The Character and Origins of the Politics of Identity

Introduction

The idea that a new kind of politics, one founded upon the peculiarities of social identity, has emerged in democratic life is an increasingly familiar one.  It is associated with a host of movements, group, and cultural communities that are committed to the practice of identity-based politics.  Though these groupings occupy an ambivalent, and sometimes uncomfortable, role within democratic politics and society, to the surprise of many commentators, their influence, appeal and impact appear to be growing.  For proponents of some of the leading traditions of modern politics, such developments elicit puzzlement and downright hostility.

Some commentators see the politics of identity as indicative of a qualitative alteration to the character and culture of democratic states. (Wolfe and Klausen, 2000; Elshtain, 1995).  According to them, the principal motivational axes and dynamics of modern political life have undergone a fundamental transformation in the last thirty years.  Identity politics reflects a shift away from political alignments driven by individual interest or ideological debate towards a culture in which citizen cluster under the banner of an encompassing group, with its own collective personality and distinctive culture.  Such an understanding underpins various pessimistic accounts of contemporary political life in which a purported “golden age” in the life of the democratic state is contrasted against the new barbarism signalled by the rise of identity (Schlesinger, 1998).  But engagement with the politics of identity, I will suggest, need not lead to the contention that liberal democracy is in terminal decline.

A quite different, long-established understanding of the salience of group identities in social and political life invokes the tradition of American exceptionalism (Lipset, 1996).  Identity politics, on this view, is integral to the differentia specifica of American political culture, and reflects the relative weakness of the federal state, as well as the unusual significance of ethnic and religious groupings in its civil society.  While there is some merit to the claim that the US differs in many important ways from other Anglophone states in these respects, the basis for this exceptionalist account has been eroded substantially in the last three decades (for reasons that are discussed below).

The normative merit of politics founded upon “identity’ or “difference” has lately become a major topic of debate and the target of extended critique in Anglophone political theory.  Much of this, within the US especially, revolves around critical examinations of the challenges and threats that identity politics poses for “settled” accounts of liberal democracy.

As we shall see, this perspective has sustained various influential critical accounts of the moral dysfunction of this new kind of group pluralism.  Arrayed against this critical consensus is a rival position. This coheres around the desire to assert the merits and political significance of group pluralism, and highlights the importance of minority cultures in particular (Kymlicka, 1995; 1998; Carens, 2000; Young, 1990; Parekh, 2000; Williams, 1998), drawing upon various liberal and non-liberal sources.


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