The end of identity politics

Image of Simon Kuper

When James Carville wrote, “It’s the economy, stupid,” on a sign in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters in 1992, his words were not yet entirely true.

Admittedly, the bad American economy did get Clinton elected president. However, anyone hoping to lead the free world in those days had to answer some other momentous questions. Had Clinton smoked marijuana at Oxford? Did he sleep with Gennifer Flowers? Voters in western countries then still cared about issues of identity. They wanted leaders who at least pretended to share their values. That’s over now. Twenty years on, Carville is finally correct. Sex, drugs and old wars are fading from voters’ heads, leaving the economy as the only issue in politics. This shift may not be a good thing.

Each country used to have its own peculiar brand of identity politics. Sex, race and notions of American manliness held sway in the US. In 2000 George W. Bush got elected president pledging “to restore honour and dignity to the Oval Office”, which in the code of the day meant, “no oral sex”. He won again in 2004 after the “Swift Boat” ads cast doubt on John Kerry’s manliness during the Vietnam war.

British voters were long guided partly by their views on gays, adulterers and single mothers. Italian voters were divided by whether they believed in God or not. In the Netherlands, what mattered was exactly which God you believed in. And everywhere hung the shadow of the second world war. Charles de Gaulle ran France until 1969 largely because he embodied the bit of France that had chosen the right side in 1940. Postwar, the whole country wanted that halo.

The obsession with the war sometimes took surprising forms. In the West German elections of 1961, the Christian Socialist Franz-Josef Strauss kept asking the same question of the Social Democrat Willy Brandt, who had spent the Nazi era in exile in Scandinavia. “What were you doing in those 12 years outside Germany?” Strauss would ask, adding, “We know what we were doing here in Germany.” As Hannah Arendt noted, this seemed an odd line of attack given the precise nature of what Germans in Germany had been doing back then. Yet Strauss bet that voters would choose his identity – the unconditional patriot – over Brandt’s.

The shift from identity politics to economics was a long time brewing. It happened partly because the 1960s ended and the social liberals won, and partly because voters finally stopped expecting politicians to be role models. However, the shift was sealed on September 15 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed. John McCain had then already become the Republican nominee, largely because he had been tortured in Vietnam and was therefore felt to embody American manliness. He had never pretended to understand economics. Post-Lehman, economics were suddenly decisive. McCain lost the election.

Now voters barely care about a politician’s identity. The US is led by a black man, Iceland by a lesbian, the Scottish Conservatives by a lesbian kick-boxer and the UK by an Old Etonian. No politician today would pay Carville to tell him, “It’s the economy, stupid”, because the truth is self-evident. Even northern Europe’s racist parties are shifting from berating Muslims to berating Greek bailouts. The new American mass movements, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, have explicitly economic names. The latter’s war cry, “We are the 99 per cent”, refers to a statistical finding about income distribution that before 2008 was barely known outside university economics faculties. Only in the time warp of the US’s Republican primaries do arguments about God, guns and gays still rage.

Each new era gets its own scandals. Sex scandals still hang on in the US, but elsewhere they have given way to scandals featuring politicians who have got cosy with rich people: the UK’s ex-defence minister Liam Fox and his best man Adam Werritty, or the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the billionaire Liliane Bettencourt. Italians are getting rid of Silvio Berlusconi because of rising bond yields, not because of baroque sex.

Voting on economic issues sounds grown-up. Unfortunately, voters aren’t equipped to do it. One great thing about oral sex is that everyone has an opinion about it. But now voters are trying to judge matters that baffle even professional economists. Does the UK need to pay down its debt so quickly? Does the US need a fiscal stimulus? Do Greeks need the euro? Ruling elites often complicate issues further by deliberately using incomprehensible language. For instance, talk of a Greek “debt restructuring” is meant to hide the fact that the Germans, Dutch and Finns would have to hand over their savings.

Voters are left having to make blind choices. They don’t even have economic heroes to use as guides, because erstwhile heroes such as Alan Greenspan and Gordon Brown fell in the crisis. It’s all a muddle. If only we could still argue about Monica Lewinsky.

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