The liberal case against identity politics
Mark Lilla talks solidarity and liberalism and explains why he’s not a white supremacist.
In November 2016, Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, penned an essay for the New York Times. Entitled, ‘The end of identity liberalism’, it sought to make the case for, what Lilla called, a ‘post-identity liberalism’. As a well-known liberal himself, Lilla didn’t expect the backlash his piece provoked. A Yale lecturer wrote that Lilla was ‘letting his country down’. Another commentator complained that ‘Mark Lilla is getting identity politics all wrong’. And a fellow professor at Columbia told the LA Review of Books that Lilla was: ‘Making white supremacy respectable. Again.’
Undeterred by the outrage his criticism of liberalism’s identitarian turn had provoked, Lilla turned what had become the most-read article in the NYT in 2016 into a full-length book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. Here he makes the case for why we must leave the politics of identity behind, and recapture something of liberalism’s universalist promise. But what does his future liberal look like? And is he shocked by the level of hostility from his political home on the left, all because he dared to speak out? The spiked review’s Ella Whelan decided to find out…
Ella Whelan: Did you expect your original critique of identity politics in the New York Times to touch such a nerve?
Mark Lilla: I wrote the original article in two afternoons, in the first week after the election of Donald Trump, and I just needed to get it off my chest. I expected there to be some reaction, just from people who are totally committed to identity politics. But I was not expecting the tsunami of response. The piece was the most-read political commentary piece in the New York Times that year, and I got my first Twitter bath, all in acid, and realised just how difficult it is to even raise the questions that I raised. Because the response I got was so unfocused, and certainly not focused on how we need to win in the future, I was inspired to actually turn it into a book.
Whelan: Since writing your book, The Once and Future Liberal, what has the response been like – in the US as well as in Europe?
Lilla: It’s more of the same in the US, and it’s been depressing, in a way. Not depressing because I’m being criticised, but because of the indifference I’ve felt from the activist class on the liberal Democratic side to winning. For example, to protect a woman who needs an abortion in Texas, or a black motorist in Oklahoma, you have to win elections in those places. And there seems to be an indifference to that. I discovered just how symbolic and self-reinforcing the politics of the identity movements are, and the degree to which they’re getting in the way of building a democratic majority in the country again.
The response abroad, on the other hand, has been a curiosity about how this phenomenon developed. What way forward is there? How can liberals gain power again? It’s a much calmer response that I’ve had abroad, and people are more curious and thoughtful about it, than in the US.
Whelan: What is your main problem with identity politics, and why have you taken such issue with it at this particular time, following Donald Trump’s election?
Lilla: Well, there’s really two styes of identity politics. There’s an old identity politics which is really just a kind of interest politics. And when you think of the early Civil Rights movement, or early feminism or the gay-rights movement, those were ways of mobilising people who shared a common interest to fight for their interests within our political institutions. They were focused on making gains within our institutions in a durable way.
What has progressively changed from the 1980s down to the present is that identity politics has become focused on the identity of the individual self, rather than a shared characteristic and an idea of how we might pursue a common agenda together. Identity politics in this country became much more about self-expression, self-assertion and self-discovery, and so the political horizon of young people growing up in this atmosphere is limited to issues touching the way they happen to define their identity. (And this is no longer just one thing, but a mix of things: gender identity, race and so on.) So it’s led to a kind of narcissistic turn within, accompanied by an indifference and an incomprehension of the realities of achieving anything in the long-term politically. And it’s that turn within and the radicalisation which comes with it, which has led to a very subjectivised politics.
If I have a political aim and a political position, I can argue with someone about that, and my commitment is to my argument and my principles. But if my politics comes out of the way in which I define myself in an intimate way, and the way I understand my subjective experience, I’m not going to be very interested in engaging with people who are very critical. I’m going to be highly sensitive and feel that my very self has been challenged, rather than my arguments or my politics. And as soon as that happens, people become impervious, and not only turn away from practical politics but also become intolerant when it comes to political debate. That’s one of the reasons why you see the kind of hysterical reaction to political debate – like attempts to shut people down, concerns about Safe Spaces – in US universities. It’s because of this subjective turn within.
Whelan: Identity politics often gets characterised by those on the right as something that only so-called ‘snowflakes’ are interested in. Is this true? Or has narcissistic, identity-driven politics been a problem for longer than the current generation?
Lilla: It really has been building since the 1980s. Even in our educational system, from a very early age, kids are taught about their identities. For example, New York State puts out suggested curricula for programmes for schools from elementary school onwards. I was looking at one of these a while ago, and one of the suggestions is that children start keeping a diary about their identity – in kindergarten, from the age of six. And every year, they add things to it and it becomes a kind of chapbook that they keep as they discover different aspects of their identity, their ethnic background and later their gender and so on.
You look at American movies, you look at the way in which American corporations deal with diversity issues right now, identity is put forward as this kind of secret self within, this little homunculus that’s your true self and made up of all these attachments that you can gain or drop as you like. And those identities have to be protected and cultivated and not offended. That’s not a psychological model that opens people up to public debate about issues, including those that don’t necessarily have anything to do with them personally. For example, there’s very little interest among young people today about foreign policy, because it doesn’t have anything to do with their identities.
Whelan: Let’s move on to Hillary’s electoral failure, about which you’ve talked a lot. She played the identity-politics game, and attempted to use that to her benefit. Is this mainly where she fell down, by politicising identity?
Lilla: Mainly? No. To begin with, she won the popular vote. And a defeat like this is always overdetermined. There are any number of things that, had she gotten them right, could have meant that she would have won – for example, if she had gone to certain states at the end, and so on. Each of these handicaps contributed to her defeat. She would go out and she would mention all these groups that are the Democrats’ favourite groups – certain minority groups and gender groups, women and so on. (Pretending that only Democrats know what women want, or that all women are the same.) But she would leave out all sorts of people in the country. Roughly 20 per cent of Americans consider themselves to be Evangelicals – she never mentioned religion in that way at all. Thirty-seven per cent of the country, roughly, is in the south, and she never addressed the south. And so on and so on.
She ended up with a small set of favoured identities, and left others out. And look, if you’re talking about these groups all the time, it’s inevitable that people who are not included are either going to feel left out (so you better mention everyone) or, if they don’t have a group consciousness, they’re going to develop one, because if everyone else belongs to a group then they must, too.
Take the rise of white identity. There are all sorts of things that have contributed to white supremacy, which is real. But the recent spike in this sense of a wounded white population, if you look at surveys, really starts to surge in about 2014. What contributed to this was the identity focus on the left, and then how that played out on right-wing media. It became a weapon for Fox News and for Breitbart to portray the Democrats as only being about these groups, and not being about you, the Fox viewer. You just don’t want to be in that position.
Whelan: Does politicising identity not also make political arguments insoluble? There can be no compromise between competing identities, only what Max Weber thought of, tragically, as a value conflict…
Lilla: Well, if you frame things in a radical way like that, maybe. But the other thing is that there are different groups who have different interests and that’s natural to democratic politics – you’re going to have interest groups. We can talk about interest groups without even using the word identity. African-Americans do have some common concerns, and that’s quite natural. What’s important is that people get involved in the ordinary work of politics, which includes joining a party, making compromises, coming up with a rhetoric that attracts voters – it also requires articulating general principles which then apply to different groups in different ways. But, crucially, everyone shares an attachment to the principles.
So what I argue in the book is that there are two fundamental principles that have animated American liberalism since the progressive age. One is social solidarity, the other is equal protection under the law. Now if I make that my message – these two principles – I can imagine all sorts of very different sorts of people signing up for that. But you can apply different things to different groups, because they face different situations. So, for example, if there is an unemployed factory worker in Ohio who has a kid addicted to opioids and the town is falling apart, you can explain why solidarity means that we’re going to help them out – and that citizens aren’t roadkill. On the other hand, if you have a black motorist who is tired of being stopped by the cops all the time for being black, you can explain to them that the principle of equal protection under the law applies to him. So different groups are going to have different interests and concerns, but the thing that has to be projected is that the general message covers everyone.
Whelan: Does it irk you, as a liberal, that critics of identity politics often get characterised as behind the times – and illiberal?
Lilla: Yes, it irks me. Certainly it irks me. Right after my article was published in the New York Times, someone who teaches at my university, Columbia, whom I’ve never met, wrote an article in the LA Review of Books comparing me to David Duke, who is the head of the KKK. She said we were both white supremacists, and that though we may wear different clothing, we were working towards the same end. I guess every time I get charged with being a white supremacist, my response is that I know too many white people to be a white supremacist. I have no illusions about the superiority of the white race.
But more than that, I just find it very distressing for my political side. If these are the things that people care about, then we are just making breakfast in bed for Steve Bannon every single day. The indifference to that fact throws me into despair.
Whelan: What do you mean by a future liberal? Do you hope to see a revival of a classical notion of the liberal subject – a universal, rights-bearing individual? Or something else?
Lilla: For me, its a kind of civic liberalism. A kind of liberalism that is based on the notion that we are all citizens, and as citizens not only do we deserve certain things, but we also have duties to fellow citizens. It’s a civic duty.
In the individualisation and atomisation of our societies, and the individualisation of our political rhetoric, the whole concept of duty is dropped out. There is no notion that you might have obligations as well as rights in a society. If I do another book, I would want to focus on articulating what it means to be a democratic citizen, and what is implied by the fact that we govern ourselves, what that requires of us and what that means we have.
What can begin at that point is a political programme based on the notion that we are a republic – we are not a parking lot, a camping site, a collection of elementary particles. We are a corporate body and that means we have certain obligations towards each other. We’re going to share a common future and a common destiny, and we can work towards that together.
Mark Lilla is a journalist and professor of humanities at Columbia University. He is the author, most recently, of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.
Watch Mark discuss identity politics at spiked US’s recent Unsafe Space panel at Rutgers University:
Picture by: Getty Images.