All Politics Is Identity Politics

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.

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14 thoughts on “All Politics Is Identity Politics”

  1. Sure, most politics is identity politics. So long as there are just two parties with any chance of winning elections, voters will divide themselves up between those two parties and they will come to identify with one of those parties. Nearly every voter will find things to object to within their chosen party but that is no matter – the other party is worse.

    The French are a little different – they have more than two parties and voters have more than two realistic choices. The recent election in France gives us some indication of perhaps why they can have this breadth of choices for voters. It turns out they vote differently.

    In France, they have a runoff election to cut down the number of candidates to just two. Why two? Because they still use plurality voting and it is well understood that plurality voting is quite un-democratic when used in elections with more than two candidates. In a three-way election, the so-called “spoiler effect” will quite often lead to the election of the most unpopular of the three candidates. While, with the French system, the election may not be truly democratic, at least the most unpopular candidate will never be elected (if the vote count itself is not corrupt).

    There are better ways to vote. Some will even encourage the development of a multi-party system.

  2. Good post! You’ve outlined the division between ideologies well.

    There’s one thing that has puzzled me for quite some time. Why are “liberals” so bad because they care about those less fortunate? Why are they castigated because they want to ensure everyone has a fair shake at life? Why are they criticized because they refuse to see the difference in skin color/nationality/religion?

    I simply fail to understand how people can be so prejudiced (and oft-times just plain nasty) against those who are different from themselves. WE ARE ALL HUMAN BEINGS! We are born, we live, and then we die. Not one human being has been able to divest him/herself from this pattern of existence. So why not accept this and allow each person (within reason) to be the individual they choose to be without condemnation?

    1. But liberals are not castigated for refusing to see the difference in skin color/nationality/religion. If anything, they are castigated for doing just the opposite – for making up a hierarchy of oppression (e.g., whites oppressing non-whites, men oppressing women, Christians oppressing Muslims, and so on), and demanding separate treatment based on a specific identity group.

  3. Such a good post. I’ve been struggling to find an argument for identity politics.

    I used to discuss it with a guy I used to date, and now I have an argument that will appeal to him more than the concept of equality. For obvious reasons, we’re not dating anymore.

  4. His election had less to do with economics (after there has been strong economic growth and decline in unemployment over the past six years)

    No, there hasn’t been. There has been weak, but real economic growth and decline in unemployment over the past six years. Nothing at all like 1994-2000 or 1982-1988.

    Some goes as far to blaming recent electoral defeats for the Democrats on an obsession with identity politics.

    What caused the Dems to lose was not ID politics in and of itself, but focusing on the ID politics of non-swing voters rather than the deciding voters in the election. Had they made their convention lily-white and cut down on the #WhiteGenocide rhetoric, perhaps they wouldn’t have lost.

    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.

    Agreed. Though Trump did talk about his policies -he just rarely, if ever, talked about policy detail.

    1. Wrong, the dems lost cause of the Russians, had nothing to do with “identity politics” or any of that BS.

      There was no talk of “white genocide”, you are a moron if you believe that.

  5. I was considering writing on this topic with the exact same title. This term of ‘identity politics’ has been usurped by the right and morphed into this derogatory term for the left. You are spot on in your assessment that allegiance to a political party or ideology is inherently identity politics. People identify with the leaders, values, goals or ideologies of politics. We vote for those we identify with.
    In the American context, it is clear the right are using the term to attack any group or party who agree with Black Lives Matter, or other groups that acknowledge the difficulty of the lives of people of colour in majority white societies. The American right politics like to pretend that since Obama got elected the US is a post-racial society. They have convinced themselves (through ignorance or mental gymnastics) that non-whites have equal opportunities to whites, they just need to work harder. It is a cruel amalgamation of racism and capitalism; two horrid identities personified in the United States “great leader”, Mr Trump.
    The right has gone one step further in attempting to argue as Kevin Meyers does, that ‘identity politics’ are inherently emotional. That is left wingers or progressive make their decisions based on emotion rather than logic. The converse assumption being that the right are the logical thinkers. In a recent interview, Meyers did on Newstalk he argued that it was only logical that Ireland should protect its unique culture from the influx of EU nationals. The irony of Meyers appeals to Irish identity while lambasting identity politics was all too laughable. Just to be clear all politics are identity politics and all identities have emotional attachments. The right and the left are guilty it’s just that the right have, as usual, found a way to disguise their emotionality as logic and frame the left as irrational.

  6. Fantastic article. Many political issues feels like human issues that shouldn’t be “degraded” to being politics because they affect human lives in real and significant ways, such as healthcare. This is something I would consider to be identity politics. So that got me thinking that if all politics is identity politics, then are all political issues human issues as well? Does that mean there’s no way for any issues to not become political? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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