What went down in England yesterday was a surprise to a whole lot of pundits and political analysts. Many of them missed the mark, believing the Leave side of the Brexit vote would fail. Obviously, it didn’t.
Why the surprise? I think they underestimated the power of identity politics.
All politics is identity politics. Identity is the beating heart of every social movement and the ticking time bomb of governance in the modern nation-state system, a system that too often attempts to marginalize ethnicity and other identity markers in support of singularizing national narratives. To understand what I mean by that, think about how, for a big chunk of U.S. history, “white” and “American” basically meant the same thing and, in fact, was the same thing under law.
In the English context, how else did a “post-factual” campaign of lies, bigotry, and outright vulgarity win if not for identity politics? How, more to the point, did the majority of British voters come to the conclusion that they could fix a difficult economy and address perceived international threats by making themselves poorer and more political vulnerable to outside threats if not because they were guided by perceived identity interests rather than political and economic ones?
Now, I don’t mean to minimize the role of economics. That would be, in the words of the ascendant American populists of our time, a h-u-u-u-ge mistake.
In support of the notion that economic policy was the culprit, Dawn Foster, writing for The Nation, points to austerity measures as having set the stage for the Brexit. She makes a good point. There’s nothing like a difficult economy and personal financial insecurity, not to mention anxiety producing debt, to inspire nostalgia and marry it to xenophobia and fear of change. We see something like this happening in the U.S. where the collapsing of the white middle class seems to be fueling white nationalism and the ascent of a vulgar, bigoted reality TV star and serial liar to the GOP nomination for the presidency.
Thomas Barker also points to the economy as a driver of reactionary nationalism in Britain in an excellent Counterpunch article in which he offers this:
…the implication that the Remain camp [was] somehow more “credible” than the Leave groups misrepresents the central role played by capitalist politicians, and their ideologues [who were the most visible of the “Remain” surrogates], in making fascism possible…
This brings us to another factor driving the grassroots Leave vote: the way that the EU has treated its less wealthy member states, particularly in southern Europe. Although not on the scale of Greece, the consequences of austerity – food banks, declining services, and lowering wages – are faced by the people of Britain on a daily basis. But to see it imposed so brutally across the trading bloc has undoubtedly contributed to feelings of fear, lest we suffer the same, and of solidarity.
In this instance, the European Union appears to have become conflated with the cruelty of neoliberalism in the hearts and minds of a large and fast growing portion of the European public, especially those parts of that public, as in the U.S., who are not already in poverty, but live in fear of falling into poverty. Neoliberalism is not an aberration from liberalism but an exaggeration, making it difficult for people to see and name, but easy enough to feel and hate. That feeling, that anger, seems to be a central feature of the Leave sentiment in Britain, just as it is of Trumpism in the U.S.
But while reactionary movements may be built on economic (which basically also means political) conditions, their real power is cultural. Their appeal is derived from sensual concerns rather than material interests since, after all, reactionaries have little to offer the masses in the way of solutions to materially meaningful problems. And reactionary movements’ appeal to identity interests is so powerful because identity resonates at a deep cultural level.
Culture reaches across class. The European Union is threatened not just because of austerity, but because of the homogenizing force the E.U. exerts over groups whose meaning in life (as is true for us all) is shaped by far more than politics and economics. This move in Britain may have been a reaction to political elitism and economic austerity, but the emotional core of the Brexit vote was all about identity. Facts lose their power when identity is at play.
If you don’t believe that, consider for a moment the way in which the right wing in the U.S., a movement of movements that no doubt opened the door to Trumpism, rebuilt and revitalized the American right. They began by gauging the cultural moment. One of the things that became apparent to them as they did so was that the born again Christian movement, a deeply conservative force driven in part by anxiety over rapid cultural change, was the fastest growing social movement in the U.S. and the world. It didn’t have a directly political meaning for most evangelicals, but could be politicized and weaponized to win a secular agenda.
And, the right also saw that racism and white identity politics could be manipulated to get whites to vote against their long-term interests. This became apparent in the reaction to the gains of the Civil Rights Movement as demonstrated specifically by the remarkable success of Barry Goldwater’s openly xenophobic and bigoted campaign for the presidency in turning white Southern Democrats into Republicans.
The GOP Southern Strategy that grew out of the Goldwater campaign gave a cultural meaning to party affiliation so that Republican and Democrat became mutually opposed identities, shaped primarily by race, but in ways inseparable from gender and religion. The legacy of this appears to be showing up in the polling numbers regarding Trump. His disapproval rating is through the roof, but he’s only 4 points behind Clinton when it comes to who folks will vote for come November.
Meanwhile, the evangelical wing of the American political right gave a political meaning to a cultural movement. They did it by going after abortion, LGBTQ rights, feminism, perceived political correctness police on college campuses, and what they referred to as “special rights” (read civil rights) interest groups in Washington. They created demons that helped to delineate the borders of a religious and (white) ethnic nation, choosing issues that would split the Democratic coalition built by Kennedy, knowing that it was divided on issues of sexual freedom, reproductive choice, and the programmatic implications (affirmative action, busing, etc.) if not the idea of Black civil rights.
On both fronts, the right wing waged a culture war. They understood that cultural change prefigures political change. Moreover, they understood that identity and culture are inseparable. For this reason, identity interests could be made to trump class interests. Identity has the power to cause us to stop thinking.
Identity politics must be acknowledged not just as a political problem but as a cultural reality that we can’t wish away. Lest my critique of all politics as identity politics fuel attacks on what some call identitarians, a term often used to describe minority identity movements as uncritical and even neoliberal (neither of which I think are necessary incorrect generalizations except for the fact that they are, in fact, generalizations) let’s not stop thinking at our class interests.
Minority identity groups didn’t invent identity, we made it more obviously political by deciding we would no longer stand for being beat up by more dominant, normative identity groups. We didn’t start the fight, we joined because our very lives depended on it. Full stop. And if leftists would like us to believe that we should have leaned on our class interests, they shouldn’t have shunned us as a matter of policy.
Both the Brexit Vote and Trumpism demonstrate that there is a deep cultural fault line that runs through the the western world that is defined by identity and primarily by race and ethnicity. In the U.S., that cultural fault line has defined the major battles we have waged inside our borders since the founding of the nation. The Civil War was fought over it as was the Civil Rights Movement. The queer movement and the women’s movement were eventually defined indirectly or directly in terms of race, and the many battles over immigration rights have turned what we once considered white ethnic groups under the law – Latinos and Mexicans – into despised racial minority groups. Now the war on terror is racializing a religion, a fact that is demonstrated by the impact of attacks against Islam on those perceived to be Muslims, a group that includes all Arabs and South Asians but not white people, though some whites happen to be Muslims.
In the modern world system, there is a constant tension between civic nationalism, defined by the interests of capital, and ethnic nationalism, defined culturally and historically in terms of identity. The nostalgia that animates white nationalism in the U.S. has very deep roots. “White” has cultural meanings founded upon a cobbled together history that has served white Americans like Olympus served the Greeks, and Camelot has served the English.
Trump is tapping into the U.S. version of the kind of ethnic nationalism that is growing so rapidly in Europe. The U.S. white nation is not a ridiculous proposal but a real, historically based thing, defined in the original construction and intent of our Constitution, and still relevant to the arrangement of our states and elections, and of we the people. It is perhaps as potent a divider as Croat, Bosnian, and Serb.
We know how that worked out. It made the Brexit campaign look like a day at the beach. All politics is identity politics. It’s time we wrapped our heads around that fact and started figuring out what to do about it.