Britain leaving the European Union is predominantly due to Identity Politics rather than classical divisions between social classes and their economic interests. This article explores the psychology behind identity politics and why it is becoming more significant in modern politics.
– What is Identity Politics?
– The impact of Identity Politics on the UK’s Brexit Referendum
– Cultural Essentialism– the origin of Identity Politics
– Our intrinsic need to categorise
– The superiority complex
– Modernisation breeds nostalgia
– What is to be done
What is identity politics?
Definition of 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.
’ is a phrase that can be heard a lot these days, although it has been around for a while. It’s a phrase that captures the idea that people are forming political preferences on the basis of who they are (or who they feel they are) and the groups they belong to — LSE blog.
Identity politics contrasts the ‘classical’ focus on divisions between social classes, their economic interests, and the left-right ideological dimension which pitted free market policies (of the sort particularly associated with Margaret Thatcher) against the kind of socialist policies followed by the Atlee government.
In this classic divide, political choices follow one’s own economic position, with the well-off voting for lower taxes and lower redistribution (the Conservatives) and trade unionists and the worse-off voting for the opposite (Labour).
But, while economics has been highly relevant to the debates over Brexit, issues over identity, particularly national and European identities, are also an important part of the mix — LSE blog.
“When you strip away the rhetoric, Brexit is an English Nationalist movement”. Englishness has also been called “the invisible driver” behind Brexit. These assertions have been borne out by a number of post-referendum studies that have demonstrated higher support for Brexit among those identifying as English rather than British. Importantly, in light of the ‘classic’ political divides, these findings about Englishness hold true after accounting for relevant economic factors; that is, identity matters over and above any economic concerns the individual might hold. — the Guardian, June 2016, Fintan O’Toole
And it is an English phenomenon: the distinction doesn’t hold in Scotland or Northern Ireland or Wales. But just what is it about Englishness that connects one’s feeling of belonging to the nation to preferences for Brexit? Do the English identifiers place greater emphasis on nationalism, on protecting national boundaries? And is Englishness an ‘ethnic’ identity where Britishness is more ‘civic’? – LSE BLOG
National identity represents a social identity. According to social identity theory: a social identity represents a self-concept based on perceived membership of a social group and is associated with in-group favouritism and discrimination against members of outgroups. Conceptually similar is the idea that national identity/membership of a nation represents membership of an imagined community – imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. A nation always implies a boundary between those who are conceived to belong to it and those who are excluded from membership. Key ideas in both set of theories are that boundaries between members and non-members exist, and that feelings differ towards those on different sides of the boundary. — LSE Blog.
‘Support for Brexit was higher among those who identify as English rather than British, even after accounting for relevant economic factors. But what is it that connects English identity to a preference for Brexit?‘ — Anthony Heathand Lindsay Richards
Cultural Essentialism– The Origin Of Identity Politics
Why do these exclusive political alliances form?
The answer lies within the notion of cultural essentialism.
“Essentialism is the view that every entity has a set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function. In early Western philosophy Plato’s idealism held that all things have such an “essence”—an “idea” or “form””
- the view that all children should be taught on traditional lines the ideas and methods regarded as essential to the prevalent culture
- the view that categories of people, such as women and men, or heterosexuals and homosexuals, or members of ethnic groups, have intrinsically different and characteristic natures or dispositions.
- The view that men are intrinsically more aggressive than women
Definition of Cultural Essentialism: the practice of categorizing groups of people within a culture, or from other cultures, according to essential qualities.
Essentialism is the idea that people and things have ‘natural’ characteristics that are inherent and unchanging. Essentialism allows people to categorize, or put individual items or even people into groups, which is an important function of our brains. While essentialism is a simple way for individual people to categorize, it can be a serious problem for societies.
“Take the commonly-held belief that men are better at maths and science than are women. There is no biological basis for this belief, but because it’s widely believed, teaching practices often favor men in maths and science instruction by devoting more attention and resources to them. This results in more men trained in maths and science. As a result, an interesting thing has happened – because people acted as if men were inherently better at maths and science, they made it appear to be true. While essentialism allows individuals to simplify their individual worlds, it can contribute to unfair social practices like these. These practices can actually create the appearance of essential qualities. Thus, cultural essentialism can be detrimental within societies due to the damaging stereotypes enforced by uninformed/uneducated people.”
Our intrinsic need to categorise
In modern society, our existence has become vast and complex due to an abundance of information brewing at our finger tips. The technicalities and individualities of a human’s ability to dissect information is rather subjective to the individual, however it is argued that one way of conceptualising the extraction of external stimuli is to think of humans as information processors who can only process a limited amount of information at a time without becoming overloaded. “At the very heart of cognitive psychology is the idea of information processing. Cognitive psychology sees the individual as a processor of information, in much the same way that a computer takes in information and follows a program to produce an output.” simplypsychology.org
‘The tendency to classify and categorize objects is a deeply ingrained aspect of human nature. In many cases, this is a good thing. Without this ability, we’d quickly get overwhelmed in every new encounter. Nevertheless, this fundamental skill can also be extremely damaging, especially when it comes to categorizing people.’ – The Pesky Persistence of Labels by Scott Barry Kaufman
In order for the human mind to comprehend, and digest such an expanse of information is by implementing this method of categorisation. In practice, however, it is widely agreeable that the intricacies and the unique ‘essence’ that each human individual possesses does not fit into one classification, rather it is more of a spectrum alliance. Whilst essentialism is a simple way for individual people to categorize, it can become a serious problem within societies; leading to discrimination, marginalisation and oppression.
The superiority complex
The universal human psychology of Thymos, defines the notion that humans innately desire recognition. Any threat to this notion causes retaliation and conflict. If we as a race gravitate towards global homogeneity, how can we and our communities stand out from our peers? ‘Many people are not satisfied with simple equal recognition as generic human beings’ — Identity by Francis Fukuyama. Humans fear dilution of their identities and the social groups they linger within because we innately crave superiority and power. Superiority and the power to influence enables notions to disperse and such notions are considered, by the individual, to be predominant when compared to the ideas of another. The superiority complex could be titled the distinguishing context because, God forbid we’re just another puzzle piece in a grand picture.
When considering the vote for Britain to leave the European Union, the superiority complex is a daunting shadow in the foreground. There’s a belief clouding the minds of UK citizens that foreigners hold vastly different ideas, ‘inferior’ ideas, to those that possess domestic minds. Thus, to those with such a belief it is not rational to open arms to inferior thoughts that will only backpedal their claim to superiority that is dissolved within their perceived national/identity membership.
Modernisation breeds nostalgia
Confusion over identity arises as a condition of living in the modern world. Modernisation means constant change and disruption, and the opening of choices that did not exist before. It is mobile, fluid and complex.
Modernisation breeds nostalgia, as rates of change are so rapid, ‘people find themselves nostalgic for the community and structured life they think they have lost, or that the ancestors supposedly once possessed.’ – Francis Fukuyama. Thus, this nostalgia can be exploited by leaders who tell them that they have been betrayed and disrespected by the existing power structures, and that they are members of important communities whose greatness will once again be recognised.
‘But if the logic of identity politics is to divide societies into ever smaller, self-regarding groups, it is also possible to create identities that are broader and more integrative. So while we will never get away from identity politics in the modern world, we can steer it back to broader forms of mutual respect for dignity that will make the modern world more functional.’ — Identity by Francis Fukuyama.
Nostalgia, with the heat of time, can be ironed out. As people grow more accustomed to diversity of culture their eyes will adjust and begin to see the benefits of a more integrated and open community. As Emmanuel Macron (French prime minister) mentioned in his speech, ‘..you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: its moral values.” nationalism must be eradicated and moral values absorbed as a function of patriotism.
What is to be done
Britain leaving the EU is undoubtedly a step back from multiculturalism, and a step towards nationalism. So how do we translate these abstract ideas of accepting diversity of culture as an ethical value of a country? By integrating new, concrete policies.
‘Public policies that focus on the successful assimilation of foreigners might help take the wind out of the sails of the current populist upsurge both in Europe and in the United States. ‘ — Identity by Francis Fukuyama
– A progressive narrative told by the leaders with influential voices, systems that assimilate immigrants to a country’s creedal identity (to emphasise fully the benefits of healthy diversity brought by immigrants into a country).
– Standardised curriculum where international students can absorb and merge into the domestic culture– avoiding isolation and segregation of minority groups.
– Standards that immigrants must meet before entering another country e.g. speaking the native tongue and having knowledge of the countries moral values.
– Teaching children via education to have sympathy and thus acceptance, of foreign born migrants.