A response to identity politics needs to unite not divide

A characteristic of today’s western political divides has been the rise of identity politics, who you are politically and who and what you identify with*. In particular this has seen the growth of political tribalism that is different from traditional party politics and even cuts across it. Such people are often angry and hostile towards traditional cosmopolitan liberalism and seek to take back control, as with “America First”, exit from the EU or Islamaphobia. Many observers have been baffled by these movements, seeing them as irrational, foolish and impractical, and have been bereft of effective responses other than trying to deny them their victory. Instead the response has been to abuse and denounce them, which has simply fuelled the anger and caused them to double-down behind their cause.

In the case of Trump and Brexiters, this would relate to white, traditional working or middle class people. In Brexit Britain, huge swathes of former industrial Northern England and South Wales voted Leave. Rust-belt America was strongly Trump. These social groups were strongly anti-immigrant. For such people, social and economic decline, the impact of the Great Recession of 2008, and the lack of effective governmental responses led to a sense of being “left behind”. Their status was threatened by change, and such has been the effect of a growing tribalism in these groups that triggers such as a potential defeat to their cause, or abuse from “the other side”, like Democrats or Remainers, can engender fierce resistance and intolerance. Thus the potential for more radical right wing troops exists.

Thus a major weakness of much of Remain has been to only campaign to stay in the EU, and not to develop a positive response to the underlying social and economic discontents that fuelled the rise of identity politics and the Leave campaign. Moreover many Remainers seem set in a stance of negative abuse of their opponents, which only stiffens the resolve of Leave. Many observers comment on how little the overall polls on Leave or Remain have changed since the 2016 vote, and the country continues to be very divided.

Equally in the US, as this article shows, to call Trump supporters racists or bigots is counter-productive. The effect is that people won’t listen. Instead it reinforces the tribal identity, diverts attention from the allegations of corruption and foreign manipulation of the 2016 general election and corrodes trust in civic institutions and respect for fellow citizens.

What this also says is that progressives need to develop a more unifying message that offers a positive alternative and, while standing up to their opponents, tones down the increasing negative and mutually hostile political climate. In Britain for example, much has been said by both moderate Tories, Theresa May herself, and Labour, but almost nothing done to develop policies to regenerate the “left behind” regions of the UK, and in ways that hear the underlying sense of abandonment and being ignored. Instead, as with the US, there is a highly partisan climate in which a middle way isn’t being heard.

*Identity politics: a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.

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