liberalism and identity politics

liberalism and identity politics

On Friday Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States. Though it has been two months since the election in which he defeated sure-thing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, left-of-center Americans have had a hard time accommodating themselves to the new reality. Liberals, progressives and Democrats have been engaged in trying to explain Clinton's unprecedented failure. What this process of trying to understand the situation looks like, for the most part, is the various factions with the coalition pointing fingers at one another. The typical subject of this debate, such as it is, are two phenomena which are related but, in my view, often confused: national electoral strategy and the intrinsic value of various political and philosophical commitments. Untangling these two strands would go a long way toward clarifying what liberalism means in this Trumpian moment.

The intellectual fulcrum around which much of this debate orients is Mark Lilla's November 18 piece in the New York Times. In the piece, Lilla argues that the cause of recent Democratic failures is identity politics. "Identity liberalism must be brought to an end," he writes, because the contemporary leftist "moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity...has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing." Lilla's focus is purportedly tactical. "If you are going to mention groups in America," he argues, "you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded." John Judis echoed a similar criticism when he characterized Clinton's inadequate, losing strategy as seeking "to unite her coalition with a vision of inclusivity and a promise to advance the fortunes of each group (Latinos, for instance, got immigration reform, and [M]illennials got relief from student debt), along with a warning that Donald Trump—who conveniently managed to insult each of Clinton’s target groups at one point or another—meant them harm."

it is fair to assume that alienating major constituencies is not a path to electoral victory. But politicians sometimes do put other things above the perceived views of the elusive moderate, independent voter. Additionally, some commitments require that voters need to be educated rather than appeased. Upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said that "we have just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come." Though Johnson was melancholy about that development, he did not express regret at championing civil rights. Johnson's opponent in the 1964 presidential election, Barry Goldwater, claimed that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" as a pledge that he would not temper his then-radical conservatism in the upcoming campaign. Extremism, by definition, does not appeal to a wide swath of voters. Goldwater lost in one of the biggest landslides in American history. Soon, however, his conservative outlook would come to define Republican politics; later it would dominate an entire era of American history. Both men placed other concerns above electoral politics; today partisans of each praise their moral courage in doing so. It would seem that the guideline that a political commitment should be avoided whenever it might alienate voters deserves prima facie consideration but little more. Whether it should be followed in particular circumstances depends primarily on the nature of the position in question.

Thus Lilla's implied claim that a position should be abandoned when it will turn away (some) voters is only valid when the position itself is of little import. And this, I believe, is the core of Lilla's view: he doesn't think that the concerns he associates with identity politics are particularly pressing. Being the college professor that he is, Lilla is particularly focused on the effects of the university culture on young citizens. "The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press," he argues, "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." Many college students today "assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good." The university represents the most significant institution in American life that can fairly be labelled "progressive." It is also the site most consumed with identity politics. Thus Lilla's ultimate concern here is that the visibility of the identity politics project renders liberalism ridiculous in the eyes of the electorate. "How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them?"



It is the last question, or more specifically the one word supposed, where Lilla reveals his essential objection to be substantive rather than tactical. Liberalism is all about standing up for matters of great "moral urgency," often in the face of opposition, indifference or ridicule.  Civil rights, feminism, gay rights and disability rights are all considered liberal causes by friend and foe alike. Most of these movements have alienated voters at one time or another, but they remain definitive of what it means to be liberal. But Lilla suggests that identity politics are different. Its adherents are "narcissistically unaware" of broader concerns and "indifferent" to the problems of others. The movement's concerns are focused on issues of "supposed moral urgency," which is to say, no moral urgency at all.

The fear of alienating swing voters makes the political center the guide to the urgency of political issues. It is hard to imagine a less reliable compass. Voters frequently miss issues of great (and, to later viewers, obvious) moral import. Significant movements in American history have embraced slavery, imposed religious orthodoxy, denied gender equality, perpetuated racial segregation, oppressed sexual minorities, even tried to keep us out of World War II. Our most esteemed body of jurists has upheld involuntary sterilization and Japanese internment. In response to widespread public indifference to, ignorance of, or disagreement with their moral claims, generations of activists, politicians and intellectuals have taken as their primary task the persuasion of their fellow citizens of the significance of their causes. Lilla would have today's most passionate liberal activists abandon a parallel focus in the name of short-term electoral gain. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Lilla's primary concern with identity politics is that he is simply not sympathetic to the issues that it raises.

Of course, whether one disagrees with the approach and/or substance of identity politics depends on what one believes those things are. At an intellectual level, I take the phrase to refer to the process by which groups within a society advocate for the right to be affirmed in their identity as they themselves determine it to be. In this regard it is often contrasted with the older "civil rights" model in which disenfranchised groups push for the ability to enjoy the same rights as everyone else. Personally, I do not believe that this distinction holds up to analysis. Black Lives Matter (BLM), for example, singles out African Americans in its name and slogan in a way that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s did not. (In the identity politics of today whites can be "allies" of minorities, men of women, straights of gays, and so on. But the movement is owned by the people who are affected by it. In the sixties blacks and whites sang "We Shall Overcome" together. To the more contemporary sensibility that would seem downright illogical. What exactly do the whites have to overcome?) The civil rights movement is rightfully held up today as a beacon of moral authority. But times are different now and it is not heresy to consider if some of its goals or tactics might need to be updated to fit the contemporary moral terrain. The civil rights movement (and, before it, abolitionism) struggled against the claim that blacks were not like everybody else: that they were uniquely fit to be enslaved, or that it was necessary to keep them apart from the rest of the population. Thus stressing the common humanity of the African American was an appropriate rhetorical strategy. Today inequality is often glossed over with the argument that disenfranchised groups are just like everyone else. Racism is over, the argument goes, so if more blacks are in prison it must be because they commit more crimes. Sexism is a thing of the past, it is claimed, so women who cannot reach the top of the corporate ladder are not fully committed to their work. Though arguments about innate inferiority, essential gender categories, sexual deviance and the like have certainly not disappeared, they are increasingly marginalized and no longer do the bulk of the intellectual work in perpetuating various forms of hegemony.

In this environment, stressing that members of different groups actually have different social experiences is of great importance. To return to the contrast between Black Lives Matter and the civil rights movement, BLM demonstrates specifically in the name of blacks because the problem of innocent people being killed by the police disproportionately affects blacks. It is reasonable to conclude that racial identities are central to the problem and therefore unreasonable to believe that any solution is possible without acknowledging that fact. In a society that consistently pushes the claim that race does not matter, it is necessary to insist that it does. To address those who respond to that claim with skepticism, it is important to stress that people of different races have substantially different experiences, even when they live in the same society. To me, the specific invocation of black identity in this discourse seems less like a politically correct indulgence than a necessary argumentative strategy. It is no coincidence that those who claim "All Lives Matter" are doing so to oppose, and not to expand, the objectives of the BLM movement.


On my view, the distinction between the older movements that invoked a common humanity and newer ones that emphasize the uniqueness of their subjects can largely be dismissed as matters of rhetorical adaptation rather than signals of incommensurate philosophical premises. Members of the women's liberation movement had to first make society aware that a gender problem existed before they could begin to address it. The treatment of women as sexual objects and domestic servants, feminists argued, compromised their identity as fully rational beings. The activists of the gay liberation movement had to destigmatize homosexual behavior before their persecution could be recognized for what it was. Their romantic and sexual attractions are natural, not deviant; these are as worthy of celebration as were those of heterosexuals. Assertions of identity were hardly foreign to these movements, and liberals today think of the recognition of the unique problems and perspectives of these groups as a moral step forward. There is only one way to draw an easy and obvious line that puts those achievements on one side and Lilla's example of the right to use the pronoun or bathroom that corresponds to one's gender identity on the other: that is to say that the former represents an attempt to address a significant moral problem and the latter does not.

If this is the distinction on which the rejection of identity politics hangs--and I think it is--then I reject it. Certainly people with legitimate grievances can hurt their own cause with pushing for the wrong change at the wrong time, but this does not appear to be Lilla's argument. Instead, I take him as suggesting that many of the goals that he identifies with identity politics are not legitimate. There I just see things differently. There are still tremendous disparities in opportunity in the United States today, and those disparities still break down to a significant degree along the traditional lines of race and gender. Any politics that does not address those problems specifically is unlikely to address them sufficiently.

Others have voiced a different objection to identity politics. These observers have claimed that identity politics take up so much oxygen that there is no room left for Democratic politicians to advocate liberal economic policies. An economic narrative, they believe, can provide the unified message that reaches out to disparate voters without alienating any of them. Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona, for example, diagnosed the problem of the presidential election as "the party...looking at people through interest group coalitions." A series of discrete, fractured groups is not sufficient to "cobble together an election coalition.” Economic policies, on the other hand, could have articulated a “common interest...between the laid-off white worker in Flint, the African-American and the Latino in Phoenix.”

This argument conflates two different points: that Democrats should emphasize economic arguments, and that identity politics has kept them from doing so. To the first, I strongly agree that Democrats have failed here. The Clinton and Obama presidencies were never defined by their working-class or poverty-oriented agendas. As Thomas Frank has pointed out, during these years the Democrats became a party dedicated to the issues and concerns of educated professionals. These administrations were emblematic of what Noam Scheiber called "boardroom liberalism" and what Ed Kilgore defined as "the belief that the best way to achieve progressive policy goals was by harnessing and redirecting the wealth that a less-regulated and more-innovative private sector alone could generate." This was the Democratic Party that gutted welfare and befriended Wall Street. It was the party of Chris Dodd, Charles Schumer, Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers. No one ever expected this party to champion a living wage, full employment policy, nationalization of the banks bailed out by the federal government, guaranteed national income or any other policy that would significantly challenge the status quo to the benefit of the worker, the unemployed or those living in poverty. When it became clear that a new economic attitude was necessary, Hillary Clinton abandoned her support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and committed to a significantly higher minimum wage. But a leopard cannot change her spots and no one really believed Clinton as an economic progressive.

But what does this have to do with identity politics? The Democratic Party has been pushing the same economic agenda for twenty-five years. The major players cleared the field for Hillary Clinton because there was no significant challenge to this message. Bernie Sanders' campaign was a quixotic Hail Mary that surprised everyone by going as far as it did.  Few suggested that Clinton needed a stronger economic message before she lost the election. So why would we blame identity politics for Clinton doing the same thing that Democrats had been doing economically for quite a long time? To lay this failure at the door of identity politics is to perpetuate the worst kind of straw man.

The Democratic Leadership Council folded in 2011 and it appears that the 2016 presidential election might mark the end of the New Democrat movement. I hope that it does. Now the Democrats need a new economic policy that is more responsive to the needs of those who are not well-educated professionals. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that such a message is incompatible with a vigorous commitment to racial justice, gender equality and the flowering of all forms of sexual and gender expression. And if the best rhetorical and intellectual tools for accomplishing the latter goals are the frameworks of identity politics, then identity politics should be part of the Democratic platform.

When Sanders was asked by an audience member for "any tips" that would help her become the second Latina Senator in US history, he responded by saying that Democrats need to "go beyond identity politics." This was reported in several outlets as the Vermont senator recommending a commitment to economic issues as against those that focus on race and gender. But this is not a fair summary of what he said. "It goes without saying," Sanders argued, that we need to "bring more and more women into the political process" as well as "Latinos, African Americans [and] Native Americans. All of that is enormously important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen.” But Democrats need to “go beyond identity politics” and address economic arguments more specifically. “It is not good enough," he continued, "for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.’...What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

That sounds good to me. Where's the problem?


liberal smugness and the "Bowling Green Massacre"

liberal smugness and the "Bowling Green Massacre"

bread and circuses