Identity politics can make us a more liberal or less liberal society. It’s our choice.

The constructiveness or otherwise of identity politics has been a constant point of debate. Some have pointed to feminism, saying that it is a successful identity politics movement that has changed the world for the better. Others have said that identity politics is divisive, and threatens the cohesiveness and solidarity of society.

Identity politics has traditionally been associated with left wing politics. However, recently some have observed that a new, right wing type of identity politics has emerged, around the identities of conservative white, heterosexual men. This kind of identity politics has been fuelling nationalist movements around the Western world. As a result, many feel that this kind of identity politics is working to make our societies more authoritarian, and less liberal. This has made many on the left re-evaluate the usefulness of identity politics.

In truth, nationalism is actually the earliest form of identity politics. There is indeed nothing new about an identity politics based in shared ethnicity and traditional culture. And nationalism has seldomly been liberal. Nationalist movements, by definition, are at least partially about exclusion. Nationalist movements throughout history have often had a racist undertone to them, and sexism and homophobia were often fellow travellers too.

On the other hand, history has also shown us that identity politics is not always exclusionary. Liberal feminism is perhaps the best example of an identity politics movement that has not been exclusionary. Although women have been the main beneficiaries of this women, men have also been lifted out of their rigid gender roles and expectations. Liberal feminism has also given society many great voices, great minds, and great ideas, through the increasing participation of women in the public sphere.

So what’s so different between xenophobic nationalism and liberal feminism? The most important difference is perhaps in the core intention of these movements. While liberal feminism seeks equality of opportunity, xenophobic nationalism seeks to enshrine the superiority of some. While liberal feminism seeks freedom for all regardless of identity, xenophobic nationalism seeks to tighten societal norms and restrictions based around identity. While liberal feminism seeks to break the boundaries dictated by identity, xenophobic nationalism seeks to build unbreakable walls to keep identity groups rigidly separate.

Therefore, there are actually two very different types of identity politics. One type of identity politics seeks to use shared identity and shared lived experience to inform how society can be more liberal and less discriminatory. The other type seeks to use shared identity and shared lived experience to build walls and keep outsiders firmly out. It is just natural that the former would make society more liberal, and the latter would make society less liberal.

While xenophobic nationalist identity politics is almost always right-wing, we should not assume the identity politics movements of the left are always the liberal type either. Leftist identity politics has at times been almost as exclusionary as right-wing nationalism. Therefore, it would be dangerous to just reject all right-wing aligned identity politics but accept all left-wing aligned identity politics. Instead, we should reject all exclusionary and illiberal identity politics, and accept all liberal identity politics movements.