Liberalism and Identity Politics I – Conceptual and Global Issues

Globally, the Cold War era has been succeeded by both the salience of market oriented economic development and the growth of identity politics. Understanding the relationship of liberalism and identity politics is a key issue for our time globally and specifically for understanding South African politics.

What is ‘identity politics’?


One mode of political participation in democracies is to assemble around competing economic and social programmes, usually those organized by political parties.  Material interests play a major role, along with beliefs about how they may be advanced.   Circumstances may render a party’s programme obsolete or ineffective. Or there may develop an unacceptable level of arrogance and sleaze in a party which has been in power too long.  As time progresses, voters reassess their interests and some change their voting behaviour, leading to alternation in power after elections from time to time.  Defeated parties have time on the opposition benches to reconsider and to re-enter the fray with a revitalized programme. 

By contrast, some social groups may take the view that their identity makes them vulnerable to violence, exploitation or marginalization.   Alternatively, some groups or nations believe they have suffered losses which they need to make good [1].  Gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation – all these have formed the bases for identity politics which is a struggle for recognition, respect and claims on material resources.  Narratives emerge which consolidate and develop identities and advance group claims.  Perceptions of identity are often harder to modify than cool calculations of material interest, and may make coalition building and alternation in power more difficult.  Of course, in any actual situation, both material interests and identities may be present in varying degrees   Class based politics has at times occupied an intermediate position, for instance [2].  Nevertheless, identity politics has a logic of its own which is important to understand. 


Identity politics may emerge in any sort of political system and its consequences are system dependent.


Identity politics in non-democratic circumstances can lead to very costly outcomes.  Large scale dislocation and ethnic cleansing are possible outcomes, as witness the separation of Greeks and Turks after the First World War, Stalin’s ethnically based deportations, or population movement in the wake of the Second World War.  Should widespread violence or war break out, the results are invariably lethal on a large scale.  Example after example can be cited: the Armenian massacre, the Europe of seventy and eighty years ago, the partition of India before independence, the Balkans after the collapse of Yugoslavia, Rwanda in the 1990s, the Middle East for decades. 

On the other hand, identity politics may take a milder form in consolidated democracies.  The United States has seen a lot of it in the last century and a half.  The great immigration of the late 19th century saw the arrival of great numbers of groups little represented in the US before then.   The response of the political system was quite complex.  At the local level, patron-client relationships developed to integrate the newcomers at the cost of considerable corruption, which later had to be cleaned up.  And part of the reason that Franklin Roosevelt had to tread so carefully in the early years of the Second World War was that large numbers of voters with German, Italian and Irish origins were supporters of the Democratic Party.  Since 1945, black, Hispanic, feminist and gay identity politics have also emerged and made their mark.  All of this has been accommodated within a democratic political order.   Central to this process is a clear distinction between civil society, where identities emerge and the state, in whose political aspect mobilized identities contend with other political forces and a complex structure of rules and institutions. 

An important intermediate case is identity politics in imperfectly consolidated democracies.  The violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland for three decades from the late 1960s led to a suspension of devolved government in 1973, restored only in 1998.  Sharp conflict between secularists and non-Muslims backed by the military and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has led to political instability.

A growing literature identifies elite polarization as a major source of democratic collapse.  The collapse of the Weimar republic is a case in point, leading to an extreme and aggressive form of identity politics.


Identity politics are prone to essentialism and mobilization may result in new forms of oppression.


The experience of identities is not simply a given.  Interpretation and social construction are an essential part of political mobilization.  Single axis mobilization puts pressure on people to identify that axis as their defining feature, even though this axis does not represent all their experience and sense of self.  Identities start to be dictated and manipulated by elites, with the policing of boundaries and this produces an essential form of identity, an iron cage, which itself becomes oppressive [3].  Fluidity and innovation of identities are inhibited or halted.  The position of women in certain forms of Islam is a case in point. 

Rather than complementing a sense of citizenship and belonging to a nation and state, narrower identities may displace it, with adverse effects on the cultivation of a sense of the rights and duties of citizens, essential for the support of democracy.


A liberal assessment


Liberalism should approach identity politics with great caution.  On the one hand, it may expose forms of oppression which should be removed in the interests of freedom.  New conceptions of the good and recognition and tolerance for them can take their place within a system of liberal rights.  On the other hand, when the pursuit of identity based goods starts to inhibit those rights, liberal opposition is mandatory.



[1] Contemporary Russian politics, particularly in relation to Ukraine, can be understood in those terms.  Economic decline can increase the salience of identity politics

[2] The decline of class based politics in recent decades has created the space for other identities to emerge as politically significant.

[3] By contrast, some identities may be hard to stabilize.  The ’waves’ of feminist theorizing are a case in point.


Charles Simkins

Senior Researcher