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Identity Politics and the Constitution of the Illiberal State

The CEU Campus
Friday, May 31, 2019, 9:15 am – Saturday, June 1, 2019, 1:00 pm

The Department of Legal Studies cordially invites all to 

a workshop on

Identity Politics and the Constitution of Illiberal State

Opening remarks by András Sajó, University Professor (CEU)

on 31 May 2019 at 9.15 a.m.

In the last decades identity has become the battle cry of political movements in old and new democracies. In response to the (alleged) weaknesses of traditional party-politics new entrants have sought to mobilize on the basis of pre-political fundamentals. Formulated as a struggle for the recognition of a certain group on the basis of asserted kinship or other shared traits, modern identity politics is associated with different political ambitions, including the desire of emancipation, recognition, representation or inclusion on carefully defined terms. In the age of identity politics illiberal ideas and practices become more and more legitimated through the promise of protecting a traditional (ascribed) political identity.

Contemporary political discourse (in Europe, but also elsewhere, e.g. in India) seems to have become largely identity-driven. The wizards of identity politics masterfully mold the terms of belonging, and also its consequences, to the needs of the moment. These ideas gain legitimacy in the legal system as the illiberalism of identity-based agendas is easily transposed into seemingly harmless claims for defending (national) constitutional identity. This newly found political and constitutional identity is easy to mobilize against, invariably, “the elites,” “the establishment, “the West,” “Europe,” and – ultimately -- against “liberal / constitutional democracy.” As a result, democratic political regimes drift towards illiberalism before our eyes.

Identity politics became a formative component of contemporary populism. To be fair, identity politics was a decisive component of populism at least from Peron, but classic populism was quite inclusive, even if at the expense of demonizing certain privileged and ‘suspicious’ groups labeled elite. In the ‘culture wars’ identity politics seems to pervade contemporary U.S. politics too: its consequences are described, among others by Mark Lilla, albeit belatedly. Likewise, the hot topics of recent election campaigns in Europe were all identity-driven. Recently, anti-migration as identity protection became the battle-cry of illiberal movement which are built on an us-them logic.

The way identity is used by populists is decisive for the emerging illiberal democracies which move towards electoral authoritarianism. The way identity is played out in these regimes is described presciently by Umberto Eco in his Ur-Fascism essay (1996): “To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born to the same country… Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies.” Is identity and identity-based politics illiberal by definition, even where it intends to be liberating? Initially identity claims served the expression of grievances and fears of loss. Over time they have become self-centered, limiting the possibility to discuss common societal problems. The resulting silence nurtures illiberal practices, an ultimately, illiberal political regimes. In the name of setting a particularistic political agenda, identity-based politics often undermines substantive deliberative democracy and certain fundamental freedoms, as it enhances a single, state sponsored identity. That the debate between multiculturalists (who may justify balkanization) and the partisans of cultural homogeneity (who either contribute to exclusion or allow social integration only on the basis of cultural uniformity) continues against this backdrop.

The resulting relation between identity and democracy is complex. Constitutional theory cannot simply disregard prevailing cultural majorities. It is often assumed that cultural homogeneity is the necessary precondition of any stable constitutional system. Democracy can only work when the participants (mostly citizens) recognize each other as equal and members of the same political community – in spite of differences regarding e.g. gender or ethnicity, or culture as a privileged form of life. As already Montesquieu pointed out in the Spirit of the Laws, “the principle of democracy is corrupted not only when the spirit of equality is lost, but also when the spirit of extreme equality is assumed, and everyone wants to be equal to those whom he chooses to govern him.“ This entails the existence of a certain tolerance vis-a-vis different ideas and the openness for dialogue. However, as Nadia Urbinati showed some two decades ago, identity politics often works with a different concept of equality.

Identity politics changes the way democracy, and especially democratic deliberation works. Discussion is seamlessly replaced with increasingly bitter exchanges of non-negotiable fundamentals. Differences of opinions and reasonable disagreements settled through the political system are washed away by emotional politics, built on unverifiable truths supporting thinly veiled threats. In such a climate minority voices are delegitimized and dissent is not just crushed but deemed illegitimate as not speaking for the ‘real people’ - a common rhetorical device favored by populists everywhere. Clashing claims made on the basis of pre-political terms of kinship (tribalism) and belonging push open dialogue and rational discussion to the sidelines of the political discourse. Once losers are pushed to the sidelines of the political community, they can hardly expect to be welcomed back by the winners of the next electoral cycle.

This workshop intends to discuss the relevance of identity politics in the formation of illiberal regimes and the compatibility of identity claims and identity-based politics with liberal ideals.

Professor Andras Sajo
Professor Renata Uitz
Convenors, CEU Legal Studies, Budapest

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