The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, by Mark Lilla (Harper, 160 pp., $24.99)
In his new book, Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla laments the phrase “speaking as an X.” Ubiquitous in academia for years, but now increasingly prevalent in general discourse, it is an introductory clause that
sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. So classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means there is no impartial space for dialogue.
The passage makes plain what Lilla is up to—and up against. He wants the Democratic Party to abandon identity politics for the sake of its electoral viability. Effecting beneficial changes requires wielding power, he argues, and in democracies, securing power requires winning elections. In America—vast, diverse, and unruly—such victories can be secured only through “the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from [oneself] to join a common effort.” Lilla thus finds it necessary to instruct fellow Democrats that elections are neither prayer meetings nor therapy sessions nor seminars nor “teaching moments.”
What is identity politics? As a chapter epigraph, Lilla cites a statement from the Combahee River Collective, a 1970s group whose raison d’etre—black lesbians’ issues and perspectives were getting short shrift from existing civil rights, gay rights, and feminist organizations—sounds like a parody of the problem Lilla describes. “This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics,” the statement said. “We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”
This rejection of the very idea of an impartial dialogue is, Lilla believes, how the noble legacy of “large classes of people—African-Americans, women—seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions” gave way, by the 1980s, to “a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition.” Inherent in it is identitarians’ “disdain” for the “ordinary democratic politics” of “engaging with and persuading people unlike themselves” in favor of “delivering sermons to the unwashed from a raised pulpit.”
Rather than gratefully accept this enlightenment and path to redemption, however, the unwashed are likely to demand an identity politics of their own. “As soon as you cast an issue exclusively in terms of identity,” Lilla warns, “you invite your adversary to do the same.” Thus, Donald Trump’s victory and Lilla’s book, which grew out of a New York Times op-ed he wrote the week after the 2016 election. He was “sick and tired of noble defeats,” Lilla told interviewers then. Lilla’s article prompted many denunciations, the most venomous coming from a Columbia law professor who compared him, unfavorably, with David Duke.
Such reactions give strong reason to doubt that we will soon see a post- or anti-identity politics emerging the Democratic Party. And yet, an even stronger reason exists. The feasibility of Lilla’s project depends on the plausibility of his analysis. If identity politics is an affliction that happened to liberalism, as he sees it, then it’s realistic to activate Democratic antibodies to reject the pathogen. If, however, identity politics is a condition to which liberalism is inherently susceptible, or even disposed, then identity politics is not the Democrats’ problem but their destiny. Unfortunately for Lilla, the evidence points in this direction.
Something came between the New Deal Democratic Party, summoned to pride and patriotism by Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, and today’s Democratic Party, micro-targeting so many distinct constituencies that, to Lilla, it seems better prepared to govern Lebanon than America. In between came McGovernism—not just George McGovern’s 1972 campaign but also the whole style and substance of 1960s and 1970s liberalism: from John F. Kennedy’s cool to Robert Kennedy’s zeal; from civil rights to Black Power; from the counterculture, New Left, and antiwar movements to feminism and environmentalism. The result, says Lilla, turned Joe Sixpack’s Democratic Party into Jessica Yogamat’s. Democrats uncritically embraced the constituencies and passions brought to the fore in the 1960s—often at the expense of common sense, political and governmental. In these years, Lilla writes, “liberals, fearful of ‘blaming the victim,’ refused to speak about the new culture of dependency, or about the tremendous rise in violent crime in the 1960s.”
As a result, identity politics determined the Democratic reaction in 1988 when George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign raised the “Willie Horton” issue against his opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. It was intolerable, liberal activists and journalists declared, to bring to public attention an incident where a black man had brutalized a white couple. What was tolerable, by implication, was a policy (unique to Massachusetts) that gave violent felons, serving life sentences and ineligible for parole, unsupervised furloughs. Little wonder that Joe Sixpack voters tuned into Reagan Democrats as they came to associate liberalism with “profligacy, spinelessness, malevolence, masochism, elitism, fantasy, anarchy, idealism, softness, irresponsibility, and sanctimoniousness,” as sociologist Jonathan Rieder put it in Canarsie (1985). To this day, Democrats think that what Bush said about Willie Horton was outrageous but that what Dukakis did was, at worst, unfortunate.
Seen in this light, identity politics is not a problem for Democrats but a solution to the deeper problem that liberalism doesn’t believe in itself. The evidence, once subtle, is now explicit. “The final word belongs to no man,” FDR said in a 1932 speech to the Commonwealth Club, addressing the question of whether government existed to serve individuals or vice versa. All we can do is “believe in change and in progress,” the never-ending quest for better things. Three-quarters of a century later, in Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope, it becomes clear that the author, and liberalism generally, suffers from what political scientist Charles Kesler calls “certainty envy.” Obama dislikes “absolute truths” but admires “unbending idealists,” up to and including murderous ones like abolitionist John Brown. Obama’s solution is to encourage us to “pursue our own absolute truths,” while warning that “there may be a terrible price to pay.”
“Pursuing our own absolute truths” is an excellent summary of identity politics. On no other basis can modern liberals combine moral fervor with moral flexibility. Because my truths are subjective, they become unassailable—but at the same time, I’m under no obligation to base my truth on any proposition about the nature of things, because we accept that the final word on such realities belongs to no one. Speaking as an X, I possess a truth borne of my experience that no non-X critic can fully appreciate or fairly challenge. As a Yale undergraduate wrote during that school’s identity-politics convulsions in 2015: “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”
Consequently, Lilla’s hope for a future liberalism that will forge ahead and surmount identity politics seems naïve. His previous book, The Shipwrecked Mind (2016), assessed the reactionary longing to return to a mythical, irretrievable past. But his new quest, for the liberalism of a Golden Age too well grounded to succumb to identity politics, proves no less quixotic.
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