Identity and Democracy
Mar 20, 2011

Identity and Democracy

One way to consider the action of voting is as an expression of identity. This has several implications, among them that ethnic, religious, racial and cultural identities can replace the prioritization of effective policy with identification along these tribal lines.

Consider the 2007 kenyan elections where an opposition candidate Raila Odinga, a Luo (one of Keyna's many ethnic groups), secured some 98% of the Luo vote, yet aquired little from other ethnic groups. This example - and innumerable like - are a reflection of how various tribal identies dominate eletions in many places opposed to elections being about the quality of policies for all citizens of the country. As we shall see, identity politics still is an important force in modern western democracies which has negative consequences. However, in many of the democracies of the bottom billion where there are very pronounced ethnic, religious, racial and cultural tribal divides and diversity among the people this identity politics is the dominant force in election politics. The perhaps surprising fact is that quite the opposite that of the first world, the democracy in the bottom billion have actually increased the average level of violence.

The principle advantage of democracy as a social ordering is that it provides pressures for effective governance through accountability to the people. These issues of tribalism inhibit the pressures that exist for good governance. Elections are not fought over whether various policies are desirable and effective - if they were politicians would need to campaign for and enact desirable and effective policies - they are far too often fought over identity with the ethnic or religious identity of the politician being the principle voting measure. Moreover, voting is often an expression of identity for many people where the actual act has value outside of just choosing a politician; it is about reaffirming membership in a tribe.

In the west, tribal differences are less pronounced. Partially this is because of an effective sense of nationalism that includes all people such as the idea of being "American" or "Canadian" which is something citizens of all ethnic groups, religions and the like will often purport to be an important part of their identity. The result is the political spectrum is dominated not by various tribal differences but by the left/right political spectrum which is a spectrum at least partially centered arround differing policy strategies regarding the role of government, social issues, traditionalism versus progressivism and the like. In short, policy differences not identity differences. It is not a coincidence that in our democracies governments are (relatively) more capable of providing legitimate services that benefit its citizens.

Nonetheless, identity politics are far from eliminated in the west. The Bloc Québécois in Canada, for instance, is a Quebec secessionist party which presents considerable appeal as an expression of Québécois identity as a separate identity from national Canadian identity. A series of comments about multiculturalism by Germany's Angela Merkel and France's banning of the burqa are examples where distinct expression of national identity is being established at the expense of, in this case, Muslim subgroups.

Even when political groups are about policies and initially quite separate from existing tribal groups, the political parties can themselves become the identity to which identity politics occurs. The case of Democrats and Republicans in the US is an excellent example of this. Whether one is one of these two is itself an important aspect of many American's identity. The result is an entrenchment and consolidation of policy positions because these positions are a part of respective identities. Indeed, people form opinions on diverse subject matters that just correspond with whatever their party identity maintains.  The term "culture wars" is sometimes used to describe when the political spectrum faces social issues such as teaching creationism in schools and the term is an appropriate description of how the political divide in the US has become an identity "war".

Of course, the identity politics in the US is not entirely a new phenomenon arising from the bifurcation of the political spectrum as a defining identity. It also taps into existing identities. For example, self identified Christian Evangelicals vote Republican versus Democrat by over 2:1 and the Republican party is typically both perceived as fighting for Christian values and implementing policies such as pro-life and anti-gay marriage positions (one can ask if these truly are Christian positions, but that is an entirely different discussion). Or conversely, over 90% of black vote consistently goes to Democrats. There is also a substantial proportion of regional identity where certain states like Texas proudly identifies as Republican while New York, Democrat. In general, Democrats are also seen as far more supportive of immigrant populations such as Mexicans or Muslims. However, while it taps into these existing identities the Republican/Democrat divide absolutely creates an identity of its own.

The result of this creation of a polarized political identity has been a sports team mentality where effective governance and effective policies are secondary to maintaining that ones own team is winning. The emphasis becomes less on driving effective policies and governance as the pressure is to drive ones current identity into as much of the population as possible. The media coverage such as Fox vs MSNBC reinforces this hyper-partisan identity formation and truly dilutes the possibility for more substantive debate. The key is the battle for independents; on either side there is a core group that is entirely entrenched in the identity of their respective political party but the battle to appeal to voters in the middle is largely what shifts the focus of policies advocated for by politicians. It is this fight for a middle based on policies not, say, ethnic identity, that gives democracies in rich countries such an advantage over ethnically diverse poorer countries. However, even in the US the approach of appealing to the middle has shifted given the hyper-partisanship that exists from a strategy that tries to appeal with good policies that attract the middle to one that tries to include the middle into the identity of the various sides.

One of the best aspects of democracy is the issue of accountability. Indeed, it is the fact that democracy encourages governments to be accountable to the desires of people that makes democracy work. However, identity partisanship tends to break down the level of accountability to people - even to people within a parties core voting base. If there is not a healthy spirit of dissension and debate with a party, there is not the pressures to continuously change the party into something more reflective of the needs of the people. While of course this exists at some level, the partisanship stifles it. The failure of the Democratic party to clearly attack Obama when he takes policies structurally identical to what they previously criticized Bush 43 for is an example of how partisan politics prevents effective political debate. People on ones own side, part of a shared identity, are saved from meaningful criticism while the other side receives criticism no matter what.

In previous decades, socialism and communism provided a similar identity based on political ideology opposed to ethnic, racial or religious differences. For many countries that deeply wrestled with these issues belong to such ideologies trumped any other difference such as ethnic or even religious. Conversely, McCarthyism was a clear fight of American identity against this competing identity.

China provides a very interesting example at the other end of the spectrum because so much of it is ethnically homogeneous. Much like the US where there is a strong nationalist sense the same thing occurs in China, yet China is an autocracy not a democracy. In many autocracies such as Saddam's Iraq where there is considerable tribal diversity (such as the Sunni/Shia/Kurd divisions in Iraq) the autocracy may well result in considerable stability of the governments - indeed, autocracies frequently last for decades - however there is enormous oppression of one tribal group at the hands of the autocrats of another. In China, this common nationalism and considerable ethnic and cultural homogeneity has allowed for an autocracy which is among the most effective autocracies in our world at actually raising the quality of life of hundreds of millions of its people. Notably, the worst of the oppression in China is against the ethnic minorities in Tibet, Taiwan or Xinjiang while the Han Chinese majority does fairly well. This comparison demonstrates that the amount and relative importance of tribal diversity in society hinders effective governance both in autocracies and democracies.

If we accept this premise about the fundamentally divisive nature of tribalism, in particular for its intersection with democracy, the question turns to how to combat this. The solution evidenced by much of the first world has been establishing a strong sense of nationalism through common language, education, shared sense of history and culture, common governance and the like. It has been a solution that results in stable countries, but the history of international conflicts between countries demonstrates the failures of nationalism. Moreover, in the sense that nationalism is simply a larger tribe than the more diverse smaller ones it often replaced many of the same problems remain both between nations (i.e. tribes) but also in the oppression of minorities within nations who do  not follow the national identity. The approach I advocate is replacing tribalism with humanism. Such a humanist approach is both a tribe large and inclusive enough to include, de facto, all people but also so broadly defined so as to not be oppressive on any person who is different.

An addendum to this post considering the above in the case of single party states is here

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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agmk said...

If we accept the fundamental divisiveness of tribalism, should we then advocate against 'cultural mosaic' policies such as Canada has, and instead prefer 'melting pot' policies like the US has?

Your rhetoric seems to imply that, theoretically, we should, but the melting pot doesn't seem to have stopped tribalism in the states.

bazie said...

Ah yes this is a good point, I should have touched on it in the post. Let me say up front that I may not have been clear but I am certainly not advocating for an end to diversity in society, but to increase the acceptance of diversity as an entirely acceptable thing.

I think that American style "melting pot" is a form of tribalism that does contribute to significant problems. It isn't the elimination of tribalism, but the replacement of one kind of tribalism with another. Namely, there is a fixed idea of what it is to be "American" and conformity to that norm is expected. When you have groups that differ from this norm - such as a spanish speaking hispanic subcommunity - then there is more likelihood of problems if we all think there is ONE possible way to be opposed to accepting diversity as entirely acceptable and perhaps even ought to be encouraged.

From a utilitarian perspective the problem of course is conflict between tribes, and we blame tribalism intrinsically in as such as it seems to consistently contribute to those problems. So to the extent that I think multiculturalism is more effective than a melting pot at accomplishing the goal of reducing conflict I think it is a good thing.

There is also significant differences in approach between the poorest countries and the richest. In the poor there is excessive tribalism and very little nationalism (ie, saying that the other tribes about you are also part of a larger national tribe). In this situation I think it is true that existence of tribalism is a divisive force. In rich countries, however, there is lots and lots of nationalism and the problems (while many orders of magnitude smaller) are more of the form of oppression against smaller minorities. So different strategies are more effective in the different places. In particular, I might suggest to poor countries to try and embrace more nationalism as that will reduce conflict between fragmented tribes. But in a rich country I would suggest less nationalism by replacing the larger national tribe with the larger human tribe.

To me, multiculturalism is the acceptance that tribalism exists and attempting to ameliorate its rough edges by a mutual acknowledgement of everyones humanity and part of an all encompassing human tribe opposed to trying to force these different tribes to assimilate and conform to a single standard ala melting pot.

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