October 08, 2006

Negative Identities

Interesting post here at Legal Fiction by Publius about the Republican Party and what holds it together. He argues that their tactic of calling into question Democrat behaviour about the Foley affair (in which a Republican Congressman has been accused of inappropriate behaviour towards a 16 year-old page) reveals not merely political manoeurvering but the way that parties identity negatively against each other- Republicans are Republicans not out of adherence to a tax plan but out of hatred of those liberal Democrats in Washington.

There is a lot of truth in this and Publius is right about the way that people identify. Linda Colley's great work on British nationalism where she saw how Britain was unified through a hatred of Catholics and Frenchmen. Benedict Andersson used the phrase 'imagined communities' to describe various nations and there were imagined positives- for example English nationalism owed a lot to Englishmen like John Lilburne feeling a great degree of pride in their traditions of law and government- from Sir Edward Coke to Lord Macaulay the ingredients of Whig history became part of a sense of England as a uniquely liberty loving place and were used by politicians like Asquith and Churchill to justify English behaviour in the 20th Century. But hatred forms such a vast part of nationalism around the world- Colley may be trite but she is accurate- Americans are American not merely because they beleive in Freedom but because since the Revolution they have known that they aren't part of the old world.

Part of this is that to define myself as a sensible, kind, loving, thoughtful, wise human being I have to define others as lacking those qualities. Those words distinguish me from others- they are not neccessarily descriptive of me as many times- say as I pass a beggar on the street I don't behave in those ways, but they say that I am more like those qualities than the mean human being is. We have to cope intellectually with a scale all the time- whether it be in politics or life- and one of the ways we try and cope with that is to define ourselves by reference to other points. When we are proud of something that means that we define ourselves by the points lower than ourselves- for me to be wise, I define others as foolish. In party terms- we are all together more similar to each other than the people facing us- hence our bond is our dislike and dissimularity to the people opposing us. Our identity is built upon their failure to have the same identity as us.

Obviously this is not a complete explanation of party or national identification but it does go someway to describe the psychological reality that Publius is getting at.


Vino Sangarapillai said...

I agree with the thrust of the article. The Labour Party nowadays is held together by common opposition to the Tories, not by a left-wing vision. Often, particularly in 2-party systems, parties do tend to define themselves by their opponents.

Gracchi said...

Thanks Vino, not surprisingly I agree with you.

edmund said...

obvislu this is the case that how paties come into existnce inthe first polace if everyone agreed ith the toes-there would not be 2 parties, in fact there probably wouldn't be a party as they would then split under the nature of electoral democracy