The vicious circle
of identity politics

Marta Bernardi
Current events

The world is falling apart.

Every man for himself.

The world is falling apart. Every man for himself.

As one looks around, listens to or reads the news of what is happening today, the thought does come to mind a little. It is as if the world were just another, immense, Titanic minutes after ramming against not one but countless icebergs, and one could hear the cry “ABANDON SHIP!” echoing. There is no easy way to argue against this perception. Not when armed conflicts are increasingly widespread, and leave people killed, mutilated, and traumatised in their wake; and all this added to the environmental and economic damage that every war causes. This occurs while our planet is literally boiling over – on a not so low flame – and nothing really is being done to prevent it. And when governments and elites at the head of many of the world’s states seem to be taking lessons from the best dystopian fiction novels, while claiming to be bastions of democracy and virtue. And by the by activists and journalists continue to be persecuted and killed. It is even more difficult to argue against it all when the gap between those who ever have more and more and those who ever have less worsens with each passing day. 

One could go on stating world issues for pages on end. It might be quite easier to do so. After all, the media thrive on negative news: those that frighten, outrage, and shock. They are the ones who sell calamities by gluing the reader to a screen or a page. Furthermore, it has been proven how people with a tendency to see the glass half-empty end up looking for news that confirms their pessimistic view on things. Today’s reality, perennially connected to virtually every part of the globe, certainly offers plenty to draw from.

Perhaps it is worth reflecting on what effect this bombardment of negative news has on those groups of the population that already feel deprived of their rights and see little hope for their future. On what consequences such a stark vision may have on those who already suffer greatly from contemporary socio-economic inequalities and who are very likely to suffer from the phenomenon of downward mobility – that phenomenon whereby new generations do not experience a better standard of living than their parents but rather experience one way worse. Therefore, the individual in question experiences a deficit, not only regarding their material needs and resources but also at another crucial level: their own dignity. Indeed, when one sees one’s hard work rewarded not with an improvement in one’s standard of living but with a stagnation or simply worsening, the individual tends to feel offended deep inside.

These life experiences inevitably influence the individual’s political approach. Indeed, to this day it is precisely each individual’s life experiences that dictate adherence to one movement rather than another. Each person’s identity is affected at the expense of programmes and ideologies. This is why we speak of identity politics. This transition involves both the right and the left wing, although it is interpreted and channelled differently. The left has embraced identity politics when it abandoned its ambitions for large-scale socio-economic reforms, assimilating the concept of multiculturalism and becoming the defender of marginalised groups, recognising how each person’s different life experiences must be considered appropriately. As pointed out by Fukuyama, for that matter,

  the lived experiences of distinct identity groups differ, and they often need to be addressed in ways specific to those groups. Outsiders often fail to perceive the harm they are doing by their actions, as many men realized in the wake of the #MeToo movement’s revelations regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault. 

Fukuyama, F. (2018).

Although identity politics as stated above is not in itself bad – it is indeed a natural and inevitable reaction to injustice – it nevertheless diverts the attention of politics from generating macro-solutions to the world’s ever-increasing economic disparity and social inequality. This is especially true when the solutions presented continue to be mostly exploited by the better-off groups of the population, leaving the poorer ones to their own demise. 

The Left’s openness to multiculturalism has contributed to generating a conservative-identitarian reaction in the Right, which leverages on the perceived neglect and invisibility of individuals belonging to the more rural and ethno-cultural majorities in the various states – those ethnic, religious, or sexual orientation majorities. The increased attention paid to previously marginalised groups outrages and angers many of these people, because it fuels the pre-existing belief that they have been sidelined – a reaction, if not legitimate, at least understandable by those who have always recognised themselves as part of the majority, i.e. those who have always had, according to democratic law, the right to decide for everybody else. These people are therefore more susceptible to speeches that portray them as increasingly different, as less and less respected, in an us versus them perspective. Nationalistic discourses that are increasingly heated and possibly verbally violent, which end up supporting politicians who are more inclined to exacerbate the problems mentioned above than solve them, thereby effectively closing the circle. People who prefer fossil fuels to renewable energies, who claim that global warming does not exist, who invest in the purchase and sale of weapons regardless of what they will cause.

For Fukuyama, resorting to identity politics is inevitable in our world today. Furthermore, the American political scientist suggest that the only way to escape this vicious circle should be to make identities broader, linked to national ideals and values as opposed to everyone’s ethnic, religious and sexual orientation affiliation, which only results in creating walls. According to the scholar, this would also be the only way to ensure the assimilation of immigrants into the social fabric of each nation, which as a result would actually help generate greater wealth. What is certain is that something must be done, because it is necessary to overcome this fragmentation that only generates problems. Because even if Rose managed to save herself and return to New York by grabbing onto that piece of wood, we do not have the option of abandoning ship.

[1] Fukuyama, F. (2018). Against identity politics: the new tribalism and the crisis of democracy. Foreign Affairs97, 90.

[2]  van der Meer, T. G., &Hameleers, M. (2022). I Knew It, the World is Falling Apart! Combating a Confirmatory Negativity Bias in Audiences’ News Selection Through News Media Literacy Interventions. Digital Journalism10(3), 473-492.

[3]  Snyder, J. (2019). The broken bargain: How nationalism came back. Foreign Affairs98, 54.

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