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Reaction to Mark Lilla's 'The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics'

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics is a well-meaning plea that makes a lot of points that should be taken seriously, but it misses the mark. It is a short book drawn in broad sketches. Some ideas may eventually be vindicated by history, but details of how that is to happen are yet to be provided. If these broad strokes are followed without more specific direction, the plan could instead backfire in a way that Lilla himself probably wouldn’t like.

Writing for the political moment in mid-2017, he identifies the problem: In the United States, for many identity groups, basic human rights and quality of life are violated or threatened in part by conservatives’ political indifference to them. His solution: Liberals need to win elections, local as well as national to create broad support to accomplish nationwide agendas, so they can restore rights to all citizens. The difficulty he perceives is that explicitly talking about these rights somehow causes liberals to lose elections so that they lack political power to enact their principles. He wants liberals to stop self-sabotaging through emphasis on identity politics and to develop a more inclusive, effective brand to attract more voters and accomplish their agenda. He thinks more broad-based appeals to the defense of individual rights, rooted in a shared identity of “citizenship,” should do the trick. Unfortunately, this is not obvious, and he does not succeed in making the case in this book.

In an inspirational passage, he says: “Citizens...are not collateral damage...A citizen, simply by virtue of being a citizen, is one of us. We have stood together to defend the country against foreign adversaries in the past. Now we must stand together at home to make sure that none of us faces the risk of being left behind. We’re all Americans and we owe that to each other. That’s what liberalism means.” (p. 16) Citizens, he says, are not “all alike in every respect”. Different identity groups can “simultaneously think of themselves as political citizens like everyone else. Both ideas can be — indeed, are — true.” (p. 121) Yet, in his view, both self-conceptions cannot be given equal priority on an actionable agenda. He wants liberals to emphasize “political consciousness and strategizing” instead of “symbolic dramas over identity.” (p. 102)

One insufficiency is his choice of the word “citizen.” Not everyone who lives in the United States is a citizen. Even people who do not (yet) have voting rights should be entitled to some recognition and their rights should be respected. But this is, since another term could easily be found or created, a minor point. A greater insufficiency is as follows. As long as we’re talking about the importance of rights, why can’t we argue that conservatives, too, should uphold them, especially if they are often the ones attacking them in the first place? Why is it left to liberals to do the work of basic democracy maintenance? If liberals should aspire to build a big tent of “citizens” who support basic rights, why can’t conservatives adjust their platform to meet similar goals? This should not be a partisan agenda. If everyone, all “citizens,” were to defend basic human rights and equality for all other “citizens,” this would eliminate much false, bad-faith polarization and free up energy for the two parties to distinguish themselves according to more valid, appropriate, and fair ideological differences. People could then vote for the party that offers whatever political solution seems most reasonable to them (taxes, education, healthcare) rather than feeling forced into the party that most validates their right to exist because the other party seems to threaten their personal survival and the underpinnings of democracy. The underlying problem (both in the real world, and in Lilla’s proposed solution) is that the classically liberal value of “stand[ing] together at home to make sure that none of us faces the risk of being left behind” is treated as unique to the Democratic Party. If it were adopted by the Republican Party as well, that would solve a huge number of problems. We could move on to argue about totally different things.

The irony, which I don't think he sees, is that he is convinced of the importance for liberals of dropping their "identity politics" project so that conservatives will stop mocking liberals for it, yet by writing this particular book blaming liberals for their own embrace of identity politics he is handing conservatives the very same joke tied up in a neat bow.

Sometimes dropping identity politics does not work. Leslie Rochell in a June 26, 2018 Facebook post noted that Obama's Supreme Court pick, Merrick Garland, a white man, was blocked by Republicans, leaving the seat open for Trump to nominate a replacement. She asks to imagine if instead he'd made an "identity-based appeal" by nominating a young, progressive, African-American woman. Upon the veto of that candidate, "wouldn’t it have been easier to mobilize the Democratic base in outrage" against Republican obstruction?

He is validating the perception of identity politics as ridiculous without offering anything to replace it except for a slightly academic-sounding justification of what the All Lives Matter people have been saying (he doesn't mention that slogan/movement; I am bringing it up). "All Lives Matter" was a response by white people who were uncomfortable with saying "Black Lives Matter." They argue that "All Lives" includes "Black Lives," but they are rebutted by simply holding up a mirror to them and showing them that, since they have some issue with acknowledging that black lives matter, they probably don't really think that all lives matter or are unable to effectively organize and advocate on that universal principle. The left has already rejected the All Lives Matter slogan. A "We’re All Americans" slogan looks simply like a warmed-over substitute if we can't get granular about who is a citizen and what we have to do for certain identity groups to ensure that their lives are counted. Lilla understands that the citizenry is comprised of diverse constituencies, many of whom are treated very unjustly and need political solutions which should not be considered "special interests" but rather simply part of what all citizens are owed. Unfortunately, not everyone perceives the whole citizenry as including the sum of all its parts, so when Lilla gives people permission to stop talking about the parts, he is (perhaps inadvertently) giving them permission to forget that the country is diverse and that "all citizens" have many different needs.

“Polarization” is not a word that appears in his book, but it is popular in other contemporary discussions of partisanship in the United States. Other writers have pointed out that American politics today is polarized by identity more so than by ideology. One reason is that political ideas are difficult to understand and thus the average citizen, despite the democratic ideal of participatory self-government, has never really had the time or attention for such nuance. Today, the party to which a voter gravitates is determined primarily by their personal identity, and the voter then adopts the ideological viewpoints given to them by their party; this was described recently in Achen and Bartels’ Democracy for Realists. It is not immediately obvious that this process is primarily the fault of liberals. Conservatives, too, engage in it. Not only has the Republican Party long appealed primarily to white people, but its dismissal of the interests of other marginalized identity groups has driven those people to the Democratic Party. It is also, therefore, not obvious that the Democratic Party suffers a net loss of voters as a result of this process. They might benefit from it and that is why they encourage it.

Much hand-wringing can be done over polarization. Political affiliation determined by personal identity may indeed indicate some kind of disinterest in or abandonment of the primacy of political ideas and so, from the perspective of those political ideas, identity movements may be an unprincipled approach to political involvement. More pragmatically, hyperpartisanship, especially on the basis of personal identity, has unpleasant and undesirable consequences. Nevertheless, identity politics, insofar as it means well, isn’t necessarily bad at its core, and its causes and effects need to be explored more in depth. Lilla has not locked up an argument that liberals alone can fix the insufficiencies of identity politics nor that liberals’ political fortunes are substantially swayed by whether they fix it.

He acknowledges that the Republicans are playing their own identity games (they “have successfully persuaded much of the public that they are the party of Joe Sixpack and Democrats are the party of Jessica Yogamat”) with the result that “certain federal laws and even constitutional protections are, practically speaking, a dead letter” in Republican areas. (p. 13) This seems to acknowledge how identity politics translate into political power, at least for the right wing, which undermines or at least complicates his argument that it’s a poor strategy for the left.

He does not acknowledge the existence of white nationalism and its historical and present-day influence within the Republican Party. There are hate groups in the United States and, during the last two years of Obama's presidency (while the Trump campaign was active), their total number increased by 17 percent. On the day Lilla's book was published, President Trump responded to an incident in Charlottesville, Va. where a neo-Nazi killed an anti-racist protester, "You had people that were very fine people on both sides." If it is fair to call out the ineffectiveness of left-wing identity-based movements in promoting social cohesion and protecting individual lives, it ought to be fair to call out the ineffectiveness of whatever the president was trying to do when he proved himself unable to provide moral judgment and guidance for the nation on identity issues at a critical moment. They are related because the latter is contributing to the need for the former. Calling out the alleged political ridiculousness of liberal movements that focus on nurturing their members' identities works better if you do not, as Lilla does not, acknowledge the existential threats (including the KKK, neo-Nazis, and their media machines and lightly disguised policy aims) in response to which those liberal movements have grown as a protective response. We need to call out the ridiculousness of mainstreamed hate and proto-fascism and find a political method to eliminate the threat that poses to democracy. (In new releases, see Brian Klaas' The Despot's Apprentice and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's How Democracies Die, both published months after Lilla's book.) Lilla may take it for granted that right-wing extremism is bad, but I'm not sure everyone who reads his book will make the same assumption; probably some conservatives read it and simply point and laugh at his characterization of left-wing ineptitude at their own self-preservation and self-propagation, not seeing that the right wing shares responsibility for the problem of American political dysfunction. If liberals can conceive and launch a more effective response than identity politics, great. But, meanwhile, when we look at Lilla's complaint about liberals' inability to win elections and his choice to blame it on their preoccupation with "symbolic dramas over identity," and we place it side-by-side with his failure to fully call out the horridness of the physical violence and institutional injustice that marginalized identity groups are facing especially in light of the fact that this is coming from the right-wing where it is increasingly mainstreamed, we are missing at least half the story of why elections are fought, won, and lost the way they are these days. There is a neo-Nazi in the room pointing and laughing; will we point at the Nazi, or will we point at the person at whom the Nazi points? In Phoebe Maltz Bovy's closing words in her afterword to The Perils of 'Privilege': "Addressing unconscious bigotry — never the most effective strategy — is altogether hopeless against the conscious variety. And it’s the conscious one," she wrote, dating her words July 29, 2016, "we’re now up against."

Lilla needs to describe the bigger tent he envisions for liberals and exactly how it might be set up. What if there is no partner for dialogue to get off the ground? To what individuals or institutional leaders will the bigger tent possibly appeal?

It would also be of great interest to this reader if he would describe exactly what liberals should do when marginalized people are at risk (whether from overt attacks by conservative individuals or as the result of institutional processes). Should liberals give the appearance of casually ignoring hostile words and actions and unfair processes while “secretly” planning to take political action to fix it? Should they give this appearance of ignoring the problem only during political campaigns when they are the underdogs or also while they are in power? Should they even more explicitly stop defending or outright reject the interests of certain identity groups? At what point do those identity groups get welcomed back? Why would they want to come back, after they’ve been thrown under the bus? Or is Lilla saying that liberals should continue to defend vulnerable people but preferably in a way that identifies them simply as “citizens” and downplays their differences from other, more mainstream identities? How can we credibly explain why someone is vulnerable if we don’t acknowledge the realities of their identity?

He does provide an interesting take on U.S. history. He interprets it as demarcated by the two most recent political “dispensations,” both of which lasted decades: the Roosevelt era and then the Reagan era. The former’s “four universal freedoms were declared and accepted as obvious by most people: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This vision filled three generations of liberals with confidence, hope, pride, and a spirit of self-sacrifice. And patriotism.” (p. 35) This was replaced by the latter’s “subliminal revolution” of anti-political individualism. During the Reagan era, people “could no longer quite see the point of arguing about the common good and engaging politically to achieve it.” (p. 26) They no longer trusted the government, casting suspicion on liberalism’s increasing attachment to the idea “that taxes, spending, regulations, and court decisions were always the best way” to serve the public good. (p. 35) Worse, liberals “grew increasingly reliant on the courts to circumvent the legislative process,” the consequence of which is that judicial nominations has become “a highly partisan process, which the right now dominates.” (p. 37) (He does not engage the typical argument that the rights of citizens ought to be decided by courts because the judge is more likely to be knowledgable and fair on principle whereas the electorate will simply vote in favor of its own majority interests and trample on the rights of minorities.) Trump’s election “exposed the emptiness of anti-political conservatism” (p. 54) but what matters for liberals is not simply to claim the moral high ground over Republicans but to find a way to win elections so that “newly won protections for African-Americans, other minorities, women, and gay Americans remain in place.” That should be an “absolute priority.” (p. 110) Liberals “have mastered the art of self-sabotage” (p. 102); most Americans “no longer respond to whatever larger message we have been conveying over the past decades.” (p. 5) He thinks that, following the Trump presidency that seems to be a transitional moment, we are due for a third political dispensation, but he doesn’t quite know yet what form it will take.

He acknowledges that feelings are important in politics, especially in context of the need for politicians and party organizers who are excited about working for “the great American demos...stirring its feelings and gaining its trust” (p. 6). A political dispensation is “grounded in feelings and perceptions that give principles and arguments psychological force,” (p. 22) and when leaders represent it well, “people feel the connection [between the vision and the social reality]. (Understanding it is less important.)” (p. 100) However, feelings are not the whole story. A dispensation is also “capturing something important in social reality. Marx was right about this: material conditions help to determine which political ideas resonate at any historical moment.” (p. 23). Furthermore, for some reason, in context of identity politics, feelings are less interesting to him.

Today, he says, we have movement politics of identity instead of an “ambitious vision.” (p. 6) What is lost is “a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation.” (p. 9) Identity politics can be effective if it is about “large classes of people—African-Americans, women—seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights,” but in the Reagan era, when it happened to be “in harmony with some of the deep social changes that Reaganism responded to” (p. 24), it became “a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition...[that] turn[s] young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them outward toward the wider world.” (p. 9) Before Reagan, Republicans had formed a coalition but “lacked a common vision.” Reagan united them under “an image of a better, morally undemanding life in a less political America” and thus they “became an ideologically unified and electorally potent force”. (p. 43) “Citizenship dropped out of the picture....JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country? — which had inspired the early sixties generation — became unintelligible.” (p. 66) Identity politics today is “Reaganism for lefties” (p. 96), more “evangelical” than political, as suggested by the term “woke,” which “is a giveaway that spiritual conversion, not political agreement, is the demand.” (p. 114) (This point was also made by Kate Robinson, quoted by Phoebe Maltz Bovy in The Perils of 'Privilege', when she said that “the best way to change people’s behavior is to attack the systems that force them into competition, and that the material self-interest of the working class is a better motivating principle than concepts of sin and redemption.”) “The difference," Lilla writes, "is this: evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” (p. 14) Can they both be equally passionate? For the sake of his argument, he must hope so, since he believes it is crucial to harness public sentiment to achieve political success. We need to care about actual government, as “the founding problem of the United States was that of political identification” (p. 62) and “the main focal point of American democratic politics is and always has been: government.” (p. 106)

Justin Dean Lee writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books said that liberals who (hypothetically) follow Lilla's prescription and give up their "political expressivism" will need to experience "a radical transformation of self" akin to "religious deconversion." He wishes that Lilla's words had reached out more gently to these people: "a stronger seasoning of empathy might have occasioned some advice for those navigating such a discomfiting transition." This resembles the advice of Robert P. Jones in The End of White Christian America when he said that people need to perceive and gracefully understand the feelings of white Christians who are discovering that they no longer have the institutional power and privilege they once did.

He asserts that when people begin by saying “Speaking as an X...” they never finish the sentence by announcing their incompetence. The significance of prefacing one's opinion with one's identity may be due to what Matt Bruenig blogged in 2013 as "identitarian deference": a liberal will "figure out what you want to believe, and then find someone within the appropriate oppressed group who believes as you do. Then say that you are deferring to their voice in this matter. This works as a way of resolving disputes but only by gutting the whole point of ID" which is, according to Bruenig, "that privileged individuals should defer to the opinions and views of oppressed individuals, especially on topics relevant to those individuals’ oppression." When people say "Speaking as an X..." they may be playing that game from the other side, supplying their own opinion as a member of the oppressed class and inviting a liberal to champion it.

But it doesn’t seem true that people never announce their incompetence. First, people rarely recognize or announce their incompetence at all; that human limitation isn’t due to identity politics. But consider the type of discourse in which it is common for someone to note that their identity gives them special insight into their own identity group but also that they must admit their relative incompetence about other identity groups and recuse themselves from issuing judgments. There is also a type of discourse in which someone suggests that either they themselves, or their interlocutor, or both, are missing key pieces of information — often, identity-driven perspectives — that would enable them to arrive at a better conclusion. That "incompetence" might better be called "humility," as Kwame Anthony Appiah put it in the New York Times in August 2018, and it may simply express a befuddlement about someone else's perspective, whether their identity is similar to or different from yours.

"Typically, it’s [the "speaking as a..." formula is] an assertion of authority: As a member of this or that social group, I have experiences that lend my remarks special weight. The experiences, being representative of that group, might even qualify me to represent that group. Occasionally, the formula is an avowal of humility. It can be both at once. (“As a working-class woman, I’m struggling to understand Virginia Woolf’s blithe assumptions of privilege.”)"

In Appiah's example above — As a poor woman, I’m struggling to understand why a rich woman would... — means that you have spotted someone else's differences and similarities to yourself, that you recognize that they may have a range of motives and assumptions that may differ from yours, but you are having difficulty understanding exactly how they arrived at their final conclusion and why they believe it to be good and defensible, because your conclusion is different. You may or may not be open to changing your mind and embracing their position; you may or may not want them to change their mind and embrace yours.

The odd thing about Lilla seeming to ask for more identity-based recognition of incompetence is that his overall vision depends on citizens ignoring or transcending those incompetencies because he wants society to come to rational agreement on policies that work for everyone without resorting to identity politics. This works if you have the following conversation: I'm an X and you're a Y, and we have a hard time understanding each other's identities, so let's put aside our identity-driven discourse and find some other way to talk about values that we share. It does not work if you say: The values we've formed based on our identities are really important to us, but unfortunately I'm incompetent to understand you and you're incompetent to understand me, so we're at an impasse.

You can agree-to-be-ignorant or agree-to-not-fully-understand your interlocutor's expertise as long as there is something else entirely unrelated that you wish to talk about. But if the thing at issue is indeed related to the thing about which you are ignorant, you have to find an appropriate way to recognize and deal with your ignorance. It might begin with remaining relatively quiet, taking one step back, and listening to someone who is more of an expert in the area that is unknown to you.

The journalist Issac J. Bailey, writing in Why Didn't We Riot? in 2020, says: "I've had white colleagues in one breath say my writings about race were radical and irresponsible and in the next admit they had not bothered to study the racial history I was alluding to. No matter my nuance or depth of knowledge or their racial ignorance, they" — in their view — "were 'objective' and I wasn’t."

Lilla distinguishes the “unconscionable” (p. 127) problems of “racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia” from the 1960s politicization of identity “in the contemporary sense of an inner thing, a homunculus that needs tending to. (p. 62) “[T]hese are our fellow citizens who deserve to be fully enfranchised. That is all any American should need to know — and all we should have to appeal to.” (p. 127) He does not identify, unfortunately, the dividing line between saying something like all citizens should have equal rights regardless of race and gender and whatever other statement supposedly gives undue political emphasis to identity groups. It is important to note that he doesn’t say it is inherently wrong to assign that emphasis, only that, for some reason, it doesn’t win elections. He thinks that bigger tents are usually or more reliably built without identity politics, even though sometimes identity politics has worked in the past.

We need, then, a shared vision, beyond just “values, commitment, policy proposals.” These days, the right wing offers that kind of vision to its followers, but liberals have “abdicated” in the attempt to capture hearts and minds. (p. 7). Reagan won because of “the imaginative connection he made with the public that transformed those ideas into an epiphany, a vision of a new way of national life, masquerading as an old one.” (p. 22) As Lilla was writing the book, he noted, the Republican Party’s homepage had an 11-point “Principles for American Renewal” document while the Democrats less prominently featured links to different identity groups, offering “seventeen separate messages.” (p. 11) Liberals need to articulate “principles that everyone can affirm” even when specific groups are the intended beneficiaries. (p. 15) We need language “for invoking the common good or addressing class or other social realities,” not just to distinguish identities. (p. 31)

Using the example of women as a group with their own interests, Lilla advocates the political approach of seeing that women “have a distinct perspective that deserves to be recognized and cultivated, and have distinct needs that society must address.” In movement politics today, people instead learn “that one cannot generalize about women since their experiences are radically different, depending on their race, sexual preference, class, physical abilities, life experiences, and so on.” (p. 86) Movement politics was successful in achieving its political aims from the 1950s to the 1980s, but we should not “project an imagined trend outward into the future.” (p. 105) Since the 1980s, movement politics has produced “the social justice warrior,” someone “whose self-image depends on being unstained by compromise and above trafficking in mere interests.” The problem with this approach, as he sees it, is simply that political institutions are more powerful than movements. No matter how righteous or charismatic a movement leader may be, he or she must be aide by “system politics and public officials sympathetic to movement aims but willing to engage in the slow, patient work of campaigning for office, drawing up legislation, making trades to get it passed, and then overseeing bureaucracies to see that it is enforced.” (p. 109)

While he says he supports rights for marginalized groups, he criticizes the way these groups often about securing their rights. This criticism is so imprecise that it is difficult to understand what he means. He says “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity,” (p. 129) a criticism he supports with one sentence mentioning some generalities about this enormous grassroots movement. Part of his objection was that Black Lives Matter once publicly criticized Hillary Clinton, regarding some matter he does not describe, during her presidential campaign. Left-wing solidarity surely serves the important pragmatic purpose of winning elections, but why should that render citizens unable to publicly criticize a politician? The citizens in question here were, by implication, probably black citizens, and the omission of the political question over which they disagreed seems to suggest that black citizens are never supposed to publicly criticize Democratic leadership over anything. For black people to keep their mouths shut all the time would be not liberal solidarity but sycophancy and, while it might be in the short-term service of Democrats, it's ultimately not in the service of democracy.

He also says that transgender people have been “given temporary totemic significance” (p. 91) in the political arena, something he does not explain at all. This statement is (a) confusing because transgender people need to care about the significance of their own existence all the time (not just for one election cycle, and definitely not never), all the more so if their own political leaders don't do some of the caring for them, and (b) not persuasive because, if “totemic” is here synonymous with “conceptual” or "emblematic," it sails past the obvious fact that transgender people see themselves existing in reality and not just in the realm of what other people believe about them. The book's only other reference to transgender people is that they "suffer far worse" injuries and indignities than being threatened on the street, a statement that at least acknowledges that they have material existence and face actual problems and thus are not merely totems in other people's imaginations, but remains extremely vague (falling short of the sobriquet of "fact") and does not justify anyone in drawing any particular conclusion about them. As a result, Lilla's truism that, when discussing any important principle with a political opponent, “there are usually other, equally important principles that might have to be sacrificed to preserve this one,” (p. 118) rings ominously. It isn’t just principles that are being sacrificed. After all, he said that the overarching principle of liberalism is (or should be) a version of no citizen left behind. If we begin compromising away sub-principles, we have to ask: What citizen is to be sacrificed? Is it the one who isn't fully visible? Apart from the seven words quoted here, transgender people are not described or defined at all in the book and there is no reason to think that the average reader understands who they are, apart from the fact that they are being pointed at and called out as being somehow inherently ridiculous, usually by the right, now by the left. Those who remain invisible and misunderstood are the most easily sacrificed. That is what is alarming about passages like this, the author's possible good intentions notwithstanding.

This is how he brings us into "All Lives Matter" territory (though he doesn't mention or advocate that slogan). If we (people who have dominant/majority identities) don't show that we are able to give full attention to people who have certain other particular identities, those other people have no reason to be convinced that other citizens really believe that their lives matter.

In an earlier opinion piece for the New York Times called "The End of Identity Liberalism" (Nov. 18, 2016) published a week after the election of Donald Trump, Lilla was more pointed in his comments regarding transgender people. He said that "American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing." He went on to say: "Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the 'campus craziness' that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. [emphasis added]...How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in 'His Majesty'?" And this: "However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own." And: "To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms." That's a lot of commentary on transgender people without defining who they are or what their needs are, especially for a single opinion article that is supposed to be about liberalism more generally. Most people do not know what a transgender person looks like but, if we take Lilla's word for it, most people are pretty sure that a transgender person's perspective has nothing to do with the world's political future. Moreover, in this same opinion piece, he mentions the Ku Klux Klan and hedges on its relevance to today's identity politics, seemingly suggesting that supremacist attitudes are a chicken-and-egg game in which the Klan was indeed "the first identity movement in American politics" and yet today some of the blame falls on those liberals who advocate for "the omnipresent rhetoric of identity" which prompts "white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored" and consequently liberals "should be prepared to lose" this face-off. I would counter that blaming liberals for the inefficacy of their protective response to forces of hate (whether those forces show their face over the barrel of a shotgun as through membership in the KKK or are a notch more subtle as with white people who feel that their whiteness is threatened but have not marched with a torch) gives more aid and comfort to the other side than it gives wise counsel to those who deserve encouragement since it appears to validate those who react with indignation toward Black Lives Matter protests and the possibility of unexpected genitalia in the public washroom when instead he ought to be asking them to question their indignation (but then, I guess, he would be practicing identity politics). I would also counter that we deserve, at the very least, facts to support the allegation that we bring hate upon ourselves just for declaring our existence.

Lilla's August 2017 book as compared to the November 2016 opinion piece is a bit dialed back in its overtly dismissive attitude toward marginalized people, perhaps in reflective adjustment to the media controversy that erupted after the 2016 publication and his probable realization (so I speculate) that the Roosevelt/Reagan/Third Dispensation analysis is more valuable and more warmly received than the recommendation to throw people under the bus, but the thesis has not changed.

Interviewed by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative in August 2017, Lilla said that those who play identity politics "seem to prefer making a point to making a change. But politics is not a speech act and it does not take place in a seminar room. It is not about getting recognition for certain groups who have problems, it is about acquiring power to help them." He also said that the political approach that will succeed is "[c]ertainly not one that demands that white Americans confess their personal sins and agree in every case on what constitutes discrimination or racism today. In democratic politics it is suicidal to set the bar for agreement higher than necessary for winning adherents and elections."

On a side note: Political ads use "microtargeting" based on big data about people's personalities and interests. This is best known from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In this context, the political advertisers are playing "identity politics" (often subtly and surreptitiously, because they are simply tailoring messages based on what they assume individuals want to hear). That behavior sets the scene with a "filter bubble" where it is easier for voters to play into those identity politics because they are simply participating in a discourse that seems normal and relatively uncontroversial to them because it's what they already hear in their filter bubble.

As an example, Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones:

From the outset, Trump has surrounded himself with people who hail from the fringes of the evangelical community that is steeped in the language of biblical prophecy, and his administration regularly reflects that language back to them in its messaging. In March 2017, for instance, Trump issued an official White House statement recognizing the Persian New Year in which he misattributed a quote to Cyrus the Great, the libertine pagan leader of the ancient Persian empire who was anointed by God to free Jews in Babylon. Ordinary Americans probably wouldn’t have even noticed the announcement, but evangelicals knew that Trump was speaking their language.

There is a social conservative trope that certain dominant identity groups have more social power, status, and benefits because they are more righteous, while oppressed identity groups suffer from social problems because they have done something to deserve that. More specifically, as an example, certain white people tell themselves that their wealth (whether real or imagined as part of some semi-fictitious group of rich white people to whom they'd like to consider themselves having access) is because they are Christian, while they simultaneously imagine that non-whites are poorer and that they have brought this upon themselves because they have believed and behaved less Christianly. The dominant groups want to shift the narrative from demographics to individual behavior because it fits the point they would like to make. But it isn't necessarily true, as the dominant groups may learn over time as their group loses power — perhaps due to the behavior of the individuals who make up the group, and perhaps not. "While in absolute terms the white working class — those without college degrees, in pollster shorthand — have higher levels of marriage and cohabitation, homeownership and self-reported health ratings than members of the black working class," Thomas B. Edsall pointed out in November 2019, "the trends are downward for whites and upward for African-Americans." He perceives that social conservatives' "single-minded focus on the destructive forces of liberalism offers a facile (and erroneous) answer to developments that do not fit simple categories of good and evil."

On a side note: In April 2018, Jamie Bartlett published The People Vs Tech: How the Internet Is Killing Democracy (and How We Save It). He also challenged identity politics under a different name: "Anyone who is upset can now automatically, sometimes algorithmically, find other people that are similarly upset. Sociologists call this ‘homophily’, political theorists call it ‘identity politics’ and common wisdom says ‘birds of a feather flock together’. I’m calling it re-tribalisation." One of the pitfalls is that white supremacist activity is triggered by it. In the white racist worldview, white people will permit their own disenfranchisement if, in Spencer's words, they “continue to avoid and deny their own racial identity, at a time when almost every other racial and ethnic category is rediscovering and asserting its own”. I wonder, however, if white people would really quit being racist if only people of other races would quit "rediscovering and asserting" their identities; I think there is no proof that they would do so. But anyway, Bartlett is not primarily blaming today's tribalization (identity politics) on anyone's unwillingness to play nice with others; he is blaming the increasing polarization on the big data and social media algorithms that force us into echo chambers. That phenomenon is missing from Lilla's book. In exhorting Americans to simply stop talking about our identities, he overlooks the growing technological forces that prompt us to talk about them.

Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College who opposes Trump, tweeted on May 14, 2018 that the "hard reality" for Democrats is that they need to "come up with a message that isn't about gun confiscation and transgender bathrooms." And while implicitly supporting the ”ongoing struggle for transgender recognition,“ David Runciman (who had read Lilla’s arguments on identity politics) says in How Democracy Ends that pleas for the liberation of the disenfranchised "can be overtaken by a narrative that says the majority is being sold out for the sake of the few. That is happening today. Identity politics is fuel to the fire of populist frustrations. In 2016 some Republican politicians got as much mileage out of stories about transgender bathrooms as Trump did out of pillorying Hillary Clinton's ties to Wall Street. Common cause is much harder to find than it once was.” In August 2016, Bill Maher said on his TV show Real Time that conservatives were stirring up baseless paranoia about transgender people (or cisgender people disguised as transgender people) in bathrooms, and that liberals shouldn't take the bait. "There's no room for boutique issues in an Armageddon election," he said, adding a joke: "I'm not suggesting that we throw the transgendered under the bus or discount their struggle. It can't be easy finding pantyhose when you're 6'4"." He concluded: "Let's not die on this hill."

Replies to that tweet included responses like this (to the point that the Republicans do not appear to be concerned about substantially altering or compromising their message to broaden their appeal, so it is not clear why Democrats should use that tactic):

Citing Nichols' recent tweet, Osita Nwanevu wrote for Slate: "Importantly, the current discourse about trans people and public restrooms is the product of a wave of right-wing mythmaking and hysteria that began with North Carolina Republicans passing a bill nullifying local ordinances on LGBT rights across the state." The cultural narrative should have been "about Republicans in Raleigh imposing their will on localities that disagreed with them, and then losing an election [in 2016] as a consequence," yet somehow it became "about Democrats fatally overreaching on identity politics". Why aren't Republicans called out for their failures to understand others who are unlike them, to take the true pulse of public opinion, and to be civil toward dissenting opinion? Nwanevu:

"...for two reasons. The first is that American political journalists are still wired to view a nonrepresentative subset of white people somewhere out in the middle of the country as baseline Americans who cannot talk down and can only be talked down to. The second is that conservative parts of the country benefit from certain structural advantages within the American political system—namely the Electoral College and the allocation of senators—that both delude conservatives about the extent to which their views are representative of the country and largely prevent them from facing national political consequences for that delusion."

Nwanevu also believes that, since white working-class voters in swing states still care about economic issues, Democrats could probably win "with a bold and easy-to-understand economic platform without changing the substance of their identity political positions." What Democrats need to give up is not identity politics but rather "politesse" in favor of "a more aggressive approach" that more closely mimics Republican rhetoric and tactics, minus truly objectionable ones like deregistering likely voters for the other side.

David Runciman's How Democracy Ends (2018) says that “when almost all adults are able to vote, we inevitably look for new ways to secure greater respect. The rise of identity politics is an indication that taking part in elections is not enough any more. Individuals are seeking the dignity that comes with being recognised for who they are.”

Maria Popova wrote that "we now cling to our identity-fragments, using them as badges and badgering artillery in confronting the templated identity-fragments of others. (For instance, some of mine: woman, reader, immigrant, writer, queer, survivor of Communism.)" It is confusing to me why — especially with those identity labels — she seems to think there is equal guilt on both sides. In politics, the dominant group bashes the minority group. The minority needs to survive. It's not about equitably sized fragments doing battle with each other.

One of the many ways that Republicans have opened fire on the identity politics front is saying that the right to same-sex marriage should be left "up to the States" or that nondiscrimination law should be left up to Congress. Leaving identity-based equal rights in the hands of governors and senators (rather than letting courts evaluate the merits of the claim and handle it once and for all) ensures that it will be a piecemeal, neverending battle and therefore a campaign issue.

On Sept. 5, 2018, an anonymous senior official in the Trump administration published an op-ed in the New York Times warning Americans that everyone who works with the president is aware of his "amorality" and that the "adults in the room" are trying to constrain his agenda. "But the real difference will be made," the writer said, "by everyday citizens rising above politics, reaching across the aisle and resolving to shed the labels in favor of a single one: Americans." The writer did not explain how identity labels contribute to the problem of the president's amorality and how shedding one's personal and political identities and being nicer to people "across the aisle" is going to do what the President's own Cabinet members can't or won't do.

The October 2019 Values Voters Summit had a plenary session with KathyGrace Duncan (identified as a "transgender survivor"), Lynn Meagher, and Dr. Andre Van Mol speaking on the topic of "Transgender Movement: Separating Facts from Fiction(s)." President Trump spoke during another session at the event. It is going to be difficult to tell transgender people that they cannot mention their identities in political contexts when they are actually under constant, high-level, organized political attack.

"Critics of progressive identity politics" like Lilla — as Osita Nwanevu explains in The New Republic in July 2020, responding indirectly to an open letter that had appeared in Harper's that was signed by Lilla and dozens of others — ought to realize that, in a liberal democratic society, private groups are not obligated "to be maximally permissive" of ideas that conflict with their group's mission or beliefs. Everyone wants rational discourse; "reactionary liberals" don't corner the market on it, though they claim enthusiasm for debate and heterodoxy." These reactionary liberals focus on common ideas about "transgender identity, feminist sexual politics, and the nature of racial disadvantage." And thus, Nwanevu pointed out, certain people (he cited a particular column of David Brooks') condemn "visceral and unsparing accounts of American history and contemporary inequity...because their accuracy might be disillusioning⁠." Disillusioning to the critic, that is; the critic belongs to a dominant group and doesn't want the bubble of their self-image to burst. Or, perhaps, the critic imagines that reality will be disillusioning to a wider group of "already liberated individuals" who would, but for the reality-check, be "ready to scale the meritocratic ladder capitalism has set out for us."The "elite preoccupation with 'tribalism' and 'polarization'" is really a suspicion of solidarity, Nwanevu says, a solidarity that is often characterized as "rampaging 'mobs' animated by 'groupthink'" — again, a suspicion of freedom of association. Similarly, he sees in the columns of Andrew] Sullivan a suggestion that "the problems of identity are primarily matters of individual grit⁠ — struggles that can be overcome largely by mental exercise⁠." But identity politics are effective at motivating and organizing people, and reactionaries who oppose it are "fundamentally uninterested in persuasion" and "have never paused to assess the effectiveness of their own histrionics." They imagine themselves as "martyrs⁠ — the last disciples of the one, true liberalism, who will be vindicated once a grand backlash against progressives finally arrives."

In sum, everyone ought to be on board with Lilla's idea that Americans should support each other’s basic rights — whether for the “positive” reason of our shared American identity or for the “negative” reason that our more specific identities should not matter when it comes to basic human rights. But I would add that there is no reason to limit this vision to any political party. When this ethical prescription is limited to only one party, it implies that there can be a valid political debate over whether Americans should support each others' rights. If the Republican Party were to embrace this simple notion, too, what would it imply for the policies they endorse?

We can all look forward to a new, post-Trump political dispensation guided by a vision that is so inspiring and unifying (let us hope) that it might eliminate the need for identity politics, but Lilla's book doesn’t even provide the slogan for that new vision, let alone an explanation of it or a strategy for selling it.

Mark Lilla. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. HarperCollins: August 15, 2017.

Issac J. Bailey wrote in Why Didn't We Riot?: A Black Man in Trumpland (New York: Other Press, 2020):

In Trumpland, up is down. Those on the receiving end of Trump’s racism are told it is we who must change in order to keep the peace and the illusion of civility and unity intact. ... That's why we felt betrayed by our white neighbors, friends, and colleagues who helped make Trump president in 2016 and why we’ve been frustrated by supposed allies since then who seem more concerned with the wants, needs, and beliefs of those who harmed us. That’s why you need to know what it’s really like here, from someone with a lifetime of firsthand experience. This book is for Harvard professors who misuse the term identity politics in a way that suggests black people in Trumpland should just shut up and take it.

Bailey has witnessed white evangelicals "demand that black people prostrate themselves for the sin of not having risen above racism; that black people respect the Southern white Evangelical Christian love of the Confederacy; that black people become color-blind; and that black people rethink why we vote for Democrats who supposedly spit on the Bible with an embrace of gay marriage and a supposed penchant for killing babies in the womb." He says that Black Christians in the American South are politically conservative on many issues, yet "most can’t bring themselves to vote for the Republican Party." That's because: "Racism is a political deal breaker for them, which it isn't for white Evangelical Christians." [emphasis mine] Or, as he put it elsewhere: "there are some racial lines black voters wouldn't cross."

"Trump voters" — here, Bailey is referring to white people across all income levels — "did not care that they were inflicting Trump upon black and brown communities. They only cared about themselves and what they might get out of the deal." The Democratic Party doesn't have a Trump figure "because black people wouldn’t let them," while the Republican Party's white voters evidently have "no such racial constraints." Demonstrably because "they stuck with Trump through his first term despite the ugly things Trump kept saying and doing."


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