeneous group of people is horrible. Diversity is a beautiful thing.”

What Fukuyama seems to have in mind is an identity – perhaps on the U.S. model – that helps hold multicultural states and societies together by being based on a set of democratic beliefs rather than on religion or race.

Fukuyama fleshed out this point in an interview with the Economist in September 2018 when he explained that “in the French case it is the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity coming out of the French Revolution; one could become a French citizen if one was loyal to those ideals, regardless of race or ethnicity.”  However, again,

Krastev provided additional explanations for the rise of populism, particularly in CEE, a region that – in comparison with Western Europe – began adopting democratic institutions and processes only about 30 years ago, after the end of Communism.

“We live in an age of imitation. In Eastern Europe, we imitated the model of liberal democracy. But now there is a revolt against this,” he said. It was a process that didn’t recognize the region’s own values, traditions and history, he said. Successful politicians like Viktor Orban in Hungary have won on the promise of stopping the process of imitation.

The panel discussion was the first in a series of four so-called tipping point talks that are being organised by Erste Stiftung on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Erste Österreichische Spar-Casse, and the launch of the savings bank concept in Austria.