Francis Fukuyama is one of the big thinkers of our generation. The question he asked in his 1989 essay "The End of History?" was answered in his 1992 book "The End of History and the Last Man." The question was dropped in favor of a simple declaratory sentence. History, characterized by ideological conflict, was over. Western liberal democracy won. It was a notable example of the triumphalism at the end of the Cold War.
Fukuyama has understandably modified his views over the past quarter of a century, and he now offers another paradigm. He sees Trump's election in the US as ushering in a new age of populist nationalism.
At the same time, Fukuyama argues that class divisions are primary and come before all other sources of identity. To be sure, Fukuyama is not Marxist. In an essay last year in the Financial Times, Fukuyama writes, "Social class, defined today by one's level of education, appears to have become the single most important social fracture in countless industrialized and emerging market countries."
Class, which is the education level, determines the way people think about politics, according to Fukuyama. He imagines that it is the poorly educated who have not done well economically who have become passionately anti-elitist. He recognizes that they do not see themselves in economic terms, but rather racial, ethnicity or nationality terms.
A review of voting in the British referendum on EU and the US 2016 presidential contest appears to support Fukuyama's claim. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame analyzed US voting on a county basis and concluded that education was a better predictor than income in how people voted. At the risk of oversimplifying, Clinton consistently did better than Obama in nearly all of the 50 counties with the highest education and income. Clinton did significantly worse than Obama in the 50 counties with the lowest education and income.
Of course, education and income are often highly correlated. Silver tried to tease out the more significant variable by finding counties that had a high education but low income (e.g. counties government, or hospitals or educational institutions were significant employers. Clinton did well. In countries where education was lower, but incomes were strong. Trump outperformed Romney in most of the counties that incomes were well above the national median and where a little more than a third of voters had a college degree.
Fukuyama's argument seems to be predicated on the link between education and economic well-being. However, this link appears to be weakening. In the US and UK, which have typically experienced more social mobility than continental Europe, young people are entering the labor market with considerably less mobility than their parents or grandparents. The link between social class origin and education attainment remains close.
There is greater differentiation between elite and common colleges and universities. That differentiation seems to be, at least in part, a response to the success of a larger percentage of the population getting a college degree. Also, a large number of college graduates are working at jobs that don't typically require a college degree, On average in 2015, nearly 45% of the recent US college graduates had such jobs. It has been rising since the end of the tech bubble when it had been a little below 38%.
New research by a couple of economists at the University of Massachusetts in Boston conclude that: "It is increasingly the case that no matter what your educational background is, where you start has become increasingly important for where you end." Like other social developments, the lower mobility has numerous causes. The economists cite the work others who found that the number of low pay jobs and extremely high pay jobs have increased, but middle-income jobs have fallen.
Income equality may also play a role. The earnings of the highest 10% are much higher compared to the overall population. It is not attainable but for only a few. "In the presence of increasing equality," the UMass economists argued, "falling mobility implies that as the rungs on the ladder have moved further apart, moving between them has become more difficult."
There are some studies that show that technology-related job disruption that resulted in manufacturing job losses and contributed to the wage stagnation for the better part of two decades has begun impacting a wide swathe of white collar professionals, including accountants, lawyers, and doctors. Lawyers and doctors increasingly become employees rather than small business owners. A majority of lawyers work for private and corporate legal offices and government. This appears to be the first year that a majority of doctors in the US work for large hospital conglomerates than private practice.
Social mobility in Continental Europe typically lags behind the Anglo-American economies. We have been skeptical of claims that populist-nationalism is sweeping across the world. We have linked the success of the populist-nationalist agenda to the two-party system in the US and UK. The populist parties did not win there, but part of their agenda was adopted by the center-right party in both countries. It may have also been partly a function of the loss of upward social mobility. Expectations not being met may be fueling the political response.
Education previously was an important route to social mobility. That this is becoming less so has far-reaching implications for Fukuyama's analysis, social trust, and economic performance. Many social commentators see identity as an alternative to class politics. However, the disparity of wealth and income and upward mobility rigidities may allow identity to complement rather than compete with socio-economic class.
Rana Foroohar from the Financial Times is critical of the US Democrats for embracing identity politics over what she saw as Sander's message. Yet, the most successful Democrats on a national and local government level appealed to the interests of numerous identity political groups - a true rainbow coalition.
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.