The results of three elections in different parts of the world have been cast by pundits as proof that politicians who embrace “identity politics” risk being punished for it at the polls. In each case, this narrative has pointed to an emphasis on LGBT rights as being politically risky and somehow divisive.
Last year, in a plebiscite, a slight majority of the Colombian people rejected the negotiated peace agreement between the government and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas. Some observers believed that many voters had treated the vote as a referendum on the government’s overall performance — as tends to happen with many referendums. In that vein, some analysts attributed the loss to “gender politics.”
The Constitutional Court had removed barriers to adopting children for gay individuals and couples in 2015 and legalized same-sex marriage in 2016. On top of that, months before the plebiscite the education minister, a lesbian, had proposed mixed bathrooms and changes to school uniforms to put less emphasis on gender. She also wanted to create a manual to curb discrimination based on sexual orientation in schools. Her proposals met fierce opposition from conservative politicians.
Opponents linked the issue with the peace process, in part, misusing the fact that the education minister had become the one of the central spokespersons for the government’s “yes” campaign on the peace agreement. The opposition falsely claimed that the peace agreement undermined family values and supported non-traditional views on gender and sexual orientation. The term “gay colonization” was coined.
Analyzing the unexpected electoral loss of Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential elections in November, professor Mark Lilla argued in an op-ed in The New York Times that her campaign had “slipped” into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT, and women voters while saying nothing of direct resonance to white working-class voters that have long been part of her party’s base. In his telling, this led many white working class voters to feel abandoned.
He said that national politics is not about “difference” but about commonality, and that Clinton’s campaign failed to speak clearly enough to issues like economic justice that cut across group lines. In a campaign that set out to embrace diversity, white, rural, religious Americans started to see themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity and real-world needs were being ignored.
In the Netherlands, the March 15 election ended in a dramatic loss for the Dutch Labor Party. Martin Sommer, a leading pundit, gave his analysis in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant. According to him, the Dutch Labor Party had neglected to address issues of major concern for the general public, in favor of a narrow focus on specific interests of minority groups. He echoed Lilla’s views. The Dutch education minister, a Labor Party member, had opened a gender-neutral bathroom in her ministry and gave interviews about why she thought it was important to introduce them. Sommer contended that transgender people whose interests would be served by this arrangement are only a very, very small percentage of the population and that by addressing this issue the minister had alienated the majority of voters.
Whatever one thinks of the term, public unhappiness with “identity politics” has shown itself to be a complicated and volatile political rallying cry. Many of the questions Lilla and others have written on are of course worth exploring. But it’s dangerous and intellectually bankrupt to claim that the right lesson to draw from all of this is that politicians have gone too far in embracing diversity and standing up for the rights of women, racial minorities, LGBT people, or anyone else. Political leaders may well need to look for new ways to speak to the needs and interests of groups who feel alienated by mainstream politics, but they shouldn’t embrace bigotry as a cheap and easy way to get there.
LGBT activists advocate for equal rights and nondiscrimination. They do not claim special or extra rights. They aspire to a society where LGBT people are not bullied at work or in school and have the same relationship rights as others do. Equality and nondiscrimination are values that concern everyone in society. They require a robust defense. Because the values of human rights depend foremost on the ability to empathize with others — to recognize the importance of treating others the way we would want to be treated — they are especially vulnerable when the argument of the majority versus minorities is invoked.
Politics that stops talking about minority rights on the theory that upholding them is “divisive” or makes it harder to win over majority voting blocs, will only lead to a more fragmented society, not bring people together. Instead political leaders should make clear that rights are not a zero-sum game — protecting my rights does not undermine yours. On the contrary, it creates a framework we can all rely on if our rights come under threat.
BORIS DITTRICH is the LGBT rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.