How Identity Politics Imperils the Liberal Tradition

In the midst of the 1949 election campaign, Robert Menzies told a Melbourne audience, “We denounce all attempts to create hostilities against any migrant or group of migrants, whether Jew or Gentile, on the grounds of race or religion.” The aspiring prime minister went on to declare, “Once received into our community, a new citizen is entitled to be treated in every way as a fellow Australian”, and that “the strength and history of our race have been founded upon this vital principle”.

To be sure, Menzies in 1949 accepted “White Australia” as a pillar of the “Australian Settlement” and desired “as many immigrants as we can get of British stock”. Nonetheless, the Liberal Party founder attempted to strike a new tone that marked a clean break from the bitter religious and racial sectionalism of Australia’s past. Committed above all to reviving the tradition of Australian liberalism, Menzies envisioned an Australia where citizens would be judged less by their background than by their moral character and contribution to society. As the historian and Liberal Party elder David Kemp observed, Menzies created a party and subsequently led a government that would go beyond the collectives of class, race and gender to promote greater opportunities for all Australians.

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The liberal philosophy Menzies embodied stands out as not only a repudiation of the old class warfare and sectionalism but also as a rebuke to the contemporary fad of “identity politics”, the phenomenon of “group identities” defining and driving political discourse in Australia and much of the Western world.

Subject to a variety of constructions and meanings, “identity politics” embodies two main related ideas. First, that individuals are defined primarily by their “identity”, the three main classifications being race, class and gender; and second, that politics, history and sociology can be primarily understood through the role played by those identities and the conflict those identities generate. As a 2017 report by the Institute of Public Affairs noted, “the underlying philosophical premise of identity politics is that individuals are distinguished by their differences, rather than by their similarities”.

Identity politics is a powerful movement with deep cultural roots. Much of the inspiration behind it can be found in the Critical Theory propagated by the Frankfurt School. Founded at the Goethe University of Frankfurt during the interwar years, the Frankfurt circle consisted of Marxist dissidents who supplemented the Marxist paradigm of warring economic classes with new categories of social class, race and gender in the historic struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed.

Drawing on not only the ideas of Karl Marx but also Sigmund Freud, the leaders of the Frankfurt School, including Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas, disseminated Critical Theory to great effect in the academy, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. From the 1960s and 1970s, disciplines including history, literature, sociology, education and law bore the influence of Critical Theory, as facets of human society were examined through the prisms of class, race and gender. With human differences accentuated on the basis of the “group identity” to which a person may belong, Western campuses, in the words of British journalist Brendan O’Neill, became “hotbeds of identity politics”.

Critical Theory breathed intellectual life into the emancipatory social movements of the 1960s. Throughout the Western world, ethnic minorities, women, gays, lesbians and other marginalised groups began to agitate for recognition of their dignity and for remedies to social disadvantages. As Francis Fukuyama has observed, these social movements spawned the rise of identity politics where the “lived experiences” of individuals from one aggrieved minority or another determined who they were as citizens.

In a historical sense, the rise of identity politics is understandable. Before the social revolution of the 1960s, women and certain ethnic minorities experienced social and economic disadvantage, particularly in the form of racial and sexual discrimination. In hindsight, therefore, the polit­ical mobilisation of these groups for civil rights, justice and equality under the law could be seen as necessary to redress historical wrongs.

From a sociological point of view, moreover, the attractions of identity politics are apparent. As Paul Kelly has written, “the politics of identity speaks to deep human need”. Humans are social creatures with a primordial yearning to “belong”. Membership of organisations ranging from sporting clubs and charities to trade unions and churches has declined steeply, but the human need to identify with a group of “like souls” is as great as ever. For many, the tribalism of identity politics satisfies that craving.

Yet for all its appeal to the human condition, does identity politics augur well for the flourishing of democracy, and are its presuppositions compatible with those of the Australian liberal tradition? As for actually satisfying the human thirst for recognition and belonging, identity politics has proven to be an empty vessel. While promising to elevate the status of various minorities it has eroded human dignity, and while claiming to offer solidarity it has sown division and discord.

The raw irony of identity politics is that by affirming that a person’s social class, gender, race or sexual orientation is critical to their identity, and by extension their human worth, it diminishes the human dignity of the very people it purports to champion. It fails to remember that an individual’s personhood goes far beyond the colour of their skin or sexual preference to encompass attributes such as personality, moral character, gifts and talents, friendships, enterprise, achievements and contribution to society. For example, to take a historical figure such as Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for homosexual activity, it would be absurd to recognise him just for being gay instead of for being the remarkable poet and playwright that he was, not to mention his other personal attributes. In short, identity politics grossly undersells a person’s human worth.

This, of course, is radically different from the view of human dignity our society has inherited from both the Judeo-Christian tradition and the liberal Enlightenment. According to the British political philosopher Larry Siedentop, the dignity and freedom of the individual is just one of Christianity’s many gifts to society. For Siedentop, Christianity revolutionised classical understandings of human nature to affirm that all individuals are equal and therefore entitled to equal treatment.

In his book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Siedentop wrote: 

More than anything else, I think, Christianity changed the ground of human identity. It was able to do that because of the way it combined Jewish monotheism with an abstract universalism that had roots in later Greek philosophy. By emphasising the moral equality of humans, quite apart from any social roles they might occupy, Christianity changed the “name of the game”.

Siedentop’s thesis is that Christianity played a foundational role in shaping the liberal precepts of human dignity and equality which helped define our modern societies. While identity politics might reasonably claim that it seeks to correct historical breaches of these very precepts, its narrow fixation on identity and grievance ultimately yields a jaundiced view of individual personhood.

With English philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke affirming the precepts of human equality and freedom, the liberal Enlightenment has similarly shaped our society’s view of human dignity. The liberal movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to abolish slavery, child labour and other degrading practices were impelled by the Enlightenment emphasis on human equality as well as the Christian concept of a “common humanity”. Identity politics loses sight of these ideals as it obsesses over categories of colour and gender. Its premises are philosophically at odds with the liberal-Enlightenment model of a humanity transcending considerations of class, race or gender.

As well as eroding age-old concepts of human dignity, identity politics has exacerbated rather than healed existing divisions with its overemphasis on diversity. In a liberal society, a respect for diversity is important for tolerance and social harmony, but as Janet Albrechtsen has pointed out, the worship of diversity can be destructive and divisive, and has bred victimhood rather than empowerment. It has given rise to an “us versus them” mentality that pits one group against another. Given the tribal tendencies of human nature, group identities tend not to unify but build to walls, fuelling misunderstanding, suspicion and antagonism. As Fukuyama noted, this phenomenon has “created obstacles to empathy and communication”. The ghettoisation of people into warring tribes is the last thing an open and cohesive society should desire.

Given the cyclical nature of grievance, identity politics has also proven to be self-perpetuating, one form of it often giving rise to another. When it seeks to enfranchise one group, another group feels disenfranchised, resulting in an unedifying tit-for-tat between opposing collectives vying for greater victimhood status. This has been evident in North America, where a form of black identity politics has engendered a backlash in the form of white identity politics. Instead of inclusive appeals to a common human family, we hear cries of “Black Lives Matter” answered by retorts of “It’s Okay to be White”. From whichever side of the sexual or racial “fence” it emanates, identity politics has all too often proven to be the problem rather than the solution.

Considering its intellectual origins in Marxist-inspired Critical Theory and its repudiation of liberal precepts, identity politics shares little common ground with the tradition of Australian Liberalism. While Australian Liberals affirm human diversity as a desirable trait of any community or nation, this is never allowed to negate the common interests and humanity of its citizens. Accordingly, Liberal governments have typically shunned sectionalism and identity politics to govern in the broad national interest. Both Robert Menzies and John Howard pledged to govern not only for those who had voted for them but also for those who had voted against them.

Early in his political career, the founder of the Liberal Party evinced his distaste for the sectionalism of his time, which resembled the identity politics of today. Speaking to the first United Australia Party conference in 1932, Menzies told his audience:

I protest, and will continue to protest, against this constant desire which exists in some quarters to sectionalise the community, to divide it up into this group and that group, and then to say, “What group are you barracking for?”

Although a committed Presbyterian himself, he refused to buy into the sectarianism between Protestants and Catholics, pledging to represent all the constituents of his Kooyong electorate. Bringing this approach to the prime ministership, he espoused a philosophy that rejected class warfare and sectionalism to advance the wellbeing and freedom of all Australians.

Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister, John Howard, adopted a very similar approach at a time when identity politics based on gender and race had gained traction during the Keating years. In a speech just before his election in 1996, Howard lamented that Australians had “been exhorted to think of themselves as members of sub-groups” and remarked that this had damaged Australia’s sense of community. He vowed to reverse this trend:

Mainstream government means making decisions in the interests of the whole community, decisions which have the effect of uniting, not dividing, the nation, drawing upon the numerous community-based organisations which are the natural expression of the sense of neighbourhood which so many Australians have.

For Howard, a citizen’s true sense of belonging was not to be found in tribal groups based on certain human traits, but in community-based organisations and in the nation at large.

Howard told a London audience in 2015 that electorates in Western countries had become prone to approaches reflecting the “insidious rise of identity politics”. He warned that there was the temptation for governments to appeal to identity groups rather than to principles acceptable to the entire community.

Identity politics conflicts with the Australian Liberal philosophy in its conception of the individual. To the practitioners of identity politics, human beings are simply part of collectives based on certain identities and form part of either the oppressing party or the oppressed party in the cycle of human history. Australian Liberals view every human individual as precious and unique, in the words of the Psalmist, “fearfully and wonderfully made”—a worldview drawing richly from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Menzies explicitly recognised the Judeo-Christian concept of the imago Dei. Speaking on the future of education in 1961, he said:

We must recapture our desire to know more, and feel more, about our fellow men; to have a philosophy of living; to elevate the dignity of man, a dignity which, in our Christian concept, arises from our belief that he is made in the image of his Maker

This not only explained Menzies’s commitment to human dignity and freedom but also his staunch opposition to communism. He opposed communism not only for political and economic reasons but also on moral and spiritual grounds. To Menzies, its soulless materialism and crude doctrine of class warfare militated against the dignity of the individual. He would likely view the inter-group antagonism of identity politics in a similar light. Consciously and subconsciously, this Judeo-Christian concept of humanity continues to inform Liberal thinking, particularly in respect for the rule of law and in the drive to advance the quality of life and opportunities for all.

The inherent self-focus of identity politics promotes a distorted view of a citizen’s rights and responsibilities in civil society. As Paul Kelly observed, “its application veers towards narcissism” where the flipside of love for one’s own identity group is often a disdain for the other. People identifying with a collective may be vocal about asserting their rights but fall silent when it comes to articulating their responsibilities to others. Again, this runs counter to the Australian Liberal view of democracy, in which citizens are bound together by a social contract of rights and obligations. In one of his early treatises from the mid-1930s, Menzies argued that a “good democracy” required “good democrats”:

The good democrat is not the man who shouts loudly of his own rights and thinks of government in terms of individual or class interests, but the man who realises that the social contract which binds any society together is one expressed primarily in terms of duties and obligations.

For Menzies, democracy thrived and flourished when its citizens were mindful that they were their “brother’s keeper” and possessed what he called a “spirit of civic unselfishness”.

John Howard similarly espoused a Liberal philosophy of individual rights and responsibilities, captured in the term “mutual obligation”. According to this principle, the community had an obligation to help those who were less fortunate, and in turn, the recipients of such assistance had an obligation to contribute back to the community. Mutual obligation underpinned some of the Howard government’s signature initiatives, most notably, the “Work for the Dole” scheme. While the concept was primarily applied in a social welfare policy context, it spoke of the need for citizens to appreciate not only their own rights but the rights of others.

In a 2005 speech on the Liberal philosophical tradition, Howard said, “our strong belief in personal responsibility leads to, in fact flows from, our deep commitment to the obligation we have to each other”. Determined to arrest the growing entitlement mentality in Australian society, Howard held that mutual obligation would remind citizens that they were contributors as well as beneficiaries. This contrasts with the philosophy of identity politics, which is about one’s own rights and entitlements with scant regard for the common good.

There are a number of ways by which the unhealthy phenomenon of identity politics can be mitigated, if not eliminated, in our society. The first is to resist the urge to fight identity politics with identity politics. For instance, instead of mobilising a white-race identity group to counter the traction of a black identity group, it is far better to simply appeal to the equality and common blood of all people; in essence, to be colour-blind on questions of race. Rather than addressing the excesses of radical feminism with a countervailing men’s movement, it is more constructive to emphasise the complementarity and co-operation of the sexes and their equal worth.

As unfashionable as it may be in our secular age, our society would also do well to recover the Judeo-Christian idea that each individual, regardless of their personal faith or otherwise, bears the divine image—that is, somebody beautifully created with purpose and potential. It is in this, rather than in any group category, where a person can derive their primary identity and human value.

Our society must also revive and nurture the community-based organisations of clubs, charities, churches and other voluntary associations which Edmund Burke described as society’s “little platoons” and John Howard regarded as the natural expression of “neighbourhood”. With the weakening of these bodies, many individuals have lost a sense of personal identity and belonging and turned to identity politics to fill the void.

At the level of government, political parties must seek to govern for all citizens, even though “pleasing all of the people all of the time” will prove elusive. Brendan O’Neill discusses the problem in Britain where both major parties have stopped talking about the “electorate” to focus instead on sectional groups, such as Labour’s “pink bus” and the Tories’ “grey vote” overtures. As O’Neill concludes, “the end result is implicitly divisive” giving rise to competing constituencies. By contrast, governing for the common good of all will help keep sectional grievances at bay.

Given the oxygen that the teaching of Critical Theory in colleges and universities has given to the rise of identity politics, there is also a need to reappraise the teaching of core disciplines such as history. A 2017 audit by the Institute of Public Affairs into history teaching at Australian universities found that 244 of the 746 subjects taught in history departments across Australian universities focused on identity politics. In such courses, the themes of race, gender, the environment and identity predominated. A reform of history teaching in higher education would not result in faculties going back to teach the old “Great Man Theory” of history, but it would mean tailoring courses to cover the core themes of Western civilisation including the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment.

Far from displacing existing courses framed around the themes of identity politics, the units on Western civilisation would add to the existing suite of options available for students. Such units could help students appreciate that the Western narrative can be interpreted through prisms other than those of conflicting classes or identity groups.

The antidote to identity politics, in short, lies in a revival and re-application of the Western liberal tradition that affirms individual dignity and the common humanity of all, the mutual rights and obligations of each citizen and the need for governments to serve the common good. As Fukuyama recognises, liberal democracies must “work their way back to more universal understandings of human dignity” if they are to avoid the doomed course of fragmentation into “segments based on ever-narrower identities”. If it can shun the identity politics of division and grievance, Australia is singularly blessed to have a rich liberal tradition from which it can draw to forge a pathway towards greater individual dignity and social cohesion.

David Furse-Roberts is a Research Fellow of the Menzies Research Centre.


2 thoughts on “How Identity Politics Imperils the Liberal Tradition

  • padraic says:

    I agree with the analysis of this problem and remedies proposed in the above article. It should be mandatory reading for school students instead of visits from activist groups of the Critical Theory tendency. The idea of national identity should take precedence over some personal identity as outlined by Menzies and Howard and others. Most of us thought we had achieved that goal following the era of Kennedy, Martin Luther King and more recently Mandela but the inner city Left is busy overturning all that. One of the darker side of human nature is a need and a tendency of some people to feel superior to other human beings in order to achieve a modicum of self-esteem. This may manifest in the fairly harmless of comparing of suburbs lived in or cars driven, but there is a more sinister version now being promoted by the Left. The comment in the article – ‘As Paul Kelly observed, “its application veers towards narcissism” where the flipside of love for one’s own identity group is often a disdain for the other’. neatly sums up the current situation of the neocolonial Left with their attitude, for example, to the ability of Pacific island governments to provide adequate medical services to the illegal migrants. Their attitude and comments are based on historical stereotypes and are a disgrace. Lets hope that the approach of Menzies and Howard to our national identity wins out in the end.

  • Peter Sandery says:

    Your comments demonstrate the folly of resting on our laurels

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