The Age of Identity Wars


in Blog


We live in an era of identity wars. On both sides of the Atlantic, old partisan loyalties are being reshuffled as a new national populist right battles over immigration with an open-borders, multicultural left. Beyond the West, the most dynamic leaders are seeking to root their legitimacy in historic national and religious traditions — Russian Orthodoxy and Eurasianism in Putin’s Russia, Hindu nationalism in Modi’s India, Chinese nationalism in Xi’s China, and post-secular Islamic Turkish nationalism in Erdoğan’s Turkey. The most extreme form of identity politics is that of the Islamic State that has risen from the wreckage of Iraq and Syria. Its adherents seek to recreate a version of the early Muslim caliphate.

The global eruption of identity politics has left many intellectuals in the academy and the commentariat surprised and baffled. That is only to be expected. From the days of the French Revolution and the Communist Manifesto to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the great intellectual-political debates were about how to organize the state — not about who belonged to the nation. In France, for example, royalists and republicans, liberals and communists and fascists over the last two centuries have fought over how to organize the French government and economy and society — not over who was or was not French. The basic question was not “Who are we?” but “How should we govern ourselves?” The two most important, and most frequently persecuted, minorities in Europe had long been resident there — Jews and Roma.

In contrast, in the lands of European settlement in the Western hemisphere, South Africa and Australia and New Zealand, questions of national identity — “Who are we?” — were as important as questions of political order — “How should we govern ourselves?” — for centuries. European settler states occupied extensive territories from which indigenous people had been ethnically cleansed, or, in a few places with large native populations like Mexico and Central America and Peru, had been turned into a lower class by white colonists. The question of whether and how to integrate people of African descent was also central to politics in Western hemisphere nations built in part upon black slave labor like the U.S. and Brazil. Asian immigration was also a topic of conflict and debate in the 19th and 20th centuries throughout the Americas. Caste systems based on race have been found in the Western hemisphere on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Like racial diversity, religious pluralism was a greater subject of contention in New World nations made more religiously diverse by immigration. In the 19th-century U.S., hostility to Catholic immigration by old-stock native white Protestants roiled American politics for generations. A little later, waves of Jewish immigration to the U.S. from Russia and Eastern Europe triggered a counter-wave of anti-Semitism, institutionalized in anti-Jewish restrictive covenants in neighborhoods and quotas limiting the number of Jewish students in Ivy League universities.

Until relatively recently, then, the politics of national identity were quite different on the two sides of the Atlantic. But that old distinction is breaking down. The nations of old Europe are no longer largely homogeneous ethnic communities exporting conquerors or settlers to other regions of the earth. The flow has reversed. Europe has become a continent of inward migration, often from former colonies. Non-European immigration is turning formerly white and religiously homogeneous nations into societies similar to the multiracial and religiously pluralist countries of the western hemisphere. Elsewhere in the industrialized world, East Asian nations like Japan and South Korea have similar rates of low fertility and population aging to those of Western Europe and the Americas, but to date they have not allowed large-scale immigration.

Outside of the West, identity politics is taking other forms. Most of the states in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia are arbitrary entities, created by defunct European colonial empires. In many cases, the artificial, European-created state never managed to obtain the loyalty of residents of the territory. Iraq, Libya, and Syria are all artificial states in the process of decomposing violently into smaller, more homogeneous entities organized along ethnonational lines. A similar process has been taking place in parts of Africa, where many formally recognized states exist solely on paper and ethnic communities command the deepest loyalties.

In the case of Syrian refugees flooding into Europe in search of asylum, all of the modern forms of identity conflict are combined. The cause of the exodus is the breakup, in a regional proxy war, of the old, multinational Syrian state originally created by the British and French empires after World War I. The refugees enter European societies which are already riven by debates over immigration, multiculturalism, and terrorism on the part of radical Muslims. Europe is at the eye of a perfect storm of identity politics.

Confronted by the identity wars of the 21st century, intellectuals of the left, right, and center who are used to thinking of politics as a clash among universal ideologies often are at a loss. The abstract debates of the 20th century among liberal democrats, communists, and fascists had philosophical answers. But no abstract, universal principle can answer the question of whether Scots are part of a Scottish nation or a larger, more inclusive British nation.

Many on the left have tried to make anti-racism the overriding principle of 21st-century politics. Taken to an extreme, this leads some to suggest that national borders as such are inherently racist: “The border line is the new color line.” This marks a reversal of the historic support of the Western center-left for national self-determination, which was premised on the idea that relatively homogeneous ethnonational groups deserve territorial states of their own to protect and promote their unique languages and cultures, among other things.

In practical politics, the adoption by the center-left of support for a policy of open borders and mass immigration will simply lead to the electoral marginalization of progressives and the triumph of right-wing parties and movements that claim to defend national identity as well as national borders. In France and Sweden, the two largest parties as of this writing are two national populist parties with historic roots in fascism — France’s National Front and the Sweden Democrats.

If the great political debate of the 20th century was about the best political-economic organization for the state, the great political question of the 21st century may prove to be about the best way to reconcile ethnic and racial and religious pluralism with the minimum of shared identity required by a successful democracy. The history of ethnically-diverse societies provides two model solutions.

One model is the amalgamation of formerly distinct groups into a new community. In the 20th-century U.S., this was called “the melting pot”: in 20th-century Mexico, mestizaje or racial blending. Majorities and minorities alike may resist the prospect that their own identities will fade and be replaced by newer, more inclusive national identities.

An alternate model is the institutionalization of permanently distinct ethnic or racial or religious groups, known as “consociational democracy.” In this model, not only individual but also ethnic or religious groups are formally represented in politics and public policy. Versions of consociationalism — guaranteeing numerical representation in national legislatures and other institutions — exist in multi-ethnic Switzerland, post-apartheid South Africa, and the bi-national polities of Canada and Belgium.

Consociational democracy works best where the constituent ethnic groups are relatively stable in numbers. If one group grows more rapidly than the other, or if immigration introduces entirely new groups to the mix, then the delicate compromises of consociational power-sharing tend to break down.

The ideological wars of the 20th century were settled by the superior economic and military performance of liberal democracy and capitalism, as compared to fascism and communism. Will there be similar winners and losers in the contest among models of 21st-century national identity?

My own guess is that many of today’s European-created multinational states in the developing world are less likely to be held together by power-sharing, as South Africa has been since the end of apartheid, than to disintegrate into multiple, more homogeneous nation-states, as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union did. In the developed world, countries able to combine a moderate degree of immigration with an inclusive, melting-pot model of national identity are likely to do better, in my view, than countries like those of contemporary East Asia that try to preserve national homogeneity by rejecting immigration — or countries that attempt the explosive combination of high immigration with rigidly institutionalized multiculturalism.

But these are only guesses. What is clear is that, apart from the conflict with Muslim Salafist religious radicals, the ideological wars are over and the age of the identity wars has arrived. •

Image: Cover of Theater Programme for Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot” (1916) courtesy of the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections Department via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)