The Weak Do What They Can and the Strong Suffer What They Must

By Nick Psomas

Democracy is dead, and we have killed it. Paraphrasing the 19th century philosopher Friedich Nietzsche, the current state of democratic institutions resembles the political ‘Death of God’. Radical polarisation, surge in national and populist sentiment, a twisted bewitchment of the public by demagoguery and hostility to the political “Other”, are phenomena that allude to a moral panic in the West. While the immediate impulse is to attribute the breakdown of democratic institutions to numerous factors ranging from globalisation to unethical conduct of political figures, there is a critical element that is frequently absent for this analysis, various religious, ethnic, racial and national groups, its presence has dominated the political landscape (Fukuyama, 2018). However, this undergoing process simultaneously persists in the elevation of authentic individual experience over a rational examination in regards to social issues. As a result, the prominence of identity politics in the public sphere significantly undermines civil discourse which is vital for the preservation and functioning of democracy. 

In order to comprehend the detrimental impact of identity politics, an inquiry in its complex philosophical nature is imperative. Without indulging in a curtailed and reductionist view, the core of identity politics is its emphasis on the subjective nature of the “Self”. In turn, this is conceptualised by the development of the modern idea of identity. As outlined by Charles Taylor (1989), the notion of modern identity originally emanated from the Rousseaurian belief that the purpose of an individual is the anamnesis, or recollection, of their consciousness prior to its ‘imprisonment’ by social structures. From this ‘sentiment of existence’, subjective identity is founded upon an inner voice and an inclination for authenticity. As a result, a dichotomy between the inner self and the external world characterised the relationship between individuals and state. This was manifested in a more concrete manner in the political realm as the experience of the oppressed by which recognition was demanded on the grounds of negligence of previous recognition of the authentic subjective self (Kruks, 1995). During the 1960s, the rise of social movements in the Western World demanded equal treatment and advocated for the emancipation of marginalised groups through legislation. Yet government policy was insufficient to address the problem and there was an ideological shift centred around respect for the uniqueness of particular groups. This was illustrated in the evolution of the civil rights movement for African Americans where the initial stance, represented by Martin Luther King, was equal treatment between black and white Americans but the rise of Black Panthers diverged from this vision, advocating for ‘black consciousness’ and a separate ideational framework (Fukuyama, 2018). 

In contemporary politics, the integration of identity in political discourse is present across the the liberal left whereas the ‘patriotic’ protection of national and traditional identity is the political platform on the right (Fukuyama, 2019). In both instances an obsessional and toxic attachment to the subjective experiential dimension of the inner ‘self’ forms a degree of intransigence that paralyses constructive dialogue and recalibrates the mind to engage in political tribalism. The advancement of this approach to civil discourse and its consequences is captured in three interconnected aspects. 

Firstly, the epistemological dimension of identity politics is vulnerable to conjectures and excommunication of critical thinking. This primarily is derived from what Kruks (1995) refers to as the epistemology of provenance; the idea that political perspectives gain legitimacy by virtue of their articulation of subjective experiences. Consequently, individuals who do not share a similar experience are, ipso facto, ineligible to present any form of antithesis or critique, thus hindering any possibility for progression in the discussion of public policy. Furthermore, as groups embrace a collective subjective identity that revolves around one axis of experience, the degree of hybridity dissolves and the risk of overgeneralization increases. This is exemplified in the rhetoric of right-wing populist movements in Europe which recall for a retreat to the cocoon of the nation-state. The notion of European, as established by the EU, is seen as an impediment on the identity of the French, the Germans, the Italians etc. All these labels share common characteristics that are exclusively accessible to the particular nation. In this narrative, technocratic expansionism of Brussels is met by fierce resistance from the so-called marginalised national communities in Europe. Hence, populism and xenophobia thrive as they build on this epistemological view of identity and in turn threaten to unleash centrifugal forces in Europe that can lead to the fragmentation of discourse and democracies. 

Secondly, this form of essentialism that is derived from Rousseau’s sentiment of experience privileges sincerely held opinion over the process of reasoned deliberation thus creating a conceptual gap in dialectic. This is highly disconcerting since the communicative chasm between individuals is bridged through the Wittgensteinian notion of language games, where common linguistic understanding is achieved through regular reason-based interaction with the other (Brenner, 1999). However, if this conceptual space is deemed illegitimate due to a dogmatic attachment to the authenticity of the inner self, there is a regression to solipsistic behaviour. As rational discourse is condemned for excluding marginalised consciousnesses, the alternative is instantaneous, automatic acceptance and praise of any opinion that is baptized as unique/authentic. Moreover, this prompts a sensitivity to one’s extrapolation of ideas through their subjective phenomenology which in turn leads to systemic silencing of statements that are considered offensive to someone’s self-worth. This is particularly noticeable in university campuses, primarily in the US, where the creation of ‘safe spaces’, limiting freedom of speech and silencing of opinions that possibly infringe upon the ‘fragility’ of marginalised groups has assumed the character of the Spanish Inquisition. Naturally, discrimination and racism towards experienced by a group or individual should be publicly denounced yet identity politics embarks on a crusade to enforce this condemnation at the expense of open dialogue. 

Thirdly, the inherent nature of identity politics is designed to successfully integrate itself in the consciousness of civil society thus undergoing a degree of normalisation. This pernicious effect can be argued to be the continuum in Habermas’ transformation of the public sphere; a communicative space originating in the 18th century (Habermas, 1965). Forged in the salons of Western Europe, and complemented by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the public sphere enabled the discussion of public affairs that ultimately shifted political power from monarchical authority to ordinary citizens. Ultimately, however, this horizontal framework of discourse was overtaken by rapid industrialisation and the rise of the capitalist bourgeoisie hence enabling a ‘colonisation’ of the public sphere and systematisation of human consciousness since ideas, theories, opinions etc. were dictated by the monopolisation of media outlets (Habermas, 1962). In recent decades, the revolutionising effect of the internet and its diffusion of information to the general public can be argued to have transcended this structural ideological hegemony, thus ushering a post-ideology era. Ironically, this belief is precisely what Slavoj Zizek (2012) encompasses the success of ideology, namely its integration to the subconscious. The epitome of this claim is the instilment of identity politics since its essentialist nature and glorification of the authentic inner voice creates the false impression of detachment from any societal boundaries that might contaminate the inner self. Evidently, this can be seen as simply an alternate form of colonisation of the public sphere, more deceptive than its precursor, as it subjects discourse to a perverted form of 

So, is the West experiencing the death of democracy? While democratic institutions still seem to serve a foundational role to the functioning of civil society, the evolution of public discourse only prophesises a degradation of rational dialectic, openness to criticism and adherence to moral guidelines for preserving the public sphere. While Western societies should not write the eulogy of democracy, they are certainly in the process of committing crimes against logic. The virulent apotheosis of the subjective identitarian experience in the social sphere that operates on emotional gravitas and misconstrued victimisation distorts the fabric of discourse as it banishes and any form of compromise that is grounded in compromise and effective argumentation. This can be described as a perversion of Thucydides’ famous quote, where the weak do what they can and the strong suffer what they must… 


Brenner, W. H. (1999). Wittgenstein’s Philosophical investigations. Albany N.Y.: State University Of New York Press, Cop. 

Fukuyama, F. (2018). Against identity politics: The new tribalism and the crisis of democracy. Foreign Affairs, 97(5), 90–115. 

Fukuyama, F. (2019). Identity : contemporary identity politics and the struggle for recognition. London: Profile Books. 

Gunaratne, S. A. (2006). Public Sphere and Communicative Rationality: Interrogating Habermas’s Eurocentrism. Journalism & Communication Monographs, 8(2), 93– 156. 

Jürgen Habermas. (1962). The structural transformation of the public sphere an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge Polity. 

Kruks, S. (1995). Identity Politics and Dialectical Reason: Beyond an Epistemology of Provenance. Hypatia, 10(2), 1–22. 2001.1995.tb01366.x 

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the self : the making of the modern identity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. 

TIFF Originals. (2012). SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK on the Desert of Post-Ideology | Master Class | Higher Learning. Retrieved from

Edited by Sasha Zinchenco

Artwork by Chira Tudoran