Norwegian journalist and regular critic at Modern Times Review.

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

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.

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