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Debating the liberal case against identity politics

"It works for them. It doesn't work for us. It's that simple." —Professor Mark Lilla

Thousands Gather For Equality March For Unity And Peace In Washington DC
Demonstrators carry rainbow flags past the White House during the Equality March for Unity and Peace on June 11, 2017 in Washington, D.C. 
Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Last November, a week after the election, a liberal political theorist at Columbia University published an essay in the New York Times titled “The End of Identity Liberalism.”

Authored by Mark Lilla, the essay was a direct rebuke of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Clinton was “at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy,” Lilla wrote. But too often she would “slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters.”

By appealing to specific groups rather than the country as a whole, Lilla argued, the campaign alienated white working-class voters — and that’s why Clinton lost.

Critics responded immediately. Slate’s Michelle Goldberg said Lilla’s reduction of identity politics confuses the “absurd excesses of political correctness” with “race and gender politics themselves.” Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote that “People have identities, and people are mobilized politically around those identities. There is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”

Lilla’s response was to turn his essay into a short book, which is out this week and titled The Once and Future Liberal. The book extends his argument to include the entire Democratic Party and the American left.

I reached out to Lilla to talk about the book, which he says offers a path forward. Our conversation, posted below, explores what that path looks like and why it might be more complicated than Lilla suggests.


Where the left went wrong

Sean Illing

Why write this book? What are you trying to achieve?

Mark Lilla

If there's one message I want to get across in the book, it's that you cannot help anyone if you don't hold power. To hold power in a democratic system means winning elections, and in a federal system like ours, it means winning elections everywhere geographically. It's a fantasy to think that we can retreat to our base, hold the two coasts, and somehow hope for the best.

The numbers are very bad. We've had two pretty good presidents since Ronald Reagan was elected, but they were stymied at almost every turn by a recalcitrant Congress and Supreme Court. During the Obama years, we lost over 900 seats in state legislatures. The Republican Party now controls both governorships and statehouses in 24 states. If they win two more, they can call a constitutional convention. This is serious stuff.

Sean Illing

Why have Democrats been swept out of power?

Mark Lilla

Let's talk first about where we are right now. A large segment of the population now has an allergic reaction to the left. A lot of things have gone into that — the way we talk, the way we campaign, the issues we stress, what Fox News does. I’d say two-thirds or maybe more of the country is unreachable. Liberalism has simply become a dirty word.

Sean Illing

Right, but how did that happen?

Mark Lilla

Let’s go back to Reagan. He was elected on an anti-government message — if you get the government out of the way, everything will go well. There's no such thing as society. There are just individuals, families, church groups. Politics and government really have no dignity, and they're the problem.

At that moment, liberals needed to offer a political vision that said, "We're not just individuals. We're actually a republic based on certain values. We stick together. That's what Americans do, and we use government to help each other and to build something together."

Instead, they started talking about groups. Not only was there a shift from coming together as citizens to different identity groups, but also there was a shift from electoral politics to movement politics.

Sean Illing

Explain the logic of movement politics and how it’s different from electoral politics or institutional politics?

Mark Lilla

The logic of movement politics, especially identity politics, is not the logic of electoral politics. Social movements are effective when they focus on one issue, push as hard as they can on that issue, and ignore other issues. For 30 years, from the 1950s until 1980, social movements had a big effect on this country. That's where the action was.

Since 1980, movement politics has been dead. What has really changed the country is the electoral strategy of the Republican Party and conservatives, along with conservative media. A focus on groups, a focus on ourselves, and a focus on social movements rather than winning elections in out-of-the-way places, combined with campus politics and Hollywood politics, simply turned off a good part of this country.

Part of what we need to do right now is to calm that allergy down. We need to have a message that helps people see that the principles we stand for will actually improve their lives and offer an inspiring vision of what we share and what we can do together.

The identity politics trap

Sean Illing

I think that’s a little naive, and I’ll explain why in a minute, but let’s linger on Reagan. Reagan played the identity game too. Alongside the rainbows and the sunshine and the shining city on a hill was a whole lot of racial pandering and dog-whistling rhetoric about “welfare queens.” So the Republicans won by employing the very tactics you’re now denouncing on the left.

Mark Lilla

It works for them. It doesn't work for us. It's that simple. It's killing us. The task isn't to deliver a moral judgment on whether appealing to identity is a good or bad thing. We're talking about trying to seize power in this country.

The other difference is that when Republicans signal in that way, when they use dog whistles, as you say, they are not calling out explicitly to groups. We do that constantly. It's the first thing we think of. It's our mentality now, to immediately think about how different groups are affected, about our social differences.

Some of that you have to do, but we do that in public in a way that leaves the impression, and it's not an entirely false one, that we have no picture of what we share as a country and how we can pull everyone together to achieve something. We don't have a sense of a national destiny and a national project because we can't stop talking about our differences.

Sean Illing

Let’s not speak in generalities here. Can you cite an example of a platform or a candidate or a political strategy on the left that typifies what you’re talking about?

Mark Lilla

The Women's March is a very good example of this. It was the brainchild of Teresa Shook, a white woman from Hawaii. She posted something on Facebook saying, "It's outrageous that this man is president, given the way he has talked about and treated women. Why don't we march on Washington?" A very simple idea, one that could have brought together women from every walk of life in this country, every group, including men and families.

Immediately she was criticized for the name of the march, because it had echoes with black women's marches and the Million Man March, and because there weren't people of color on the organizing committee. They didn't feel represented. She should have said, “Look, this is about one issue only. If you want to come, come. If you don’t, don’t.” But we liberals are susceptible to this kind of pressure, and so she caved.

All of this played out in public. Everyone could see this happening. For me, it was just a typical example of how we can't keep our eyes on the ball, how we’re susceptible to these activists.

Sean Illing

I’d argue that Republicanism has been intellectually bankrupt for a very long time. They’re not selling substance — it’s fearmongering and puffery and bullshit narratives about rugged individualism. I don’t see them offering a positive vision of a shared future. I see them funneling dark money more strategically than Democrats, I see them exploiting the media ecosystem better than Democrats, I see them gerrymandering more effectively than Democrats.

Mark Lilla

We are partly responsible for the fact that the Republicans have been successful at gerrymandering. Why? Because we haven't focused on winning state and local elections in every corner of the country.

We have a daddy complex about the presidency. We think if we can just capture the presidency, then daddy, whether it's a man or a woman, is going to deliver all the goodies. When daddy can't, because the party doesn't control Congress, doesn't control the Supreme Court, is not present in so many states, then we complain about his compromising and becoming impure. It's a recipe for losing and marginalization.

The other thing is that Fox News and conservative radio have managed to take characteristics that we have, exaggerate them, and turn us into a kind of specter. This specter, for people who don't come from our classes, don't share our education, don't share all of our values, is something that leaves them with the impression that we have contempt for them, and they have developed contempt for us. We're unable just to make people feel culturally comfortable.

Sean Illing

“Culturally comfortable” is a curious phrase. Where do you draw the line between giving people something they're comfortable with and just capitulating to the sort of nativist rhetoric that helped sweep someone like Trump to office?

Mark Lilla

The word “capitulation” is the problem. That's movement politics thinking. People in movement politics are very worried about getting their aprons dirty, and I am sick and tired of noble defeats. We have to get dirty. This is a struggle for power. This is not a seminar. This is not a therapy session. We are out there struggling for the future of this country.

So yes, we have to emphasize certain things and not emphasize other things. We compromise. We try to remain silent on things that will be too contentious. It's not about being morally pure. It is about seizing power so you can help the people you care about. That's all that matters right now.

Sean Illing

I guess it's a question of how much do you have to compromise rhetorically in order to seize power? If it means papering over injustices or ignoring racism, a lot of people won’t accept that — and I’d argue they shouldn’t.

Mark Lilla

Sure. As liberals, we're worried about all those things. We're worried about racism. We're worried about homophobia. We're worried about single mothers who, because of work, have to travel long distances and don't have child care. Those sorts of things we care about. This is what charges us up and makes us want to win power.

But when you're in an election, you're trying to convince someone else to join your effort. It revolves around the voter and where the voter is. It's not about self-expression. It's about persuasion. When you're trying to persuade someone, you try to figure out what will hook them. What we need is a vision that focuses on what we want to build together and our basic principles.

Sean Illing

Politics is about the assertion of values in the public space, and values are bound up with personal identity in all kinds of ways. So it’s not clear to me that something like a post-identity politics is even possible.

Mark Lilla

One reason why you might believe that is that we live in a highly identity-conscious country right now. This was not the case when I was young. This is not the way people talked and thought about themselves, certainly as Democrats. We talked about issues that we were worked up about, but we weren't talking about ourselves. We've helped to create this world in which everything seems to be about identity, and now we face the problem of winning back the country where our voters are so sensitive about this.

There's one way in which you're right, and that is that all politics at some level is about identification. But that’s not quite the same thing as identity. We think of identity almost as a person inside us, this little thing we cultivate that is the real us. Identification is about getting outside of yourself. I identify with this country as a citizen because of its institutions and its principles. I identify with the Democratic Party not because of my identity or the identity of those who belong to it, but because historically it has been the party that has defended the well-being and the rights of the vast middle of this country.

I want to challenge this notion that identity has to be so important. This is a historical blip. It's become our obsession. There have been times when that was not the case, and there hopefully will be a time when we're not thinking of identity as this little inner thing. We want to help people identify as Democrats and identify as citizens. That's how we reach other people.

Sean Illing

Is it possible to defend the cultural status of traditionally marginalized groups without also alienating Americans that are uncomfortable with the elevated cultural status of those groups?

Mark Lilla

I think it's crucial that we do it. Let me give you an example. I am not a black motorist. I've never been stopped by the cops time and time again, been searched and been humiliated. I can't fully know what that is like, but I want to persuade someone who's indifferent to someone who's experienced that that they ought to care.

How do I do that? Do I tell them they're racist? Do I deliver an indictment of our police force? Do I offer an indictment of our history? No. I've got to appeal to something so that this person identifies with the motorist. Race isn't going to be the way that you help a white person identify with a black motorist.

No, what you say is that every citizen should be equally protected by the law. Certain people shouldn't get special protection, and other people shouldn't have to bear certain burdens. It is simply an outrage when some of our citizens are singled out in this way.

In defense of identity liberalism

Sean Illing

Here’s what defenders of the identity left would say: The liberalism you praise, the post-WWII liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was myopic. It achieved a lot of economic progress, but that progress went disproportionately to white males. The plight of minorities and other oppressed groups was an afterthought. This was a moral failure the cultural left sought to correct.

Mark Lilla

No doubt about it. The economic prosperity was not equally shared, and race is a big part of that story. We now understand how rules were written so that African Americans could not benefit from a lot of the programs that were in the New Deal. That was a scandal. The reason it happened is because to even get these programs passed for anybody, it was necessary to make compromises with Dixiecrats.

Let's say that's the situation you're in. How do you change that? You have to reaffirm the principles on which the New Deal was built and make sure that we live up to the promise of equal citizenship. It's important to talk about people who've been left behind. But if you want to actually help the people who’ve been left behind, you have to win elections.

Trump is an opportunity for the left

Sean Illing

It’s obvious that liberals aren’t going to win by flattering the Joe Six-Packs of the world. So what do they do? What story do they tell?

Mark Lilla

We need some introspection. We need to ask ourselves, "What do we actually stand for?" I think that what we've always stood for are two principles: solidarity among citizens and equal protection under the laws.

Most of the concerns of Bernie Sanders progressives can be put under the rubric of solidarity. Most of the concerns of ethnic groups, racial groups, and gender groups can be put under the principle of equal protection under the law.

Maybe there are other principles we also stand for. Maybe we want to give these things different labels, but we need to look within and get back in touch, not with our identities and the groups we need to please but with fundamentally what we're about.

Sean Illing

I’m not sure how appealing a truly liberal message would be in a hyper-individualistic society like ours. Things have changed. This isn’t the world of FDR. There’s a deep libertarianism baked into our national consciousness that leaves little space for a language of obligation and social duty.

Mark Lilla

I share your view of where we are. I simply don't see any other way out. I also note that no one has tried. It's very interesting that since Reagan, not a single president of ours has asked us to make a sacrifice.

What I'm looking for is a Democratic candidate who will say, “All I can offer you is blood, sweat, and tears. This is not Christmas. There are no presents under the tree. We are facing a national emergency in this country, economically and socially. For the next four to eight years you may have to pay more taxes. You may be asked to volunteer, because your country needs you. We're all in this country together, and we need to lock arms. We're going to set up programs to retrain people. We're going to set up language programs for immigrants, and we're going to ask young people to go to small towns across America and help families rebuild their lives. I'm asking you for a sacrifice.”

Sean Illing

You write that “our politics has been dominated by two ideologies that encourage and even celebrate the unmaking of citizens.” What do you mean by that, and why is it important?

Mark Lilla

Republicans and Democrats, or rather liberals and conservatives, have unmade citizens in different ways. The anti-political message of Reagan that I mentioned essentially offered a picture of society that was of small towns, small church groups, families, and entrepreneurs. That was the grid for looking at the country. When you see the country that way, you assume the government is the problem. It's okay for people to cooperate. It's good that they cooperate, but they have to figure that out themselves.

Oddly enough, Republicans who have been very bellicose from Reagan on have never really spoken about why, as citizens, we have to sacrifice ourselves for the national interest. Instead, they prefer to run up a deficit, pay people to be soldiers, and send them on their way. The whole rhetoric of citizenship dropped out of the right in the '80s.

The left has lost the ability to do that for the reasons we've been talking about, because we think of people in terms of groups. We also think of ourselves very much as self-determining individuals. We get to define who we are. Everything is malleable. Our identities are malleable, and so we don't talk about what we share, and we don't talk about what it is to be a citizen and what it is to have duties.

Sean Illing

You refer to this moment as a “test of our preparedness.” Trump has basically destroyed conventional Republicanism and whatever remains of principled conservatism. There's an ideological vacuum right now. So how does the left fill it?

Mark Lilla

Despite all the problems that I point to in our society, I'm actually hopeful for the first time. Donald Trump did half of our job for us. What we're living in is really a visionless America. Not all countries have vision. Other countries aren't a project. I don't know what the Sri Lankan project is, or the Belgian project. They just go along. They're countries. We are a project. That's how we got started. We're not ethnically based. We need some sort of vision of where we want to go with our project. That's how the country works.

If we can just stop thinking and talking about ourselves, and sacrifice some of our sacred cows, and start focusing on articulating in a very simple way the kind of America we want to build, we can become the country we ought to be.