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Is ‘identity liberalism’ killing the Democratic party?


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John Sexton

August 25 2017


Humanities professor Mark Lilla has a new book out titled “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.” Real Clear Politics published a review of the book today by Hoover Institute fellow Peter Berkowitz which gives a sense of the main thrust of Lilla’s argument:

Liberals, he argues, must repudiate the politics of identity because it undermines the pursuit of the common good to which American liberalism is properly directed. Identity liberalism divides Americans into groups—women, African-Americans, Latinos, LGBT Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and on and on. It nourishes a “resentful, disuniting rhetoric of difference” that defines membership in terms of distinctive narratives of victimhood, and confers status in proportion to the magnitude of the oppression one claims to have suffered under the hegemonic sway of white, male structures of power. Propelled by America’s colleges and universities—which, Lilla observes, have replaced political clubs and shop floors as the incubators of liberal political leaders—identity liberalism has abandoned the political mission of bringing fellow citizens together in favor of the evangelical one of extracting professions of faith and punishing heretics, apostates, and infidels.


If you want a sense of how the left is responding to this thesis, you can turn to this contentious interview at Slate. Author Isaac Chotiner seems to be doing his best to undermine Lilla’s argument and, more specifically, to make the case that everything comes down to racism. Lilla’s position is that this assumption is blinding Democrats to seeing a more nuanced view of the problem:

Chotiner: The one thing I maybe disagree with your book about the most was that bigger question of why all these former Democratic states are now Republican states. It seems to me that the overwhelming answer to that question is race, which is not something you talk particularly about in the book. Do you not see what’s happened racially post the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in this country as being the primary driver of the fact that a majority of states now are Republican states, which was not the case 50, 60 years ago?

Lilla: I certainly do not.

You don’t think race is the central reason?

The central reason? Not at all, not at all. Just go out there. It’s not the central reason.

Wait, go out there?

Yeah go out there. Let me tell you, I grew up in Macomb County, Michigan, which is a blue-collar county right at the border of Detroit. It’s known as the home of the Reagan Democrats and studied to death. In the early ’60s, it was the most liberal suburban county in the United States. By 1972, it had gone for Nixon, and it never looked back. Now, where I grew up it was blue-collar and blue-collar ethnic, and there was a lot of racism, no doubt about that.

What was motivating them was lots of issues. They felt they weren’t being heard. They resented the college kids who were spitting on the flag when a lot of their sons were coming home in coffins that were draped in that flag. I had a paper route, and I looked at all the stars in the window. I was an altar boy; I served at the funerals.

There was a deep cultural resentment that built up because they felt that the country they loved and the kind of way of life that they were attached to was treated with contempt. It’s a complicated thing. Trust me.




I haven’t read his book yet but it seems to me Mark Lilla is on to something. If there’s one thing those embracing identity politics on the left ought to understand it’s that people know when they are being othered and treated dismissively and they don’t tend to like it very much.


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