The new McCarthyism: How identity politics killed off debate

Heightened political divisions have led to dangerous thought policing on both the left and right.

may front page
The front page of the Daily Mail on 19th April 2017

Are you a Marxist, a Remainer, a Trump voter or an abstainer? In today’s angrily polarised world, regardless of what you are, you are someone’s enemy. There was a time when claiming allegiance to an identity was the starting point for debate. Nowadays it’s a red flag – a coat of arms that you carry into today’s culture wars with little hope of reaching rapprochement with the opposing side.

Take some of the discourse in the 2017 UK general election campaign. Announcing her decision to call the surprise snap election, Theresa May issued a tirade against Remain-supporting politicians whom she claimed are standing in the way of Brexit. “Crush the saboteurs” ran the front page splash of the Daily Mail, May’s faithful propaganda outlet. It was pure McCarthyism – the doctrine attributed to US Senator Joseph McCarthy and his authoritarian project to root out communist sympathisers in 1940s and 50s America.

Identity is often an organic, grassroots phenomenon, but it can also be shaped and solidified from above. McCarthy did just that, labelling anything as treason if it fell outside of a narrow understanding of patriotic American identity. This insidious practice is back in all but name.

For her part, May has pounced on the near 50/50 schism caused by Brexit and turned it into the next great decider of British identity. Leaving the EU is “the will of the people” and you are either with us or against us. According to Brexiteer logic, you cannot simultaneously love your country and question the validity of Brexit. We must all get behind it, unthinkingly.

It was particularly jarring to hear May publicly accuse EU leaders of deliberately sabotaging Britain, including our own general election, as though we were gleefully jumping back in time to an imperialist war footing. Wartime rhetoric strengthens identity further and reduces the scope for détente. For May and her media backers, it’s a tool for ruling the divided masses with an iron fist.

Open season

McCarthyite thought policing is not exclusive to politicians, of course. Supposedly neutral media outlets like the BBC are guilty too. Consider Andrew Marr’s recent interview of Labour’s John McDonnell and the assumptions loaded in his question “Are you a Marxist?”.

It was a line of interrogation plucked straight from one of McCarthy’s kangaroo courts, and one that forced McDonnell into a mealy-mouthed denial for fear of being cast as a leper in the eyes of the BBC’s audience. The Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn has continually been reduced to the basic tenets of a hard-left identity – often at the expense of substantive discussion of its policies and arguments.

But the left is no better, taking its rigid set of politically correct commandments to their logical conclusion by persecuting those that may hold alternative views. Witness the hounding of Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, who as a devout Christian was asked repeatedly for his views on whether gay sex is a sin.

Never mind that Farron has shaped his politics around the democratic demand for LGBT rights – apparently we must all know the inner workings of his mind and force him to submit his soul to prevailing PC orthodoxy. Commentator Owen Jones, a regular critic of Daily Mail-esque attacks against certain sections of the population, didn’t seem to see the irony of pushing his own brand of identity politics in his repeated attacks on Farron.

Worse still is that this type of behaviour from the left only strengthens opposing identity formations on the right. Donald Trump, ever in-tune with the zeitgeist, has exploited this new age of identity politics by dismissing of all forms of opposition as one identity versus another, rather than grounds for objective discussion. It even allows him to claim victim status.

“This is McCarthyism!” he raged on Twitter back in March in relation to his unfounded claim that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 election campaign. More recently he described the inquiry into his Russia ties as “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history”.

There is of course plenty of reason to investigate Trump, but it is also true that a degree of hysteria has gripped many left-leaning people since he took office, as evidenced by the rising tide of anti-Trump conspiracy theories that are not backed up in solid fact. It is the same reason why Trump’s approval ratings among his support base have not dropped significantly, despite the shambolic start to his Presidency. Both sides are entrenched in their positions and entrenched in their identities.

Dim the noise

To abstain in this context is to commit the ultimate sin. US comedian Bill Burr has spoken of the virulent criticism he received after he appeared on the Conan talk show the night after the Presidential election and argued that people’s lives would not change all that much with Trump in power.

Noting that political debate had grown increasingly shrill, he called on those on both the left and right to put their identities aside and start listening to each other. “I hope that all this screaming and yelling is going to stop, and that people step outside of themselves a little,” he said.

Burr also criticised Hillary Clinton on the show and said that he had not voted for either the Democrat candidate or for Trump because he didn’t like either of their politics. The subsequent backlash that he has described will be familiar to other high profile figures such as actress Susan Sarandon, who initially supported Bernie Sanders and then refused to back Clinton, much to the derision of anti-Trump commenters on social media.

Similarly the 15 million eligible French voters that either abstained or spoiled their ballots, rather than voting for Emmanuel Macron as the best alternative to Marine Le Pen, have faced criticism in some quarters for their unwillingness to pick up swords and line up on one side of the culture war. Russell Brand was sneered at by Jeremy Paxman, and even by supposed radicals like John Lydon, for suggesting that people should not vote for politicians that simply endorse a failing status quo.

At the moment politicians like May and Trump are offering solutions from the past to the challenges of today and tomorrow. New ideas – and the freedom and willingness to debate those ideas – are vital if we are to properly confront those challenges and avoid becoming slaves to our own destructive identities.

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