The Once and Future Liberal:After Identity Politics

Mark Lilla
Hardcover, 160 pages
Published August 2017

This short book by a humanities professor explains how “identity politics” is fragmenting Democrats in the U.S. and allowing the Republicans to dominate the majority of elections below president.

Mark Lilla describes 'identity politics' as the pattern that has people firmly behind their own causes with little sympathy for other causes that for election purposes may be a natural fit with their own. Essentially the 'left' is fragmented and refuses to come together for the sake of party politics and electing Democrats.

Identities form around race, gender, labour and other causes.

The Republicans, although maybe essentially even more diverse, are more willing to vote for the bigger cause and elects heavily near the bottom and middle of the electoral ladder.

The book is directly aimed at U.S. politics with no mention made of electing in other countries. As a Canadian I try to see a parallel in Canada, assuming that “identity' identification exists here.

Identity voting doesn't seem as obvious here, but it may have to do with the stronger multi-party system here. The identity issues may find a home more easily when there are more parties to choose from. Not as much compromise is required.

My discussion with American voters suggest that the intolerance of views between segments is more ossified, but that may also relate to more diverse and extreme opinions.

Identity politics manifests itself in social movements which retreat inside themselves at the expense of Democratic party politics. They are unprepared to see the common good and what must be done practically to reach it. Identity politics narrows the vision when the opposite is needed. Under it individual desires have overwhelmed the needs of society such that there is a hyperindividualistic bourgeois society. In the 60s and 70s politically too much was introduced with too much unmet expectations.

The result ,says Lilla, is that Reagan's economic individual model has dominated U.S. politics for two generations. The author basically divides the last 80 years of U.S. politics into the Roosevelt (Franklin) 'dispensation' (New Deal to civil rights) and the Reagan 'dispensation' of which the U.S. is in now. The author predicts that the Regan period inaugurated in 1980 is foundering with president Donald Trump. It features self-determination over traditional dependence and obligation.

Lilla paraphrases Abraham Lincoln in explaining the dynamic. Controlling public sentiment is the key. And an articulated vision is the way to do that. Many visions now are loosely housed under the Democratic tent and they don't coalesce in a shared purpose.

For political progress the Democrats have to elect state and municipal governments that will make appointments advancing their broader interests.

He says that identity liberalism has “ceased being a political project and has morphed into an evangelical one.” And the evangelical is about speaking truth to power and political is seizing power.

He says this is an ideal opportunity to win the country back.

Reaganism survived because it fit in with how people wanted to live their lives now social reality has changed.

Liberals had resorted less to the political and more to the judicial process for the results they wanted.

Wealthy Republican donors set up think tanks to support their views in contrast to universities which were largely Democratic. They also purged intellectuals who had a tendency to see both sides of an issue. At the same time, Republicans were redrawing electoral boundaries to their advantage .

The angry fearful base that Trump relies on came out of radicalization of Reaganism coupled with the hollowing out of middle class prospects.

Meanwhile the universities, normally advocates for Democrats, were nurturing the self centred interest of identity politics in students rather than encouraging a wider curiosity. An the ivory tower idea applies now to liberal politics that used to reside in labour unions and farm communities, of dubious virtue.

Immigration and reaction to racism fuelled more issue identity. Th 60s gave rise to political romanticism which the traditional Democrats didn't understand or appreciate. And those enamoured with their own identities failed to realize the importance of all the other struggles emerging.

While the identity movements made the country more tolerant and inclusive, the broader issue-based liberal coalition was not vibrant. People were not seeking to join a political party, but searching for a movement that had personal meaning for them. Students did not trust the idea of 'we' and saw it leading to maintaining dominance of the privileged.

Lilla says that neither political party knows what they want, just what they don't. Neither has any vision. Trump, while offering no vision, offered a markedly different style that appealed to many. The damage he has done to Republicanism leaves an opportunity for liberals to “seize institutional power by winning elections”, he adds.

His recipe is priority of institutional over movement politics, democratic persuasion over aimless self-expression and citizenship over group or personal identity.

“Social movements” while important have been “seriously inflated by left-leaning activists and historians. In the 70s/80s period the “social justice warrior was born, a social type with quixotic features whose self image depends on being unstained by compromise and above trafficking in mere interests.”

That achieved through movement politics needs institutional politics to consolidate it. And it is the latter most needed now, he adds.

The change in the base of the democratic party based on union and public officials to educated single issue activists came at the 1968 convention.

The more individualistic and assertive people have become in American society the more narrow the political discussion and the more it revolves around self, he adds. “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity.” “As soon as you cast an issue exclusively in terms if identity you invite your adversary to do the same.”

He contrasted this with how the civil rights leaders did talk about identity. “It shamed Americans into action by consciously appealing to what we share.”

And while duty and rights work better when contingent on each other, duty got a bad name coming out of the Vietnam war.

And an interesting differentiation “progressives understand the need for solidarity in a way liberals do not.”

“In democratic politics it is suicidal to set the bar for agreement higher than necessary for winning adherents and elections.”

He speaks of the “hyperindividualistic culture in which personal choice and self-definition have become idols.” And much of the education reinforces this rather than opening minds to a bigger world.

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Mark Lilla
Hardcover, 160 pages
Published August 2017