wiiw Opinion Corner: Identity politics. About identity or politics?

The refugee crisis has radicalised the publics and given rise to nationalism in a number of (Central) European countries. How is this radicalisation to be understood?

A commentary by Vladimir Gligorov

One explanation is to go with the obvious: Nationalism is about identity. So it is about identity politics which is characterised by political action founded in the shared experience of injustice of members of a group within a society. The alternative explanation is that it is about political use of collective identity.

Most of the proponents of politics as a means to safeguard national interests are arguing for the transparency of the concept of national identity. The dissenters, however, tend to argue that this is not a democratic version of the collective identity and point to the use of undemocratic methods by the nationalists. Finally, nationalists tend to argue that their reach for identity politics is no different from the political behaviour of the foreigners – i.e. refugees or migrants – or of the minorities within a country, who tend to promote their ethnic institutions and parties. So, if the minorities radicalise in goals and political means, why should not the majority do so, especially in their own country? For nationalists, identity politics is fundamentally about identity and not about politics.

How would the political explanation for radicalisation look like?

What comes to mind immediately is that promoting identity as the aim of and the basis for policies is a way to mobilise support. Nationalism speaks to all the people with that particular identity rather than to a fraction of them who share one or the other specific interest or set of interests. This is one reason why minorities often unify behind an ethnic party or faction. This is the way to maximise their support and consequently their chances to be a minority coalition partner in a government, while the chances would significantly diminish if they split up. So, that is how identity politics is really about politics and not about identity in the case of the minorities. This is especially true in cases in which these are not large minorities, e.g. if they account for less than 10 per cent of the population. In some cases, they stay in the government perpetually if the majority of the population is more evenly split.

A party aiming to mobilise the majority could make the same argument. What nationalists often tend to argue is that either the minorities, or the foreigners, or the foreign countries are making use of their national disunity. The problem that these nationalistic parties face is the construction of the national identity. Minorities or foreigners are more often than not defined by the very fact that they are a minority or they are foreigners. So, they do not have to work all that much on building their collective identity. Nations, however, have to engage in the process of designing their identities. That process tends to be almost inherently undemocratic, as the social, economic, and cultural diversity needs to be collapsed into one identifying characteristic.

How are national identities built?

The characteristic that emerges as the dominant one is context-sensitive. In some cases it will be religion, in other cases it will be language, and in yet other cases it will be culture. However, in all cases it will be identified as an ethnic characteristic, reaching back to historical memory and to common expectations of the future. The promise of nationalism is that people with a particular identity have historical rights to have priority claims on current and future public support. Poles have prior rights to others in Poland. And so have Hungarians and Croats and Slovaks and Czechs and Serbs – everybody has prior claims to his/her interest being heard and heeded in ‘their own country’. Thus, in many constitutions, there is explicitly or implicitly an Orwellian formulation to be found: ‘This is our country in which you enjoy equal rights’.

However, nationalists tend to face two problems. First, constructing an identity may require some sort of radicalisation in order to get people to fall in line. This makes for a paradox that is often noticed when it comes to the virulence of nationalism, both among the minorities and the majorities. The probability that a party with extreme views will have a large following among the majority is higher than that probability among the minorities. By contrast, the probability that dissatisfied minorities will resort to more extreme means can be higher than among the majorities. For instance, in the case of the mass influx of refugees, but also migrants, the probability that there will be a radicalised person among them tends to be much smaller than the probability that these refugees or migrants will radicalise the domestic population. Similarly, minorities tend to be less prone to set up extremist parties than the majorities. The reason is that extreme parties minimise the coalitional potential of the minority while they may promise large political gains to the majority of the population if they can be persuaded that they should vote for their identity and not their political interests.

Second, the persuasion can require some extreme ideological argumentation. A public bad, a threat of some sort, is needed in order to sell nationalism as the way to provide for the collective goods, goods that everybody has an interest in. The public good that is the easiest to appeal to is security, which is threatened by the public bad that those with different identities spread. Thus, the ideological argument needs to point to the danger that either the minorities or foreigners present to the nation, or to the danger that the foreign countries or international organisations present. The former may put the identity of the nation at risk, the latter its sovereignty.

How do these insights translate to the current developments in the CEE region?

Currently, both dangers are being magnified by the nationalistic parties in Europe and in Central Europe in particular. In some cases, the majority of the population has already voted for nationalist parties, e.g. in Poland and Hungary. In other cases, ideological persuasion is yet to prove successful, e.g. in the case of Croatia. In Poland and Hungary, both dangers – attributed to foreigners in the country and the supposed loss of sovereignty to the institutions of the European Union – have unified to produce nationalist parties mobilising the majority. In the case of Croatia, the process of mobilising the majority is still ongoing.

The case of Croatia is instructive. It may be more difficult to see why nationalists in power are a threat to democracy when they have won majority votes in democratic elections than when they are a minority in a coalition government as is currently the case in Croatia. Democracy is inherently antinationalistic (I think that is the argument that Amartya Sen has been making) because it tends to support diversification of interests. So, the majority that is an outcome of an election or of the post-electoral coalition making process is inherently diverse in the sense that it could produce quite a different political result in changing circumstances. A political strategy based on identity may be such a temporary outcome, but ideological homogenisation is needed if it is to be made permanent – which is where the aggressive promotion of national identity is an instrument to mobilise the majority and then, as in the case of Poland and Hungary for example, changes to the constitution are used to make identity the basis of national politics. That is the second problem that nationalists face: legalising, in one way or another, their permanent claim to power. Hungarian and Polish nationalists seem to have already succeeded in mobilising the majority by means of identity politics, while Croatia is not yet there. However, all nationalist governments face the problem of translating the Orwellian formulation into the constitutional set-up which should appear democratic.

The way democracy works to pacify nationalistic strategies is to offer the minorities a say in the public affairs by making them viable coalition partners to parties of the majority. That often means that the minorities form ethnic parties and majorities split into political parties with differing agendas, e.g. on economic or other distributional issues, so that there are opportunities for minorities to democratically influence politics. With identity becoming the basis of politics, the split between majority and minority becomes one of difference in identities and the democratic coalition decision-making can break down.

That set-up supports radicalisation on both sides. In a number of cases, but not all of them, religion is the basis of the national or the minority identity. As an instrument of national homogenisation, it has the advantage that it is in most cases not a matter of choice, but is inherited and thus ethnic. Both, minorities and majorities, tend to be radicalised in the sense that religious commitment becomes politically very important. But the majority can use political means to assure religious homogenisation while the minority may be tempted to contemplate the use of violent means to get a political say. That is why, in some cases, nationalists may use more militant means – targeting e.g. the minorities or immigrants or refugees – in the process of e.g. religious or nationalist homogenisation in general, while minorities are more prone to political rather than violent means when they see political opportunities, and may resort to violence if those opportunities diminish. If religion is the defining characteristic of collective identity, then it may play a role in both radicalisations.

Thus, minorities tend to be less radical even if they are more homogenous in their identity and political association than the majorities if the democracy is more functional, while they may be more prone to protests than the majorities if they are excluded from the political process in nationalist democracies.

How are claims to sovereignty by nationalists to be understood?

The problem that cross-border mobility presents to the nationalists is the increased political diversity, which supports democratisation. Therefore, the homogeneity of the national identity needs to be preserved against the threat of multiculturalism (or liberal democracy in general, as Viktor Orbán argues) and that is echoed by rising nationalist parties across Europe. It is not enough to ethnically cleanse democratic politics, it needs to be kept clean by not allowing increased ethnic diversity. So, while the nationalist majority may rely only on political means in the political race, once it has secured ethnic political loyalties and made them legally obliging, they will not shy away from using violent means, justified by sovereign rights and powers, to keep the ethnically different out. That is why in the current refugee crisis radicalisation is more pronounced among the nationalist governments than among the refugees themselves. There is little if anything that refugees or new immigrants can achieve by violent means, but there is a lot of political gain that nationalists can make by using violent means to keep them out.

Thus, it is all about politics, and not about identity.


Photo credits: Bence Jardany