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Mark Lilla: Identity politics turns every encounter into a power relation (©Christophe Dellory)


Abraham Lincoln famously said: “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.”

America is at war with itself. The dividing lines are clear; the two sides even have their own headwear, with red “Make America Great Again” caps in one corner and pink “pussy hats” in the other. The clash may be less violent than the one Lincoln brought to an end, but for Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal, the saviour of the Union’s advice is as relevant today as it was then.

In particular, Lilla hopes that his fellow liberals — a word he is using in the American sense, in which it more or less means those on the centre-Left — are listening. They have failed to offer the country “an image of what our shared way of life might be”, he writes of their most recent and most conspicuous ballot-box failure. “Ever since the election of Ronald Reagan the American Right has offered one. And it is this image — not money, not false advertising, not fearmongering, not racism — that has been the ultimate source of its strength. In the contest for the American imagination, liberals have abdicated.”

Instead, they have taken refuge in the democratic dead-end that is identity politics. What started as an admirable campaign to correct historical wrongs by securing the rights of large groups of Americans had by the 1980s, as Lilla puts it, “given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities”.

Nothing, for Lilla, demonstrates this failing more clearly than a comparison of the two major parties’ websites. Visit the Republican Party’s homepage and you’ll find a page entitled “Principles for American Renewal” with clear statements on 11 important areas. On immigration, for example, it declares: “We need an immigration system that secures our borders, upholds the law, and boosts our economy.” The offline GOP could hardly be said to live up to this online clarity. But at least the intent is there.

Go to democrats.org and no equivalent document is immediately available. Instead, Lilla reports, “You find a list of links titled ‘People’. And each link takes you to a page tailored to appeal to a distinct group and identity: women, Hispanics, ‘ethnic Americans’, the LGBT community, Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders . . . there are 17 such groups, and 17 separate messages. You might think that, by some mistake, you have landed on the website of the Lebanese government — not that of a party with a vision of America’s future.”

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