There is a large discourse ongoing regarding the importance of identity politics, particularly in America. Most articles on the topic criticise it, in fact the term is rarely used in a positive manner. Many argue that identity politics has a toxic influence on politics and is a distraction to the real issues. Some goes as far to blaming recent electoral defeats for the Democrats on an obsession with identity politics.
But all politics is identity politics. It is not just the Left that appeals to people based on their background and identity, all ideologies do so. All politicians campaign by highlighting their similarities with the voters, their common identity and by claiming to best represent the people. The Right is just as reliant on identity politics.
Think about a typical political campaign, regardless of political party. How does a candidate present themselves? They usually begin by emphasising their connection to the constituency and how long they’ve lived there. It’s certainly a benefit if they were born there and voters react negatively to “outsiders”. Then they’ll show their bond with the community, their participation in local events, traditions etc. Always the emphasis is on how similar they are to the constituents, how much they have in common with the voters. ‘Vote for me because I’m just like you, I can best represent you because I have gone through the same experiences you have’. They’ll show their bond with local industries and interest groups, their shared religion and patriotism (especially in America).
All of this identity politics. All politicians aim to get voters to identify with them, the only difference is method. It’s only a question of whether they highlight their common race, religion, class, geography, occupation etc. The goal of every campaign is to make voters identify with the candidate and believe that they are part of the same group.
It’s ironic that people are currently criticising the Democrats for identity politics, when we have just witnessed a surge in identity politics on the Right. Donald Trump’s whole campaign was based on identity politics. He sought to portray himself as the champion of the white working class and fight against the big city liberal elite. While his working class support has been over-stated, it is true that his support came overwhelmingly from white voters. His election had less to do with economics (after there has been strong economic growth and decline in unemployment over the past six years) and more to do with cultural issues.
Some white people in America (especially those that watch Fox News) feel that they are under attack from political correctness. Some feel that they have become demonised and forced to feel guilty about their identity. Trump voters rarely mentioned his policies (because he had hardly any) but rather focused on how he would defend their identity as conservative/rural/ Real Americans. Trump claimed to represent the voice of a forgotten people and to stand up for the ignored.
Nor is Trump the exception, Republicans have been using identity politics for years. If you don’t believe me, switch on Fox News, listen to any conservative talk show host or read a columnist. The overarching theme that is constantly hammered away is that there is a fight between them and us. They are foreign, cowardly, liberal elites in big cities and universities who are undermining the country because they don’t really love America. They hate the pillars of America, like guns, God, the constitution, law and order, and the flag. They’re out of touch and don’t care about “ordinary Americans” instead they want to attack your home, steal your money, morals and guns. They want to murder babies, police officers and our brave heroic soldiers. Every year hysteria is whipped up with “The War on Christmas” a supposed attack on Christian identity.
In contrast, the Republicans reveal the identity of their voters, the true Americans. They are hardworking people from the pure and uncorrupted countryside, who believe in God, respect traditions and clean living. There are two completely different cultures within America that separate the two parties. Not only do Democrats and Republicans live in different areas, but they live different lives. They can be separated not only on ideology, but also race, religion, education, occupation, accent, music, clothing, hobbies etc. Not only do they have different cultures and identities but also different views of the world and of history.
It isn’t just the Republicans who rely on identity politics, right wing parties across Europe do the same. The Alt-Right is primarily concerned with identity politics, mainly in the form of white natives versus dark skinned immigrants. The Front National ran under the slogan “France for the French”. The mainstream right also appeals to identity, usually presenting themselves as representatives of traditional rural, middle class values in contrast to the decadence and disrespect of the cities. Although rarely described this way, Nationalism is identity politics.
Some might say that the Right is merely adapting the identity politics tactic in response to the Left, but these divides are as old as democracy. The Left has almost always supported immigrants and ethnic minorities and the Right has always represented the powerful. The Left has always been the party of the middle class and the Right the party of the middle class. The divide between religious and secular or urban and rural has always been a feature of politics in most countries. White fears of losing power are not a new occurrence, they have been present in America since its creation. Racism and racial divides have a history that began long before Huffington Post articles about white privilege.
Although identity politics is usually dismissed as a foreign American import in Ireland, Irish politics is also guided by identity. One TD claimed to represent the “plain people of Ireland who eat their dinner in the middle of the day.” Any time a rural politician faces a scandal, their first reaction is to blame the Dublin media. Voters are willing to turn a blind eye to corrupt and patronage so long as the politician is local (and therefore one of us). Even the political parties traditionally represented identity politics, Fine Gael represented the large farmers, Fianna Fáil the small farmers and the Labour Party the farm workers. Nowadays the divide isn’t so clear, but generally Fine Gael represents the middle class, Fianna Fáil the rural and elderly, Sinn Féin the working class and young. In Northern Ireland, politics is all about identity and your religion is the largest determinant of who you’ll vote for.
Telling the Democrats that they should ditch identity politics and focus on class issues doesn’t make sense because it’s just switching from race identity politics to class identity politics. Bernie Sanders didn’t overcome identity politics, he just practiced a different type of it. Mobilising the working class to challenge the establishment is also identity politics, except the group is based on class instead of race.
So the next time you hear someone saying that identity politics is destroying the Left and ruining society, just remember that all politics is identity politics. All politicians appeal to voters based on their group identity, it’s only a question of whether the group is based on race, class, religion or geography.