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Identity Politics is Not the Answer to Authoritarianism, It's Bait

For decades now, progressive foundations and activists, particularly from the US, have had one central grand strategy towards advancing their cause - empower youth, women, and other ‘marginalized constituencies’.

There are many legitimate reasons to do this to build a more equal and inclusive society. But it’s increasingly clear that not only is this approach not the answer to authoritarianism, it’s often a central part of the problem.

Progressives sometimes assume that such 'marginalized' constituencies are progressive, or at least, democratic. But this is not at all the case. For example, authoritarians are often driven by younger voters, and hold strong support among women. Even Donald Trump is now sometimes polling ahead of Joe Biden among Generation Z voters, an astonishing shift from 2020 when Biden won this demographic at 60% support to Donald Trump’s 36%. The generation in which Trump is most popular is now Millennials. His least popular? Baby boomers. I can hear progressive strategists’ brains failing to compute.

This pattern is replicating elsewhere. Far right populists like Miele in Argentina and Prabowo in Indonesia or Marcos in the Philippines are counting young people among their strongest support base. Even Canada is seeing its first truly populist right wing surge, with its strongest support among younger generations. Like Biden, Trudeau’s strongest support is among the oldest voters.

So you can see how it just doesn’t make sense to plan to counter authoritarianism by “mobilizing youth”. That’s what authoritarians are doing. Youth are a key battlefield, just like every other demographic. The progressive conflation of identity and ideology is a chimera, partly a cherished fantasy, but also an artefact of the legal need for tax-exempt nonprofits and foundations to claim their work isn’t partisan or political.

Other identity groups also challenge the progressive orthodoxy. In the US, many progressives have assumed the validity of Biden’s infamous statement: “if you don’t vote for me, you ain’t black”. But in fact it has been non-white voters that have kept Trump competitive. Biden’s support among white voters and Asians has been largely steady since 2020, but Trump has seen steady increases in support from Latinos and Blacks both between 2016 and 2020 and since then. Astonishingly, for the first time in 50 years, democrats are now polling below 50% among young minority voters. So how does ‘empower young people of color’ make sense as an anti-authoritarian strategy in the US?

Women are perhaps the most frequently cited identity group as being central to the fight against authoritarians. It’s true that in some authoritarian countries like Turkey the machismo of leaders and chivalry of the culture means that women’s groups may keep somewhat more civic freedoms to speak out and protest, and have more impact when they do, and also true that in some places more women oppose authoritarians, particularly younger women. But as a general demographic, there’s no evidence that women are inherently more progressive or democratic. Biden only won the 2020 election because of a large (11%!) swing of white men to his camp. Women swung the other way, with nearly half of women voting for Trump, and in greater numbers than they had in 2016 - a 5% swing among each of white, black and Hispanic women. I know some of the activists who carefully targeted those swing white male voters who had voted for Obama and then Trump. They mainly weren’t funded or supported by foundations or mainstream activist groups - it was the ‘smart money’, the funders more interested in results than ideology, that supported them.

The trend on women voters backing authoritarians shows up in many countries, such as India. But I mention the US more because it’s been by far the most developed example of the application of this progressive identity politics strategy, a strategy that US progressives are aggressively exporting to the rest of the world - particularly ethnically diverse democracies like Brazil and South Africa. So it provides the best test case and a cautionary tale on where this strategy leads.

There are many theories about why this approach fails, but regardless of the reasons, those of us who care about democracy need to take note that progressive identity politics may be ineffective, or worse, counterproductive to the cause. There’s much evidence that baiting progressives to fall into what Georgetown professor Yascha Mounk calls the “identity trap” is actually a core part of the authoritarian playbook.

Why this is the case matters. Because it may yield deeper insight into how to fight authoritarians effectively. If we can figure out what it is specifically about progressive identity politics that doesn’t work, maybe we can build an approach that does.

The approach seems straightforward in theory. In the US progressives have since 2015 sought to emphasize a portrayal of Trump as a sexist and racist, operating from a general paradigm of intersectionality that when you cobble these marginalized and targeted groups together, you get well over 50% of the electorate.

But what that approach doesn’t recognize is that intersectionality works both ways. If you are perceived to favour minorities and the marginalized over others, the others can feel “othered” and also find common cause, and they will add up to a larger total number when cobbled together. If you send a subtle message that you’re not for men or white people or straight people, you’re potentially alienating everyone except non-white LGBTQ women. Left wing identity politics breeds right wing identity politics, minoritarianism begets majoritarianism.

Add to all this the fact that such group identities sometimes have low salience for individuals. Championing such group identities not only can alienate those not championed, it can fall flat or even be off putting to a large percentage of the group you’re seeking to champion. If you want to organize youth at scale, the last thing you do is tell them it’s a youth organizing effort. Youth (excepting those invited to glitzy foundation dinners and intergovernmental soirées) don’t care about “the youth voice” per se, they care about the world.

One of the reasons for the off-putting or backfire effect is that many minorities eschew highlighting racial and ethnic differences because they feel it leads to division and discrimination, which some have painful experience of. And on this point, a fair amount of research, well conveyed in Mounk’s recent book, The Great Experiment, suggests they’re right. The historic failure of 30 years of DEI trainings to make any improvement in corporate leadership diversity in the US is largely chalked up to the tendency of these programs to activate bias, not reduce it.

A similar set of things may be true about gender. Some research suggests that women, even more than minorities, tend to prefer a “blindness” over an “awareness” approach to achieving equality, in which gender as a factor is not emphasized but rather downplayed. And gender salience is even lower than other identity markers. The highest levels of gender identity salience are actually found among strongly conservative women, which may further exacerbate the backfire effect as progressives try to conflate femininity and progressivism. I suspect this is a factor behind far-right Giorgia Meloni being the most popular politician among Italian women.

But perhaps most powerfully, focusing heavily on such group identities misses the actual identities that are often far more salient for individuals. Brazilian progressives have long joined their American counterparts in feeling that increasing the salience and politicization of racial and other identities is a winning progressive strategy. But analyses of Bolsonaro’s support show that (consistent with results across Latin America for some time) none of the demographic identity groups were the most powerful predictors of political affiliation, (though they did increase in influence in the 2018 election). Rather the main predictor was political ideology.

Progressives tend to think that political ideology is malleable, a function of education and information. They often dismiss strong conservatives as simply deluded or brainwashed. But a great deal of research shows that political orientation is largely genetic, with 60% of individual variance explained genetically. Whether we are more or less suspicious of new and different things, more or less disgusted by transgressions of norms, more or less trusting of others etc are largely functions of personality, and humans vary in personality by pretty stable proportions. It’s just human nature.

So when progressives conflate identity and ideology, they can strongly alienate the relatively fixed numbers of conservatives in any given identity group. This appears to be a key aspect of what has been driving minorities out of the democratic camp and into the Trump camp.

Another powerfully salient aspect of identity is national identity. Conservatives and authoritarian populists already often have an edge in this department, typically wrapping themselves in the flag. But championing group identities without a strong invocation of common national identity can also seem to set progressives against this aspect of people’s felt identities. It can also, sometimes legitimately, position progressives as a divisive force, rather than a unifying one. Ironically, it opens the door for authoritarians to claim to be the more inclusive political movement, which they often do. Even more important, they’re often seen that way by the median voter.

Lastly, class identity is perhaps declining overall in many countries since the previous century. But communists often saw capitalists as using racial and other divides to split the workers against each other, to maintain the status quo. I believe a strong version of this is playing out as both progressives and authoritarians often adopt economically populist platforms, but it appears that authoritarians are sometimes better at convincing marginalized members of majority identity groups that they actually have their back. Continuing with the American example, Bernie Sanders stands as an example of a politician who largely eschewed traditional democratic identity politics to embrace the more populist playbook of the people vs elites. The left's strong focus on anti-racism actually risks conveying how out of touch it is with actual minority community concerns, as large percentages stress issues like crime and jobs over issues like racism. In 2021, for example, only 3% of Black Americans listed racism as the most important issue facing their community.

All of my focus so far has been on what I’d call moderate progressive identity politics - the folks who just emphasize the empowerment of specific identity groups. But of course there is a more radical group that often seeks highly unpopular cultural change, and lacking popularity, often seeks that change through socially authoritarian means - policing their accepted speech and norms through coercive social means.

The radicalism and cancel culture of this group makes them not just feared and disliked by most voters, but one of the major forces driving moderate and even liberal voters to support right wing authoritarians. A New York Times analysis shows that 8% of Trump’s support are “newcomers” who are socially and economically liberal/progressive, but are distinguished, even relative to other Trump supporters, by their support for fighting the “woke left”.  These newcomers skew younger, but this motivation is equally strong for the “blue collar populists” in northern states of the US who are also economically moderate. Together these constituencies make up 20% of Trump’s support. A poll by Harvard University showed that 87% of Americans see cancel culture as a problem and 54% as a personal threat to them. So the 8% that have switched to Trump so far may be the tip of a far larger potential constituency.

I remember talking to liberal friends in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. They were democracy activists, but once they saw the Brotherhood pressing more conservative norms in women’s behavior and dress etc, they said they preferred a return to military dictatorship. Most people will prefer political authoritarianism to social authoritarianism, because politics is distant from their lives, but every day they live and breathe the culture of their society.

So as progressives misfire, backfire and alienate with identity politics, authoritarians are often able to come across as more inclusive leaders with a vision to lift everyone up, at least within a national community. I know this isn’t how progressives see them, but it is how majorities of voters often see them, and that’s what matters most in elections. Trump and Bolsonaro I would say are at the incompetent end of the spectrum, but hyper-popular authoritarian leaders like Modi have perfected this populist approach.

I understand it’s hard for progressives to abandon the themes and causes they’ve dedicated their lives to, and I’m not suggesting they do. Racial and gender and youth and minority empowerment work may have much room for improvement, but they don’t need to roll back. But for politics and democracy, I think we need to recognize that an approach that lifts all marginalized boats, rather than just some, is going to be far more effective at actually delivering sustainable change, and doesn’t risk burning down our democracies in the process. And that will be much better for everyone, most of all the marginalized.

I feel some urgency in writing this post. Because in 2020 in the US we saw a sharp turn towards the more aggressive forms of radical progressive identity politics. It seemed in part to be a reaction on the left to anxiety around Trump potentially winning the election. If true, there may be a danger that both in the lead up to the 2024 election and in the aftermath of a potential Trump victory, US progressives will cast around for ideologies to cling to and seize onto a narrative of ideological purification, breeding again a more radical and aggressive identity politics approach. I think this is likely the dream scenario for Trump and Putin and the authoritarian crowd, and why I expect authoritarian influence operations to be instigating it at scale, as they have repeatedly done in the past. Will US progressives take the bait again? Given America's pivotal role in anchoring democracy globally, the fate of the democratic world may hang on that question.


1 Comment

Paula Brufman
Paula Brufman
May 09

Hi Ricken, so great to "read" you and see what you have been doing lately! Congrats.

I just wanted to chip in with some comments, because even though I share some of your views, I also think it's important to contextualize some of the ideas that you throw in your post because while the argument presented raises important worries about the possible drawbacks of depending entirely on progressive identity politics to resist authoritarianism, it misses some critical factors and gives a relatively limited perspective of the complicated processes at work.

To be fair, we must acknowledge that the efficiency of any political approach is greatly influenced by context, which includes historical, cultural, and socioeconomic aspects. And while it is true…


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