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Booker-winning novelist Marlon James on why identity politics are vital

The Duchess Of Cornwall Presents The 2015 Man Booker Prize Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

As the Democratic Party struggles to move forward in the wake of the presidential election, it’s been soul-searching. Hands have been wrung, navels have been gazed, and self-recriminations have been made. One of the most common diagnoses — exemplified in a much-shared New York Times op-ed by Mark Lilla on November 18 — is that Democrats made the mistake of focusing on identity politics at the expense of class politics.

“We need a post-identity liberalism,” Lilla writes, arguing that this new liberalism should spend its energies on “the common good,” while addressing “narrower issues” like trans rights “quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.”

It’s not an argument that all American progressives agree with. To wit: Marlon James, the Jamaican-born Booker Prize–winning author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, responded to Lilla’s op-ed on Facebook. “Dude, half of this is horseshit,” James begins.

James writes from a specifically black, post-colonialist perspective. His work is political, and his politics are inseparable from the politics of identity. When he writes about the CIA’s interference in Caribbean politics, he doesn’t have the luxury or the privilege of focusing on “commonality” as opposed to “difference,” as Lilla argues we must.

James’s response to Lilla’s op-ed is blistering and furious. Devoting your energies to a “common good” while being conveniently vague about who gets to define the words “common” and “good” is dangerous, he argues. That’s what leads to policy that helps only straight white male Americans and thinks of everyone else as a special interest group.

But James and Lilla actually agree about one thing: The politics of the Republican Party are identity politics. They just don’t call it that.

“The first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan,” says Lilla, “which still exists.”

“How is ‘build a wall’ not identity politics?” asks James.

Lilla thinks that Democrats can’t beat Republicans at the identity politics game, that they shouldn’t even try. The best way forward, he argues, is to focus on our similarities, not on our differences.

But James has a different idea. “Liberals need to learn to sell their message better,” he says. After all, “Republicans win, not because people are fighting for something to call themselves, but because nearly half of us won’t even vote.”

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