Identity Politics in a Liberal Democracy

4 September 2018


After the 2016 election Democrats were left to ponder: what went wrong and what was to be done? Of the many interventions that followed, perhaps none generated as much debate as Mark Lilla’s. First in an op-ed and then a book, Lilla took the left and the Democrats to task for losing their way, and thereby facilitating the radicalization of the Republican Party and the election of Donald Trump. Despite making clear that his goal was reversing these developments, Lilla became “the liberal who counts more enemies on the left than right.” Indeed, one of Lilla’s own colleagues at Columbia went so far as to accuse him in the Los Angeles Review of Books of “contributing to the same ideological project as David Duke”—the latter “cloaked in a KKK hood,” the former “in an academic gown”; both were merely a doctrine of “white supremacy.” These are extreme and serious charges, yet were neither widely condemned on the left, nor was the disparagement and disrespect reflected in them unusual. What, exactly, had Lilla done to call forth such venom? And what does the controversy over The Once and Future Liberal say about the contemporary left and the future of American democracy?


The Once and Future Liberal begins by noting that while many were shocked by the 2016 election, the Republican Party had been radicalizing and accumulating political power for a long time. As Lilla correctly points out, large “swaths of the country [have become] thoroughly dominated by the radical Republican right,” leaving “certain federal laws and even constitutional protections… practically speaking a dead letter,” and rendering minorities and other disadvantaged groups “more vulnerable than they otherwise would be.” It is impossible to understand how and why this has happened, Lilla argues, without paying attention to the rise of “identity politics.”


It is important to stop here and take a breath. Critiquing “identity politics” for Lilla does not mean denigrating or downplaying the demands and concerns of minority groups or privileging those of the white working class. Instead, what Lilla refers to as “identity politics” is a worldview that treats individuals as members or representatives of particular groups, and thus treats group identity, rather than a shared American identity, as primary. Accompanying this worldview is a particular style of politics which mobilizes voters around group characteristics like race, gender or sexuality, rather than (non-ascriptive) characteristics like party, ideology or class. Lilla argues this type of identity politics is corrupting and counterproductive.


First, Lilla argues it is anti-liberal, since it defines individuals on the basis of the group (or groups) they belong to and judges their views and behavior accordingly. As Andrew Sullivan put it, “we used to call this bigotry. Now we call it being woke.” Second, it is anti-intellectual because it hinders engaging with or even understanding groups outside one’s own. For example, Lilla writes that

an earlier generation of women might have learned that women as a group have a distinct perspective that deserves to be recognized and cultivated and distinct needs that society must address. Today the theoretically adept are likely to be taught … that one cannot generalize about women since their experiences are radically different, depending on race, sexual preference…and so on.

Relatedly, by insisting that people not of group X cannot know certain things that only people from group X can know, and that an individual’s group membership determines the type of speech or behavior she or he is “allowed” or “entitled” to engage in, “identity politics” denies the existence, or even the desirability, of objective truth. In contemporary parlance, it cannot or will not differentiate between “real” and “fake” news. “White men have one ‘epistemology,’ black women have another,” Lilla writes, “so what remains to be said?” (Shuja Haider makes a similar point in an essay on identity politics in Jacobin).


Third, Lilla argues that “identity politics” has contributed to the tribalization of American society and the polarization of American politics by treating political opponents not as wrong, but as immoral and illegitimate:

That one now hears the word ‘woke’ everywhere is a giveaway that spiritual conversion, not political agreement is the demand. Relentless speech surveillance, the protection of virgin ears, the inflation of venial sins into moral ones, the banning of preachers unclean ideas—all these campus identity follies [are characteristic of] revivalist religion….

He returns to this point later in the book:

Identity liberalism has ceased being a political project and has morphed into an evangelical one…. Not everything is a matter of principle—and even when something is, there are usually other, equally important principles that might have to be sacrificed to preserve this one.

As anyone who has children or a glancing acquaintance with the literature of psychology knows, shaming, berating, and derision are recipes for resentment and a hardening of opposition, rather than for compromise and understanding.


At this point most readers are surely thinking: “but this is precisely what Republicans and the right more generally do.” Lilla recognizes that Republicans have long practiced their own “identity politics,” with its concomitant anti-liberal, anti-intellectual, divisive and polarizing tendencies. This is no reason, however, for the left to do the same. Not only is the old adage true, that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but also if the left engages in identity politics, it only provides the right with another “reason to do the same.” But perhaps more importantly, since Republicans need only mobilize one large group, white people, rather than a disparate coalition of smaller ones, this is a struggle the left is likely to lose. Reflecting this, Steve Bannon infamously remarked that he can’t get enough of the left’s “race-identity politics”: “The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ‘em…. I want them to take about race and identity … every day.”


So what does Lilla suggest the Democrats counter Republican identity politics with? Simply put, its opposite: “an ambitious vision of America and its future that would inspire citizens [from] different walks of life [and] regions, reminding us of what America is and what it can become.” Indeed, now may be the perfect time for such an appeal, since Trump has erased any pretense that Republicans aspire to offer a positive vision of our country’s future or embrace America’s diversity. But for the Democrats to do these things would require re-creating “a sense of we—of what we are as citizens and what we owe each other.” Such an appeal, Lilla argues, is more likely to help the vulnerable and minorities than identity politics, since the best way to “protect black motorists from police abuse, or gay and lesbian couples from harassment on the street,” is to remind Americans that “all citizens are entitled to fair treatment by government officials and equal protection under the law.” Democrats should challenge “America to live up to its principles. Not just [securing] formal rights, but … equal dignity in society as well…. To take the concept of universal, equal citizenship more seriously than white America ever [has]. Not … [to] idealize or deny difference … but … [rather] render it politically impotent.” Lilla contends that this type of appeal undergirded the most successful political era in modern Democratic politics—that of Roosevelt’s New Deal—and that creating a better future therefore requires re-learning lessons from the past.


And herein lies a problem that has given Lilla’s critics an opportunity to attack him, rather than engage in substantive debates about his arguments.


As Lilla is surely aware, Roosevelt’s New Deal, while a great accomplishment, was bought at a very heavy price—leaving in place the country’s greatest shame, the South’s system of white supremacy. Indeed, the mid-century emergence of social democracy for white Americans was predicated on the exclusion of African-Americans from democracy itself, even after many fought and died for the country during the Second World War. Lilla’s failure to fully engage with this paradox has allowed his critics to avoid engaging with his analysis of the present, focusing instead on injustices built into the New Deal and America’s past more generally. In addition, by not grappling with the New Deal’s injustices, Lilla also avoids grappling with the fact that they helped give rise to the identity politics he bemoans. The New Deal’s exclusion of African-Americans from the full benefits of citizenship and democracy helped generate the turmoil and counter-cultural movements of the 1960s, which in turn gave rise to the identity politics movements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In addition, since even Roosevelt, the great champion of social democracy and adversary of fascism, proved unable (or unwilling) to use the power of the national state to eradicate the vestiges of our “original sin,” many people came to reject American democracy and American identity altogether, believing these would never fully include African-Americans.


Countering such beliefs is necessary for Democrats to succeed and the health of American democracy to be restored, but doing so will require confronting the injustices of our past head-on. If these beliefs remain unchallenged, advocates of identity politics will be able avoid fully engaging with arguments like Lilla’s about the downsides of this type of politics and the potential of alternatives to it. Indeed, it is currently not unusual to hear parts of the left arguing that the problem is not that American liberalism has failed to live up to its ideals, as Lilla contends, but rather that both America and liberalism themselves are inherently and fatally flawed. Any attempt to praise the principles of American democracy or salvage a progressive politics from them is therefore fundamentally misguided. As Lilla’s Columbia colleague put it, “racial inequality was baked into liberalism.” In this vein, she dismissively characterizes his argument as: “Come on guys, the founding fathers created a great country! Get with the program.”


Beyond this substantive problem, The Once and Future Liberal is also marred by a stylistic one. Lilla correctly criticizes those on the left who adopt a condescending, moralistic and dismissive tone with their political opponents; unfortunately, however, he often does the same. He refers to parts of the left as sanctimonious, self-interested, narrow-minded, and selfish. He disparages the areas they live in as places where

you can visit a bookshop, see a foreign movie, pick up vitamins and candles, have a decent meal followed by an espresso, and perhaps attend a workshop and have your conscience cleaned. [These are] thoroughly bourgeois settings without a trace of the demos, apart from the homeless men and women who flock there and whose job it is to keep it real for the residents.

He later continues by snidely suggesting that it might do those on the left good to

one day descend from up high and visit places where Wi-Fi is non-existent, the coffee is weak, and you will have no desire to post a photo of your dinner on Instagram. And where you’ll be eating with people who give genuine thanks for that dinner in prayer. Don’t look down on them. As a good liberal you have learned not to do that with peasants in far-away lands; apply the lesson to Southern Pentecostals and gun owners.

And he disparages the “movement politics” that has mobilized many young citizens in particular over the past years as ineffective and self-indulgent; we need, he says, “more mayors and fewer movements.” While Lilla is correct to stress that elections need to be won, practical politics alone will not revitalize the Democratic Party or the left. In order to motivate people for long-term political struggle, ideals and a sense of belonging and efficacy are necessary—precisely what “movement politics” provides. Indeed, a case can be made that one reason Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 was that she was not a “movement” politician at a time when people were desperate for change. Obama, on the other hand, had run as a candidate of change, which helps explain how some whites who voted for him in 2008 and 2012 went for Trump in 2016.


We are at an inflection point in American history. Political dissatisfaction and polarization are at levels not seen since the 1960s. Understanding why this has happened and how to deal with it should be a priority for all who care about our country. As a political scientist who studies the development of democracy, I know that “tribalism,” or communalism, immensely complicates the functioning of liberal democracy. As Dankwort Rustow wrote in a classic article still included on many comparative politics syllabi, liberal democracy has “a single background condition—national unity [which] simply means that the vast majority of citizens in a democracy-to-be must have no doubt or mental reservations as to which political community they belong to.” More recently, another great democratic theorist, Danielle Allen, reminded us that “the simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority.” Proving that America is exceptional—that we can build a healthy liberal democracy amid immense diversity—will require overcoming the division and distrust eating away at society. Lilla is correct, in short, that we need to find ways to unite Americans and create a truly inclusive sense of the “we.” But given our country’s history, and the centripetal dynamics inherent in diverse societies, this will be an immensely difficult task that will require that intellectuals, activists, politicians, and citizens more generally approach each other with civility and respect. And so while it is fair, indeed healthy, to disagree with interventions like Lilla’s, such disagreements must be based on reasoned, substantive debate, and not condemnation and name-calling. If we can’t do this on the left, we will be unable to effectively encourage such behavior by others, and the problems plaguing American democracy will continue. And if they do, it is our most vulnerable citizens who will pay the heaviest price.


Photo Credit: Megan Janetsky, via Cronkite News, CC BY-SA 3.0.


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