The Perils of Identity Politics

How do we rebuild a politics of consensus and cooperation? As the public conversation becomes more fraught and social media fuels discord and mistrust, our politics is becoming angrier and more confrontational. A toxic combination of social, political and economic fracturing raises significant barriers standing in the way of a healthy and harmonious society.

‘Across Western democracies, the social cohesion that was once the foundation of political consensus has severely fragmented, giving way to a cultural and ideological diversity so robust that it thwarts a common sense of belonging.’ Nathan Gardels, editor-in-chief, The WorldPost 

Fractures across our society have been well-documented, including by Together for the Common Good. As we stated in our recent blog about Better Angels, a bipartisan movement in the United States, ‘we live in an age of intense individualism: economically, culturally and socially we have become atomised, separated from community, ignorant of others and siloed within our own echo chambers. We are exposed only to news that makes us angry with the other side: algorithms control the posts and links we see and feed a worldview that we already agree with. In spite of its benefits, the paradox of social media is that it has made us less social and made society less human.’

The online world is just one area where our public life has been undermined and our opinions have hardened and deafened to the perspectives of others. As a recent feature in The WorldPost highlights, we live in silos, ‘where stereotypes replace real experience with others’. Our inability to build relationships and understandings across social, political and economic divides leaves us incapable of achieving the consensus and cooperation that we need in order to build the common good – our shared life together.

One of the leading forces driving these fractures is identity politics. Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist at Stanford University, has said that class-based political expression emerging out of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s has been replaced by a more individualistic understanding of personal identity through ‘lived experiences’. This serves not only to reinforce 'confirmation bias' and separate people into ever more segmented groups, it also undermines community identity, communication between people and empathy for others who have different ‘lived experiences’ and world views.  

Initially largely impacting on left-wing politics, identity politics has now become intrinsically tied to the populism sweeping across Europe and the United States today. Fukuyama believes that the factors behind this include ‘globalisation and its highly unequal impact on developed country populations. Outsourcing and technological change have not just impacted working-class incomes but have also led to a broad social decline that is perceived as a loss of status. High levels of immigration have further challenged traditional notions of national identity, providing an opening for populist politicians who have blamed elites for this situation.’

In the liberal postwar systems of the West, the reduction in trading, migratory and political barriers has revolutionised global and local economies. But it has come hand in hand with the breakdown of social solidarity within countries and communities as well as across borders. The difference in life experiences between the struggling and the comfortable is stark. While they may live just across the road from each other, in the same town, they may never encounter each other or understand how the other feels. Without an appreciation or understanding of how our neighbour lives, how can we forge a common life together in which everyone thrives?

Social scientist Jutta Allmendinger echoes these concerns and extends Fukuyama’s point: by not building understanding and connected communities, we have created a social and political crisis.

‘Given how crucial overlapping social circles are to cultivating solidarity within a nation, it is worrisome that there are fewer and fewer interactions between different social groups occurring in modern society’.  Jutta Allmendinger, Senior Fellow at the Centre for European Studies, Harvard University 


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has produced a powerful alternative vision of how our politics needs to change from today’s broken and divisive model to 'a Politics of Hope’, from the contractual and technocratic, dehumanising systems currently at play to a society built upon a social covenant.

Drawing deeply from his Jewish tradition, Sacks proposes that putting human relationships first and building bonds across social, economic, political and cultural divides will create a society that serves all. This is the way to defeat the dehumanising tendencies of the over centralised state and the over powerful market.

This vision is remarkably close to the Christian understanding of the Common Good, advocated by T4CG and others. It proposes a coherent approach for building a common life together, recognising that as human beings we are bound by bonds that go deeper than self interest and that we are each individually, and together, responsible for the Common Good. 

Earlier this year we reflected on how the Common Good approach can be an antidote to this highly complex challenge of a deeply fragmented society: 

‘The Common Good is generated as human beings cooperate and find solutions together. It is not a utopian ideal imposed by some on others. To build a civilised life together we need to deliberate and negotiate – including with people we may not like. But polarisation and identity politics are sewing social fragmentation: the breakdown of trust is a significant barrier to the Common Good. In turbulent times like these we need to ask ourselves: does exposure only to voices we agree with help or hinder the building of the Common Good? And how can we build a society where different voices can be heard, listened to and engaged better?’


Tom Ketteringham


  • With thanks to The WorldPost, a partnership between the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post

  • To find out more about Common Good Thinking, click here.


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