«American identity politicians have no strategy, and do not want one. All they want is to express themselves and progressively radicalise.»

Ranveig Eckhoff
Norwegian journalist and regular critic at Modern Times Review.
Published date: June 28, 2018

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity politics

Mark Lilla

Harper, 2017

This biting remark comes from the book The Once and Future Liberal by writer, historian of ideas and professor at Colombia University, Mark Lilla. According to him this is the main problem for the Democrats in the age of Trumpism. Right now the entire left-wing in western democracies is divided. It is all too often «we against us,» and right-wing extremism profits from this.

What do we do now?

Every year the Economist Intelligence Unit (the EIU), a London-based institute, publishes a so-called democracy index. Based on 60 criteria, researchers assess yearly the conditions of democracies in 167 countries. In 2016 the US slid down the scale from «full democracy» to a so-called «flawed democracy.» All who would like to see a Democrat as president ask continuously: What is happening? What should we do now?

The two-party system doesn’t help. All potential voters in the US must be gathered up and consolidated into one of the two parties. That places high demands on a unifying strategy to avoid losing votes to the opposite party. Such a strategy must be utilised by the Democrats, says Mark Lilla, and in his opinion this lack of a unifying strategy is historically rooted in two epochs, the Roosevelt period with the New Deal and Ronald Reagan’s regime marked by self-sufficiency. A key concept in the analysis is called «identity politics.»

Identity politics

In short, Lilla defines identity politics as cultural movements: They manifest themselves among marginal groups, activists of different kinds, who all fight for issues connected to themselves and their identity. These fights may be successful or not, but in their essence they are not political. They do not unite citizens of different descents and cultures on a local or national level. The champions are not members of community assemblies, they do not seek political offices, they do not make laws, and they do not care much about solidarity with groups they don’t identify with. They have congregations, not ballot boxes. Fundamentally they are missionaries. Mark Lilla states that, « Evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.»In the Roosevelt era, Lilla maintains, America was another country. Key phrases were «freedom of expression,» «freedom of religion,» «freedom from distress,» «freedom from fear.» Under Ronald Reagan’s catechism it changed slowly but surely towards a society where key phrases were «freedom to acquire personal wealth,» «freedom from fellowship» (except for family, friends and the church), «freedom from an authoritarian state.» The Republicans were sitting pretty.

«What Mark Lilla wants is to motivate downhearted Democrats to become active citizens.»

The Democrats, often represented by a well-educated elite, moved steadily into a bubble where the main issues of identity politics dominated, whether it was women’s lib, sex, environment, race or minorities. Consequently the liberal activists wandered around behind the scenes, while the main stage was populated by a huge mass of traditional toilers with «shitty jobs» and a growing feeling of being unable to rely on or to be talked to by «them up there» – a feeling that festered, culminating in the election of the current president Donald Trump.

Lilla’s analysis in The Once and Future Liberal focuses on the concept of «citizen» and the citizen’s social responsibility. «Whatever might be said about the legitimate concerns of Trump supporters, they have no excuse for voting for him. Given his manifest unfitness for higher office, a vote for Trump was a betrayal of citizenship, not an exercise of it.»

Opposing criticism

Mark Lilla is a hyper-educated intellectual who became a polemicist, and in so doing reached far beyond his student auditorium. After the presidential election in November 2016 he wrote an article in The New York Times, «The End of Identity Liberalism,» that turned out to be the most read article of the year.

Lilla’s article provoked an avalanche of opposing criticism and personal attacks; more often from his like-minded fellows than from his enemies, among other things because of his scepticism towards movements like Black Lives Matter. Did he really want to promote white supremacy?

«Grumpy comprehension,» is Lilla’s reply. « The age of movement politics is over, at least for now. We need no more marchers. We need more mayors and governors and state legislators and members of Congress.» Lilla asserts that American liberalism has been consumed by moral panic concerning racial, gender and sexual identity. It has screwed up the message of liberalism and obstructed it from being a unifying power able to govern.

Personal attacks

Lilla does not seem to be concerned about his own image, staring with a stone face into the camera behind his Harry Potter glasses. He is relaxed about the attacks – he has saved some of the more entertaining tweets in his archive.

« Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.»

In interviews he does not describe The Once and Future Liberal as an academic text but as an intervention, similar to sitting down with a family member who has become an alcoholic. He feels that American liberalism has become addicted to a losing political strategy, and the window for efficient intervention is about to close.

According to Lilla, through decades the American majority has made it crystal clear that they are no longer seduced by a liberal message: «Even when they vote for the Democrats, they don’t recognise themselves in the way the Democrats speak and write, the way they run a campaign, the way they govern.» The Republican Abraham Lincoln formulated a universal truth, just as relevant to the combat of gladiators in ancient Rome as it is to today’s wild America: «Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.»

Active citizens

Left-wing Americans have undeniably activated themselves over the past months. They are incessantly giving one another pep talks on Facebook; they are drowning politicians with phone calls. It is an awakening on a grassroots level. However, it seems to have had a rather limited effect. One member after the other from the initial Trump administration has been forced to throw in the towel and leave, but these resignations have happened without Democratic pressure. What Mark Lilla wants is to motivate downhearted Democrats to become active citizens who are awake; who can build an inclusive society across social, economic and cultural differences: «Only when we have [such] citizens can we hope that they will become liberal ones. And only when we have liberal ones can we hope to put the country on a better path. If you want to resist Donald Trump and everything he represents, this is where you must begin.»

Modern Times Review