READERS will have heard the phrase ‘identity politics’ used a lot in recent years. During 2015 and 2016, former US President Donald Trump was often described as playing a particularly aggressive and xenophobic brand of identity politics by commentators covering his campaign trail.

Similarly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has focused on growing a sense of Hindu nationalism within Indian politics, seemingly to the exclusion of non-Hindu (particularly Muslim) interests in the country.

Trump and Modi are the most prominent world examples of senior politicians perceiving identity as a useful propaganda tool to get themselves elected. However, the tide of identity politics can also be seen in Australia, Brazil, China, Italy, Malawi, North Korea, Russia, Taiwan and the politics of many more countries around the world, including Scotland and the UK.

Identity politics is one of those phrases that people roughly know what it means but which they may struggle to provide a coherent definition of, understand the entirety of what it encompasses, and be able to explain its re-emergence as one of the 21st century’s foremost factors in political decision-making.

Identity politics involves encouraging publics to make political decisions based on feelings rather than evidence. One’s identity is fluid. It ebbs and flows during one’s lifetime as experiences occur and introspection, skills and self-knowledge grows. Identity thus sits within the head and heart of the individual and is incredibly vulnerable to change, overlap, fluctuation, contradiction and juxtaposition.

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Beginning with the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the rationalist school of the Enlightenment questioned the ‘realness’ of identity. It cannot be touched, seen, heard or smelled. It cannot be fully understood by others, and it has no permanence. For them, focusing too much on one’s identity may therefore become an unhelpful egotistical distortion to life’s pursuit of consciousness and reason.

In 1775, the English writer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) famously called out former UK Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder’s attempts to encourage, what he saw as, a potentially dangerous approach to identity politics.

In his response to Pitt, Johnson wrote that, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." Or, as the American philosopher Ralph Barton Perry put it 250 years later, “If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, it is not merely because evil deeds may be performed in the name of patriotism, but because patriotic fervor can obliterate moral distinctions altogether.”

And yet, despite 400 years of Enlightenment thought and scientific endeavour, identity sits once more as one of the main drivers of political decision-making.

In practical terms, identity politics flourishes because of a triangular relationship between government, media and the public.

First, a growing number of politicians – whether in democratic and authoritarian regimes – encourage the public to place emphasis upon identity and the importance of identity when making their political decisions.

Rather than focusing on specific policies, statistics, and the development of coherent and detailed manifestos, politicians encourage support for their careers by saying ‘support me if, like me, you feel like x, y and/or z’.

However, they only focus on identity because they believe – rightly – that many of the electorate will be receptive to it. Stop being receptive to it and it will go away.

Second, media professionals – including those working for some traditional and most online sources and the algorithms behind the social media echo chamber – copy and paste political utterances straight into publications and broadcasts often without fact-checking, analysis, critique or filter. Those politicians who wish to play the identity game are usually those most willing to use social media to connect with the electorate and the communications experts sitting behind them are well aware that much of the media environment prizes being quick to get the story out ahead of accuracy, editorial decision-making and robust critique. In short, what the politician says is not part of the story, in many cases it has now become the story itself.

Finally, members of the public are encouraged to think and discuss politics in the ways prescribed to them by politicians and the media. Not necessarily how to think, but certainly what topics to think about.

This is where political and media literacy is important if people are to be less susceptible to those politicians who use identity-based messaging as a distraction to lessen the possibility of holding them to account.

Here, propaganda often uses gratification and flattery to validate the feelings of the audience member on topics related to their identity. In this narcissistic effort, the propagandist knows that even those people with the cognitive skills to deconstruct a political message often lack the time in their busy lives to do so and that their inclination will be reduced further when encountering a message that resonates with the identity that they hold.

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What of Scotland then? It probably goes without saying that Scotland has not been immune from these political trends. Indeed, the growth of Scotland’s nationalist movement in the 21st century sits in parallel with the emergence of the digital age, although advances in communications technology are certainly not the only reason for its prominence.

To give credit to the SNP, they do well to make the independence case based on empirical data from time-to-time. However, this is as much about giving the markets confidence as it is about arming nationalists with statistics or arguments when debating the issue.

Behind the nationalist movement is a significant amount of kilt-wearing and saltire-waving, most of which is based on feelings of Scottishness rather than critical introspection, analysis and seeing the world as it really is.

Independence has its merits. However, there must be a vigilance against proceeding along that path from the arrogant notion that opponents are simply ignorant worshippers of ‘false Gods’, as Aldous Huxley said of the problems of nationalist causes.

Or, as Wilfred Owen eloquently put it in his war poem Strange Meeting, we should be keen to, “miss the march of this retreating world, into vain citadels that are not walled.”

Dr Colin Alexander is senior lecturer in Political Communications at Nottingham Trent University