The failure of liberal politics is caused by the success of identity politics. If liberals want to win again, they will need to articulate a shared vision of the future grounded in their shared identity as American citizens. To do that, liberals must first reject the divisive and ultimately apolitical vision of the cultural left, which is grounded in personal identities. Or so argues Mark Lilla in The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (HarperCollins, $24.99, 143 pp.).
How did the left lose its mojo? Lilla’s account is a story in two chapters. Chapter 1 is the “The Roosevelt Dispensation.” From the 1930s through the 1970s, the dominant vision in American politics was a progressive vision of shared interests symbolized by two shaking hands. “Until the 1960s,” he claims, “those active in liberal and progressive politics were drawn largely from the working class or farm communities, and were formed in local political clubs or on shop floors.”
Chapter 2 is called “The Reagan Dispensation.” During this era, the dominant vision was a conservative one focused on individual interests. Now, progressive activists were mostly formed on college and university campuses. They were increasingly concerned with individual identity based on gender, race, and sex. They emphasized difference and diversity rather than commonality and unity. Their symbol was a beam of light refracted through a prism.
Then came the great disruptor, Donald J. Trump. On Lilla’s reading, the Trump election is best understood as a backlash against the “political correctness” of the cultural left that currently dominates campus politics. Unless American liberals are able to articulate a new vision, he warns—one based on a shared identity of democratic citizenship—the next chapter of our story may well be written by a coalition of white nationalists and religious conservatives.
Inevitably perhaps, there’s an awful lot missing from Lilla’s reading of contemporary history—religion, for one thing. Lilla is more attuned to the importance of religion than most commentators. Still, he says astonishingly little about the rise of religious conservatism and next to nothing about the decline of liberal Protestantism. The latter is my subject here.
For most of American history, liberal politics has been entangled with liberal religion. The American Revolution might not have succeeded without the “black regiments”—the liberal pastors who so vocally supported it. And chattel slavery would surely not have ended as soon as it did without vociferous agitation by Protestant abolitionists from the Quakers on.
Liberal politics continued to draw inspiration from liberal Protestantism for much of the twentieth century too. Jane Addams, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr., Frances Perkins—the list of twentieth-century liberals formed in America’s mainline congregations, denominational colleges, and Protestant seminaries goes on and on. No liberal Protestants, no “Roosevelt dispensation”!
This is not to deny the enormous contributions of Jewish and Catholic intellectuals and activists such as Abraham Joshua Heschel or “Monsignor New Deal,” John A. Ryan. It is merely to insist on the enormous demographic and cultural weight of the Protestant establishment for much of American history. For better or worse—and usually both—American political culture bears a distinctly Protestant imprint.
This is true a fortiori of secular progressivism, which is, in many respects, a secularized continuation of liberal Protestantism. Take the idea of progress itself. American liberals like to trace it to the Enlightenment. But this misreads American history. (Not to mention the Enlightenment itself, which was not as monolithically secular as some of its interpreters would have us believe.) By the nineteenth century, most liberal Protestants had become “postmillennialists.” They believed that the establishment of the Kingdom of God would precede the Second Coming of Christ, and that America’s Protestant churches had been tasked with the establishing. This was the theological source of their reformist and missionary fervor. In many respects, secular progressives are their contemporary inheritors. Like their Protestant forbears, they believe that social movements and popular education can deliver the world from evil and establish the reign of truth and justice on earth.
Of course there are also important discontinuities between liberal Protestantism and secular progressivism. Liberal Protestant fervor was often (if not always) tempered by a deep awareness of the moral and intellectual limitations of a fallen humanity, an awareness derived from the Augustinian understanding of original sin and passed on through the “total depravity” doctrine of orthodox Calvinism. And when liberal Protestants forgot this, there were always prophetic voices to remind them—the voices of Christian realists such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr., for instance. But these voices have become fewer and quieter. Salvation slowly gave way to self-actualization. The old denominational colleges were converted into secular meritocracies. Where the brightest are continually told that they are also the best, and therefore also the most deserving, who or what is left to temper the old moral fervor? For that, most assuredly, lives on in these secularized settings. One worries that secular progressives have retained the worst of liberal Protestantism—a naïve philosophy of history—while rejecting the best—an ethos of chastened humility.
Not that “sin” and “confession” have entirely disappeared from post-Protestant progressivism. But today, the original sin is “white privilege,” and conversion requires confession. To be “woke” is to “own” one’s privilege—repeatedly and before one’s peers. Those who fail to do so run the risk of excommunication, at least in the stricter sects of secular progressivism. Though today, one’s congregation is one’s “community,” however defined: one’s school or social circle or Instagram feed. To his credit, Lilla is one of the few academic observers who sees this subterranean connection between the evangelical awakenings of yesteryear and the political awakenings of today.
Now consider the careful monitoring of public speech about race, class, gender, and sexuality that is perhaps the central preoccupation of the cultural left. Conservative critics deride it as “political correctness.” Why this strange obsession with mere words, they wonder? This, too, is at least partly a legacy of Protestantism. From Luther onwards, Protestants sacralized “the Word.” They covered the walls of their churches with Scripture passages and turned their Bibles into oracles, capable of predicting the future. Today, their secular progeny exhibit a similar faith in the word. This is evident, not only in the penchant for “political correctness,” but also in the urgent need to loudly proclaim their own personal identity and convictions by means of words—the T-shirts, tattoos, and stickers that turn young bodies and shiny commodities into printed surfaces.
For the most zealous theologians of the new progressive religion, there are no moral gray zones. There are only two groups: the fully enlightened and the “white supremacist, hetero-normative patriarchalists.” There is no middle ground for the morally mediocre, no halfway-covenant for the half-woke, not even a purgatory where the unwashed can cleanse their sins. For the unregenerate, only the gaping jaws of social-media hell remain. There, some say, Lilla now languishes, alongside other irredeemable figures such as my colleague Nicholas Christakis and Evergreen State biology professor Brett Weinstein. Unlike them, however, Lilla volunteered to be crucified. His courage is to be admired.
It is striking to note how many of the institutions at the epicenter of the recent controversies over free speech and political correctness have liberal Protestant origins. Yale, Oberlin, and Pomona—so many successive stops in the Westward expansion of the Puritan project that began almost four centuries ago in Massachusetts Bay and eventually stretched across the upper Midwest and on to the Pacific Ocean.
Lilla is surely right that the occasional excesses of the cultural Left are one source of our civic fragmentation. But there is plenty of blame to go around and much of it falls squarely on the intellectual and political leaders of the American Right, whose naïve faith in free-market panaceas for every social ill and groveling obeisance to the selfish demands of the Republican donor class has done far more to divide the nation and unravel the social contract than a tiny handful of self-righteous campus activists ever could.
Lilla surely knows this. But his narrative still focuses too narrowly on the left and overstates the importance of campus politics. Nasty insults exchanged in a campus courtyard are enormously inconsequential when compared to secret conclaves at fancy resorts sponsored by the Koch brothers. We mustn’t lose our sense of political proportion.
Lilla is also correct about the importance of appealing to Americans in terms of common citizenship as well as cultural difference. And he is right to call for a renewed program of civic education that would apply to native-born Americans and not just to aspiring citizens. But who will support such a venture? Many secular progressives will see it as a threat to their personal autonomy or as an attempt to impose a whitewashed version of American history. Many religious conservatives will see it as an attack on religious freedom or an attempt impose a politically correct version of American history.
What is needed is a political coalition of civic liberals that can bring together people of faith and of no faith and across divides of race. That will not be easy. Barack Obama managed it, at least for a time. But he was a once-in-a-generation political talent. That it has become so hard has more than a little to do with the decline of liberal Protestantism.
Liberal Protestantism was once the vital center of our public life. The gradual disentanglement of liberal politics from liberal religion has been a mixed blessing at best. It has left a “God-shaped hole” in our politics that has been filled with sovereign selves, loudly clamoring for recognition of their sacred identities—and, worse, with political messiahs promising to make America great again. Trump is the first of these, not the last.
The vital center is not empty. There are plenty of Catholics and Jews and lots of black Protestants, too, and also some undogmatic humanists. But the exodus of post-Protestant liberals has left the center dangerously underpopulated. Unless some of us band together to reclaim this middle ground, the individualists and the tribalists will turn it into a no-go zone. If they have not already done so.
Philip S. Gorski teaches sociology at Yale University and is the author of American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present.
Most of us call it the Reagan revolution. Mark Lilla calls it the Reagan dispensation. Either way, it can be easy to overstate Reagan’s influence—and to forget the extent to which Democrats helped facilitate the free-marketing, wealth-building, self-relying, government-bashing dogma that has become commonplace in American politics.
President Jimmy Carter beat Reagan to the Reaganite punch, declaring in his 1978 State of the Union that “there is a limit to the role and function of government.” Not only did Carter say in that speech that “government cannot solve our problems,” but also that “the economy must keep on expanding,” and that “private business and not the government must lead the expansion in the future.”
More famously, it was President Bill Clinton who proclaimed, almost twenty years later, that “the era of big government is over”—and tried to prove it by deregulating the communications industry, pushing through massive free-trade deals like NAFTA and GATT, ending the financial protections of Glass-Steagall, and signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which ended welfare as an entitlement.
To some extent, in The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla acknowledges this. Reagan, says Lilla, was merely breathing the “cultural air” of his age. Reagan excelled at channeling the individualist, acquisitive, cowboy spirit that could be found all over late-1970s and early-1980s America, from the yuppies of Wall Street to the philosophical writings of Robert Nozick. Like many actors, Reagan was a master of mimicry, but not a mastermind.
Yet at the same time Lilla hangs a lot on Reagan’s shoulders. He tells a story in which left-liberals were too dismissive of Reagan, did not realize that “they were up against a new political dispensation,” and failed to articulate a coherent and consistent response to his creed, leaving the nation to wander for forty years in the wilderness of limited government. That account of things, though, neglects the extent to which left-liberals were more complicit with than dumbfounded by what Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield has called the “creeping libertarianism” of recent American politics.
That Lilla falls a bit too easily into conventional political dichotomies—there’s a lot of us (liberals) versus them (conservatives) in the book—is a telling weakness. That simple dichotomizing muddles the historical facts, as I’ve already suggested. More importantly, it confuses what I take to be the core of his argument.
Lilla, like many serious political thinkers on both the left and the right—see, for instance, Mansfield—sees the rise of a “hyperindividualist,” libertarian “anti-politics” as a serious threat to the republic. Lilla hopes that his fellow left-liberals will turn against the tide of hyperindividualism and embrace a more properly political politics: one that foregrounds institution-building, election-winning, and civic education. (For what it’s worth, I say amen to that.)
Lilla sees the primary obstacle to this vision as what he derides as “Reaganism for lefties”: the identity politics currently in vogue among the campus left (or at least, the visible-elite-campus left). For Lilla, identity politics is the left’s latter-day attempt to respond to Reaganism by mirroring it. He makes the campus left out to be a selfish group of gender-studies majors who are devoted to personal identity, pitted against a selfish group of economics majors who are devoted to personal prosperity.
As a visible-elite-campus professor who spends my days among the identity-politics crowd, I share many of Lilla’s concerns about it. There’s no doubt that there is ideological purity-testing going on within the campus left that precludes the development of important liberal and even radical political alliances. And forget the idea of seeking out alliances with self-proclaimed conservatives; Lilla is correct that the campus left inclines toward bridge-burning rather than bridge-building—with the campus right happy to return the favor.
Yet I think there’s no question that Lilla’s focus on identity politics misses the forest for the trees, not to mention the soil in which the trees were forced to take root.
Consider the simple fact that these identity-politics campus lefties are the same campus activists who voted (and organized) in droves for Bernie Sanders. And let’s be clear: Bernie Sanders was not a hyperindividualist candidate. He was not a libertarian candidate. He was not an identity-politics candidate. He was an old-white-guy candidate, for Pete’s sake, who, if you believe Lilla’s account of identity politics, would have been totally unacceptable to the young lefties who in fact flocked to him as if he were their messy-haired messiah.
Bernie Sanders captured the attention of the campus (and non-campus) left, in fact, because he opposed free-trade free-marketism, had a consistent track record of opposing industry deregulation, and unapologetically championed bigger government in the service of a more humane society—not to mention that he was a candidate propelled by volunteerism, small-dollar donations, local activism, and other traditional forms of political organizing.
By comparison, Hillary Clinton—who, along with her husband, the young left should have called DINOs—seemed emblematic of a cynical elite politics that kowtowed to corporate interests, preferred the rule of “experts” to the rule of the people, and waved away substantive criticism from the Left, faulting it for not understanding the way things are done in Washington.
More pointedly, young left-wing voters faulted Clinton, continually and correctly, for her clunky attempts to seduce voters in terms of identity—see the #NotMyAbuela movement that emerged in response to the campaign’s “Seven Things Hillary Clinton Has in Common with Your Abuela”—rather than in terms of policy.
If the 2016 presidential campaign proved anything about campus lefties, it was that in the end they weren’t swayed by appeals to identity politics—Clinton’s appeals on the left and Trump’s appeals on the right. (I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that one must not neglect the white-identity-politics grounding of Trump’s campaign; identity politics is not the exclusive province of the left.) In the 2016 primary season, in fact, Bernie Sanders won more young-people votes than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. And it wasn’t even close. Sanders won 2 million young Americans’ votes in the primaries. Clinton and Trump, combined, won less than 1.6 million.
Now, it is worth considering that in the general election, a good number of Sanders supporters stayed home or voted for Jill Stein. They denied Clinton votes and contributed to Trump’s advantage. On this point, I am sympathetic to Lilla’s lament that the campus left seems resistant to the ordinary, albeit disappointing, rules of republican government: in this case, that sometimes you have to hold your nose and pound the pavement on behalf of a candidate you can barely tolerate, only because the alternative is truly intolerable.
But let’s be clear: those Sanders supporters who refused to support Clinton were not doing so for identity-politics reasons. They thought that Clinton embodied a Democratic party that had long ceased to be sufficiently democratic. If they leaned into moral absolutism as opposed to civic realism (as young people often do), it came less from identity politics and more from inchoate democratic longings.
Sometimes, when I teach my students, I remind myself that the oldest among them were born in the year after Bill Clinton proclaimed an end to the era of big government. The dominant political language of their lives has been that of limited government, globalization, and technological disruption. If they tend toward hyperindividualism, political cynicism, and technological utopianism, that’s largely because they know no other creed.
If young liberals speak in the language of snowflakes, that’s largely because older Americans—especially older liberals like the Clintons—have failed to warm their tongues to an alternative. Young Americans have grown up hearing, with the exception of Bernie Sanders and maybe Elizabeth Warren, nothing but a pretty chilling political discourse.
When it comes down to it, the votes of young Americans betray a hungering for the same kind of policy-oriented, civically minded, institutionally driven politics for which Lilla hopes in The Once and Future Liberal. But to read Lilla, you’d never know it. He quite literally relegates Bernie Sanders (and Sanders’s explicit desire to move “beyond identity politics,” without forsaking the real insights of identity politics) to a footnote.
Ironically, I think Lilla would have done well to remember one of Ronald Reagan’s true political insights: that “the person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and ally—not a 20 percent traitor.”
In this, Lilla is correct: the American republic desperately requires a renewed focus on civic education. But Lilla is wrong that universities are the place in which that civic education should happen. Aside from the fact that most Americans do not get to and through college in the first place, the students who do enter college are fairly well formed, politically, by the time they get there. Civic education happens well before and mostly outside the lecture hall and seminar room.
If Lilla hopes, as I think we all should hope, for civic revitalization, we have to think bigger and dig deeper. There are tears in the fabric of our civic life that no single type of institution can repair on its own. This is the work not just of future liberals, but of us all.
Susan McWilliams is associate professor of politics at Pomona College.
Scarcely had the scabs begun to form over the Democratic Party’s wounds last November when Mark Lilla tore them off. “One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome,” he wrote on the front page of the November 18 New York Times Sunday Review section, “is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.”
“American liberalism,” he explained, “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.” Whatever the good effects of “the moral energy surrounding identity,” he wrote, “the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.”
Fighting words, which Lilla has now tried to set in historical context and to wrap with more positive proposals for a post-identity liberal vision. He has smoothed a few sharp edges of the original article while perhaps offering even more generalizations to pick a fight with.
The Once and Future Liberal unfolds around a number of contrasting concepts.
A Roosevelt “dispensation” versus a Reagan “dispensation.” The former stressed solidarity, collective safeguards against risk and hardship, and public duty. The latter stressed individualism, self-reliance, and liberation from the shackles of government.
Political consciousness versus identity consciousness. The former emphasizes commonalties to unite differing groups in a majority. The latter employs a rhetoric of difference to assert the claims of underdog groups against the dominant culture.
Electoral politics versus social movements. The former attempt to win and hold power through persuasion within political institutions from the town council to the presidency. The latter challenge public attitudes and confront institutions from outside with protest, drama, and disruption.
Questions arise about each of Lilla’s contrasts—and there are more—and his obvious preferences. My experiences dating back to the civil-rights and anti-war struggles of the 1960s suggest that many of Lilla’s contrasts are useful for analysis. Hillary Clinton was right to point out that it took the political operator Lyndon Johnson to enshrine in law the moral demands of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil-rights movement. Many anti-war activists were right to stop demonstrating and go “clean for Gene” and later for Bobby in 1968. Observers are right who warn of the liberal proclivity for scoring victories through court rulings or cultural correctness while leaving much of the country between the coasts (and below the Mason-Dixon line) in the hands of largely unconvinced or even outraged voters.
Consider a book that had the misfortune of being published in the first week of 2016: Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections). The author, Stephen Prothero, whose work I have admired, did express some qualms about contemporary liberal reflexes toward the end of a book that merged them with past struggles for political and religious freedoms. But the dangerous hubris of recent identity-and-movement-based liberalism was all-too-well captured in his title.
Critiques of liberalism are hardly new or rare. Fifty years ago they were required reading for New Left–inclined types like myself. Most came from social conservatives, communitarians, or democratic socialists, three ideological camps that can often overlap. They challenged liberalism for its dubious “procedural” claim to neutrality about the good life; its tendency to punt rather than look to religion and moral reasoning when faced with tough questions about values; and its complicity with capitalism in shattering traditions and communities.
Lilla, however, is writing from within, as “a frustrated American liberal” addressing other liberals, and at a much more tactical than philosophical level. Even here he is hardly alone. Consider another book published in early 2016. Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank, best known for What’s the Matter with Kansas?. Like Lilla, Frank believes that liberalism has become the expression of a well-educated and well-to-do professional class given to self-congratulatory superiority to the wide mass of economically strapped Americans. Yet “identity politics” does not appear in Frank’s index while the references to banks and NAFTA are almost uncountable. For Frank, the curse of liberalism is not identity politics but its sleazy liaison with Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and its celebration of innovation, meritocracy, TED talks, and Davos with a (supposedly) human face. Anything but actual redistribution of resources. Thus another contrast:
Lilla: America desperately needs a renewed liberal vision but that possibility is blocked by an obsession with identity and diversity.
Frank: America desperately needs a renewed liberalism but that possibility is blocked by its subjugation to ambition and money.
One might be able to negotiate an alliance here, but I wonder. Lilla praises “progressives,” as distinguished from “liberals,” for understanding the need for solidarity. “It may be up to progressives to save contemporary liberalism from itself,” he writes, and there’s a footnote quoting Bernie Sanders. But he criticizes progressives for a “nostalgia for America’s industrial union past” and a “fixation on class” rather than “citizenship,” the overarching category that Lilla believes should replace diverse identities as the basis for a new liberal vision.
“If a sense of solidarity is based solely on economic resentment,” he writes, “it will be shared only by those who feel disadvantaged, and will disappear as soon as their fortunes improve.... Progressive political rhetoric does nothing to convince the well-off that they have a permanent duty to the worse-off. The Bible used to, but no longer.” (This is one of several places where Lilla, like the liberals he criticizes, is rather too dismissive of American religion.)
All this leads me to a conclusion and two brief reflections, one very concrete and the other more speculative.
Is liberalism in crisis? Yes. Quite apart from any of the more fundamental philosophical issues, disaffection has reached the point that liberal proposals for economic redistribution are apt to be taken even less seriously than the blather of a Donald Trump.
Is identity politics the reason? A reason, yes, though maybe not the reason. Structural and constitutional factors like gerrymandering and the advantages of underpopulated states leave liberalism less represented in governing bodies than its numbers would otherwise command. There is also the well-oiled right-wing machinery of misrepresentation and caricature that has assiduously nurtured distrust of liberalism—and would be hard at work no matter how liberalism presented itself. (Lilla would respond, of course, that at least liberalism should not give this attack machine so many easy targets.)
Nonetheless, the anti-Trump women who did not share prochoice orthodoxy learned last January, that, thanks to identity politics, they were not welcome in liberal ranks. A typical issue of the New York Times Sunday Review confirms Lilla’s observation about the limits of liberal vision. A front-page personal testimony to black “sisterhood” is followed, inside, by a first-person account of a female novelist’s challenge to write with authority in a world of male “voice” and then a black gay man’s problem with anti-H.I.V. medication. All interesting, worthy essays and all turning on assertions of the distinctiveness of racial, gender, and sexual identities.
The fact that race is crucial to so many such essays is not surprising. It is a commonplace that black slavery and its racist aftermath for African Americans constitute the Original Sin of this nation. Consequently the movement for racial justice and equality—however far from complete—has been the greatest achievement of the past half century. But as Lilla observes, that movement “provided the template for subsequent movements to secure rights for women, homosexuals, and other groups.” The parallels, Lilla adds, “were hardly exact, to say the least.”
I would argue that this equation of liberal causes, all demanding similar moral urgency, confrontational strategies, rejection of compromise, and insistence on aggressive legal and government measures, has revealed a moral and intellectual impoverishment in American liberalism: a need to draw constantly on the moral capital and legal precedents of the civil rights movement, an incapacity for distinctions and political pacing, and a conviction that disagreement cannot have any other basis than bigotry. The widely reproduced 1967 essay “Student as Nigger” analogizing the condition of students to slaves, should have been a warning. If Lyndon Johnson had ever said that the civil-rights legislation he signed would “lose the South for a generation”—and the quote is probably apocryphal—he made the right choice. But liberals have too often thought they were following suit. If feminism means losing traditional families...if abortion rights means losing many Catholics and evangelicals...if same-sex marriage means losing additional religious believers...if the “T” and “Q” in the LGBTQ formula means losing those still wary of cutting gender loose from biology...well, can’t we all be as brave and principled as LBJ? And are we surprised at the current crisis?
My modest, concrete suggestion is that liberalism approach each of its causes on its own merits and complexities and degrees of moral certitude and priority—and stop tying them to the coattails of the preeminent historical and still seemingly intractable issue of injustice against African Americans.
My more speculative reflection centers on this question: Does liberalism need to banish identity politics or to develop a better identity politics? Identity has never been absent from our politics. Witness the balanced ticket. And is it really true, as Lilla maintains, that as soon as one starts highlighting some identities deserving attention, as Hillary Clinton did, the list of those not mentioned is endless? Lilla’s alternative for liberalism, to focus on “citizenship,” has merit; but citizenship can be a thin and abstract notion unless infused with the always emotional and volatile element of patriotism. Can liberalism do better at including previously excluded identities without disparagingly excluding others? Can liberalism even support the deepening of identities, local, cosmopolitan, religious, ideological, intellectual, artistic, or whatnot, that have more resonance and resources and less need to define themselves “over against” than the desperately superficial and adolescent identities increasingly dividing our nation?
These are big questions. Lilla does not ask them. But I am grateful that his book points me toward them.
Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.
Since Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss to Donald Trump, “identity politics” has been endlessly maligned, whether blamed for the appeal of Trump’s white nationalism, pitted against economic populism, or more generally implicated in the Democrats’ failure to craft a message that appeals to their former voters in Appalachia and the Midwest.
Despite all this, the concept remains fuzzy—a vague epithet that usually amounts to “I know it when I see it.” In The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, his own attempt to grapple with the election, Mark Lilla’s account is similarly inchoate. Consider formulations like the following: “An image for Roosevelt liberalism and the unions that supported it was that of two hands shaking. A recurring image of identity liberalism is that of a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colors, producing a rainbow. This says it all.” Alas, it doesn’t! And matters aren’t clarified when, a few pages later, Lilla writes that liberals “are losing because they have retreated into caves they have carved for themselves in the side of what was once a great mountain.” Rainbows, caves, mountains—what is he talking about?
Lilla’s come in for a lot of (richly deserved) criticism on these points. He’s correct to point out that the recognition and celebration of diversity is not the same as a compelling political argument. But the fraught topic of identity politics especially demands precision, sifting the occasionally ridiculous campus episode from serious claims about injustice and how to fight it. Instead, Lilla offers a lot of disdain for “romantic” notions of merging self and world, a lot of snappy formulations about “an inner thing, a homunculus that needs tending to,” a lot of arguments that take the form of “up until the 1960s…” By forsaking a more careful approach, Lilla makes it unlikely that he’ll persuade those who don’t share his premises.
That’s a shame, because despite these shortcomings, Lilla does capture a number of the ways the Democrats are a party adrift. They do lack a forceful message, and they do seem terrible at actual politics—they’ve been routed in local elections and suffered staggering losses in state legislatures and governorships over the past decade, while failing to win back majorities in either the House or the Senate in 2016. Lilla’s right that Democrats’ fixation on the presidency has papered over these broader failures; seizing the White House can only do so much, and favorable demographic trends aren’t the same as a fifty-state strategy. He’s right that Democratic Party elites are disconnected from the struggles of working Americans. And he’s right that there is no substitute for winning office and wielding power at every level, not least when it comes to protecting and extending the rights of women and racial and sexual minorities.
But a better, more useful book would have sketched how to win such political power in a very different way. He acknowledges that our economy is failing too many Americans, but spends far more time harping about campus protests than on the massive structural changes imposed on our economy over the past forty years. Any search for villains should begin with Wall Street, the astonishing rise in the concentration of wealth and power in this country, and the Democrats who have willingly gone along with all of it. If identity politics has come to seem like all the Democrats have to offer, that’s because the party too often has accepted the right-wing framing of economic issues—but with a promise to be more tolerant and inclusive than the GOP.
Likewise, Lilla downplays the role of activists pushing the Democrat Party from the left. That is, he doesn’t grasp how political change actually happens. He praises the New Deal, for example, but treats it almost entirely as a function of Franklin Roosevelt’s compelling rhetoric meeting auspicious circumstances. Gone are the radicals, militant union activists, socialists, and even communists who put the fear of unrest in Roosevelt’s heart and made his policies, by comparison, seem acceptably moderate. Similarly, Lilla applauds Martin Luther King Jr. for calling on white Americans to live up to their nation’s creed and for appealing to the better angels of their nature. But it’s worth recalling the limits of King’s efforts at persuasion: In 1963, 60 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of his March on Washington, partly over fears it would cause violence. Demanding change always is divisive.
That means the Democrats’ task is to find ways to channel the energy of activists toward concrete policy goals. In so doing, they must weave the oppression of African Americans, immigrants, and others into a coherent story about what’s gone wrong with our country. The urgency of this task stems from the very nature of the Democratic Party, not merely the ascendancy of identity politics on the broad liberal-left. It is a truism among political scientists that the Democrats are an interest-group party, not an ideological one: they’re a party of unions, racial minorities, educated professionals, feminists, and others. Though Trump showed that movement conservatism’s grip on the GOP was more tenuous than many realized, the Democratic coalition lacks a similar philosophical core. None of this will change anytime soon. The challenge is and will remain for Democrats to craft a message and program that amounts to more than the sum of its parts, to transcend targeted appeals to this or that “demographic.”
It is here that Lilla’s style of liberalism is most lacking. He asserts that liberals and the Democratic Party need to recover the rhetoric of “we.” But it is just this “we” that too often fails to include too many and that is being contested by Trump and the GOP’s increasingly explicit white nationalism. Invoking “we” didn’t work last November: “Make America Great Again” was the winner’s slogan, “Stronger Together” the loser’s. An appeal to everyone can feel like an appeal to no one in particular, a feel-good but otherwise vacuous sentiment that doesn’t connect with the real struggles of the majority of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, are weighed down by debt, and struggle amid the insecurity of the “gig” economy.
To win in these circumstances, what is most necessary is not anodyne recitations of “we,” but the more forceful language of “us” and “them.” Our current plight is not the result of agentless forces or inevitable economic laws, but choices made by the powerful. There is all the difference in the world between lamenting the rise in “inequality” and railing against an economy rigged by the corporations and plutocrats who flood our politics with money and endlessly push to redistribute wealth upwards. Democrats need to name names, point out just who is benefiting from tax “reform,” who is getting rich off our cobbled-together health-care system, who have padded their bank accounts even as the wages of most Americans haven’t seen real growth in decades. There is no conflict between this message and the struggles of “identity groups”; after all, it is racial minorities who bear the brunt of our economic woes, and in a decade or two fully half of the working class will be non-white. The evils of racism, of course, are not reducible to economics. But too often that fact has been used to argue against a more populist economic message. That needs to stop, now.
Until this “us” and “them” approach is embraced, Democrats will continue to languish as the party of tepid triangulation. But there really are more of “us” than there are of “them.” Politics is more than a civics lesson; it is struggle. Those who want to retake power as part of a left-of-center governing majority, from city councils to Congress, will, above all, let voters clearly know which side they’re on.
Matthew Sitman is Commonweal’s associate editor.