This New York Times essay from November 18, “The end of identity liberalism,” is one of the best things I’ve read on the topic in some time. It’s by Mark Lilla, identified as “a professor of the humanities at Columbia and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, is the author, most recently, of The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.”
Lilla’s thesis, a familiar one, is that identity politics is wrecking the Left, and ruining the unity that, in some measure, used to characterize liberals. He also blames this divisiveness, in which each person (except white males) has a claim to some form of oppression, as having ruined Clinton’s chances to be President:
Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.
Well, I’m not so sure about that, as Hillary had other problems (including identification with the status quo and her affection for $$), but Lilla’s words do make a lot of sense. I’m just going to give you several excerpts from the piece, as I’m tired and am having trouble braining. Besides, I can’t say it any better than Lilla can. What I can do is verify his stuff about college’s fixation on “diversity” (a code word for race, but never for viewpoint or class equality), because I see it constantly at my own University. Do note that Lilla is a liberal in favor of gay rights, feminism, and the Black Lives Matter movement. A few snippets
. . . 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. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many 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. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country.
When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. 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? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?
And the media, which includes not only PuffHo, but now alkso Atlantic, the New York Times, and so on. I’ve watched with chagrin as one liberal outlet after another starts championing identity politics:
This campus-diversity consciousness has over the years filtered into the liberal media, and not subtly. Affirmative action for women and minorities at America’s newspapers and broadcasters has been an extraordinary social achievement — and has even changed, quite literally, the face of right-wing media, as journalists like Megyn Kelly and Laura Ingraham have gained prominence. But it also appears to have encouraged the assumption, especially among younger journalists and editors, that simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs.
Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones. My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in recent years. How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism — about the “first X to do Y” — is told and retold. [JAC: Think PuffHo’s: “First Muslim to wear a hijab while fencing” and so on ad infinitum.] Fascination with the identity drama has even affected foreign reporting, which is in distressingly short supply. However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own. No major news outlet in Europe would think of adopting such a focus.
I’ll let you read his solution for yourselves. It starts this way:
We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)
How many of us have had that last thought to ourselves, in a time when the country is coming apart at the seams? Lilla may be wrong about the contribution of identity politics to Clinton’s loss, but I think he’s on the money about what liberals must do to regain any power in American politics. We can’t rip liberalism apart at its ethnic and gender-based seams and expect to retain any measure of political unanimity.