Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
HarperCollins, 160 Pages, $24.99
DONALD TRUMP’S election destroyed whatever vision Democrats had of themselves and their principles, and so left them with the rare opportunity to sketch a new vision for their party’s future. Since November 2016 a deluge of books and articles have claimed to offer the definitive explanation of the election. (Note the title of Hillary Clinton’s memoir: What Happened.) With The Once and Future Liberal, a sharp-tongued jeremiad on the state of the Democratic Party, Mark Lilla joins the fray.
Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, aims both to explain Democrats’ present woes and to write a new playbook for electoral success centered on citizenship. He joins a crowded cohort eager to pin Democrats’ problems on identity politics, but is unable to make the charge stick. Lilla’s idealistic vision of American democracy and skimpy account of American history leads him to underestimate the prominent role identity has played in America’s past and present, as well as the role it will play in the country’s future. By decoupling identity politics from its history, Lilla fails to capture the fullness of what identity politics is, and how it might help Democrats to build stronger, more effective coalitions.
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At first glance, Lilla’s chief critique of identity politics seems to be that it reifies the very divisions it aims to dismantle —in no small part by alienating working-class whites who are fed up with ‘political correctness.’ On a deeper level, though, Lilla’s argument is about the divide within the Democratic Party between radicals and moderates. Lilla himself is an unapologetic moderate. His argument is premised on a steadfast faith in American democracy as a guarantor of equality and functional governance. And so, Lilla claims, moderates’ commitment to work within institutional boundaries make them more effective than their radical counterparts on the Left. ‘We need no more marchers,’ writes Lilla. ‘We need more mayors. And governors, and state legislators, and members of Congress.’
Lilla’s goal is to convince Democrats to follow a moderate path. He puts forward a renewed focus on citizenship as a moderate alternative to the perceived radicalism of identity politics. Emphasizing citizenship would allow Democrats to offer ‘an ambitious vision of America and its future that would inspire citizens of every walk of life and in every region of the country.’ This strategy of ‘civic liberalism,’ according to Lilla, will fuel electoral success by luring back centrist working-class voters whom identity politics has alienated. It will shore up American democracy by encouraging the kind of robust civic engagement from which a democracy draws its strength and legitimacy. Lilla devotes the first half of The Once and Future Liberal to a sweeping tour of 20th-century American political history, which is meant to show both how civic liberalism fueled the Democratic Party’s success in the past, and how the party’s present woes stem from the emergence of identity politics. Borrowing the theological idea of a ‘dispensation’ from Christianity, Lilla divides the twentieth century into two periods made distinct by their prevailing political ideologies: the Roosevelt Dispensation and Reagan Dispensation.
Lilla argues that the Roosevelt Dispensation, which he dates from the 1930s to the 1970s, was marked by a sense of mutual obligation between citizens —exactly the spirit he wants liberals to embrace today. This civic liberalism paved the way for the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Great Society program. Lilla argues that the strength of the New Deal, which he holds up as a prime example of the possibilities of civic liberalism, was its ability to encompass a broad swath of the population: ‘It included in the deserving class people of any walk of life...who suffered from the scourges of the day. In short, nearly everyone.’ He explicitly contrasts the civic liberalism of the Roosevelt Dispensation with the divisiveness of identity politics and its insistence on distributing resources on the basis of race, class, and gender.
Lilla’s lofty vision of citizenship reveals an abiding faith in his compatriots, which emerges as one of the most compelling aspects of the text. His ideal citizen rejects ‘hyperindividualism’ in favor of ‘mutual obligation’ and collectivism, and rejects racism and sexism in favor of ‘universal equal citizenship.’ There is a quiet and heartening optimism underlying the belief that we, as Americans, can achieve our country. In a time when many on the Left have given in to a kind of blasé fatalism—perhaps best represented by the popularity of tongue-in-cheek suggestions of escaping to Canada—Lilla is right to insist that we have the potential to make a positive impact on the world around us and the obligation to consider how we might do so.
But this optimism appears to be founded on a selective view of history. Lilla uses the Roosevelt era as a blueprint for a better mode of political engagement, and claims that the period was characterized above all by political inclusivity. This is a massive overstatement. Lilla notes in an aside that African Americans were excluded from many of the New Deal’s programs, but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. He doesn’t grapple with the fact that Blacks were lynched with the cooperation of law enforcement, or that the armed services and wartime industries were segregated. Housing covenants and redlining kept African Americans in segregated neighborhoods, and drained their homes of value. The government spied on and murdered Black activists in the domestic counter-intelligence operation COINTELPRO. From 1932– 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service engaged in nonconsensual scientific experimentation on impoverished sharecroppers in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. In the Roosevelt Era, race, not citizenship, determined who was a member of the ‘deserving class.’
Lilla’s ideal of citizenship is divorced from its historical context. In a footnote, he comments that his use of the word citizen should be understood as separate from the ‘hypocritical and racist demagoguery’ of contemporary immigration debates. But hypocritical and racist demagoguery have defined debates on immigration and citizenship since the nation’s inception. Indeed, race has often determined who can even make a legitimate claim to be a citizen. Examples abound. Citizenship and race in America were inextricably bound in 1787 with the introduction of the Three-Fifths Compromise into the U.S. Constitution. Then there was the exclusion and genocide of Native Americans; Dred Scott; the Chinese Exclusion Act; and Japanese internment, to name only a few. The link between race and citizenship has endured.
A renewed call for a rhetoric of citizenship could play out in different ways. Emphasizing commonality could draw white, working-class voters back into the Democratic Party, as Lilla claims it will. But history suggests these voters would be bought at the cost of the Party’s antiracist commitments the same way the New Deal was purchased on the exclusion of African Americans. Lilla doesn’t recognize this trade-off as inevitable. ‘In a democracy,’ he writes, ‘the only way to meaningfully defend [minorities]...is to win elections and exercise power in the long run." Without political power, the Democratic Party’s commitment to minorities amounts to ‘empty gestures.’ Lilla wants Democrats to keep their legislative priorities as they are; but he would rather they disguise those priorities beneath a rhetoric of citizenship.
Such a strategy might get Democrats into office, but it will not keep them there. Lilla himself contends that policies that target minorities for particular benefit are unpopular. And so what happens when an official elected on a platform of civic liberalism enacts policies to benefit a particular minority? Lilla argues that the government does not shape public sentiment as much as reflect it. He critiques liberals’ efforts to impose racial equality through the unelected courts rather than ‘taking the temperature of public opinion, building consensus, and taking small steps.’ That, however, is exactly what a renewed commitment to identity politics enables us to do.
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Lilla traces the origins of identity politics to the Reagan Dispensation, which spans the 1970s to the present. He argues these decades were bound together by a prevailing commitment to individualism, a disdain for government intervention, and a belief that individual well-being was the preserve of family, church, and community. If the Roosevelt Dispensation was political, then the Reagan dispensation ushered in what Lilla dubs ‘pseudo-politics.’
According to Lilla, identity politics emerged when the Left acquiesced to these Reagan-era ideologies of limited government and hyper-individualism. He contends that identity politics shifted the focus from ‘our identification with the United States as democratic citizens’ to an “identification with different social groups within it.”’ This divestment from the political sphere and new focus on engaging with ‘politics for the limited aim of understanding and affirming what one already is,’ makes identity politics an anti-political force.
The various ‘social groups’ which Lilla calls out for practicing identity politics include the LGBTQ community, people of color, people with disabilities, women, and many others. Given the brevity of his text, Lilla is unable to engage in a nuanced assessment of the practice of identity politics in each of these groups. Instead, he paints the intellectual and political history of the various marginalized communities in the United States with a broad brush. A fuller account of any single one of them would reveal the cracks in his argument.
Consider the Black experience. A closer study of African American history shows that Lilla’s periodization is wrong. In this community, the characteristics of identity politics developed earlier than the Reagan Dispensation. This goes unnoticed by Lilla, because his account of Black activism during the Roosevelt Dispensation is incomplete. He omits early figures like Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers, who contend that race, more than nationality, defines Black peoples’ interests — which sounds a lot like what Lilla calls identity politics.
A better way to understand the origins of identity politics is to trace the development of what is now called intersectional theory, a mode of analysis that arose from Black feminist political thought. Early Black feminists, such as Frances Beal of SNCC and the Third World Women’s Alliance, contended that black women are subject to multiple systems of oppression that ‘operate in a real world in an integrated way.’ Almost a decade later, the Combahee River Collective’s iconic statement (which Lilla references) reiterated this idea: the personal is political. In 1989, legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw brought this powerful concept to the mainstream when she coined the term intersectionality. This mode of analysis diffused throughout social movements on the New Left and created some of the defining features of today’s identity politics. (For instance, the style of social triangulation that has frustrated many an elder: ‘As an able-bodied cisgender heterosexual Black woman...’)
Lilla writes that ‘in movement politics, the forces are all centrifugal, encouraging splits into smaller and smaller factions.’ Yet, intersectional identity politics emerged as a way to strengthen coalitions, not fracture them. Early Black feminists organized spaces like the Third World Women’s Alliance as subsets of the antiracist movement and women’s liberation movement, and used their platform to critique racism as it manifested in the women’s movement and sexism as it manifested in the Black freedom struggle. Beal and others understood racism, sexism, and capitalism as mutually constitutive. By searching for positions and policies that could be both antiracist, antisexist, and anti-capitalist, or at least attack one without reifying the other, Black feminists were trying to develop a coalition among movements for racial justice, gender parity, and socioeconomic equality.
This theory of ‘interest convergence,’ a term coined by legal scholar Derrick Bell, reveals that people whose identities exist at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression have more incentive to bargain and more to lose from political disengagement. The pushback against bathroom laws that discriminate against transgender people, such as North Carolina’s HB–2, is a good example. Business leaders became an important part of the coalition opposing HB–2 alongside LGBTQ rights activists—but not because they were suddenly filled with neighborly concern for transgender citizens. Rather, they saw the boycotts and negative publicity as a threat to their economic interest, and an unlikely alliance emerged. While transgender people and other marginalized groups should be defended on the basis of their humanity alone, we can use the tools we have in front of us to mount a material defense of marginalized communities in the short term while simultaneously working to change attitudes and ideologies in the long term.
Interest convergence—the heart of identity politics—is about building coalitions and bridging perceived divisions. Identity politics does not create divides; it names them, and makes possible the production of political strategies and policies that respond to the reality of social division. We should see it not as the root of the Democratic Party’s past failures, but rather as the tie that will bind future liberals together.
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To my surprise, and perhaps to Mark Lilla’s, we share a broad array of political commitments, even though we arrive at them from very different ideological angles. I am a Black woman and a recent graduate of Yale University. I was involved in the student activist movement here which was heavily informed by identity politics. While there is an argument to be had over whether Mark Lilla wrote this book for people like me, it is certainly written about people like me and the need for us to change our approach politics. Lilla argues that we (millennial ‘identity Liberals’) need to invest more in local politics, to vote, to run for political office, and to engage with the people within our communities on questions of government and governance. I could not agree more. And while my commitment to identity politics may be radical to some, I believe that this ideology actually aligns with Lilla’s strategy of pursuing reform.
That is because a commitment to moderate political strategy grows not from a rosy-eyed view of American institutions, but rather from a deep skepticism. There is a strong case to be made from this nation’s history that inequality is an inextricable part of America. One of the main critiques of the moderate, compromise-based approach is that it sacrifices the more perfect gains a radical approach might bring. But we will never solve inequality. Political moderation is therefore a kind of realism, reflecting an understanding of the limits of the reforms that America’s institutions could sustain, rather than a belief that America’s institutions are only in need of limited reform.
And yet even if we see identity politics as fundamentally sound, we must still take Lilla’s criticism seriously. For instance, Lilla makes a strong case that the Left has attempted to scold people into its coalition—by explaining to them, in often unkind terms, exactly how racist, sexist, homophobic, or bigoted they are—and that this approach has failed. Employing a spectacular metaphor comparing political outreach to fishing, he states that:
The identity liberals’ approach to fishing is to remain on shore, yelling at the fish about the historical wrongs visited on them by the sea, and the need for the aquatic to renounce their privilege. All in the hope that the fish will collectively confess their sins and swim to shore to be netted. If that is your approach to fishing, you had better become a vegan.
Agreed. However, the history of intersectional theory and interest convergence demonstrates that the ideology of identity politics can lend itself towards other strategies for persuasion. It shows as well that identity politics can support the kind of engagement with political institutions and material concerns in which Lilla is invested.
This shared strategic vision creates a point of interest convergence between Mark Lilla and me upon which a coalition could be built. Liberals will need to build a strong coalition if we are to take back the reigns of political power. Both Mark Lilla and I, and the factions of the Democratic Party we represent, are guilty of yelling at fish (and at each other). But we share a commitment to making sure that the new dispensation of the 21st century is defined by commitment to inclusivity, equality, and the fulfillment of the reciprocal obligations we have to one another. This is the work we are called to do as America’s once and future liberals. ■