Identity politics

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By Sara Loo

Populism is popular.

There is no doubt about this. Populist candidates and parties have similarly pervaded established and unstable democracies. From Viktor Orbán to Donald Trump; from Matteo Salvini to Jair Bolsonaro, we see a trend of voting into office leaders whose campaigns are framed in nationalist terms but who ironically undermine the very definition of a nation, be it an ethnically-based one or an invention based on new ideas. For if a nation requires some form of common will— a “daily plebiscite” in Renan’s words— then the very existence of sub-national identities that challenge these state-constructed nations foreclose the possibility of a nation-state.

The primordial understanding of the nation is best encapsulated by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who has championed a “Hungarian identity” based on ethnicity, effectively excluding non-Hungarian citizens who reside on Hungarian soil. Yet, even for Orbán, to say that the “national” Hungarian identity is the defining identity of any Hungarian, encapsulating the idea of being a cultural Christian, is to diminish other identities such as minority religions and genders, which have persisted despite crackdowns by Orban. On the other hand, the constructivist understanding is illustrated by what Francis Fukuyama calls “creedal national identity”. In his new book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Fukuyama suggests that rather than biology, some states base their identity on a creed— for France, this creed is liberty, equality and fraternity; for the US, the rule of law and equality. Yet again, it would be a grave mistake to believe that these common values have the capacity to permanently bind multicultural societies together and overcome sub-national allegiances.

As it turns out, populist candidates and parties (now presidents and members of parliament) who frame their causes as nationalist are merely imposing one vision of identity— not necessarily a national one in the sense of the nation-state, because many groups whom they purport to include are excluded from and opposed to this vision, but necessarily framed as beneficial for the nation-state. For example, Bolsonaro’s campaign attempted to portray Brazil as a nation and that people had to unite themselves to “make Brazil great again” despite the fact that Brazil has a diverse population of different beliefs and about 200 spoken languages. More notably, the very leaders who purport a “nationalist” message are also the most polarising forces. While defining an identity against the other has always been central to nationalism, if a nation in today’s context is closely associated with demarcations of a state’s boundaries, then divides should emerge on the inter-state level. Yet, the starkest divides are seen along identity lines on the intra-state level. This points to a pressing need to re-evaluate the relationship between nationalism and populism. This is especially pertinent given the loose employment of the term “nationalist”, appearing in almost every press article about Trump’s or Bolsonaro’s “make X great again” slogan. This has created a perception that national identities are central to politics today. At this point, it would be worth remembering Benedict Andersen’s third paradox of nationalism— its philosophical poverty despite its political power.

If nationalism is so philosophically poor, and if it is but one of many visions, it would be worth examining the broader phenomenon to which it belongs— identities. What exactly is identity politics?

Originating in the 1970s, Barbara Smith and her colleagues in the Combahee River Collective coined the term as an analysis for the interlocking oppressions of race, gender, class and sexuality. Its original conception half a century ago never meant to be divisive. In fact, as liberal democracy gained traction, the rhetoric of pro-civil rights was expressly framed in the language of national unity and equal opportunity. Dr Martin Luther King Jr proclaimed that “all men— yes, black man as well as white man— would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, pointing us to the idea of identity politics being “group-blind”. This was affirmed by John Rawls’ veil of ignorance which by no means played up the differences between race or class, by virtue of ignorance.

Yet the dream of liberal democracy in the form of complete equality of rights has been shattered by the transformation of identity politics. Too often quoted, Fukuyama’s “the end of history” and its associated triumph of liberal democracy have undoubtedly given way to groups staking claims for themselves in the political scene. Fukuyama himself recognises the challenge posed to liberal democracy in his aforementioned new book on identities. Nevertheless, attempts to defend his original thesis is still evident— in a recent interview with the Economist, Fukuyama was quick to suggest that “independence movements like those in Scotland, Quebec, and Catalonia may lead to the separation of a region and its emergence of a separate sovereign state, but the successor states will likely be liberal democracies protecting individual rights.” Of course, the different nature of identities is recognised and more often than not, sub-national identities do not seek to establish a state, but merely stake a claim in politics.

The transformation in identity politics over the past few decades is a radical one. Ethnic, religious and gender groups take pride in being a minority and believe they are entitled to rights not regardless of, but precisely because of their identities. Group-blindness which used to be lauded as progressive is now condemned as racism, for doing so puts a veil over the multifaceted history of oppression and struggle to gain equal footing minorities never managed to. Yet, this remains ironic not just because identity politics was meant to be group-blind, not group-focused, but also because this obsession with highlighting distinct identities has fragmented the left and developed a culture of blaming anyone from the “majority” and engendered hypersensitivity to individuals who belong to the same ethnicity, gender or religion as traditional oppressors. Worse still, the emergence of a multitude of minority identities within the Left competing for political attention has not just fragmented it, but pushed the right to define a counter-minority “nationalist” identity, which has seen more successes in recent years.  No longer is identity politics about universal and equal recognition, but a mutated or even perverse form of its original conception; one that celebrates the endless creation of new marginalised groups. What originated as LGB has evolved to something as complex as LGBTQQIAAP, not because these subgroups did not exist before, but because of the need to compete to the victorious bottom, for our culture of victimhood today celebrates weakness, not strength, and derives dignity from regained self-esteem.

Consequently, anyone who once belonged to the “oppressor” group by virtue of ethnicity, gender or religion is now a target of reverse discrimination by the minority. A hint at group-blindness risks being labelled racist while the simple act of wearing a national costume of a minority can generate rage for appropriating culture. The rise of the far right and leaders who frame concerns in “nationalist” agendas thus has to be understood in this context of regaining a lost majority identity; a sense of displacement, of being a “stranger in their own land”. For many traditionally left-voting average citizens, this sense of betrayal by the state contributes to resentment against minorities who seem to be receiving advantages precisely because they are minorities. All of a sudden, the majority loses its relative economic position and hence identity and status. In 2012 for instance, a study found that over 50% of white Americans believed that “Whites have replaced Blacks as the ‘primary victims of discrimination’.” In order to place the blame somewhere, immigrants often bear the brunt of being responsible for threatening cultural identity. This serves as refuge for the traditional majority who no longer feels secure about its position and believes its majority status is under threat. A recent article in the economist for instance empirically found a positive correlation between white consciousness and support for Trump, concluding that identity politics are stronger on the right than the left and that the Republican Party is increasingly unified around whiteness. The traditional lack of attention to this factor once again highlights a need to shift our focus from loosely defined nationalism to a broader conception of identity politics.

I would not commit the same mistake as press articles which have generalised populist right-wing politics as “nationalist” by reducing the rise of the populist right to fragmented identity politics of the left. Economic grievances, a genuine belief in ethnic-supremacy and personal negative experiences with migrants are all valid in adding fuel to the fire. Yet, if we were to remain within the frame of “nationalist” analysis, we will be only fooling ourselves into believing that the potent force of nationalism is itself a cause for the rise of the populist right. Given its philosophical poverty, we have to look beyond the concept and explore the larger phenomenon of identity politics, its transformation over the years and the relations between the left and the right. From its original conception of being group-blind to one that celebrates marginalised groups, the left (if we can still speak of it as one) has undeniably engendered the radicalisation of the other end of the political spectrum. In its own “race to the bottom”, the Left has failed to organise and contain identity politics. What traditionally started from the Left has seen a stronger surge in the Right; a dangerous force that is doomed to stay.



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