The dangers of identity politics

November 20, 2016 • 2:45 pm

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.

99 thoughts on “The dangers of identity politics

  1. This was the first article I looked at when I picked up today’s Times, and I kept thinking as I read it: “Jerry needs to know about this.” No cats in it, though.

  2. Have not read Lilla’s essay yet, but I wholeheartedly agree with all that is said in this post.

    Then just saw this from the NYT online Surely, others have seen this photo of young women wearing hijab with duct tape across their mouth. How ludicrous. They are ompletely oblivious to the oxymoronic essence of this gesture, and so emblematic of the insanity of identity politics.

    1. You expressed what were pretty much my thoughts when I saw the article. And as much as I deplore the treatment they received, it is nothing compared to what would happen to me if I went to a majority Muslim country like Iran or Pakistan, got up on a soap box, and respectfully explained why Islam mostly made no sense and was a flawed ideology.

      1. ” .. it is nothing compared to what would happen to me if I went to a majority Muslim country like Iran or Pakistan” So what are you suggesting? That they shouldn’t express their concern since they’re lucky to be in America? How lo a bar do you want to set for us?

        1. The trouble is that their expressed concern is ever-escalating, while non-Muslim Americans and Europeans cannot express their legitimate concern about Islam (except by voting for Trump or some far-right party).

        2. I guess KD33 missed the part where I said “…I deplore the treatment they received…”, which I would have thought pretty much implies they have the right to speak up. What I was implying was that Islam, as practiced by many, perhaps most, of its adherents, is an evil ideology. [You can hate an ideology – I hated Soviet Communism – and still defend the rights of its adherents – I deplored the HUAC witch hunts.]

    2. Your comment troubles me. Those students were direct and recent victims of racial incidents at their school. Meanwhile, Trump’s imminent chief of staff is stating that a Muslim registry could be a real thing. And you actually say their actions are “ludicrous”? I hope you are not conflating the question of whether Islam denigrates women. That has to be dealt with separately from what these people are going through.

  3. White, non-liberal, heterosexual, non-hispanic, non-muslim, non-disabled men, which might not see a reason to be offended by Trump, are no much more than 10%. We should be talking about the others, the 90%.

    1. I suspect Lilla would say we should ignore these percentages and talk about everyone – and he’d be right.

      And I’m not so sure of your figures. The most rubbery field in your list is “disabled”, and by my calculations, in order for what you say to be true, 66% of adult white [non-Muslim, non-Hispanic, heterosexual] males would have to be disabled.

      1. Non-hispanic white males are 31%. Most of them are liberal or muslim or gay or jewish or atheist, or disabled, etc. So, no much more than 10% are what apparently the 90% think they are. And the deplorable ones are even less. 5%? Who knows.

          1. My point was that the deplorable white males are a very small percentage. The problem is that the leftists are smearing the 62% white majority: most x-minority are good people, but most white people – the only exception to the rule – are not. People some way noticed that incoherence.

        1. If the supposed 10% “stat” you just made up were correct, it would mean that large numbers of “liberal or Muslim or gay or Jewish or atheist or disabled” white males — viz., the ones who, by your reckoning, have “a reason to be offended by Trump” — voted for Trump anyway, since the honest-to-gallup stats I’ve seen say Trump won 58% of all white male voters.

          1. 58% of the 31% is 18% of total population. But the majority of white males are not conservative, or bigots, or racists, or misogynists. So, it’s no much more than 10% and less than 18%, because some people some voted for Trump for other reasons and helding their noses. The were wrong, of course.

    2. White, non-liberal, heterosexual, non-hispanic, non-muslim, non-disabled men,

      Almost half ‘White, non-liberal, heterosexual, non-hispanic, non-muslim, non-disabled people will be men.’

      The majority of ‘White, non-liberal, non-hispanic, non-muslim, non-disabled people will be heterosexual.

      Most ‘White, non-liberal, heterosexual, non-muslim, non-disabled people will be men’ will be non-Hispanic.

      Do I have to go on or are you going to think about your argument?

  4. My only observation from the UK is that talk of countries coming apart at the seams, or the end of democracy, or the rise of a fascist/racist/sexist culture are very very common from those who voted for Clinton in the USA or Remain in the EU Referendum in the UK. Followed by careful exposition about how the ‘popular vote’ meant that their side had won, or would have won under a different electoral process, or (with absolutely no self-awareness at all) ‘the other side were uneducated’. And of course how Trump will be the worst President ever, or Brexit will cause World War III, all based on hyperbolic opinion rather than calm reasoning.

    All I see is democracy stumbling along as usual and a lot of people that don’t like being on the losing side. The world still turns, there will be chances to influence the outcome of future votes, democratically.

    1. I don’t disagree; I agree with the article that “we need a post-identity liberalism”. We also need to disentangle social from economic liberalism: too often the two are conflated, so that those who support individual freedom (of speech, conscience, etc) are assumed also to support economic laissez-faire. It ain’t necessarily so!

      1. “It ain’t necessarily so!”

        So true. Where I part company from a lot of liberals is exactly here. The liberals I disagree with can’t understand the dangers of huge centrally planned programs. It isn’t that their motives or intentions are bad, it’s that they can never have all the knowledge necessary to make such things succeed. In particular, most economic knowledge is distributed across the population in the form of individual desires and situations. It’s very much like “intelligent design” vs. evolution.

        The Affordable Care Act is a prime example. Rather than keeping things relatively small, like dealing with the uninsured and pre-existing conditions, the ACA was a massive intrusion, disrupting the entire system that was working well for so many. Now almost no one is happy with it, and its days are numbered.

        1. Sorry, I don’t buy your laissez-faire economics. No Western economy wants an Ayn Rand world nor go back to the 19th century when there wasn’t a safety net. Your libertarian talking point that large scale government programs don’t work is patently false. Social Security and Medicare have been great successes and even most of the people who voted for Trump don’t want them tampered with. And it is nothing like intelligent design versus evolution.

          Like all start-up programs, whether in the public and private section, it has had it problems, but they would be fixable if the Republicans cooperated, which, of course, they had no intention of doing so. And, as this New York Times article explains, the Republicans will have great difficulty in repealing and replacing the ACA without leaving millions without health insurance, thus placing millions of lives at risk.

          1. I don’t think Social Security “works.” I get $2K+/month from it. If I had invested what I paid in, my return would be about twice that, based on an actual evaluation of what I paid in and what my savings produce.

            But put that aside. Poor working folk are transferring this to me every month, when it affects them deeply (~15% of their pay when employer contributions are counted), and I don’t need it at all. Add to that, a lot of poor people die before they ever receive any benefit. Great system.

            If you get your understanding of economic liberty from Ayn Rand, I suggest giving up this cartoon version for something more in touch with how someone like me thinks about the matter.

          2. You’re using the wrong metric to determine social security’s success, Carl.

            Before the Social Security Act became law, the great mass of common working folk in this nation who had become to old or infirm to work lived in abject poverty without access to adequate medical care. The Social Security Act of 1935, and the Medicare Act of 1965, did much to alleviate those tragic circumstances. There’s a reason that every modern advanced democracy in the world today provides a guaranteed pension and adequate medical care to its senior citizens.

            That, not whether a prudent investor such as yourself could have done better on his own, is the way to look at those programs.

          3. When Carl says its “like intelligent design vs. evolution,” I think he means the economy functions bottom up, not top down.

            Which is accurate as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go very far at all before the analogy grows inapt.

        2. Danger of huge centrally planned programs? And then insert ACA. If anything, what is wrong with ACA is that it tried to go half baked. Ether have healthcare for all or don’t. Obama tried to meet the republicans half way and let the Insurance companies have their way. That is what is wrong with health care in America. Single payer is the only way to control cost, prices and control. Look around the rest of the world if you don’t get it.

          You confuse economic policy with business. From the beginning of this country we have needed national economic policy so other countries can do business with you. Try doing business with 50 states. Republicans like tons of local and state government because it creates lots of jobs but much of it is redundant and unnecessary. Then they turn around and attack federal govt. for exactly the same thing. Is education much better because we do it 50 different ways…I don’t think so and the results show it.

          1. “Single payer is the only way to control cost, prices and control. Look around the rest of the world if you don’t get it.”

            ACA was touted as a way to control cost. Forgive me if I’m skeptical that even more government control, and imposition of “superior” knowledge forced on people who don’t welcome it is the “real” answer. Making decisions for other people is really something the nanny-state left needs to move past.

            In my state, a free market health co-op has developed that meets the needs of its members, is affordable, and provides very high quality care. ACA has done nothing but threaten this excellent system with its burdensome regulations. Now that ACA will be tossed out, I’m optimistic my co-op will survive. It has more MRI machines than the entire country of Canada, and you can get an MRI in days rather than the months or years it takes in Canada. Meanwhile, my millionaire brother in California pays $200 month out of pocket, which with an $800/month government subsidy gets him worse care under the ACA.

          2. +1 on your comments on Obamacare. As an American who is a long-time resident of Canada I can attest to the benefits of a single-payer system.

        3. The ACA was relatively small – it did not affect in any significant way those who had insurance from their employers, or Medicare, or Medicaid – that was probably around 70% of the population. And it dealt with uninsured and preexisting conditions, as you say, but in order to pay for these uninsured, it had to get the money somewhere – meaning individual mandate for those who can afford insurance but don’t want to pay for it, and additional taxes, which in turn led to other complications.
          The whole reason it was such a mess was because it was intended to be relatively small – instead of going all the way to universal health care which would be much more simple but much, much bigger.

          1. I assume that “agree” is directed at the perils of central planning? Living under a such a system probably concentrates the mind – particularly when there is no opposing ideology to lay the blame on.

      2. There is a consequence to system of thought in which one can take no pride in one’s accomplishments, but must rather feel shame and be shamed for having had some success: it will work against future progress. Identity politics, by its very nature, is self-centred and narcissistic, and believers must compete, not to be the best, but to be the worst off. Consider what an identity politics utopia might look like—a completely uniform society with no differences of any kind between members (although perhaps there will be a lucky few who shall tell what to do and think). Such dramatic levelling is a kind of societal entropy, the heat death of the social universe. It concerns me that this way of thinking seems almost prion-like in the way it infects and alters susceptible minds, which seem to crystallise into the identity mindset and then work to decry success and achievements simply because they didn’t have that success. I suspect there will be a critical mass of ID that turns society inwards completely, no longer attempting to discover the new, we obsess endlessly over our interpersonal relations and how no one must have one grain of rice more than his fellows. This would be a pathetically tragic way for humanity to fail. It must be ridiculed and countered with argument at every turn. I wouldn’t care to live in their kind of utopia, and I doubt you would either.

  5. There’s an analogy I sometimes find myself making involving incidents with animals where someone gets mauled or killed by a shark, bear, snake, etc. There is an idealistic approach to this: try to drive the rate down to 0%. People aspire to this with misguided vengeance killings of the supposed attacker, population culling, building of fences, etc.

    Anyway, when I find myself aspiring to a “0% incident rate” for something, I try to realize my folly. That’s what I think is going on, here. We find one big injustice that needs to be solved, and then another smaller one, and another and another until it’s all we do. Sometimes the medicine does more harm than the disease.

  6. Establishing the American Caliphate seems like a disproportionate reaction to the perceived threat of diversity.

    The alt-right reignited the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a tool of propaganda to forcibly introduce the Protocols of Pepe the Frog.

    1. I’m not quite sure if your comment was serious, but you do know that the Pepe story was a big troll of a credulous journalist? Identity politicking journos are prone to swallowing the most ludicrous tripe if it accords with their prejudices.

  7. The Lilla piece was discussed to some extent in the comments to the Nick Cohen post, so I don’t want to repeat myself. I will simply say that it is bad policy, if not bad politics, to promote notions that people should primarily identify themselves in terms of superficial characteristics such as race. The Democratic Party’s best strategy for success is to promote economic policies that result in economic justice for all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity. This was the strategy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and he won the presidency four times.

    1. One of the problems which might come along with identifying people too strongly with some aspect of their personal identity is that it cuts down on debate over common issues. Every individual has their own perspective, and they share that perspective, and we can’t question their perspective because that would mean we’re telling them they have no right to their own perspective — and who else would have that right?

      Different points of view and experiences are necessary for any serious examination into finding solutions to our problems — but not if their value flips the debate into a great game of Show and Tell every time there’s a disagreement.

  8. Off topic, but can I ask an evolutionary genetics question?

    I can imagine how separated populations can diverge until they can no longer interbreed, but I don’t understand how changes in chromosome number happen — in a sexually reproducing species, how can a mutant with a different number of chromosomes ‘found its own species’, so to speak, when it (presumably?) can’t interbreed with others?

    1. You need to consult an evolution textbook like Futuyma’s. Fusions can be fixed without selective penalty, and there is also polyploidy in plants. Read the part in Speciation on speciation via polyploidy as well as on “monobrachian fusions.”

        1. One major chromosome rearrangement, while bringing down fertility of its carrier (in heterozygous state), will not abolish this fertility completely, and by chance or by being coupled with a beneficial mutation can take over an isolated population and will no longer be deleterious, becoming the new local “wildtype”.
          When such events happen several times, their accummulated effect is complete reproductive isolation. The karyotypes of human and its closest living relative, the chimpanzee, differ by 9 large inversions and 1 Robertsonian translocation (which has created our chromosome 2).

          1. Thanks for that last bit of information, Maya. I haven’t heard it before–very interesting!

    2. Here is a very clear article that might help you:
      It shows how meiosis can sort out a real tangle of chromosomes: one much worse than a simple fusion causing a reduction on cheomosome number.

  9. In Mr Lilla’s excerpted piece, how exactly is just one of his “called out” “political identity” groups, at its — just that one specific group alone — at its being 53% of it (of ‘it’, that is, of the country itself), not “America” ? “… … women voters at every stop ?”

    Well, of course. If one is a candidate running in an election in the democracy that allegedly is, now, “America,” why would she or he “at home” not be “calling out explicitly” to the people in that home’s democracy ? especially “emphasizing the issues that affect the vast majority of them” when those folks .are. “the vast majority” of that home and of that democracy ?


  10. “Hillary had other problems (including identification with the status quo and her affection for $$),”

    This is called out a lot, but with perhaps the sole exception of Bernie Sanders, I don’t see how this makes her different to 99% of senior US politicians.

    1. I think you’re right that she’s not that different from a lot of Dems.

      But I think that’s part of the point: identity politics has hurt liberalism “as a brand.” Passivity on the part of liberals has allowed the illiberal left to grow and dominate the conversation in many areas. So now we’re stuck with this reputation amongst middle America: we’re seen as people who worry about mariachi Halloween costumes more than blue collar unemployment. As if what some frat boy wears one day a year is more important than whether a Michigan auto worker can put food on their family’s table.

      To get the ‘brand’ back, we now have to do some heavy lifting in terms of being more forceful advocates for poor – and yes in many but not all cases, white – labor, and speaking out against illiberal left excesses.

      So I’d say that while the problems with identity politics didn’t affect HRC directly, she probably indirectly took some backlash for it because she was seen, by middle red America, as the representative of that part of the political spectrum.

  11. Colour-blindness and an individualist approach are seen as racist and bigoted by SocJus types. A major motivator is the necessity of adopting an identity distinct from the Oppressive White Hetero dude in order to facilitate a victim narrative. These identity-based narratives are used to justify both consequence free nastiness toward the so-called oppressor group and the right to special benefits. It is no coincidence that the more feminised university campuses become, the more shrill the rape culture rhetoric becomes. The oppression narrative has to be maintained to keep the gravy train going.

    It is dispiriting to see the wholesale deception and willing blindness going on on such a massive scale in our societies. The feminist movement, which is largely responsible for this state of affairs is extremely powerful politically, financially and academically, yet it manages to dominate gender politics by being perceived as marginalised.

    There’s an interesting explanation proposed for long term political trends. State resources and power have been increasingly co-opted to the service of women. Women have been acquiring the means to use the power of the state against men with an accompanying erosion of standards of proof required. Men pay a disproportionate amount of tax to keep the system going. The trend can’t continue without the periodic release valve of a more conservative regime. The US will swing back to the ‘Liberal’ side again before too long.

    It wasn’t so long ago that we were hearing about the end of history. It seemed obvious that the principles of free speech and equality under the law had won the day and were a no-brainer. Fast forward a few years and the West is starting to self-destruct. I sometimes wonder if this is the fruit of the deliberate societal undermining by the Soviet Union claimed by ex KGB characters.

    1. This is very interesting, Mr Simon. If I am digesting it correctly, then, as if it were a good result, a good thing, I do not see how your comment could be made more patriarchal.

      If within it and within this statement — — there were a flip / reverse of the genders, I cannot see one man standing one second still if he were “the victim” within any of these statements.

      I am, willingly then and not at all reluctantly, full – on this person again: .


    2. Nice spoof of a men’s-rights activist, Simon.

      Gotta admit, you had me going there at first, with the oppressed-white-hetero-dude stuff, but that last sentence had just the right touch of crazy to give yourself away as a Poe, so no one would be duped into taking it seriously.

      Thanks for the laugh.

      1. Again, — again, my having now been name – called out as a Dupe after repeatedly explaining some bit of time ago, Mr Kukec, that I don’t ‘do’ sarcasm or mean opposite – ness in rhetoric, my never having been brought up by a father who did that, said such, taught this type of snotty crud to me (I had no idea of what a Poe is till I just now looked it up), I, for one, am not laughing.

        But, hey, I have yet, over the last 28 years of a mother – fucking, to be called a shocked and whiny snowflake. I guess being, instead, an actual Dupe, then, yeah, I shall easily claim being named, by inference, as that. Roolz or no.


        1. Calm down Blue. Ken Kukek’s remarks were clearly addressed to Simon, not you.

          And he was being ironic, if no one noticed.

          1. Seriously ? Seriously, for realz, Mr Carl, I am being told to “calm down ?” R e a l l y ?

            “Clearly” ?
            ” … … so no one would be” / “duped” ?

            Really ?

          2. Blue – As Carl notes, my comment was directed solely to Simon, not you. (I hadn’t refreshed my screen before posting my comment, so hadn’t even seen your comment until after I posted mine.) Carl’s also correct in his interpretation of my comment.

            Sorry for the confusion.

    3. Dont worry, the West is lower but still similar to the rest when it comes to domestic violence

      The west is around 23% of women ever partnered suffering domestic violence at any time in their life against the 36% Global average (and the Western Pacific figure has been revised upwards since this report pushing Global average slightly higher)
      especially pp 17-18, 31-32

      You don’t run a fathers rights group do you?

    4. As a woman, I’d object that, in the self-destruction of the West, I see a prominant role in the willingness of too many men to skip their traditional functions of husbands, fathers, and defenders.

  12. I agree 100% with Lila’s thesis. What got Trump elected was for the most part a zeitgeist swing. Liberals, over the last decade or so, pushed the political mood so far left that Trump’s Victory is really just the same pendulum swinging right back.

    I wrote something along the same lines in my blog.

    I was happy to hear people I admire like Sam Harris and Chris Ryan agreeing with me.

  13. “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.)”

    This strikes me as a gradualist idea, that we daren’t raise a fuss about deplorable ideas, in case we may offend someone. As soon as I see the word “proper”, my alarm bells ring.

  14. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence in Lilla’s piece. It’s pure speculation, and I don’t buy the conclusion.

    Identity politics is a problem to the extent that it distracts from a focus on the economic stagnation and economic insecurity of the American middle and working classes. But the solution to that is not (so much) to discard identity politics but to put the focus where it belongs. And propose real solutions.

    Elite campuses and HuffPo are not representative of American leftish politics generally, nor even of Hillary.

    1. Elite campuses may not be representative of your beliefs (or mine), but I do think liberalism writ large is going to continue to have a reputation problem amongst middle America as long as that’s a publicly vocal and dominating part of the left. We are being judged by the company we keep. We can complain that that’s unfair…or we can just roll up our sleeves and do a better job at reining in some of the more ridiculous positions broadcast by our elite campus friends.

  15. While I think identity politics is ultimately as counterproductive as other classic liberals do – and I would certainly like to see it disappear – I disagree with Lilla’s (and others) idea that the election of Trump is attributable to the rise in identity liberalism. I think that we, as liberals, are giving ourselves way too much credit for the outcome with that thesis.

    I have often said, and still wholeheartedly believe, that the Republican party could put up a bag of Cheetos as their presidential nominee and it would still carry 40-44% of the popular vote. The Republican popular base (NOT the Republican party establishment) does not care who is there, as long as they have the (R) next to their name. This base is largely comprised of the white, Evangelical lower/lower-middle class. I contend that it is categorically impossible for a Democratic candidate to appeal to this demographic in the social/political climate of the post-9/11 era.

    We have all seen that Trump won by attracting enough of the non-Evangelical, old working class vote, notably in the Great Lakes. These votes for Trump were largely anti-establishment votes. Looking at all the exit polls (e.g. here), nearly twice as many people who viewed *both* candidates as unfavourable voted for Trump. Nearly everyone who identified the candidate they voted for as being able to bring change voted for Trump. That says a lot to me; that says that Trump won because he was the anti-establishment candidate. Now, that’s probably not surprising to most people, but my point is that the nature of liberalism is largely secondary to the discussion. Yes, a less identity politics influenced liberalism may alienate fewer members of the non-Evangelical white working class, but I don’t think that translates into more votes this past election cycle.

    A couple other small problems with the Lilla piece: (1) that first paragraph is illuminating, and incredibly arrogant. To simply paint as a given that the rest of the world looks in awe at how the US successfully balances its diversity is, in my opinion, laughably naive. (2) I think Lilla is promoting a sociological fallacy when he says that the number of Latinos voting for Trump is an example of ethnic groups becoming more politically diverse. The Republican party is the natural political party of the average Latino: it is the party of social conservatives. 30-35% voting for Trump is not a surprise, nor is it the first time that number of Latino voters have gone Republican (the number are comparable to 2012 at least).

  16. liberals from all walks and regions would do well to focus on why they lost and not why Trump won. The social issues should be understood but not front and center in the election politics. Also, a campaign cannot be centered on explaining to your side what an ass the other side is. We already know that so tell us what you are going to do and shut up on all negative adds.

    The constant negative maybe works for the other side but not so much for this side. I think the article does get one part right and that is the weak domestic program and the democrats really need to work on that one. Lets not promise stuff we know is bogus and work on the important things like a revolution in education to prepare the young for employment.

  17. I don’t think Hillary being the status quo played into it. Anecdotally, I voted for her because she was the status quo. She wasn’t a particularly exciting candidate and there was zero chance the House was flipping to Democratic, so I happily told people I’d take some more gridlock until we can make further progress. Also, the stuff Obama has managed to do hasn’t been terrible. Why wouldn’t you want the status quo we have? It’s like saying you’re living a boring middle class life and you want change so you’re going to go jump off a cliff and live wherever it is that you land. The former isn’t spectacular, but it’s orders of magnitude better than the latter.

    1. Agree, and add to that Hillary’s reputation from her senate days of being quite adept at working with both sides of the aisle; perhaps the R’s would have had a tougher time stonewalling her than they did Obama.

  18. Mark Lilla is the author of one of the best secularist critiques of liberal religion, something I believe gnu atheists are often not very good at.

    It is the 2008 book “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West”

  19. Nuance is absolutely critical here, Adam Johnson at FAIR chronicles this issue astutely here:

    I hope everyone can wake up and realize that appealing to the entire working class with economic populism, regardless of identity, is what leftists have been saying for decades (centuries now). It’s the liberals who think any policy that isn’t means-tested, market-based, ran through a spreadsheet, or approved by wonks of the technocratic “center” is a bad idea. After this election, it’s hard to ignore that liberalism is not leftism.

  20. First let me say I agree that we liberals have gotten too tied up in identity politics, losing sight of the forest for the trees, as it were. But let me posit a slightly different take on this election. Since I became old enough to vote in 1980 (and full disclosure, yes, I voted for Reagan over Jimmy Carter, my impressionable youth choosing Ronnie’s superficial feel good bromides over Jimmy’s finger wagging about national malaise) I’ve noticed that conservatives tend to blame an election loss on the nuts and bolts of a campaign, on failed strategy and various and sundry campaign logistics that they get busy to fix for next time, while liberals tend to blame themselves and internalize a loss as a moral failing of liberalism itself, beating our breasts and falling into a funk that lasts until the next election cycle. Maybe we’re just deeper and more philosophical than conservatives but sometimes I really wish we didn’t do that so much.

    While illiberal leftists and their demands for political correctness may have made it harder to attract more voters to Hillary out in the post industrial rust belt, for me this election came down to a simple fact that the Democrats simply did not get their base out in sufficient numbers to win. If Democrats and liberals would have voted in both Michigan and Wisconsin to the same degree that they voted in 2012 for Obama, Hillary would have won both states. Pennsylvania, where I was born and raised, turned out to be a bit trickier, but if her campaign would have put in enough elbow grease, I’m confident they could have pulled out a win there too. Game Set. Match.

    Voter apathy has been a problem for Democrats for decades. It usually rears its ugly head in off years, when Republicans get out the vote and win more state and local elections than Dems do. That’s why conservatives control the U.S. House and so many State Houses. Hillary had a lot going against her. She and her campaign staff believed all the polls and thought it would be easier than it turned out to be. (To be fair to the pollsters, they took liberals and Dems at their word when they said they intended to vote, and then many of them turned over in bed and stayed home instead.)

    This is still a 50/50 country. It’s been that way since at least the year 2000. Trump won the election but Hillary won the popular vote. And remember, Trump is going into the White House with appallingly low approval numbers along with two thirds of the public believing that he’s unfit for the White House. He’s going to be expected to be tremendous, a feat I just don’t see him pulling off. And not to put too fine a point on it, he won the presidency with only a quarter the eligible vote.

    If I were a Democratic strategist, hell, if I were a high school civics teacher (do they even have those in high school any more?) I would worry more about voter apathy than regressive leftists. And Dems, more intelligent and inspiring politicians please. I’m looking at you Elizabeth Warren!

    1. I agree with your observation about the need for Democrats to come up with more inspiring candidates. For years I have complained that the Democrats lack a “strong bench.” Perhaps over the next few years some young, charismatic liberal Democrats will emerge so that we baby boomers can pass the baton to the next generation.

  21. Broadly agreed with the article though it seems to me it really didn’t address the main reason why so many people didn’t vote. It is also rather too friendly to hard line religion which is a divisive factor in itself. –
    ” A post-identity liberal press would begin educating itself about parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion.”
    ….” And it would take seriously its responsibility to educate Americans about the major forces shaping world politics, especially their historical dimension.” This last is ok as long as physical and geographical and biological shaping forces and constraints are given due space in case of falling into the usual ideologies and arc of history explanations like complete laissez faire vs communist; anarchist vs empire; stone age Eden or *Pre* Western expansion era vs militarist technological hell – all false dichotomies posed as explanations in too much history.

    Regarding the first point about the article not addressing what seem to be the main reason for voter dissatisfaction – economics and class. There are so many indications that much of the electoral swing was due to the economic exclusion of the working class and of significant sections of the middle classes. The former stayed away from voting in droves and those that didn’t voted for Trump. Racism and to a lesser extent sexism played some role but the main concern was
    – Jobs (e.g. car industry apparently shifted to Mexico in many cases). In the south some also have their jobs undercut by illegal immigration although Obama was handling that in a reasonable manner.

    – In Business – again due to excessive extension of trade agreements thats been going on as a continuous process. America is a country that can actually provide a high living standard for its people pretty much on its own (though for the rest of us goodness forbid it cuts trading drastically – but it will always trade for some things and Americans have to look after themselves). Maybe one day it will crack down on its tax havens in most states and its financial instruments too though thats also a global issue. The domestic losses of small/medium business have come at a time when businesses are also hit by regulation including (albeit ultimately necessary) regulation on the environment
    – Health care – health costs are at least 10 times those of other rich countries so the system is both unjust and hugely inefficient and costly. Health care is provided by many thousands of providers – and what is covered in event of actual hospitalisation or other care is not clear upfront. What people pay varies wildly, and chews up a substantial chunk of many many middle and working class budgets. Even Obamacare has not solved this, though it has helped some of the poorest, its meant higher costs to some (middle class) groups already paying very big fees. And Obama care is just a vehicle for care providers not direct provider. Obviously Americans are incredibly frustrated with this. Most Americans though still don’t accept a single public health care provider for all which all other western countries have and is whats needed.

    But agree with the geist of the article.
    …. meanwhile Larry Summers of all people is now saying that the term “political correctness” is divisive and dangerous !

    1. Most Americans though still don’t accept a single public health care provider for all which all other western countries have and is whats needed. {Add] and is default for doctor visits and hospital stay, but to which people can have private schemes involving private hospitals etc

    2. I think Larry Summers make some great points in that article, and his observations mirror many of my own. He says
      “Whatever rhetorical value the term (political correctness) may have once had is far more than offset by what has been unleashed in the name of resistance to it since the presidential election.”
      What that resistance unleashed was obvious to me during the election as well when, for example, large numbers of those who call themselves anti-pc, labeled the reaction to Trump’s access Hollywood tape as an overreaction by politically correct snowflakes. The lines between what is racist, or sexist, and what is political correctness run amok have become so blurred that many people can no longer recognize real sexism, and racism.

  22. It is a very good article and I agree that “identity politics” in US is getting out of hand. A little bit of identity politics is useful and it will help the minorities feel welcome but turning every discussion or every accomplishment about “identity” is counter-productive.

    I think Lilla is correct about attributing this extra focus on ‘identity’ to Clinton’s loss, specially once you realize that Clinton’s loss was so close that even minor changes in policy or rhetoric could have helped her win. So if you want to blame the loss on identity politics, you could be right but if you want to blame the loss on her being a woman and some Americans not wanting to vote for a woman, you could be right as well.

    Finally, I’ve to say that the focus on identity politics is not mistake by Clinton and team, it is a political strategy. It is the only thing that corporate friendly Republicans and corporate friendly Democrats can meaningfully disagree on. Clinton begrudgingly accepted some of Bernie’s more progressive policies but it was clear to a lot of Americans that they could not really count on her promises.

  23. When you hear “diversity” it sounds like it should mean “everybody is different and is allowed to be different”.

    However, most of the time it just seems to be used as a euphemism for ethnic differences and the like, and stovepiping people into groups.

    As with religion and nationalism, if your answer is to divide people into lots of groups, you’ve probably asked the wrong question.

    A couple of years ago Kenan Malik pointed out the similar redefinition (or misuse) of “multiculturalism”, which looks like it should mean “there is wide cultural variation and that’s fine” but is often used to mean “stay in that group and don’t leave it!”.

    1. I think that this may be one of the biggest problems with identity politics. That under the banner of diversity they promote divisiveness. It should be promoting that we all come together as a nation and a species, embracing our similarities and common goals while being acceptant our our differences. But instead it seems like the motto is “Embrace what makes you different from everybody else” to the point of excluding and demonizing anyone that might offer a different perspective than your own.

  24. I think Lilia brings up some good points, but overstates the role of ID politics in the election and in the view that the left needs to dampen its role going forward. The Democratic party is best described (and has always been), I think, as a messy coalition of diverse interests, and ID politics in it is certainly not new. Other posters have cited good examples, and to add one, Bill Clinton appealed directly to African Americans in both his campaigns. Also, keep in mind that ID politics were not only highly visible in the Democratic campaign. They were central to real world legislation (e.g., abortion and LGBT rights) and events (police killings of African Americans), and other emotionally charged examples that occurred in parallel with the presidential campaign. I saw HRC’s calling out of these issues and groups to be a sensible response to what was happening in the real world.

  25. Have you heard of Prof Jordan Peterson at University of Toronto and his fight against identity politics. This includes the gender-warriors opposing the concept of biological sex determination. I think you would be a great ‘expert witness’ in this debate, Jerry.

  26. The dangers of identity politics

    To steal a line from I-know-not-where, “you end up with a left-handed man fighting a right-handed man for the ruins of a shattered Earth.”

  27. Ignoring that there are differences in the playing fields or the reality of systemic racism isn’t gonna be productive if that’s what’s going on. If that’s how millions of people see it why would you ignore it. I think there is something going on when a person wants someone or everyone to clam up about something. Let’s face it, it’s not the argument that’s gonna gain some understanding but the talking. I think it would be important for the people who want everyone to hush up speak up about why? What’s going on? Thanks

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *