It used to be easy to gain a lot of information from the way a person looked. It did not take Sherlock Holmes’ skill to know how rich someone was, their education and family background, from the way they dressed, ate and behaved. You might try it today in Europe, and still get it right in at least some of the cases, but you will be completely baffled once an American walks into a room.
You would place suited people into two categories: intellectuals or businesspersons depending on the tailoring and quality of the suit. You might be wrong but you would probably label them as one of the two despite wanting to do away with stereotypes. Do the same reason if you see someone with a giant backpack, jeans or shorts looking bewildered and you will know you spotted a tourist on a tight budget.
Then you see a man wearing a baseball cap, shorts and t-shirt. The traditional clothes of an American, and spotted from miles off with an European eye. Probably.
But you cannot ever know whether they are a Silicon valley billionaire, or a bricklayer from the other side of the continent. Not even if you talk to them.
We used to navigate in society through shibboleths. What words and phrases you use, how you behave, what topics you talk about, how good your manners are. These were almost like secret handshakes. An old fogey was recognized by the anachronistic old fashioned attire. A left wing liberal by the hippie look they were sporting. All of these were stereotypes of course but your guess aided by these were better than mere luck.
Nowadays when everyone is so obsessed with identity, we are lacking true shibboleths. Wealth for instance can be deduced from the way one acts less and less, an American import in Europe, and altogether not a bad thing. Yet it has implications in politics.
Many indicators, such as schooling, wealth, or family background made it easier for politicians and analysts to put someone in one category or another. Those politicians who still do this are usually not turning out to be the winners in campaigns. Successful politicians found that subcultures and subcategories should be ignored, along with such orthodoxies as left or right. These terms might work in propaganda, but there all too many parties calling themselves right wing or left wing that have nothing to do with the definition of the respective sides.
In his book, the The Road to Somewhere, David Goodhart proposes a new divide: Anywhere, uniting the urbane, educated “elites” while somewhere are those with a deep rute in their local areas and traditions. He explains phenomena such as Trump’s success or Brexit with this dichotomy and perhaps he is right. Political identities no longer manifest in bowler hats or dreadlocks, maybe because the political sides associated with them no longer exists as such.
Maybe shibboleths still exists but we need to learn to recognize them and associate them with new political categories. There are some populists politicians who are already doing so, and are winning at elections. It is time for the not populists to catch up.