Is 'identity liberalism' killing the Democratic party?

Humanities professor Mark Lilla has a new book out titled “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.” Real Clear Politics published a review of the book today by Hoover Institute fellow Peter Berkowitz which gives a sense of the main thrust of Lilla’s argument:


Liberals, he argues, must repudiate the politics of identity because it undermines the pursuit of the common good to which American liberalism is properly directed. Identity liberalism divides Americans into groups—women, African-Americans, Latinos, LGBT Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and on and on. It nourishes a “resentful, disuniting rhetoric of difference” that defines membership in terms of distinctive narratives of victimhood, and confers status in proportion to the magnitude of the oppression one claims to have suffered under the hegemonic sway of white, male structures of power. Propelled by America’s colleges and universities—which, Lilla observes, have replaced political clubs and shop floors as the incubators of liberal political leaders—identity liberalism has abandoned the political mission of bringing fellow citizens together in favor of the evangelical one of extracting professions of faith and punishing heretics, apostates, and infidels.

If you want a sense of how the left is responding to this thesis, you can turn to this contentious interview at Slate. Author Isaac Chotiner seems to be doing his best to undermine Lilla’s argument and, more specifically, to make the case that everything comes down to racism. Lilla’s position is that this assumption is blinding Democrats to seeing a more nuanced view of the problem:

Chotiner: The one thing I maybe disagree with your book about the most was that bigger question of why all these former Democratic states are now Republican states. It seems to me that the overwhelming answer to that question is race, which is not something you talk particularly about in the book. Do you not see what’s happened racially post the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in this country as being the primary driver of the fact that a majority of states now are Republican states, which was not the case 50, 60 years ago?

Lilla: I certainly do not.

You don’t think race is the central reason?

The central reason? Not at all, not at all. Just go out there. It’s not the central reason.

Wait, go out there?

Yeah go out there. Let me tell you, I grew up in Macomb County, Michigan, which is a blue-collar county right at the border of Detroit. It’s known as the home of the Reagan Democrats and studied to death. In the early ’60s, it was the most liberal suburban county in the United States. By 1972, it had gone for Nixon, and it never looked back. Now, where I grew up it was blue-collar and blue-collar ethnic, and there was a lot of racism, no doubt about that.

What was motivating them was lots of issues. They felt they weren’t being heard. They resented the college kids who were spitting on the flag when a lot of their sons were coming home in coffins that were draped in that flag. I had a paper route, and I looked at all the stars in the window. I was an altar boy; I served at the funerals.

There was a deep cultural resentment that built up because they felt that the country they loved and the kind of way of life that they were attached to was treated with contempt. It’s a complicated thing. Trust me.


And that seems to be it in a nutshell. Is everything we’re seeing about race, as Chotiner and many a campus radicals believe, or is there a lot more nuance to this? You see that divide clearly in another excerpt a bit earlier in the interview:

Lilla: All the rights that movement politics people and identity politics people have fought for are under siege at the state level. There’s rollback on union rights, there’s rollback on voting rights for African Americans, there’s rollback on abortion. There’s a constitutional right to abortion in this country, and there are parts of the country where you cannot get one, and why is that? Because we are not competitive in these places because people have walked away from us, because of the way we talk, because of the things…our seeming contempt for them.

When you ask them about identity issues, the people who are not voting for us, and ask them about what they perceive as political correctness, they respond. You only have to look at polls about this, and it’s a great recruiting tool for the right. Now, unless you assume that all of white America is racist and lost and cannot be saved—

Chotiner: Only about half, yeah.

If you don’t assume that, then you know that there are a lot of people who we could reach, and we must reach because this is a democracy, a federated democracy, which means if you are not competitive at the state and local levels, you can’t protect anything that movement politics achieves. Institutional politics trump movement politics always.

So Lilla is saying people on the right are responding to the left’s obvious contempt for them and Chotiner’s reply is to label half of them are racist, which is sort of making Lilla’s point. As Lilla says a bit later, “there’s been a kind of slightly hysterical tone about race that leads us to overestimate its significance in particular things.”

And there’s reason to think this progressive smugness about people on the right has an impact at the very local level. In January, Politico published a fascinating article titled “What Do You Do If a Red State Moves to You?” As I pointed out at the time, that title is actually the opposite of what the article describes. It’s about progressives moving from the city out to the country and then demanding the locals get in line with their views on everything. One of the progressive transplants featured in the piece admits there was a lot of condescension coming from her people:

“We have found a whole community here,” said Pat Carlson, Wally Zick’s wife, “of very like-minded—it’s going to sound elite—but bookish, artsy, I’d say compassionate … organic foodies, the whole nine yards. It’s all transplants. It’s mostly liberals.” As for this election, and the locals, she continued, “I think they thought the liberal elite was looking down on them, and I guess, in some ways, we were. Because we couldn’t believe anybody would vote for Trump.”

And that leads to locals like John Andrews, a local who had been a Democrat, switching parties:

“When the people came in—and the things that they were trying to push on the rest of us—that’s why I left,” Andrews added. “I didn’t want to deal with these people. I didn’t want to be a part of what they were a part of. You’re talking about people from the Cities who are very progressive. I call them tree-huggers, a bunch of tree-huggers. They referred to us, meaning the people who’ve lived here and worked here all our lives, as a bunch of hicks. They just think they’re a little bit better than everybody else, and that we’re not as smart.”

I haven’t read his book yet but it seems to me Mark Lilla is on to something. If there’s one thing those embracing identity politics on the left ought to understand it’s that people know when they are being othered and treated dismissively and they don’t tend to like it very much.


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