The Blind Spots of Identity (and Liberal) Politics

In the wake of its embarrassing defeat to Donald Trump, the Democratic Party is divided over how they lost. There are “process” people who blame the Electoral College and other structural aspects of presidential campaigns. “If only” analysts who point to James Comey, Wikileaks, and Russia.

According to these perspectives, Democrats lost largely because of factors outside their control, and their solutions range from unprecedented electoral reform (scrap the Electoral College) to “Aw shucks, we’ll get ‘em next time.”

But what if the main problem isn’t circumstantial, but the heart of the Democratic Party and its message? In his new book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Columbia University professor Mark Lilla makes the case that the Democrats lost because they’re beholden to identity politics. To win in the future, they need a politics of inclusion that appeals to shared identity and purpose.

Inclusive Vision

Lilla, a Democrat himself, argues that liberals’ relatively new embrace of identity politics has prevented the Democratic Party from offering an “ambitious vision of America and its future . . . an image of what our shared way of life might be.” Meanwhile the American right, Lilla believes, has provided this kind of vision since the election of Reagan, with a focus on public sentiment that the left has lacked.

The left used to have this vision. The basic thrust of New Deal liberalism, Lilla suggests, was a successful model that would (with a few tweaks) still be successful today. But liberals turned from that brand of politics to something new: identity politics. He illustrates:

An image for Roosevelt liberalism and the unions that supported it was that of two hands shaking. A recurring image of identity liberalism is that of a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colors, producing a rainbow. This says it all.

Lilla frames this turn to identity politics as an accommodation to and reinforcement of the “fundamental principle of Reaganism . . . individualism.” Instead of retaining what was distinct about the Democratic Party, it caved to a form of identity politics based on the same radical individualism embraced by Republicans. Identity liberalism, Lilla argues, is content to be “right” regardless of its political success. It has become an “evangelical” project, and while evangelism is “about speaking truth to power,” politics is “about seizing power to defend the truth.” Lilla presents himself as the adult in the Democratic Party in the age of Trump. “Resistance will not be enough,” he warns. “It is time—past time—to get real.”

After this introduction, The Once and Future Liberal is divided into three sections: a description of the development of Reaganism, which Lilla describes as a form of anti-politics; a description of how the left came to embrace identity politics; and a concluding section on what healthy politics would look like.

Victory of Hyperindividualism

Reagan’s anti-politics drew on a “new outlook on life that had been gaining ground in the United States, one in which the needs and desires of individuals were given near-absolute priority over those of society.” It was only to be expected, Lilla notes, that our politics would become “infected” with the same “self-regard” as our “hyperindividualistic bourgeois society.”

In a society where individual autonomy is an idol—Lilla lifts up the mantras of “personal choice,” “individual rights,” and “self-definition”—the idea of “we” becomes “suspect.” The individual freedom won by New Deal liberalism and by the multi-national effort required to end the Cold War was now fueling a political movement that scorned the idea of communal commitments, social responsibility, and a citizenship that entailed sacrifice.

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
Mark Lilla
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The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
Mark Lilla
HarperCollins (2017). 160 pp. $24.99.

In The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla offers an impassioned, tough-minded, and stinging look at the failure of American liberalism over the past two generations.

Lilla argues that American liberalism fell under the spell of identity politics, with disastrous consequences.

Driven originally by a sincere desire to protect the most vulnerable Americans, the left has now unwittingly balkanized the electorate, encouraged self-absorption rather than solidarity, and invested its energies in social movements rather than in party politics.

In a society where individual autonomy is an idol—[with its] mantras of ‘personal choice,’ ‘individual rights,’ and ‘self-definition’—the idea of ‘we’ becomes ‘suspect.’

In an interesting footnote, Lilla anticipates the religious criticism that he overlooks the “moral education” provided by churches. He remarks that faith “adapted to the ambient libertarianism rather than softening it,” and points out the precipitous drop in church membership and attendance over the last 40 years. “More and more got saved, but alone,” Lilla writes, echoing recent Christian reflection on this historical period.

Reaganism for Lefties

Lilla’s description of how the left came to embrace identity politics—what he pithily describes as “Reaganism for lefties”—hits some resonant notes. He argues that while it’s common today to tell the history of American politics through the lens of identity, the term didn’t actually enter political discourse until the late 1960s. From the Pilgrims on through the 1960s, identity was mediated by the meaning of citizenship. Even the civil-rights movement was predicated on taking “the concept of universal, equal citizenship more seriously than white America ever had.”

But the identity politics that emerged in the latter half of the 20th century discounted citizenship, and instead emphasized the differences between social groups. Lilla delivers an extended critique of this turn toward individualistic pursuit of self-actualization—and the way higher education has encouraged this development. The identity-based movements that made up the New Left wanted more than concrete policy gains; they wanted there to be “no space between what they felt on the inside and what they did in the world.” Here Lilla echoes aspects of David Brooks’s description of the “Big Me.”

Politics has become a primary forum in which we seek meaning. We go to politics to express our identity and have our identity affirmed.

Politics has become a primary forum in which we seek meaning. We go to politics to express our identity and have our identity affirmed. So, as Lilla points out, we use our identity to claim special insight into political problems, and to establish a political discourse where our identity can be leveraged for special privilege in debates about public issues:

Young people on the left—in contrast with those on the right—are less likely today to connect their engagements to a set of political ideas. They are much more likely to say that they are engaged in politics as an X, concerned about other Xs and those issues touching on X-ness.

The possibility for persuasion and consensus is limited by a political discourse that reduces people’s ideas to a derivation of their identity. Such a view means that “there is no impartial space for dialogue. White men have one ‘epistemology,’ black women have another. What remains to be said?”

Space for Differences

Lilla does distinguish between identity politics and policies that uniquely affect certain demographic groups. While he argues that an identity politics which seeks to flatten out political disagreement along lines of identity is harmful, this doesn’t mean analysis and specific redress of public policies that affect certain communities is somehow ruled out of bounds. This distinction is often lost in public debates about identity politics. One gets the sense that actors on both sides of the current debate over identity politics are more than happy to muddy the waters on the point, either to peremptorily disqualify certain people and topics from political debate, or to reinforce convenient dogmas and group boundaries for political purposes.

The problem with—and I’d argue, the purpose of—identity politics is not that it acknowledges people’s differences, but that it papers over their humanity.

Lilla’s rejection of identity politics is worthy of embrace to the extent that he is critiquing a mode of thinking about politics, rather than a delineation of the kinds of issues our politics is fit to address. Indeed, later in the book he argues explicitly that politics ought to address inequities in the criminal justice system that affect African Americans, for instance.

For Lilla, the problem with—and I’d argue, the purpose of—identity politics is not that it acknowledges people’s differences, but that it papers over their humanity. Identity politics empowers people to speak for others without their consent, and therefore works against the basic underpinnings of representative government.

Liberalism for the Common Good

In the final section of The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla puts forward his vision for a liberalism that has regained confidence in the value of its ideas for the common good, not just for various identity groups. This confidence would enable liberals to make their case to non-liberals, and would motivate a pragmatism focused less on purity and more on governing.

Again, Lilla locates the rationale for this revived liberalism around the idea of citizenship. “Identity liberalism,” he writes, “banished the word we to the outer reaches of respectable political discourse. Yet there is no long-term future for liberalism without it.” An appeal to citizenship is the “only way forward” since citizenship is “something we all share but which has nothing to do with our identities, without denying the existence and importance of the latter.”

Contra Obama?

As a former staffer to Barack Obama, I noticed that while Lilla presents his approach as a corrective to the former president’s politics, his proposal is oddly reminiscent of some of Obama’s most high-profile speeches. Citizenship was the theme of Obama’s 2012 Democratic Convention speech, arguably the most carefully crafted distillation of his campaign’s message. After acknowledging that personal responsibility is an American theme, Obama argued:

But we also believe in something called citizenship—[cheers, applause]—citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.

These ideas capture the heart of Lilla’s book, and yet he writes it as a corrective to Obama’s politics. This theme of a balancing counterforce to individualism was a grounding message of Obama’s entire time in national politics—from his Joint Session speech on health reform to his farewell speech, which one op-ed writer called a “siren to citizenship.”

In a parenthetical note, after Lilla acknowledges that Obama understood the importance of a communal “we” to liberalism, he suggests that Obama “never got around to saying who exactly we are or who we might become.” This, of course, is patently false. Obama’s descriptions of who the American people are might have been wrong or unsatisfactory, but the entire arc of his rhetoric was about speaking into existence a vision of who the American people are and who they might become. His confidence in his vision of America was what frustrated those who disagreed with him. And it’s what frustrates many of Lilla’s readers who disagree with him.

Duty of Citizenship

In the end, I agree with many of Lilla’s arguments and complaints about our current political discourse. Our politics is too tribal. Our politics would be better if it focused on ideas and the common good, rather than a gauntlet of special interest- and identity-based advocacy groups fighting for their piece of the pie. We ought to see our fates as inextricably linked with the fate of our neighbors—and act politically on their behalf. As we’ve seen, the difficult thing is to move the aspiration of these oughts into the reality of our politics and citizens’ lives.

Lilla is also right to dismiss progressive political rhetoric as ill-equipped to “convince the well-off that they have a permanent duty to the worse-off.” He acknowledges that the Bible “used to” provide this rhetoric, but now evangelicalism, in particular, has been “infected with the same individualism, selfishness, and superficiality that have infected other sectors of American life.” He accepts evangelicalism’s inadequacy and turns back to citizenship and national fraternity as the motivating source for his ideal liberal politics.

Here, The Once and Future Liberal is most emblematic of one perspective in an intense conversation underway right now, not about identity politics but the future of liberal democracy. Lilla and likeminded peers believe liberal democracy is moving in the direction they always believed it was headed: secular, rational, and naturally oriented toward the good. But what if liberal democracy depends on resources outside of itself? Lilla’s hope that a greater embrace of citizenship will motivate our politics is an attempt to hold onto the trunk of a tree while discarding the roots that nourish it.

Liberalism Needs Religion

In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton observes, “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because men had loved her.” He continues:

The 18th-century theories of the social contract have been exposed to much clumsy criticism in our time; insofar as they meant that there is at the back of all historic government an idea of content and cooperation, they were demonstrably right. But they really were wrong, insofar as they suggested that men had ever aimed at order or ethics directly by a conscious exchange of interests. Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, “I will not hit you if you do not hit me”; there is no trace of such a transaction. There is a trace of both men having said, “We must not hit each other in the holy place.” They gained their morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous. They did not cultivate cleanliness. They purified themselves for the altar, and found that they were clean.

Philip Gorski suggests in his recent book, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, that the decline of civil religion—the lack of a shared national vocabulary about religious and moral truths—has made meaningful civic dialogue more difficult. Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently argued in The Atlantic that “anything resembling a common religion, or a common religious culture, is no longer something Americans can claim to have.” Hamid warns that the assumption that a more secular America would be more “tolerant, pluralistic, and therefore more stable place would be tested.” And, in his new book, Awaiting the King [read TGC’s review], James K. A. Smith argues that liberal democracy exists in large part because of the contributions of Christianity; it “bears the cratermarks” of Christianity.

Which raises a question: What if liberal democracy doesn’t just bear the cratermarks of Christianity, but actually relies on Christianity for its fuel?

European Experience

In 2010, amid the ongoing debate in Germany about migration, multiculturalism, and Islamic terrorism, Chancellor Angela Merkel made a provocative argument to the Christian Democratic Union party: “We don’t have too much Islam. We have too little Christianity. We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind.” Germany, she argued, should view this moment as an opportunity to have a more robust conversation about the “values that guide us and about our Judeo-Christian tradition. We have to stress this again with confidence.”

Last month, Tim Farron, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, delivered a speech at THEOS’s annual lecture where he warned that liberalism was eating itself:

Christianity provides the values that permit liberalism to flourish.

In discarding Christianity, we kick away the foundations of liberalism and democracy and so we cannot then be surprised when what we call liberalism stops being liberal.

It’s interesting to see leaders in Western Europe—which has grappled with a decline in religious practice both deeper and more enduring than America has experienced—turn back to religion.

Coming Kingdom

In The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla keeps religion primarily in his rearview mirrorHis hope for our politics is cast on a renewal of citizenship, a revival of civic solidarity in line with Enlightenment thinkers and FDR and the Kennedys. If these ideas, cut off from spiritual nourishment, possess the energy required to meet the challenges our self-interested, tribal, and identity-based present, our politics will be better for it.

Christians should hope, for the good of our neighbors, that our politics might be capable of a revitalization that draws on its own resources. Yet we also know that all creation groans in waiting for a deeper revival, a restoration of the heart, in which the kingdom of heaven that holds the primary claim on our citizenship will have its way.

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