The issue has provoked an important debate inside the center-left. In The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla argues that the growing obsession with identity politics has stripped liberals of the civic language they long used to address the American people collectively. Now, Lilla observes, conversations on race, gender or ethnicity often begin with the privilege-claiming expression, “Speaking as a…” Hurling the ultimate insult, Lilla describes this as the Reaganism—the harsh individualism—of the left.
I doubt whether the near-obsession with identity issues can be uprooted from the heart of the Democratic Party. But liberalism’s appeal has always sprung from its commitment to the language of collective interest—the language of “we.” This offers liberalism a platform very different from the insistent “I” of conservatism, and the “they” of populism—the not-us, whether elites or their clients. One way of thinking about the choice liberals face is this: At a moment of intense polarization, they must either return to the old “we” or deploy their own version of “us and them.”