Representative democracies treat each citizen’s vote as equal to another. The ballot box is blind to personal differences such as educational attainment, social status, race, religion or income level. In contrast, the politics of identity focuses on personal characteristics. Gender, race, ethnicity, income and other characteristics of a voter may all be identifiers.
The division between the politics of representation at the ballot box and the politics of identity is often blurred in practice. Political parties competing at the ballot box may appeal to particular income, or religious groups, or to particular ethnicities. Nevertheless, there remains an important difference in principle between collective association based on each person counting the same and collective association reflecting character.
In recent times there appears to be increasing assertion of the politics of identity reflecting frustration with the politics of representation. The growing tension between the politics of representation and the politics of identity contributes to a sense that democratic societies are becoming more polarised and fragmented. This blog looks at the sources of the tension.
Identity politics is not new. Most democratic frameworks around the world combine the principle that citizens have an equal vote in electing representatives together with constitutional statements (usually in the form of Rights and principles) asserting identity.
The statements first signal the collective identity of the political association. For example, the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights refers to the ‘common values’ of ‘the peoples of Europe’. At the same time, the rights and principles also apply to individuals and are held to be integral to their individual identity. In this traditional form the combination of elected representation coupled with a statement of fundamental values about identity is regarded as a natural pairing.
Statements of rights and principles that protect and assert identity in political association can assist representative democracies in two related ways. First, they offer more clearly targeted collective goals. Secondly, they offer additional pathways for achieving those goals outside an exclusive reliance on electoral politics.
Indirectness v direct targeting
Elections offer rather indirect ways for people to achieve what they want to see come out of collective action. Party programmes are often vague, they cover a spectrum of views to widen their appeal and an elected representative may hold views at one end of a party spectrum that is quite far from the view of an individual elector. In addition, there are many steps between what parties promise at election time and what actually gets delivered.
By contrast, assertions of rights and principles offer more targeted goals. The assertion of a right to education and continuing training, (EU Art. 14) social and housing assistance (EU Art.34), paid annual leave (EU Art.31) paid maternity leave (EU Art. 33), or to medical treatment (EU Art.35), may have much higher personal relevance and immediacy than general promises in a party platform. Principles such as the right to life, (EU Art 2) the right to the protection of personal data, (EU Art 8) the prohibition of any discrimination on any ground (EU Art 21) and equality between men and women (EU Art.23) may also be seen to carry greater personal salience than the deliberations of an assembly.
Electoral processes may fail to deliver for many reasons other than the vagueness of party platforms and the need for parties to offer a wide appeal. Electoral contests may end in political deadlock within an assembly or between different elected branches. Party leaderships may renege on promises in order simply to share and enjoy the trappings of power in Washington, Westminster or Brussels. The assertion of rights and principles however does not depend on electoral politics. They possess what is called ‘injunctive’ force. This means that they lay an obligation on all bodies with authority - courts, public agencies and private bodies to act to respect, observe and implement them.
The applicability of rights to all actors with authority brings practice much closer to the everyday experience and interactions of people. Most people have rather infrequent interactions with electoral politics. However, people have daily contact with the private sector over jobs, employment conditions, and the purchase of goods and services. They may also have regular interactions with public agencies over access to public and private services. Direct regular contact with politicians is less common.
The indirectness of electoral politics, and its distance from everyday life, provide good reasons why the direct assertions of rights and principles can play a crucial complementary role in democratic societies. Nevertheless, the relationship is not always mutually supportive.
The sources of tension
There are four main sources of tension in the interplay between electoral politics and the politics of identity. They centre on how far that an assertion of a right, or principle, triggers a claim on other people, the ever-increasing number and range of claims, the interests that propel the claims and the status of the assertions.
Claims on others v mediation between interests
Assertion of some rights, such as a right to free expression (EU Art. 11), can be seen as a form of public good, where its exercise by one person does not take anything away from another person also exercising the same right. The benefits of some other kinds of rights, such as environmental rights, will also be shared by all. However, many rights, particularly social rights, such as a right to social assistance or subsidised housing, involve claims on others. Along with environmental rights, they have to be paid for by somebody. Moreover, the benefits of most social rights are shared only between those in the qualifying group. They form what is known as an ‘inclusive club good’.
Because rights that involve claims on others about who pays, or that offer ‘inclusive’ benefits, have inescapable distributional aspects there is a question of how far their application should be removed from electoral politics. Traditionally we expect politics to play the leading role in mediating the clash of interests involved in the distribution of a society’s resources.
Multiplication of claims
Assertions of rights have an inherent tendency to multiply. For example, claims about environmental rights have risen in prominence in recent years, going well beyond the general declaration of principle in the EU Charter that EU policies must integrate a high level of environmental protection (Art.37). This is partly because there is an incentive to target claims in more precise ways in order to appeal to particular groups. It is also in part because those asserting any particular right have an interest in clubbing together with others asserting related rights in order to promote rights in general. Furthermore, promoters and beneficiaries may have little interest in the impact on those outside the club in terms, for example, in answering the question of ‘who pays’.
The eventual limit on the growth of claims about rights comes from an oversupply where there are so many claims that it becomes difficult to judge their relative merits. Again the ‘answer’ may take the form of a further narrowing and expansion of claims.
The difficulty with the multiplication of claims is that the multiplication may crowd out other features of democratic processes. Notably, democratic societies depend on a general sense of exchange and reciprocity that may be weakened when claims increasingly apply to narrower ‘inclusive clubs’ of beneficiaries.
Representation versus Linked ecologies
The conventions of representative democracies are imperfect but are intended to encourage society-wide forms of association. Those who want office need to form political parties. In turn parties generally need to offer a wide appeal. In contrast, claims about rights and principles are driven by narrower groupings sometimes referred to as ‘linked ecologies’. Linked ecologies bring together the beneficiary group, professionals who may have a professional self-interest in pressing claims, such as lawyers and members of the judiciary, and others who gain status and attention in pressing a cause. Such linked ecologies may seek and gain a wider public support. At their core they remain a particular type of special interest or faction. Traditionally, ‘faction’ or politics dominated or manipulated by special interests is seen as a major threat to representation for society as a whole. We tend to think of special interests in terms of business and moneyed elites. The same concern applies to other forms of special interest groups.
Pluralist discourses v peremptory force
There exists a very longstanding debate about the status of rights and principles. Some see them as having ‘peremptory’ force – values that cannot be denied and that have to be observed without question. Others see most rights claims as qualified, contestable and open to different interpretations. In today’s diverse societies, allowing for pluralist interpretations of the public good seems to hold particular value. This turns attention again to democratic politics which is all about different interpretations of the collective good. Asserting that there are values that cannot be questioned may appear designed to shut down reasonable debate.
What is lost: Politics as accommodation
The tension between electoral politics and identity politics reflects, on the one hand, a frustration with the conventions of representative politics. On the other hand, the tension reflects an increasing prevalence of claims that impose costs on others, the multiplication of claims about rights, the role of special interests in pressing claims and a discouragement of discourse around the interpretation of values.
What is potentially diminished or damaged in this friction is the role of democratic politics in mediating between values and different conceptions of the public good and in finding a pathway between contending values. Representative politics has an especially important role in encouraging accommodation where no one may be completely satisfied but sufficient common ground is found for society to move forward out of deadlock.
We need to recognise the role of values that reflect individual, group and collective identity. However, we also need to find ways to strengthen the role of electoral politics so that representative democracy can continue to serve its essential function in helping democratic societies to find accommodation and pathways between conflicting values. The procedural and institutional deficiencies of representative politics need to be remedied.