Mark Lilla’s Book Criticizes Identity Politics, but Falls Short on Proposing an Alternative

The column that spawned a thousand hot takes is now a book.

Text from Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech at the newly dedicated Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012.  The park, designed by renowned architect Louis I. Kahn, is named after Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union address, known as the Four Freedoms Speech.  (Photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision/AP Images)
Text from Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech at the newly dedicated Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York, Oct. 17, 2012. Photo: Diane Bondareff/Invision/AP

Shortly after the 2016 election, Columbia University historian Mark Lilla published an op-ed in The New York Times lamenting 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.”

Lilla attacked “identity politics” as atomizing the American public and losing elections, contrasting it with a holistic variation of liberalism that powered the New Deal Coalition — Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, which focused not so much on who individual Americans were, but what rights they all needed. The column went viral, sparking countless hot takes, and he quickly padded out the argument into enough words to call it a book, “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.” Let the hot takes resume.

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla

The reactions to Lilla’s original piece from left and liberal writers were harsh. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Lilla’s Columbia University colleague Katherine Franke compared his ideology to that of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s, arguing that “Duke is happy to own the white supremacy of his statements, while Lilla’s op-ed does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable.”

But while Lilla may be a white, male professor in New York City, his concerns are hardly uncommon among those in left-liberal politics. For instance, former Democratic state representative LaDawn Jones — an African-American woman who chaired Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in Georgia — lamented earlier this year that her party’s Atlanta convention seemed to offer caucuses and councils for every racial and affinity group except white people. In the state of Georgia, less than 25 percent of white voters choose Democrats at the ballot box, meaning that white Democrats are indeed a minority group. Would the logic of identity liberalism then dictate that the party design messaging aimed directly at them? Traditionally, identity liberalism justifies itself by organizing around groups that have been historically oppressed, but when traditional majority in-groups become out-groups in certain organizations and societies, is there a need for special categorization and organizing for their inclusion as well?

These are the sort of questions Lilla tries to wrestle with in the short book released this month. “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics” is a breezy 165 pages that he uses as a short overview of contemporary American political history and what he believes are the shortcomings of modern American liberalism.

The book is at its best when it is reviewing the strengths of modern conservative thought and liberal shortcomings — when Lilla reviews the towering political rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, who reset American politics, to his laments of over-reaching identity sectarianism on American campuses — but comes up much weaker when suggesting an alternative way forward.

Reagan’s Patriotic Individualism

Before Lilla diagnoses the weaknesses of what he calls identity liberalism, he takes a step back and uses the first section of the book to analyze the strengths of modern conservatives.

He traces their rise to Republican President Ronald Reagan, whom he credits with promoting themes of American patriotism and optimism that easily steamrolled his Democratic rivals. He quotes from Reagan’s 1980 election eve speech where the former president took a shot at Jimmy Carter’s lectures on the need for sacrifice: “I find no national malaise, I find nothing wrong with the American people.”

To Lilla, Reagan’s defeat of Carter and Walter Mondale after him created what he terms the “Reagan Dispensation” — a new political ethos where individualism and, particularly, business is equated with patriotism. He writes that this dispensation preaches that the “good life is that of self-reliant individuals — individuals embedded perhaps in families, churches, and small communities, but not citizens of a republic with common goals and duties to each other.”

Lilla, however, misses a couple things about Reagan. One is that Reagan himself appealed to a form of white identity politics — his invocations of “welfare queens,” for example, and the way he implemented his war on drugs. And while Reagan preached individualism, he was not afraid to use the government on behalf of groups he needed to achieve electoral success. For instance, he imposed heavy tariffs and import quotas to protect certain industries, and his administration bailed out Continental Illinois, the original “too big to fail” bank.

Former president Gerald Ford, left, lends his support to fellow Republican and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and running mate George Bush, seen here on the final day of campaining in Peoria, Ill., on November 3, 1980.  (AP Photo)

Former President Gerald Ford, left, lends his support to fellow Republican and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and running mate George Bush, seen here on the final day of campaigning in Peoria, Ill., on Nov. 3, 1980.

Photo: AP

Identity Liberalism Offers its Own Individualism

The book traces the origin of identity liberalism to the 1960s and ’70s. Lilla praises the work of the civil rights movement, antiwar movement, feminists, and others for creating a more civilized American society, but believes that the New Left’s retreat largely to college academia during the Reagan years created a new form of inward-looking politics that mirrored the Republican president’s individualism.

“You might have thought that, faced with the dogma of radical economic individualism that Reaganism normalized, liberals would have used their positions in our educational institutions to teach young people that they share a destiny with all their fellow citizens and have duties toward them,” Lilla writes. “Instead, they trained students to be spelunkers of their personal identities and left them incurious about the world outside their heads.”

He trains his fire largely on colleges and universities, who serve as gatekeepers for society’s elite in modern American society. They have created what he calls a “Facebook model of identity: the self as a homepage I construct like a personal brand, linked to others through associations I can ‘like’ and ‘unlike’ at will.”

He says this leads young liberals to be less likely to adopt universal political ideas and instead say they are engaged in politics “as an X, concerned about other Xs and those issues touching on X-ness.” To Lilla, this academic culture is offering an “intellectual patina to the radical individualism that virtually everything else in our society encourages.”

Under this new framework, liberalism is more about declaring the self-righteousness of your identity than persuading people from other backgrounds of a unifying cause. And focusing intensely on the needs of whatever subgroup you’ve defined your political identity around threatens to make politics about selfish self-interest more than solidarity.

A Problem in Search of a Solution

Where Lilla’s book is weakest is proposing an alternative to identity liberalism. His book relies heavily on theoretical situations and history, but touches little on actual contemporary political controversies or electoral campaigns. He is committing the same sin he criticizes college academics for making: he is arguing about problems in a theoretical sense without looking at practical solutions.

He suggests transferring left-liberal organizing away from a phalanx of identity groups toward citizenship instead. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home the fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise that We, the people have freely willed into being,” he writes.

But Lilla does not provide the details. Beyond the abstract notion of citizenship, what would citizen liberalism look like? How would university education, social movements, advocacy media, and electoral campaigns based on the citizen idea operate like in practice?

There is also the inherent problem with making citizenship the organizing principle of a political ideology: not everyone has it.

Debates about immigration reform necessarily include the 13 million undocumented immigrants; discussion of trade agreements or foreign conflicts involve millions more; climate change will impact all 7.5 billion human beings in one way or another.

Today, politics is globalized. The pre-Reagan New Deal coalition politics of the U.S. did not have to urgently deal with these issues in the same ways that modern Americans have to.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t tangible examples of how to form a solidarity politics — one that recognizes differences between human beings but works to address the whole’s interests — that can replace an individualistic and sectarian one.

For instance, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the United Kingdom mobilized a broad group of supporters not by appealing to segmented groups of society, but by pointing out the fabric that ties them together. Contrast Hillary Clinton’s “I’m With Her” — a branding formed around the candidate’s  gender identity — to the Labour campaign advertisement below, which was designed to create solidarity between older British voters of all stripes and their daughters, nieces, and granddaughters:

Issues like equal pay are not relegated to just one sect — such as “women’s issues” —  but seen as fundamental to human rights that are being denied to one segment of society. Voters are activated to care about these issues out of human empathy, not guilt or shame about being male. Noticeably, Corbyn did not ask anyone to check their privilege so much as ask that they pay attention to other people’s lack of it.

But we don’t have to go overseas to find a movement leader who understands solidarity. On the third Monday of every January of every year, Americans celebrate one.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was skeptical of sectarian forms of organizing. Although he was a powerful advocate for the rights of African Americans denied basic human rights, he insisted on demanding dignity for many other groups of people as well; his opposition to the war in Vietnam ruined his relationship with the Democratic Party and much of the Civil Rights community, who believed that speaking out on behalf of Indochina was contrary to the immediate self-interest of African-Americans. And he cautioned against any form of racial organizing that walled off one race from another, responding to the growing “Black Power” movement by writing in 1966 that “black supremacy or aggressive black violence is as invested with evil as white supremacy or white violence.”

On Christmas Eve in 1967, he gave a sermon that could very well define solidarity for our age. He described a world where every person directly depended on the dignity of others:

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.

The UK’s Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once rolled over her opponents by declaring that “there is no such thing as society.”

Today, many liberals would no doubt agree: there is gay society, black society, Muslim society, trans society, and so on. We can’t be one society because we are too different and our interests do not align.

But that isn’t what people bled and died for not far from Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King gave the sermon quoted above. They fought to live together, work together, study together, and be together in one just society where all are treated equally.

Top photo: Text from Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech at the newly dedicated Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York, Oct. 17, 2012.

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