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Progressives should not cave to anemic liberals in the “identity politics” debate

Men holding signs that say "Veterans Stand for Standing Rock" protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline drew a multiracial coalition
Pacific Press / Getty

One of the fundamental challenges for liberals, in the Trump regime, will be trying to hold on to their basic commitments to equality and inclusion, while facing the pressure to jettison some of those commitments when it would seem to be politically disadvantageous to be too liberal.

As early as the 19th century, John Stuart Mill, whose work deeply influenced our ideas of liberalism, recognized that increased economic equality had not been accompanied by equality in terms of either gender or race. He was fully committed to widening the scope of equality in those realms, writing, along with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill, “The Subjection of Women”: “[T]he legal subordination of one sex to another — is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a system of perfect equality, admitting no power and privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.”

In 1850, Mill also wrote powerfully for the abolition of slavery. He fully recognized that in taking both these positions he was going against the tide of convention and popular opinion, but for him, taking these unpopular positions was perfectly consistent with his commitment to equality for all.

Since that time, until this November at least, history seemed to have slowly caught up with Mill; many felt that things had evolved. And the road of progress was not a smooth or easy one — many well-meaning liberals dragged their heels during the civil rights movement, causing Martin Luther King Jr. to write in his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Now, with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, those who are working for racial equality are once again confronted with both of those nemeses: out-and-out white supremacists and their silent abettors, anemic liberals.

The notorious Mark Lilla essay

In the aftermath of the presidential election, many white male liberals have come forward with the following claim: Democrats lost largely because they had neglected the issue of class; Trump won because he catered to the alienated white working class. The conclusion they draw is that it is time to get rid of “identity politics,” which are attentive to issues of gender and race and other things, and get back to the economic base. Mark Lilla’s New York Times op-ed, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” is a much-discussed manifesto for this position. Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, writes:

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.

It is crucial to remember that Clinton won the election in the popular vote — by an increasingly sizable margin. That does not mean that liberals do not have to think hard about how they lost the Electoral College to Trump, but it does put into perspective the degree to which Democrats must rethink how they “appeal to Americans,” and who they feel these Americans are, and what their priorities are. Lilla believes that in neither case should issues of minority identities be accommodated in any substantial, public manner — his notion is that “identity politics” are the kiss of death for liberals.

But to follow Lilla’s and others’ advice would be to precisely turn away from not only progress but also reality. The United States is increasingly less white, and although some minorities voted for Trump, the overwhelming majority did not. Our country is also increasingly liberal. The Atlantic notes: “There is a backlash against the liberalism of the Obama era. But it is louder than it is strong. Instead of turning right, the country as a whole is still moving to the left.” So why abandon “identity politics”?

The term “identity politics” is disposable, but the disadvantages some groups face are real

In fact, I am all for retiring the term itself — it is a term that more and more people wish to get rid of, especially since now it’s patently clear that Trump and his followers are enraptured by white identity politics. When we fixate on this term, we tend up enmeshed in a battle of whose “identity” is worth preserving and whose is not. We end up either arbitrarily championing one over another or simply saying “All Lives Matter.” In both cases, we lose sight of what we should be aiming to achieve politically, and that should be equal rights for all, with a full understanding of how some groups are at a specific and real disadvantage in this regard. That would seem a noncontroversial idea for liberals, but some are balking at it.

What we find in the backlash by liberals against progressives is nothing other than a betrayal of the true and full values of liberalism. Liberals like Lilla would have us turning back the clock to compete for the leadership of what one might call an “off-white America,” with issues of race and gender and other minority positions relegated to the background — yet somehow not entirely abandoned, so that this America would not be confused with the starkly “pure America” favored by white supremacists. For many of us, this is an unappealing prospect.

We believe we should instead build on the gains we have made and the multiracial structures we have built — such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the National Immigration Law Center, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and groups working for housing rights, such as Urban Habitat.

We should not accept the logic that would demand that we must choose either economic justice or racial justice (or gender equality). As Cinzia Arruzza, an assistant professor of philosophy at the New School, writes:

An effective opposition to Trump should work on disentangling these heterogeneous and even incompatible motivations, by, on the one hand, fighting back against the new wave of racism, misogyny, and homophobia ahead of us, and on the other, addressing the legitimate desire for a radical change expressed in part by votes for Trump and in the abstention of millions of former Democratic voters.

Liberalism will have to struggle with its conscience once again, but the question should not be, “How equal can we afford to be?” but rather, “How can we best form lines of solidarity with the most vulnerable?”

The notion that on one hand is class and economic identities and on the other hand is race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation is a false binary. As the journalist Conor Lynch notes, “Economic struggles and civil rights are deeply interconnected. Women and people of color, for example, are much more likely to suffer disproportionately from poverty and economic inequality.”

People of many different identities stood together against the Dakota Access Pipeline

In response to such injustices, coalitions that recognize these connections have appeared and are growing every day. What is happening at Standing Rock demonstrates that while a movement might be led by a particularly affected group, diverse peoples can see their interests and values represented by the same historical event. The issues of water rights, indigenous rights, and minority rights have drawn people who have been aware of these issues from Hawaii and Palestine and from Flint, Michigan. None of them have checked their “identities” at the door.

Indeed, with the news that the Army Corps of Engineers has turned down the permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline to be built under the Missouri River, we find a landmark case of organizing and activism across many so-called “identities.” One veteran wrote that for the first time in his long service to the country, he felt that he had truly served the American people. He writes:

I was in Iraq when President Bush announced the “surge” in January 2007. I was in Afghanistan when President Obama announced the “surge” in December 2009. But it wasn’t until I visited Standing Rock in October 2016 when I actually served the American people. This time, instead of fighting for corporate interests, I was fighting for the people… The Sioux struggle against the pipeline embraces so many other struggles in this nation. It encompasses struggles against climate catastrophe, a history of breaking treaties with Native Americans, attacks on the right to assemble, assaults on journalists, the militarization of police, and placing corporate profits over human rights.

This places Lilla’s assertion of what constitutes “most Americans” and especially what political activism has to look like in an entirely new perspective.

And this is not new. The longest fight against an eviction in United States history was the multiracial protest against the International Hotel eviction in San Francisco.

For more than a decade, a coalition of Asian Americans, black people, Hispanics, religious groups, senior citizens, and college students fought to allow a group of elderly Filipinos to stay in their residence. Even the sheriff of San Francisco initially refused to carry out the eviction notice. All these groups and individuals understood that “urban redevelopment” meant the loss of their city, their residences, and their autonomy. Although the eviction eventually went through, the builders agreed to create low-income housing — thus setting an important precedent for urban development.

What’s more, in 2005 the city of San Francisco partnered with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco to rebuild the International Hotel as a cultural center and senior housing. We find similar coalitions fighting for housing rights today, as even white middle-class individuals and families see their communities torn apart by skyrocketing housing prices.

All this is to say that “identity” need not be a barrier to getting 51 percent of the votes in the Electoral College. A recent piece at Slate argues that the idea that Trump won the Rust Belt by appealing to poor whites misses the fact that many Democrats either voted for third-party candidates or didn’t show up to vote; in short, the Democrats lost those voters. Rather than attempt to continue a brand of managerial liberalism that decides in a top-down matter what matters to “most Americans,” it would be vastly more effective to, if one is really interested in social justice, recognize what drives people to action and commitment and to the polls. They may well be bearing their identities with them, but building something together.

Mills felt that whatever inequality might exist should be balanced in favor of the weak and the most vulnerable. Those who wish to win the next election by muting calls for justice emanating from the margins have, at that moment, given up the name “liberal” for political expediency.

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon professor, and professor of comparative literature, at Stanford University, as well as the founding editor of Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities. Find him on Twitter @palumboliu.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.

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