Aggravating Ethnic Tensions with Identity Politics

Unscrupulous politicians can win support by aggravating ethnic tensions with identity politics and destabilising society as a result

The term ‘identity politics’ in this book is used to describe situations where people’s participation in politics is driven primarily by their ethnicity, rather than by a political ideology.  Francis Fukuyama, in an article Against Identity Politics: The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy, described this phenomenon:

“Again and again, groups have come to believe that their identities—whether national, religious, ethnic, sexual, gender, or otherwise—are not receiving adequate recognition.

…[identity politics] focuses people’s natural demand for recognition of their dignity and provides language for expressing the resentments that arise when such recognition is not forthcoming”.

Voting on the basis of ethnicity offers people the safety valve of knowing that their cultural identity is visible, but the political system becomes focused on negotiation by proxy between ethnic groups.  The population is then no longer directly guiding government policy, in what was described earlier as ‘joystick’ politics (

If there has been a history of conflict and lack of trust between ethnic groups they have no good basis for negotiating policy – they tend to posture and jockey for position rather than focus on the need to find collective solutions to the country’s problems.  As noted in Henri Tajfel’s paper, Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, (quoting Claude Louche):

“negotiation is not an alternative to intergroup conflict; it is one of the forms in which conflict is expressed.” [p. 14]

Some politicians exploit the underlying potential for ethnic conflict (4.4.5) by actively aggravating ethnic tensions with identity politics.  Even if there are no recognised ethnic political parties as such, there are several techniques can be used to stimulate people’s sense of identity as a means of gaining support:

●  Politicians can use broad labels to condemn an entire ethnic group because of dislike or disapproval of the actions of some people in that group, as described earlier (

●  Hostility towards immigrants can form the basis of a politician’s attempt to win support from the existing inhabitants of an area, by drawing attention to issues noted above (

●  People’s unfamiliarity with foreign cultures can enable immigrants to be demonised as a threat to national identity by ‘alt-right’ politicians (  As quoted in a Guardian article, Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police, a UKIP poster was described as a “blatant attempt to incite racial hatred” and showed a “similarity to Nazi propaganda footage of migrants shown in a BBC documentary from 2005”.  Such politicisation is one of the potential problems of rapid social and economic change, as analysed later (6.7.8).

●  Leaders can proclaim threats to a group’s freedom, status or security.  Jinnah stimulated anxiety among Muslims in India, for example, as Britain was granting it independence; a BBC article, Partition and its Legacies, reported on the effect of emphasising their separate ethnic identity:

“This was dramatically revealed on the 16 August 1946, when Jinnah called for a ‘Direct Action Day’ by followers of the League in support of the demand for Pakistan. The day had dissolved into random violence and civil disruption across north India, with thousands of lives lost.”

●  Religious labels can be attached to existing political movements.  The Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ were a prime example.  As characterised in a BBC article, The Troubles:[1]

“The goal of the unionist and overwhelmingly Protestant majority was to remain part of the United Kingdom. The goal of the nationalist and republican, almost exclusively Catholic, minority was to become part of the Republic of Ireland. This was a territorial conflict, not a religious one”.

●  Appeals to national identity can be used to mobilise people to take revenge for, or to ‘correct’, a past injustice.  Serbia’s invasion of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, for example, was politically linked to a desire to reverse its defeat in 1389 by the Ottoman Turks – as reported by Der Spiegel in an article The Curse of National Grievance.

●  Old religious disputes can be similarly re-awakened for political purposes.  For example, in 1992 the Hindu nationalist BJP argued that the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya had been built on the birthplace of the Hindu god-king Ram; this whipped up a frenzy of anti-Muslim feeling which resulted in the destruction of the mosque.  As reported in an Economist article, The mosque at Ayodhya, senior leaders of the BJP were “complicit in the vandalism” and “some 2,000 people died” in the ensuing violence.

●  Acts of political provocation can make a group feel good at the expense of its opponents, as in the example of Northern Ireland’s Protestants: a BBC article, Q&A: Orange marches, reported that “people see the parades as intimidatory and designed to raise tensions”; riots regularly ensued.

As shown in several of these examples, aggravating ethnic tensions with identity politics can easily escalate to violence.  And large-scale dissent can lead to separatist pressures (6.6.3).

An authoritarian government has two advantages, compared to a democracy, in reducing the risk of identity politics:

●  Politicians in an authoritarian system are less dependent upon short-term popularity, so they have less motivation to stir up tensions.  They have a strong incentive to maintain social stability (

●  There are no political mechanisms for one group to gain ascendancy over another, so it is less tempting to indulge in identity politics.

If an authoritarian government is overthrown, friction between ethnic groups can easily turn to violence – such as the “war, destruction and poverty” described in Tim Judah’s BBC article entitled Yugoslavia: 1918–2003.  These arguments do not in themselves constitute a reason for preferring authoritarianism as a system, but they can contribute to the legitimacy of authoritarian governments in countries where there would otherwise be a risk of identity politics.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6742a.htm.

[1] The BBC article, The Troubles, was no longer available in March 2020 but part of the quotation appeared in a GCSE revision paper on the poem Belfast Confetti at https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/z2fm97h/revision/3.