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How cynical populism has created a culture of victimhood politics

How cynical populism has created a culture of victimhood politics

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In Theos’ inaugural report, Doing God: A Future for Faith in the Public Square, Nick Spencer suggested that one of the reasons that religiously motivated political engagement was here to stay was the turn to the politics of identity. That is, the end-of-history assumption that liberal democracy was the final point of progress would be disrupted as religious and other identities would stubbornly persist, and continue to drive events.

He was more right than he could have known, and not just when it comes to religion. Who ten years ago would have predicted that Scottish nationalism would be one of the key forces in British political life, and that Scotland would return one solitary Labour MP in the 2015 general election? This was not just the victory of one political party and the rout of another, but a rejection of a generic social democracy in favour of Scottish social democracy.

That said, national and religious identities are actually some of the more obvious and predictable examples. Alongside and, increasingly, before these crowd a range of other micro and macro identities rooted in the political and the personal – in ideologies, gender, sexuality, ability and dis-ability, ethnicity and myriad others in combination. These identities are not invented, but they are continually emphasised. It seems it’s no longer enough simply to be a citizen – you now have to have an identity.

Just ask Rachel Dolezal.

Politically, this is hard to understand.

On a superficial reading, change in a democracy is best achieved by building consensus and working with others. Political parties are coalitions of opinion that pragmatically gather around a vision of the good to build power and therefore achieve the desired change. Campaigns look to command support from a broad a range of people as possible. It makes no sense to divide and divide again – this could only be a route to marginalising your own interests. There’s nothing new, unusual or unwelcome about politicians or others setting out ‘who they are’, but why is it that the constant rehearsal of identities has become crucial to establishing any kind of public voice?

The large part of the answer lies in the power of victimhood. These identities are placeholders for suffering and signs of the justice of one’s cause. Privilege is the sin that must be checked so that the marginalised can continue their long march to freedom. In an empathetic society, victimhood and powerlessness becomes its own kind of power.

There are, after all, substantial advantages to declaring yourself disadvantaged. Victims never have to say they’re sorry. Apologies – and accountability – are for victimisers. Victims are creditors, owed not just compassion but practical relief, like the power to censor whatever they consider offensive speech.

We need to be very careful here; there are of course situations of disadvantage which deserve resolution and restitution for the victim. Black lives matter, and only a cretin would argue that they have not been treated as cheap by police forces in the United States. Indeed, without such morally and emotionally credible claims then the politics of victimhood would offer no power. We need to distinguish between victimhood itself and the politics of victimhood – the process whereby suffering is confected or conferred, and then ‘weaponised’ for political purposes.

How does this work?

David Shaw, in a recent edition of the theological journal Primer, draws on the Stephen Karpam’s victim triangle to describe the dynamics of a victim culture. In the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, there are three primary roles: Little Red, the Wolf, and the Woodcutter. The tale offers a powerful symbolic world populated by a victim, a persecutor and a rescuer. Shaw’s point is that in a culture of victimhood we are constantly organising our common life around this triangle, creatively reassigning them to suit our own purposes.

You can see why it is so attractive. Become a victim and you get the right to castigate your persecutor and nominate a rescuer. Persuade someone that they are a victim and you invite them to make you their rescuer. If you manage to pin the persecutor badge on someone, then morally and emotionally they’re out of the game.

The psychological power of victimhood is almost irresistible. Will you be an oppressor, or a liberator? A persecutor, or a rescuer? A hero, or a villain? This story of a long and just struggle to recognition and freedom is surely the most powerful political narrative of our time, drawing on the huge moral currency created by the civil rights movement and the struggle against apartheid.

I think that this is increasingly part of our political life. One of the things that have marked out the current wrangling over the Labour Party’s leadership and future is the prevalence of competitive victimhood. It has, it seems to me, become the primary mode of discussion in the party.

Again, I don’t want to be misunderstood. A particularly nasty culture has flowered  in the Labour Party in recent years, aided and abetted by social media and self-righteous conviction. A brick through an MP’s window here, a mouthful of abuse at party meetings there. But the victims of this abuse are not really those who are making the victimhood play, which goes something like this:

Ordinary people (victims) elected Jeremy Corbyn (rescuer) to save them from the Tories. But the Parliamentary Labour Party (oppressor) has planned and executed a coup and is looking to install some neo-Blairite Tory-lite warmonger who will take the party away from them again.

Or perhaps…

Regular guy and hard-working real Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn (victim) came from nowhere to bring the Labour Party back to its roots. The Parliamentary Labour Party (oppressor) has betrayed him, and now the new social movement coalescing around Corbyn’s Labour (rescuer) must rally and vote him back in.

This, of course, is just an inversion of the great big story that the left has been trying to tell for quite a few years. Tory scum (oppressors), who all went to Eton and were members of the Bullingdon Club, want to take away everything we (the oppressed) hold dear, like decent public services and the NHS. Only a Labour government (rescuer) can save you.


Historically, the left has indulged in these victimhood narratives to a far greater degree than the right. Rightly so, it might be said, where the politics of the left has genuinely been the politics of the have-nots, the disenfranchised and the underrepresented.

But it’s never been confined to the left – it was and is frequently deployed by anyone who can claim to represent a group with a grievance, religious, ethnic, national or whatever. After all, victimhood is Donald Trump’s main play: America is the victim of self-serving globalist elites (or Mexicans, or the Chinese, or Muslims) and he will save it. To say Trump is a populist is only a partial understanding of his success. Trump's populism is a base populism, which excites the worst of the American psyche – the bombastic superiority paradoxically combined with a fear of the other – and offers himself as the only answer.


It’s easy to pick on Trump, but the fact is the politics of victimhood is not just a modus operendi for politicians, but a modus vivendi for more and more ordinary people in their daily interactions, or indeed for our conduct within institutions. Groups of all kinds – yes, including the religious – increasingly promote their cause through victimhood, though no doubt their leaders persuade themselves that it’s all for the good.

In an article in The Atlantic, published this time last year, Conor Friedersdorf reviewed a paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning looking at US university culture. They argued that campuses were witnessing the emergence of a new moral code where adopting the posture of victim is actually the best way to exercise power. Under previous ‘honour’ and ‘dignity’ based systems, people would manage conflict by confrontation, negotiation or avoidance. Under the new code, adopting the status of victim, usually in a very public way, could either shame your opponent or invite the intervention of authorities with a duty of care to intervene on your behalf.

Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.

Campbell and Manning set out a number of conditions which they feel have contributed to the emergence of the victim culture: self-help in the form of duelling or fighting is no longer an option, the availability of social superiors who are capable of intervening on your behalf and atomized environments where one cannot rely on members of a family, tribe or clan to automatically take one’s side in a dispute. They also thought that it was more prevalent in settings where there is some diversity and inequality, but where members are almost equal, since “a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality.”

Campbell and Manning’s conditions are a plausible reading of society as a whole, and with adjustments seem particularly applicable to social media spaces (e.g., there may be no single authority, but the platform users become the authority – see Jon Ronson’s, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed).


It is a credit to our society that many are eager to engage in the cause of the marginalised. As a tool in their defence of the oppressed, you can see how exposing the role of the oppressor is a powerful tool to advance justice. In other words, it’s a powerful way to do politics. Used to excess, though, it has become a kind of anti-politics, where the victims are relieved of accountability and agency required of a citizen.

The fashion for so-called safe spaces on university campuses is one of the most egregious expressions of victimhood politics. Those that want them are pre-aggrieved, pre-offended and pre-oppressed, and must therefore be protected from the travail of being exposed to views which might further victimise or marginalise their identity. They are excepted from the tiresome business of having to make their case. If we are not careful, we will collude in the infantilisation of public life, where no-one will ever be obliged to speak to – never mind cooperate with – anyone with whom they disagree. Then this tool of persuasion will become a tool of self-deception. When our own victimhood becomes the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we have little chance of living well. We miss the ways in which we are part of the problem, and they (the persecutors) have a legitimate case or cause. All are sinned against. All are sinners.

The final ignominy is that, as victimhood becomes a political commodity, it will only be accrued by those with power already to advance their cause, probably at the cost of those that really do need help and advocacy. Genuine injustice is already being hidden underneath the jumble of confected grievance. 

Paul Bickley is Political Director at Theos. 

Image by Gage Skidmore from available under this Creative Commons Licence



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