Turkey's Elections Are Not Determined By Identity Politics

June 21, 2019

Only when Turkish democracy has deepened and stabilized, and when economic prosperity has been achieved by a much larger swath of Turkish society will identity politics begin to determine elections. 
Supporters of Justice and development party (AK Party) wave Turkish national flags as they celebrate during a rally near the party's headquarters on March 31, 2019 in Istanbul after the non-definitive results of the local elections to elect the mayors for 30 large metropolitan cities, 51 provincial capitals and 922 districts. OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

… with the entry of the masses of the population… into a modern world, the monopoly of the small, Westernized elites who shaped the first generation of post-colonial history was being challenged. And with them, the programmes, the ideologies, the very vocabulary and syntax of the public discourse, on which the new states rested. For the new urban and urbanized masses, even the new massive middle classes… were not… the old elites. Often… they resented them.  In any case, the masses of the poor did not share the belief in the Western nineteenth-century aspiration of secular progress…. in many countries of the Third World nationwide politics in the sense invented and recognized in the West since the French Revolution had never existed, or had not been allowed to function (Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, 1914-1991, “Chapter 12:  The Third World)

Samuel Huntington’s notorious text, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, is now nearly 25 years old. Even though Huntington’s deliberately contentious vision of global conflicts driven by monolithic cultural identities was always, at best, extremely difficult to accept, today world tensions are clearly propelled by different factors. The decisions taken by the U.S., Russian, Chinese, or EU leaderships are far more likely to be focused on economic or military-strategic concerns rather than ethnic or “civilizational” sentiments. Such culturally chauvinistic rhetoric does appear, of course, but it is utilized for economic or political reasons, and is not an end in itself. What I mean is that cultural, ethnic, or religious identities are not the primary motivation behind the major powers’ Grand Strategy decisions, and are only tools at a politician’s disposal.

While international relations are obviously still driven by the established concerns of modern nation-states, domestic politics in many societies have turned in a different direction. As countless commentators have noted, the world’s domestic politics, especially in the Western societies, have become a contest over identities. Furthermore, only some of these identities are the ethnic or religious identities that Huntington identified; just as often domestic political debates in the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Australia, and other “Western” societies are riven by tendentious debates over what, until the 1960s, was considered the “personal” as opposed to the “political.” In that peak decade of what Eric Hobsbawm termed the social and cultural revolutions, “… the threads which in the past had woven human beings into social textures” were cut. Lifestyle choices, gender identities, individual rights and liberties, and specific political policies towards those topics came to the forefront of activism, spearheaded by the younger generation and taking even the traditional Marxist Left by surprise.

The world’s domestic politics, especially in the Western societies, have become a contest over identities.

The advent of the Internet in the 1990s accelerated the momentum of identity politics, and devices such as smart phones have revolutionized the manner in which people consume information. But again, as numerous observers have wrung their hands over, this easy information access came with a price: electronic devices and social media now underlie highly polarized information consumption. Every owner of a smart phone has unlimited information at their fingertips anytime and anywhere, but must choose to ingest enough information to remain informed in a holistic manner on whatever issues concern them. For most people, that is simply an unattainable ideal when a day has only 24 hours to divide amongst work, family, friends, modern life’s many responsibilities, and basic physical necessities such as sleeping and eating.  

Identity politics stems from socio-economic changes

What is less analyzed or understood is that the shift to identity politics is part-and-parcel of the socio-cultural revolution mentioned above. Social media and electronic information devices simply accelerated a process that was already ongoing. In the decades immediately following WWII, living standards in the industrialized West reached unprecedented levels, the agricultural sector continued to shrink, the working classes began to recede in the 1970s (in the U.S.) and 1980s (in the other industrialized societies), and the middle classes and service sectors blossomed. For many Westerners, the old political questions of class and economic ideology lost their urgency, even disappeared altogether. That is what Daniel Bell meant when he declared the “End of Ideology.”

The shift to identity politics is part-and-parcel of the socio-cultural revolution.

Concurrently, the Left lost its ability to motivate and organize the mass political movements that had featured in modern Western public life until WWII. In the 21st Century, political movements appear more like seasonal fashions, waxing and waning like the topics trending on Twitter. Every person chooses the issues he or she feels attached to, digests the information stream only from the communities embracing that person’s stance on those issues, and then becomes irate when her or his Weltanschauung encounters contradictory information. The result is a politics of self-inflicted hysteria fueled by cognitive dissonance. Today, political activism rarely means marching on the streets, attending political rallies, or canvassing neighborhoods, and is far more likely to be about posting opinions (or rants) on various social media forums. Creating durable mass political movements based on a hierarchical, disciplined activism targeting a broad basket of socio-economic political issues now looks like a novelty from a distant past.

Mass political movements are still possible elsewhere

Lost in the hubbub about identity politics is the fact that it is a phenomenon essentially created by the social and cultural changes of the last seventy years in the industrialized West. Outside of the West, mass political movements still appear viable. Because most non-Western societies have not yet fully industrialized, they have not experienced the same cultural, economic, political, and social changes to the same extent that the West has. 

Even though political movements in industrializing societies tend to be progressive by traditional political standards, and are generally motivated by mass desire for political — especially democratic — rights, the West (governments, politicians, the media, and the general citizenry) generally perceives such movements with concern, even fear. The West generally prefers that the industrializing world’s political movements be led by socio-political elites who look and sound anodyne: no nationalism, no identity-referencing rhetoric on ethnicity or religion, no assertions of independent will or decision-making. When such rhetoric appears, and even if the movement is in fact progressive and aimed at widening the political rights of that society’s citizens, Westerners react negatively without pausing to try to understand the actual political reality behind the rhetoric. Today, that reaction is fed by social media hysteria. 

Modernization happened differently outside of the West

The main problem is that Western observers have little ability to distinguish between movements that are genuinely mass-based expressions of democratic aspirations and those that are not. The past decade and the Arab Spring provided multiple examples of Western governments completely failing to support legitimate democratic political movements in countries such as Egypt and Syria, or opposing the violent state and military responses that met those movements. 

The apparently nationalistic or religious rhetoric of political movements in industrializing societies may cause concern to Westerners who are sincere about understanding those movements. What those Westerners do not understand is that the universalizing, Enlightenment-based rhetoric that they are used to as citizens in stable, industrialized, democratic societies is the same language that was utilized by the non-Western socio-political elites who imposed modernization projects on their own societies, mostly through non-democratic and often violent means. For that reason, the masses of those societies often do not perceive that rhetoric from same perspective that Westerners do: for many in industrializing societies, that universalizing language is the language of violent oppression, of trauma, of alienation, of uprooted lives and traditions and cultures.

A quarter century after the USSR – a state based on enforcing an extremely radical and violent version of those universalist Enlightenment ideals — disintegrated, is it any wonder that the politics of the various successor states are dominated by nationalism?  How much ordem e progresso was achieved by the modernizing military juntas of Central and South America? What about the modernizing elites of Africa’s de-colonizing societies, after taking over the administrative and security institutions already established by the colonizing powers, intoning après nous le déluge in order to obtain weapons and massive development credits from those former colonizers? Did the native administrators – subordinate to the colonizers but lords over their own peoples — of the South and Southeast Asian British, Dutch, and French colonial empires quickly provide liberté, egalité, fraternité to all of the masses they inherited regardless of caste, gender, ethnicity, or religion? Unfortunately, the vast majority of Westerners have little idea about the details of how these questions have continued to develop over the past century. All they know is that political strife and violence keep breaking out in industrializing (“developing”) societies, the reasons for that turmoil seem opaque, and the rhetoric declaimed by the prominent political figures (as translated) sounds scary. 

Western misperception of Turkey

I suspect that one main reason why various observers and groups in the West see Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as threatening is that the AK Party’s movement is socially broad-based and founded upon a variety of socio-political issues. Even though any particular individual may not support every detail or aspect of the movement’s platform, the AK Party’s wide appeal maintains support that fluctuates between 45 and 55 percent of the electorate in a society of more than 80 million people. Even worse for those Western observers, the AK Party’s appeal stretches into other Muslim societies, again for various cultural, political, religious, and social reasons. In other words, the AK Party has, so far, been successful in creating one of those organized, large-scale, enduring democratic political movements that disappeared from the Western political scene in the decades following WWII and were replaced by identity politics.  

The AK Party has, so far, been successful in creating an organized, large-scale, enduring democratic political movement that disappeared from the Western political scene in the decades following WWII. 

Those Westerners who fear the AK Party, however, fail to grasp that Turkish society’s socio-political dynamics are fundamentally different from those of their own societies. Like so much of the non-Western world, Turkey is an industrializing society that did not undergo that economic expansion after WWII which brought unprecedented living standards to the West, and which turned politics toward identity issues.

Instead, since the mid-1800s Turkish society had been dominated by a state and military elite that saw itself as the director of Turkey’s modernization process. As in other industrializing societies, those Turkish elites used the Western Enlightenment-based universalizing rhetoric to attack the traditions, values, and religion of the Turkish masses. Democratic elections were not even granted to Turkish citizens until 1950, and after that point the military repeatedly intervened into politics in order to enforce its vision of Turkey’s economic, political, and social development. The military was finally ejected from politics in 2007-2008, but then Fetullah Gulen’s cultists, who had been working themselves into positions of state institutional power since the 1970s, had to be uprooted as well. The upshot is that Turkey is only now becoming a truly democratic country — democratic not just in terms of electoral processes, but also at the institutional level, with the establishment of professionalism, transparency, and accountability for all the institutions that comprise the Turkish state. And only now are the masses of Turkish society finally in control of their own destiny.

Those Westerners who fear the AK Party fail to grasp that Turkish society’s socio-political dynamics are fundamentally different from those of their own societies.

For the same reason, Turkish elections are not determined by identity politics. Because most Turkish citizens do not yet enjoy the same level of wealth and opportunities that the typical Westerner enjoys, mass democratic movements aimed at generating more economic, political, and social equality for supporters are still possible. The AK Party embodies that trend. 

Identity politics – whether focused on race and gender issues, or the even narrower cultural issues (such as the U.S.’s long-running debates around abortion or gun ownership) currently important in the West — will not generate enough votes to determine Turkish elections for the foreseeable future. Only when Turkish democracy has deepened and stabilized, and when economic prosperity has been achieved by a much larger swath of Turkish society will identity politics begin to determine elections.     


Adam McConnel hold an MA and PhD in History. His interests focus on 20th century Turkish history, Turkish-American relations and 19th-20th century world history. McConnel currently teaches History at Sabanci University in Istanbul.