In 1995, BBC journalist Selina Scott prepared a profile for Donald Trump, contender for the Republican presidency, which eloquently highlighted his unscrupulous egocentrism and misogyny. Since then, as she herself revealed, Trump has not left her alone and kept sending her offensive letters about her appearance and her ethics, as well as newspaper clippings about his achievements. Recently, he's also been equally rude toward the journalist who coordinated the debates of all the nominees. On the other hand, the contender for the leadership of the Labour Party in England, Jeremy Corbyn, is exceptionally polite and refuses to answer to personal attacks against him. He only discusses political suggestions and avoids personal comments, expressing a different electoral campaign ethos.
These are two diametrically opposite attitudes. Trump, with his authoritarianism and his fortune, is trying to claim power, while Corbyn, with his honesty and authenticity of ideas, attempts to establish a leftist identity. Despite "Corbyn-mania," even within his own party, many believe that if Corbyn prevails, the Labour Party will not be in power for many years, and the clock will turn back decades to unfeasible and outdated policies. A different approach suggests that for his supporters, his election is not about claiming power but about proving that they are honest with themselves. The stake is not power as an end in itself, but ideological principles as part of a non-negotiable identity. They are not concerned with governing or implementing a policy but with being OK with their own selves and their beliefs.
In order to understand Corbyn's appeal, but also that of other left-wing parties, we will have to think in terms of identity and not just ideology and policy. Identity is about registering the difference and not just exposure of ideological positions and defense of policies. If the Left is characterized by a history of divisions, they are, in essence, divisions about identity and are not caused by ambitions of leadership.
Matters of ideology or political planning refer to something deeper: to not undermining, in the end, an identity based on the authenticity of the unattainable, an identity that expresses a feeling of fairness more and a technology of governability less. This explains, among other things, why the narcissism of identity and not the pragmatism of power appeals to the young people who support the minimally charismatic, 66-year-old Corbyn. It might be that the social media have contributed to this, where an illusory ethical majority is prevailing with the saying "virtue signaling" and the tyranny of likes. Hence, "identity" as a concept captures the contraction of ideology, ethics and feelings more accurately.
The campaigns by Trump and Corbyn summarize the modern political dilemma: claim to power via any means necessary or defense of an identity without compromise? In this case, it's the cynicism of power clashes with the self-reference of identity and governmental ambition with constant opposition. Any compromises constitute a questioning of identity, and because of that, they are very difficult and painful (we also see this in the case of SYRIZA). Hence, whether governmental power and identitarian consistency can sail the same course constitutes a constantly open question.
The author is a professor for the University of Birmingham.