🎭 Making identity politics less personal

Liberal democracies protect our freedom to express our identities. But Alfred Moore argues that the rigidity and entrenchment of ‘identity wars’ reminds us of another vital aspect of democracy: the freedom from expressing our identity. Creating distance from the self can promote fluidity and dynamism, and help to overcome polarisation

Masking and the ‘powers of play’

When I first started working on the idea of anonymity in public deliberation, the shape of the problem seemed clear: it was a simple trade-off. Anonymity is valuable, I put it, ‘because it enables expression free from fear of repercussions'. But at the same time, ‘anonymity is destructive because it enables expression free from fear of repercussions. The same feature that enables a teenager from a repressive religious community to talk freely about his sexuality without fear of exposure also enables cruel and abusive responses that may inhibit such expressions.’

But as I took a closer look at practices of anonymity in democratic politics, the problem seemed more complex. What was missing from the debate, it seemed to me, was the practice of ‘pseudonymity’, or wearing a mask. In particular, there was little sense of how important impersonality can be to public deliberation. Wearing a mask may be vital to our ability to act in public.

I found inspiration for this view in the sociologist Richard Sennett’s wonderful book The Fall of Public Man. The modern self, as Sennett put it, is:

robbed of the expression of certain creative powers which all human beings possess potentially—the powers of play—but which require a milieu at a distance from the self for their realization

richard sennett, the fall of public man

Mask-wearing, for all its risks, can create distance from the self and engage those ‘powers of play’. It enables us to act in public without feeling that our private identities are on the line.

The idea that publicity requires distance from the private self points to something fundamental to democratic practice. And it helps us see a particular danger in a politics conducted through the expression of identity.

Digging in: sorting and polarisation

Hans Asenbaum’s term ‘identity wars’ is apt. It describes a pattern of politics in which the decisive fact is the social group with which you identify. As in a war, we are under pressure to pick a side. And as in a war, the main goal of this politics is to defeat the enemy.

Political scientists have suggested that identity is becoming more and more important in structuring political conflict. The chief piece of evidence is that in recent years a number of apparently unpolitical preferences and values, such as what qualities you think are most important in a child, have become strong predictors of your political positions. Tell us what car you drive, as Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler put it, and we’ll tell you how you vote.

‘Identity wars’ describes a pattern of politics in which we are pressured to pick a side. And as in a war, the main goal of this politics is to defeat the enemy

In American politics, at least, political positions are becoming increasingly aligned with other aspects of identity. As groups become ‘sorted’, lines of identity begin to overlap and reinforce one another. This, in turn, can promote ‘affective polarisation’ — an increase in reported degrees of ‘dislike’ of the other side.

The danger, as Lilliana Mason suggests, is that a politics rooted in dislike of the other can lead people to put more value on beating the opposition than on making productive changes to society. If the entire point and purpose of your politics is to ‘make liberals cry’ rather than bring about a coherent policy platform that will materially change your circumstances, democratic politics itself is under threat.

Can we stop digging?

Of course, identity politics does not have to look like this. It is important and natural that we have perspectives, interests, and values that condition our views of what is important. It is important, too, that these are grounded in part in our membership of various groups. As political theorist Simone Chambers puts it,

there is nothing irrational about taking one’s voting cues from one’s identity as a Muslim-American, Texan, member of the NRA, or party affiliation

simone chambers, Human Life Is Group Life, in critical Review

What is important is that our ways of acting publicly do not reinforce those lines of conflict. But this is easier said than done. One underlying requirement of solutions is to find ways to complicate and reshuffle the lines of conflict. If a major part of the problem is the alignment of different conflicts along the same lines, we should welcome any solution which leads to the emergence of new lines of conflict, conflict that doesn't fit existing patterns of politicisation.

Freedom from identity

Part of the solution is surely to be found in political institutions. Political elites are among the leading causes of the mobilisation of identity. In the US, the Republican Party has to win only 40% of the vote to secure the Senate. This gives the party an incentive to narrow its appeal to political extremes and make little attempt to speak to the voters in the centre. In gerrymandered House districts, to win the subsequent election, candidates have a strong incentive to appeal to the most radical activists, but almost no need to appeal more widely. One challenge, then, is to change the incentives of political elites.

But another way to resist the reinforcement of lines of identity may be to recognise the multiplicity of others. A recent study in political psychology has suggested that affective polarisation is driven by our imagining the worst of the other side. More positively, partisan animus reduces hugely when people are given a more realistic image of those who support their opponents.

It is in this context that we can gain insights from the value of anonymity in democracy. We must focus not only on the freedom to express our identities, but also on the freedom from expressing our identities. If we can find ways to perform our identities and see those of others as complex and dynamic constructs, we might find our way to a form of democratic politics that takes our selves a bit less seriously.

No.12 in our 🎭 Democratic Transformations series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Alfred Moore
Alfred Moore
Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of York

Alfred has written widely on the politics of expertise.

His work engages a broad range of themes in contemporary democratic theory, including anonymity and deliberation, and democratic non-participation.

In 2020–21 he held a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship for the project Rethinking Political Competition, and he is currently researching the role of ideas of competition in democratic theory and practice.


Critical Elitism Deliberation, Democracy, and the Problem of Expertise

Critical Elitism: Deliberation, Democracy, and the Politics of Expertise
Cambridge University Press, 2017

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