The Political Identity Paradox (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 7)

This is an adapted version of an earlier, longer article by the same title, which was part of series on evolutionary logics of collective action.

Any serious social movement needs a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle. Strong group identity, however, is a double-edged sword. The stronger the identity and cohesion of the group, the more likely people are to become alienated from other groups, and from society. This is the political identity paradox.

The political identity paradox suggests that while political groups require a strong internal identity to foster the commitment needed for effective political struggle, this same cohesion tends to isolate the group. Isolated groups are hard-pressed to achieve political goals.

This is true of all groups, but tends to have particular consequences for a group involved in political struggle, which has not only to foster a strong internal identity: it also has to win allies.

The tendency toward isolation can escalate very quickly in political groups, as oppositional struggle can foster an oppositional psychology. Activists who meet the kind of brutal resistance that the civil rights movement endured, for example, have a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, participants need to turn to each other more than ever for strength and support. They feel a compelling cohesiveness to their group identity in these moments of escalated conflict. On the other hand, they need to keep outwardly oriented, to stay connected to a broad and growing base. This is difficult to do even when leaders are fully oriented to the task, let alone when they are unprepared, which is often the case.  

Take, for example, Students for a Democratic Society (the original SDS that fell apart in dramatic fashion in 1969). At the center of the epic implosion of this massive student organization &#151 beneath the rational arguments that leaders were slinging at each other &#151 was the political identity paradox. Key leaders had become encapsulated in their oppositional identity and grown more and more out of touch. They lost the ability and inclination to relate to their broader membership &#151 a huge number of students at the moment of the implosion &#151 let alone to broader society. Some of the most committed would-be leaders of that generation came to see more value in holing up with a few comrades to make bombs than in organizing masses of students to take coordinated action.

This is the tendency toward isolation taken to the extreme. Dedicated radicals cut themselves off, like lone guerrilla fighters in enemy territory. It might have felt glorious, but it was a suicide mission.

The political identity paradox speaks to the need for political groups to develop both strong bonding and strong bridging. Without strong within-group bonding, group members will lack the level of commitment required for serious struggles. But without strong beyond-group bridging, the group will become too insular and isolated to forge broad alliances.

Good leaders have to perform an extraordinary balancing act between the conflicting imperatives of building a strong sense of identity within their groups and connecting with allies and potential allies beyond the group.


This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!

Bonding & Bridging | Populism & Hegemony pt.3

This is the third post in a series.

Strong group identity is something of a double-edged sword for social justice movements. On the one hand&#151as discussed in part one of this series&#151it is absolutely essential. There can be no serious social movement&#151the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged&#151without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a strong core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle.

On the other hand, a group’s identity tends to grow stronger and more cohesive at a cost of becoming more distinct from other group identities. The cost is the barrier that results from the distinction of said group from other groups. While this is true of all groups to some extent, it tends to have particular consequences for political/politicized groups. Take, for example, a sports team that defines its group identity partly in distinction from rival teams. The team is likely to play all the harder against their rivals as a result of the distinction. No problem there. A group engaged in political struggle, on the other hand, has not only to foster a strong within-group identity; it also has to win allies beyond the bounds of that identity &#151 if it is to orchestrate and leverage the power it needs to accomplish its political goals. Add to this that oppositional struggle tends to trigger an oppositional psychology, which can inject “with steroids” the natural tendency of groups to differentiate themselves from outsiders.

I have called this tension (or double-bind) the Political Identity Paradox. Good leaders have to perform an extraordinary balancing act between the conflicting imperatives of building a strong within-group identity and connecting with allies and potential allies beyond the group.

In his remarkable examination of patterns of declining civic engagement in US society in the last third of the 20th Century&#151in his book, Bowling Alone&#151Robert Putnam provides some useful language for thinking about this tension. He talks in terms of bonding and bridging. Bonding involves the kind of within-group identity formation and emphasis I have discussed, which typically includes some degree of differentiation between group members and outsiders. Bridging is about connections among and between groups. Here’s Putnam:

Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). Some forms of social capital are, by choice or necessity, inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups. Examples of bonding social capital include ethnic fraternal organizations, church-based women’s reading groups, and fashionable country clubs. Other networks are outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages. Examples of bridging social capital include the civil rights movement, many youth service groups, and ecumenical religious organizations.

Bonding social capital is good for undergirding specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity. Dense networks in ethnic enclaves, for example, provide crucial social and psychological support for less fortunate members of the community, while furnishing start-up financing, markets, and reliable labor for local entrepreneurs. Bridging networks, by contrast, are better for linkage to external assets and for information diffusion.

I suggested in part one of this series that:

…a primary function of identity is for group members to signal belonging and commitment to the group, thereby contributing to the health and well-being of the group, while also securing one’s individual place (and therefore survival) in the group.

That, in a nutshell, is what Putnam describes as bonding. I continue:

Group members can signal this [bonding/belonging] by expressing commonality or distinction:

  • Commonality: I am like others in this group.  I share values with this group.  I belong in this group.
  • Distinction . . . from other groups: I belong in this group because I am different from members of other groups &#151 especially groups that my group views as a threat or that the group identifies itself in opposition to…

So, the “double edged sword” of group identity that I described above&#151the Political Identity Paradox&#151speaks to the need for groups engaged in political struggle to develop both strong bonding and strong bridging. Without strong bonding, group members will lack the level of commitment required for serious struggles. But without strong bridging, the group will become too insular and isolated to be able to forge the broad alliances that are even more necessary for achieving big structural changes.

We can talk in terms of within-group vs. between groups, distinction vs. commonality, differentiation vs. universality, or bonding vs. bridging. However we phrase it, what we’re talking about is the tension between the imperative for groups to cultivate internal solidarity and the imperative to connect beyond the boundaries of the group. Understanding this tension is crucial for understanding the emergence of&#151and the obstacles to&#151populist alignments.