Focus: Liberalism and Identity Politics

4 September 2018


Is a republican politics—in the sense of the French République—possible in the United States? Much has been said about Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal and the November 2016 New York Times essay that preceded it, but this question has seldom entered the debate over his prescriptions for American liberalism. As many readers of this blog might perceive throughout the following exchange, however, Lilla’s critique of identity politics is to a large extent informed by the civic republican tradition in general and French republican traditions in particular. Lilla’s claim is that the current liberal fixation on the particularity of distinct identities, often cultivated in universities and other elite spaces, is antithetical to the notion of a common good that all citizens share and work together to achieve. Such a view is indeed representative, generally speaking, of a French worldview that tends to look down on political claims made in the name of particular groups rather than the individual belonging to the collective. (And for at least the last three decades, there has been no shortage of French writers across the political spectrum expressing critiques of “American” identity politics.) But Lilla argues that a commitment to the idea of citizenship at the expense of identity is also a political necessity for liberals and the Democratic Party in the current American moment.


But even for those who might fully embrace republican ideals—in France no less than in the United States—the question remains as to how these ideals ought to be articulated in our particular political moment. It is one thing to proclaim one’s commitment to citizenship or solidarity, another to build a political program on them. Here, all the while engaging constructively with Lilla’s argument, the three contributors in this exchange offer some reservations regarding the viability of his articulation of an American liberal republicanism.


Stephen Sawyer, director of The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville, begins by situating the arguments in The Once and Future Liberal alongside Lilla’s own earlier work on French political thought. Sawyer observes that the thinkers highlighted in Lilla’s scholarship each attempted to make the case for liberalism’s place in a French tradition that had often assumed it to be antithetical to republican principles. Sawyer’s concern is that unlike these French attempts, Lilla’s program for a renewed American liberalism rejects too much of that liberalism’s recent history—as a result, Sawyer worries it may prove unable to establish itself “organically” within prior traditions.


Sheri Berman’s review expresses a similar concern regarding Lilla’s treatment of “movement politics.” Though largely sympathetic to Lilla’s arguments amidst the flurry of criticisms The Once and Future Liberal has received, Berman wonders Lilla does not make himself an easy target by apparently underplaying the productive role of social movements. As she argues, no liberal politics that hopes to mobilize people in pursuit of shared ideals can afford to equate (or be seen to equate) America’s long history of movements for equality and emancipation with the narrow concerns of “identity” groups.


David Bell concurs wholeheartedly with Lilla when it comes to the republican ideals underlying his polemic, but disagrees substantially on both the nature of the problem posed by “identity politics” and the political solution for liberals today. On the one hand, he is skeptical that the ways of thinking about identity described in The Once and Future Liberal are as widespread on campuses and in liberal politics more generally as Lilla claims. “Identity politics” is not even the correct label for a number of key issues for the contemporary liberal left—most liberals who support transgender rights, for example, do not do so as trans people. And on the other hand, Bell argues that Lilla’s understanding of political change places too much importance on ideas. We cannot arrive at an ideal republican mode of politics simply by repeating a new “catechism” (as Lilla ironically puts it) in favor of democratic citizenship. Rather, Bell believes moderate liberals ought to take seriously the very left wing movements for which Lilla reserves most of his criticism—movements that propose concrete issues for the broader left to mobilize behind.


In his response to these reviews—his first response in general to the controversies The Once and Future Liberal has generated—Lilla makes a few important distinctions. He acknowledges that the book’s comparison of social movements before and after the 1970s, for example, is better expressed as a distinction between what he labels “institutional” and “cultural” politics, both of which are valuable at different points in time. He also insists that his republican defense of citizenship—and solidarity—is not to be mistaken for nationalism, which he suggests at times is closer to a right-wing version of the identity politics he rejects. Lilla does not pretend that his republicanism offers “solutions” for the current liberal predicament, and as his reviewers point out, there is a large gap between the ideals he defends and today’s political reality. If this exchange does not succeed in filling that gap, it brings us at the very least closer to understanding whether or not it can be filled.


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


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