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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.”

Identity politics isn’t just electorally hopeless, it is intellectually stultifying. Indeed, it is an assault on free thought and reason. Argument replaces taboo. Lilla understands this. Of the recent tendency to begin sentences with “speaking as an X”, he writes: “This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter . . . It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever expressed the most outrage at being questioned.”

How did identity politics come to dominate the American Left? Lilla’s explanation is historical. He splits the last hundred years of American political history into two eras: the Roosevelt dispensation and the Reagan dispensation. The former “pictured an America where citizens were involved in a collective enterprise to guard one another against risk, hardship and the denial of fundamental rights”. The latter conjured up “a more individualistic America where families and small communities and businesses would flourish once free from the shackles of the state”. According to Lilla, the obsession with identity emerged because the Left did not fight the key tenets of the Reagan dispensation. Rather, they recast them in left-wing terms. In other words, “Identity is Reaganism for lefties.”

For Lilla, this means that the path back to electoral success involves steering left-wing politics back towards ideas such as citizenship and solidarity, building an inclusive agenda that is less obsessed with dividing society up into distinct groups and more concerned with building common cause across those lines.

It is easy to see the appeal of such an approach to Democrats old enough to remember a time before Reagan. But how persuasive would these ideas be to younger liberals, who have grown up in an age of infinite choice with an emphasis on the individual that is about more than just party politics? It generally makes electoral sense to swim with the tide, not against it.

There is another problem with Lilla’s story: it is built on the assumption that the Left is losing the culture war, when it simply isn’t. Fox News is the exception, not the rule. The peaks of American cultural life are liberal. Centre-left magazines are giants of the publishing world. Their conservative competitors are poorer, scruffier, and far less widely read. More or less every American television programme worth watching is commissioned by, written by, produced by, directed by and stars liberals (or conservatives keeping their mouths shut).

But if public sentiment is moulded overwhelmingly by liberals, why aren’t they winning, as Lincoln says they should be? Perhaps the political and media landscape is just so fractured these days that there is no such thing as a single public sentiment. They are winning in their particular corner of America, but not in others. That, after all, is how a culture war works: two sides not talking to one another. Politics should be about bridging these divides, not widening them. And identity politics only does the latter.
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