The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Identity: Political Concepts Chapter 4

Previous: Ideology

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

Identity is “when you’re cut, I bleed”, no ideology, religion, union, nation or political party can work without it. It is the glue that makes all politics and power possible.

Without identification, no ideology or legitimacy works. If you are a Christian and someone disrespecting the word of Christ doesn’t bother you, you won’t do anything about it. If you don’t think Jesus showed the way to salvation, you won’t act on his words or try and convert anyone, and if there hadn’t been Christians who did both those things, there would be no Christianity and no one would remember Jesus.

Likewise if it doesn’t make you angry when people cheat in an election, or when people aren’t able to elect politicians, you don’t believe in representative democracy in any way that matters: democracy spread because people believed in it and fought for it and in many cases died for it, just as all the Christian martyrs died.

In modern society we tend to think of identity in ethnic terms or in terms of personal shared characteristics: blacks and Chinese, and African-Americans and gays and trans people and women, white men, and perhaps as nationalism, “I am proud to be American. I always salute the flag and I thank our men and women who serve!”

But people can identify with almost anything including political parties and ideal such as voting, human rights, honor, nobility, and so on. Any ideology which does not have people who deeply care about it, believe in it and identify with it, will go nowhere, and if it once had such people, but the identification is gone, the ideology will die.

Legitimacy, even in the harshest of cases where it’s an autocrat and his band of soldiers ruling everyone else, rests on identity: “I am a servant of the KING,” or “I stand with my band of brothers” or in Feudalism “only the nobility have the right to rule, we are better and superior to peasants and money-grubbing merchants without honor!”

We identify with other people like us, it is true, but that encompasses far more than “we have the same skin color.” We identify with people who like what we like, who do what we do, who believe what we believe and who live like us.

You don’t need all of these things: Christians can identify with other Christians who have different skin color, live thousands of miles away and otherwise have different lives entirely: so long as they are Christian. The same is true of Islam, believers in democracy, or those who are for secularism and against religion.

Ideologies power legitimacy, but without identification with an ideology, there is no power behind an ideology, and thus no power behind legitimacy.

Identification, most simply, is produced by rituals. The classic rituals are the big religious ones, though for many people they have lost their power. A ritual creates an emotion and attaches it to something: most often people, objects or ideas.

The general idea in mass rituals is to have everyone doing and feeling the same thing at the same time, with the same focus. Think of the various forms of Christian ritual, with everyone focusing on the priest, the altar, the words of the Bible, singing together, praying together and so on. The more people move together, or focus on the same objects at the same time as they feel any emotion, the more they identify with the symbols and with other people who perform the same ritual.

A secular ritual is the concert, with people all focusing on the musicians, the music and moving, often dancing, together. Large sporting events, with human waves, and perhaps recitations of the “Oath of Allegiance” or the national anthem, have similar characteristics.

Rituals also include what sociologists call interaction rituals. Simple things: as a student you sit lower than your teacher and don’t speak unless the teacher gives permission. When you meet a friend you hug or shake hands and ask how you are and when you leave, you say goodbye and perhaps wish them well (and often hug again.) In Japan you might bow, with the depth of the bow determined by the relationship If you think these rituals don’t have power and emotions attached it’s simple to check: next time you meet a friend (or family member) you’d hug or shake hands with or bow, don’t. Don’t ask how they are, and when you decide to leave just turn around without a word and say nothing.

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Or stand up and start talking loudly when the teacher hasn’t given you permission to speak. Or stand too close to someone in an elevator, even. Or walk into the boss’s office and sit on his desk and say “Hey, Bob, how ya doin’.” Be sure to stare down at him. (Well, only do this if you’re OK with losing that job.)

Interaction rituals are usually low emotion, but they happen so often they create stories and relationships and identification: the teacher has the right to control the class, and when someone violates that, others are generally offended, or sometimes amused.

Implicitly or explicitly, all identification comes back to some sort of story, and an emotion attached to it. In the Catholic Mass, the last supper is re-enacted, and the participants because Christ’s disciples, with the priest taking the role of Christ. This ritual, in various forms, was powerful enough to enthrall most of Europe and various other regions of the worlds for almost two millennia.

Great rituals create powerfully charged symbolic objects: a Christian can simply think of the Cross, Jesus or the bible to experience the emotion again, and can perform small rituals alone, such as prayer, or the blessing of meals (which was common when I grew up, but seems to be much less common today.)

While rituals are more powerful when done with other people you can create identification while you are alone, as when reading a book or watching a movie. Great books and movies generate emotions about characters, ideas and symbols. If you don’t believe this, go to a comic convention (or social media) and insult a beloved comic book character. Completely fictional, but people CARE.

Such people have usually read hundreds of comic books or seen many movies and TV shows about the characters. They have strong emotions about those characters; they matter. Much as people who love Jesus have been told many stories about Jesus and had many emotions about Jesus, though religion often ads a belief that when something good happens their god made it happen, and that the god loves and cares for them. Unlike people in the world, a god’s love is often believed to be unconditional, something we otherwise get, perhaps, only from our mothers, and often not even from them.

Religious identification is, thus, identification on steroids, when it works,.

Often identification can be as simple as liking people who are like us: farmers from thousands of miles apart have some identification with each other. Likewise, go overseas where there is almost no one of your nationality, then meet a fellow citizen and you’ll find out how much identity nationality provides when you have an instant bond with someone based only on citizenship.

Just living in the same community, especially a small community, provides a lot of identification, because you know all the same people and places and grew up with very similar interaction rituals.

But a 5 foot tall black female who is a farmer in Nigeria has an identity in common with a 6 foot white male banker who lives in Norway if they’re both Christian or Muslim or Buddhist. A common identity could exist if both believe in human rights, or even if they both love the same author and books, or the same movies.

In essence, all identification makes things sacred: ideas, stories, characters, people (priests, the pope, rock stars, great scientists and novelists). Everything that happens to something sacred to you produces emotions. The pope is just some guy, but to a Catholic what he does is important: as Pope Francis is proving as I write, even Catholics who hate a pope are in a strong sacred relationship with him.

The American Constitution is just a bunch of words, but to many Americans it is sacred and if someone was to burn the original document they’d be offended. Even saying “no, people don’t have a right to happiness and aren’t equal, the Constitution is bullshit” would offend many and might get you punched.

Or burn a flag in many places in America: then run.

No idea has any political power without identification. No social group has any political power if the members do not identify with each other, because if they don’t, they won’t act together. A union dies not when it disbands, but when members break solidarity, which is why companies try and create “two tier” contracts where older employees are treated better than the new ones. A political party that has no partisans is a zombie, just waiting to be replaced.

Identification plus ideology is the creation of the sacred: of actions, ideas and people which must be treated in specific way. It is because of human rights that many are offended when they see someone beaten by police, and because of identification with authority that many others are pleased, “they must have had it coming, they should have obeyed.”

But, bottom line, just remember that identification is “when they are cut, I bleed”. If you don’t have an emotion when an idea, or person, or symbol is treated badly or well, then you aren’t identified with it. Without those emotions to drive action ideas, movements, political parties and ideologies have no ability to change the world, or even keep it as it is. When the objects which create emotions change, or the emotions themselves change, then the ideology has changed.

Identity and ideology are the base of all groups and coalitions; all political actors rely on and are created by story and identification: about how the world should be and create a group which feels the same.

Group action is the basic building block of politics, and it is that to which we will turn next.

Next: Groups and Coalitions


The Ongoing Depression Which Started in 2008


The Terror Of Electronic Money


  1. Willy

    I’d hope that a beneficial ideology could keep the nefarious from ever taking control of that ideology, to bastardize it to the point where it becomes unpopular if not irrelevant, or using the perverted version of the ideology for their own benefit. But when anything, any strategy, is open to the nefarious, this can be quite the bugger. But then, maybe I’m stepping ahead to ideas yet to be presented in this series.

  2. Z

    Give people an identity and they’ll defend it.


  3. bruce wilder

    I am likely gettIng way ahead of the argument, but I started thinking about identity in the context of the British Civil Wars of the 17th Century, a subject about which I have read several books and puzzled over. Much of religious and political ideology and identity as they are known in the Anglo-American world’s culture had its origins in the 17th century and the political turmoil of the British civil wars (there were several interlocking conflicts both within and among England, Scotland and Ireland) over the course of roughly a decade and a half beginning around 1639, but ultimately resolved in a brief coda of armed conflict around the accession of William and Mary in the Glorious Revolution.

    Christianity is an example for the OP, but of course Christianity has been quite a variety of belief systems, in differing times and places. The fracturing of Catholicism in the Protestant Reformation and its revival in the Counter-Reformation had plunged France and Germany into religious wars, culminating in the Thirty Years War which Elizabethan and early Stuart England had seemingly escaped, but an explosion of conflicting religious argumentation and enthusiasms combined with the personality of Charles I and the unstable configuration of his three kingdoms to set off a conflagration.

    The example made me think of political identities as carrying a repulsive as well as an attractive force, created as with magnets by the common alignment of people sharing an identity. Another analogy that occurred to me was with sometimes unstable, radioactive isotopes. Augmented with charge or mass, these compounds deteriorate, cool off in a sense into less volatile or unstable compounds.

    Tolerance was definitely a political idea in the 17th century, held and proposed as a matter of conviction or convenience by leaders as varied as James II and Cromwell. But intolerance was the greater force and manifested in both war and judicial brutality. England eventually produced two of the most famous and tepid political ideologies to ever govern: the Whigs and the Tories. And, in the course of the late 17th and 18th century, socio-economic classes nominally excluded from politics would produce a social and economic revolution.

    At the end of the 17th century, religious passions cooled and more practical reason prevailed as the Enlightenment took over. The kind of religious fervor that could prosecute witches or prescribe the death penalty for blasphemy faded from credibility. English monarchists, I suppose, were mostly lawyers not priests and martyrs from the death of Wolsey if not long before, but monarchy became a convenient legal fiction underneath all the pomp and ritual and ceremony. Ritual, as Ian says, is a key aspect of the exercise of the public morality ideology, identity and legitimacy. (Still the Royal Navy, but the British Army — thank you Cromwell!)

    Interesting to me how the passions of the mid-17th century had to cool in the long stasis of Whig-Tory reactionary stalemate. Many ideas and reforms breached in the Cromwellian interlude were not realized for decades. Religious tolerance and electoral reform of Parliament took well over a century to get restarted.

    I wonder how many people in any Age actually tend to quietly sit out fervent ideological conflict in their private hearts while letting the preachers and demagogues carry the moment. I wonder, too, on how identity and ideology interact with the ability of leaders, elite social classes and broader societies to think through the practical necessities of common, shared problems while spotting opportunities to act in concert with partisans of different persuasions with whom one agrees to disagree on matters of ideological faith.

  4. Watt4Bob

    So, who was the first to figure out that dividing the working class into many sub-identities would destroy its political power and allow for the erasure of democracy so hated by the elites?

  5. different clue


    I have not studied this but I have read here and there that in the semi early 1600s, in the Port of Baltimore ( and maybe elsewhere), the indentured servants of all races rebelled against indentured servitude. The authorities put down the rebellion and then assigned differential punishments by ethnic origin. European ancestry indentured servants were punished lightly and African ancestry indentured servants were punished heavily, often put to death. The English Colonial authorities worked after that to harden the racial categories in order to foster this division, and hardened indentured servitude for Black people into slavery, because a runaway Black slave could be easier spotted and captured than a runaway British Isles indentured servant, who could perhaps fade into the emerging White background.

    Or so I have read.

    Does the 1619 project mention that? I will guess it tries to suppress all mention of it.

  6. Trinity

    “So, who was the first to figure out that dividing the working class into many sub-identities would destroy its political power and allow for the erasure of democracy so hated by the elites?”

    I was going to answer “they’ve had hundreds if not a thousand years of practice” in the myriad ways they’ve kept their power, but DC posted a better example.

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