How we vote increasingly depends not on class but ethnicity. To stop us going down this dangerous path liberals should listen, understand and argue backby Philip Collins / November 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
The chief question of politics, the one whose answer does most to define the electoral dividing line in the west, is no longer “what do I have?” but “who am I?” The first can be a disruptive question to ask because what I have may change over time, and so my politics might change with that. Who I am, though, is more fixed, and so the second question carries the contrary danger—that politics gets stuck. Identity politics is a demand that the world outside becomes identical with the world we see from the inside. As such, it is a recipe for endless conflict between people who never change.
While the phrase identity politics is most often used in connection with minorities, it has more recently been attached to majorities too. The argument that the cultural majority should be given special attention in the same way minorities are is at the heart of two new books, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracyby Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, and Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift. Both books have sweeping implications: could populism perhaps be the prelude to the demise of democracy?
Eatwell and Goodwin, as well as Kaufmann, try to elucidate the causes of democracy’s troubles. In that respect at least, the books follow on from other volumes of varying degrees of anxiety published in 2018 from David Runciman, Timothy Snyder, Yascha Mounk, Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, which explore how liberal democracies might conceivably come to a sticky end. They all trace a story of decline similar in tone—though on a much larger canvas—to the decline thesis that once gripped accounts of modern British history.
Eatwell, Goodwin and Kaufmann have alighted on a serious subject and their work is too detailed to be lightly brushed aside. But let us register the caveats first because they are significant. The liberal democracies in the United States and western Europe are surely resilient enough to withstand their current discontents. As David Runciman showed in his 2013 work, The Confidence Trap, democracies are good at wriggling free from crises. This is no guarantee they will always be able to do so, but we should keep in mind that democracies are flexible and resourceful. Kaufmann,…