The end game of identity politics

Roger Partridge
Insights Newsletter
16 November, 2018

The American mid-term elections were brutal. Indeed, no liberal democracy may have ever witnessed an electoral campaign so characterised by lies, racism and hate.

Just how did America become so divided?

When it comes to the blame game, globalisation is a fashionable culprit. The deindustrialisation of middle America, as US jobs were exported to Asia, caused unemployment and poverty among America’s working classes. The resulting economic stagnation provided the perfect incubator for Trump’s jingoism and patriotic nationalism. Or so the theory goes.

But is there something else going on?

Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama thinks there is. His latest book, Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, points the finger directly at identity politics.

Fukuyama says throughout history humans have been driven as much by a struggle for economic wellbeing as by a struggle for “universal recognition”. By a desire to be respected and treated as inherently equal.

But Fukuyama says today’s identity politics is different. All around us, society is being divided into ever-smaller groups, each claiming they have been overlooked or victimised. And each claiming some sort of special preference or other. Whether religious, racial, ethnic, sexual, gender or otherwise, the politics of identity has been a game-changer in American political debate.

The problem with political patronage focusing on just a few identified groups is the risk of polarisation. No one likes being overlooked – or being invisible. And least of all those – like Trump’s working-class supporters – who once felt on top.

Fukuyama suggests it is the perceived feeling of invisibility that is stoking Trump’s success. America’s white working class are not just underemployed. They are also resentful that the political elites look past them to the ever-growing groups of minorities claiming and receiving special treatment (at least as they see it).

Fukuyama says it is little wonder identity politics has moved from the left of the political spectrum to the right. From the political patronage of minority groups to populist nationalism. Nor that white working-class voters, especially conservative rural working-class voters, form the backbone of populist patriotism.

As Trump and his supporters have shown, there is no rule saying the identity game is only for minorities.

Proponents of identity politics should take heed. Identity can bind us as well as blind us. And as we are seeing in 21st century America, identity politics is just one step from a tribalist abyss.

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