Jonathan Rauch has an excellent review of Mark Lilla's controversial book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, up at the New York Review of Books. Rauch, who is gay and married, starts out by recounting what he, personally, owes to identity politics. Then he explains and analyzes Lilla's position on identity politics, as recounted in Lilla's book. Rauch is by no means uncritical, as one might expect, of Lilla's somewhat over-the-top polemic, but he does identify a couple of strong points of Lilla's argument that really do deserve attention.
First, on how identity politics has affected the general message delivered by the left:
Politics in America is about storytelling more than policy, and the narratives that tend to be the most politically attractive—Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, for instance—tell stories about making Americans better off individually and nationally. The benefits of the New Deal may not have been extended equally to all Americans, but the liberal rhetoric of that period spoke of the national good and the need to build broad electoral coalitions. In their campus redoubts, Lilla argues, liberals forgot how to talk that talk. They began to conceive of and practice politics not as a common struggle for national improvement but as a diverse set of quite distinct struggles against specific forms of oppression.Writing last year for a Nation magazine symposium on identity politics, Walter Benn Michaels remarked, “The defensible heart of identity politics is its commitment to opposing forms of discrimination like racism, sexism, and homophobia.” Discrimination is of course a good thing to be against; but what is identity politics for? Programs and policies like affirmative action and equal pay and police reform and humane immigration rules, yes; but what it hasn’t yet arrived at, Lilla argues, “is an image of what our shared way of life might be.”
Check. The left does indeed need to tell a universal story of social uplift to broaden its coalition.Here, I think, Lilla has a point. On campuses especially, today identity groups are more often invoked to divide people from one another than to unite them around a shared cause. When I give talks on college campuses about free speech, the question students most commonly ask is how to cope with the “check your privilege” mic drop: the claim that color or class or some other personal characteristic disqualifies them from discourse. Behind this claim is the belief that viewpoints judged offensive or intolerant shouldn’t even be heard. In a statement published this past spring, students at Middlebury College argued that they “mustn’t be required to ‘hear both sides’ when one side seeks to undermine the core values of a free, democratic society.”Shutting down conversation across lines of color or gender or class builds moats, not bridges. “Over the past decade,” Lilla writes, “a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: Speaking as an X…” That formulation, he cautions, is not “anodyne.” On campus, “it sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective.” By constantly reminding ourselves and others of the constraints of our viewpoints, we are, in a sense, constantly declaring our inability to empathize with anyone outside of them. “I am not a black male motorist and never will be,” Lilla writes. “All the more reason, then, that I need some way to identify with one if I am going to be affected by his experience. And citizenship is the only thing I know we share. The more the differences between us are emphasized, the less likely I will be to feel outrage at his mistreatment.”Mainstream liberals, including Hillary Clinton, have expended no little effort searching for a persuasive story about national betterment. If Lilla is right, however, no amount of effort will suffice until liberals remove the identitarian blinders that impede their vision. Similarly, progressives can offer job training and day care and health insurance, but until they frame their calls for minority rights and social justice within a story of common uplift, they will fail to fire moral imaginations in ways that consistently win elections. That failure is costly not only politically but also substantively, for if ever there were a time when progressives had reason to make common cause with less-educated white men, that time is now.
And on the effect of identity politics on actual, practical politics:
Still, Lilla is onto something, in two respects. First, he is right that over the past half-century progressive priorities drifted too far from power politics, with too little investment by activists and intellectuals in the sort of organizing and messaging that swings state legislatures and influences congressional redistricting. Obama, let it be said, also deserves a goodly portion of blame: by building his campaigns largely outside the Democratic Party organization and neglecting party-building as president, he weakened the party’s institutional capacity and denuded its bench. A stronger party organization probably could have pulled Hillary Clinton across the finish line.
Second, Lilla is correct to regard the academic wing of progressivism as neurotic and out of touch, and consequentially so. He is a creature of the academy and perhaps exaggerates its influence. Still, his claim that universities encourage students to think dogmatically and naively about social reform—thus handicapping them when they move out of school and into politics—seems plausible.
The academic left has also powerfully shaped the way the culture perceives liberalism. Headlines about censorious students and radical professors suggest to millions of centrist and conservative Americans that liberalism is hostile to their values and perhaps to their liberty. Most liberals who read the newspapers acknowledge that backlash against political correctness had an important part in propelling Trump from preposterous to president. Something Lilla implies, without quite saying, is probably true: to regain relevance and credibility the Democratic Party will have to reform, repudiate, or at least distance itself from its campus wing.Check. The left does indeed need keep a laser-like focus on effective politics and the attainment of real political power. Practices that interfere with this should not be encouraged.