10 October 2017 — 0717 mdt
Mark Lilla on identity politics
Ten days after Hillary Clinton’s political malpractice handed the White House to Donald Trump, the New York Times published an oped, The End of Identity Liberalism, by Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University. Nine months later, Lilla released The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, a slim but provocative and thoughtful volume based on his NYT essay. The Once and Future Liberal was met with fulminating outrage by the practitioners of identity politics who aided and abetted Hillary’s loss, a sure sign that Lilla had hit the bullseye.
If you’re among the Democrats who want to rescue their party from identity politics, you’ll find The Once and Future Liberal helpful. Here are a few excerpts:
Identity liberalism banished the word we to the outer reaches of respectable political discourse. Yet there is no long-term future for liberalism without it. Historically liberals have called on us to ensure equal rights, they want us to feel a sense of solidarity with the unfortunate and help them. We is where everything begins. Barack Obama understood this, which is why he so often said “Yes, we can” and “That’s not who we are.” (Though, characteristically, he never got around to saying who exactly we are or who we might become.) But by abandoning the word, identity liberals have landed themselves in a strategic contradiction. When speaking about themselves, they want to assert their difference and react testily to any hint that their particular experience or needs are being erased. But when they call for political action to assist their group X, they demand it from people they have defined as not-X and whose experiences cannot, they say, be compared with their own.
But if that is the case, why would these others respond? Why should not-Xers give a damn about Xers, unless they believed they share something with them? Why should we expect them to feel anything at all?
The only way out of this conundrum is to appeal to something that as Americans we all share but which has nothing to do with our identities, without denying the existence and importance of the latter. And there is something, if only liberals would again begin to speak of it: citizenship.
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Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity. There is no denying that by publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans the movement mobilized supporters and delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. But there is also no denying that the movement’s decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society, and its law enforcement institutions, and to use Mau-Mau tactics to put down dissent and demand a confession of sins and public penitence (most spectacularly in a public confrontation with Hillary Clinton, of all people), played into the hands of the Republican right.
As soon as you cast an issue exclusively in terms of identity you invite your adversary to do the same. Those who play one race card should be prepared to be trumped by another, as we saw subtly and not so subtly in the 2016 presidential election. And it just gives that adversary an additional excuse to be indifferent to you. There is a reason why the leaders of the civil rights movement did not talk about identity the way black activists do today, and it was not cowardice or a failure to be woke. The movement shamed America into action by consciously appealing to what we share, so that it became harder for white Americans to keep two sets of books, psychologically speaking: one for “Americans” and one for “Negroes.” That those leaders did not achieve complete success does not mean that they failed, nor does it prove that a different approach is now necessary. No other approach is likely to succeed. Certainly not one that demands that white Americans agree in every case on what constitutes discrimination or racism today. In democratic politics it is suicidal to set the bar for agreement higher than necessary for winning adherents and elections.
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Progressive political rhetoric does nothing to convince the well-off that they have a permanent duty to the worse-off. The Bible used to, but no longer. Though this is still a churchgoing nation, the gospel now being preached, particularly in evangelical circles, has been infected with the same individualism, selfishness, and superficiality that have infected other sectors of American life. Many believers still tithe to their churches but they reject outright the notion that taxes, too, are a kind of democratic tithe that goes to help fellow citizens like themselves. Charity, like tipping, is now left to the customer’s discretion.
In the absence of a motivating charitable faith, the only way one can hope to induce a sense of duty is by establishing some sort of identification between the privileged and the disadvantaged. Citizenship is not an identity in the way we currently use the term, but it provides one possible way of encouraging people to identify with one another. Or at least it provides a way to talk about what they already share. There is good reason why progressives should stop framing their calls for economic justice in terms of class and start appealing instead to our shared citizenship.
Identity liberals should follow suit.