On Identity Politics and the Left in Decline

Mark Lilla considers the future of liberalism.

Should we stop talking about who we are and start talking about what unites us? Mark Lilla considers the future of liberalism and our need for political authority. An American political scientist, historian of ideas and professor of humanities at Columbia University in New York City, Mark Lilla is a prize-winning essayist and frequent contributor to The New York Times. He is best known for his books The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, and The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.

He considers himself a liberal, but believes that liberalism has lost its way with its focus on Identity Politics. He set out this position in his most recent book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics which came out this spring. It has been discussed, praised and critiqued by many, as Identity Politics and its consequences for the Left and Right alike dominate the political discourse.

                                                                                                                       —Tessa van Rens

TVR: Your book focuses on how Identity politics has shaped American politics and helped ruin the chances of the Democratic Party. Would you say a similar shift is taking place in the UK and Europe, where the Left has also been losing out?

ML: I’m interested to learn to what degree the particular dynamics of identity politics in the US have somehow migrated abroad, but even more in what is happening to the Left in Europe. A kind of vacuum has been created by the collapse of an ‘Old Left’ in each of these countries.  So the question is what will fill the vacuum. There are signs that in certain countries identity politics is starting to play that role – though for different reasons. In Protestant Northern Europe – Germany, the UK, the Nordic countries – it’s already present. In France it is somewhat present, mainly because the large Muslim population are not participating in political life. In Italy and Germany, on the other hand, the refugee crisis is also fuelling right-wing identity politics.

What distinguishes the American brand today is that it’s become much less political – that is, focused on institutions and electoral politics. It’s much more about a politics of meaning related to one’s individual identity, rather than to a politics of advancing group and minority interests in the system. The latter is totally legitimate, there’s just the question of how you do it in order to attain what you want. But the kind of narcissism that Americans now display -- the search for the true self has become our Quixotic quest – is in a sense de-politicizing. It distracts people from being able to speak to those who are not like themselves, and define a common ground.

TVR: I wonder how you’d mobilize Muslims in France without talking about their specific experience in society. Is the issue perhaps not Identity Politics as such, but the move away from trying to convince others in the political sphere?

ML: Identity Politics can work to mobilize the members of any group.  But that’s not what’s happening in the U.S.  Rather we have a cultural revolution going on regarding race and gender – a non-democratic one led by cultural elites in the press and Hollywood – that is focused on having everyone represented and everyone heard in civil society.

But it is not political in the sense of exercising power within institutions. Institutional politics is not about recognition; it’s about having a goal and figuring out how to reach it with others, which you can do if you’re able to articulate principles that apply to different groups who have very different problems. So for example, there are two ways of talking about how Muslims experience disadvantages.

One way is to focus on cultural and religious differences and whether they are going to be recognized and tolerated in society. Another way to talk about it is to say that as citizens of the Republic, no matter what their religious background, they deserve to be equally protected by the laws, equally educated, and they have the same duties as everyone else. So you can employ a universal rhetoric to help people in minority groups, without calling on the rhetoric of difference and recognition.

TVR: Do you think that it’s possible to do both? To talk about common citizenship and about how your specific identity is making you not privy to that citizenship?

I don’t see the distinction between them. By claiming that a certain group, by virtue of colour or history or anything else, are not being incorporated and enfranchised as citizens, you are appealing to the concept of citizenship.  And as a fellow citizen you ought to listen to their claims and respond. It’s another thing to say ‘we have a story about America, a story about you and your ideas about me.  And now you need to get on your knees, confess your sins, and get ‘woke’’.

Such identity politics is not a political strategy, it is an evangelical strategy to change hearts and minds.  Which is fine – but it does not at all contribute to seizing power from the Republican radical right.

TVR: You said before that it’s important to try to convince the other. Can personal experiences be useful in explaining your specific claim to citizenship?

ML: I think listening to another’s experience is important in democratic society, and it happens through education or literature or documentaries, where you learn about what other people go through. Aristotle talks about how every political regime has to develop its own kind of friendship. And you need to understand what your friends are going through. However, you do not campaign on the basis of this in a general election.

In elections you don’t want to set the bar of agreement higher than it needs to be to get someone’s vote. All a man needs to understand in order to support abortion is that a woman is being denied her right as a citizen to have an abortion. I don’t need him to understand what it’s like to be a woman and measure his views against some ideal standard. In civil society it would be good if we understood each other, of course. But if you try to do two things in an election, that is, transform people’s souls and the way they vote, you will probably fail at both.

TVR: Will we be able to build that common citizenship and deeper empathy while we still live in a society ruled by capitalism, so focused on individualism?

ML: I’m interested less in talking about the specific economic conditions of capitalism, and more about how to interpret those conditions. I don’t need to add my critique of why the economy is unjust. What’s important is to find a vocabulary and story that justifies the need for systems of solidarity, the need to protect people. Given the new sort of economy we live in, we need a rhetoric of solidarity in order to actually think through a solution.

For example, before we start thinking about how to protect our workers, we need to justify why it is absolutely necessary that they are protected as citizens. That used to be obvious in the U.S., but with the rise of Reaganite economic libertarianism it no longer is. And that’s exactly what’s missing on the Left: a general defense of solidarity based on a vision of the country’s future.

TVR: Such rhetoric has evidently been used before. Can we rehash welfare capitalism or do we need a fundamentally new way of talking about it, adapted to the different circumstances?

ML: Part of the problem is that we are in a genuinely new economic situation compared to that time. No one really understands what’s going on. No one has done the work that Karl Marx would have done of trying to understand the nexus between economics, politics, and culture today, free from Marx’s own assumptions that no longer apply.  

We also need to make it clear on what grounds we are calling on people to sacrifice for each other. That’s what solidarity is about. From the 1930s until the 1980s it was natural in the U.S. because we had gone through a depression and a world war. That gives you something to work with. Once memories of those things disappear and people are able to live more independent, individualistic lives, you have to find a new way of educating people so they feel that they have a stake in their fellow citizens.

TVR: You'll be joining us at HowTheLightGetsIn to elaborate further on your vision for liberalism, and we’ll also see you participate in the keynote debate with Noam Chomsky and Deirdre McCloskey. The debate is called ‘Darkness, Authority and Dreams’, and it will challenge our need for authority. Do you think as people we can simultaneously be free agents, fully exercising free will, and obey an authority?

ML: In a classic understanding from Plato to Kant down, the only way to be free is to have authority over yourself. Without self-control, without being able to set a goal and reach it, you are not free but a slave to your passions or whims – or, as Rousseau would have said, you are a slave to public opinion.

The primary question for Plato and Rousseau was how to exercise authority in education so that people come out being able to be truly free. Meaning that they would be able to make wise choices for themselves and control their passions and direct them in such a way that they can reach the ends that they want. Authority is absolutely essential in education in order to produce free people.

For people to get along with each other in a democratic society, we also need certain authoritative norms. Things like toleration don’t come naturally to us, but are taught to us from when we’re young. Once you think about norms – for instance, those that govern how a president is supposed to behave – you realize how crucial and fragile they are. That’s because we only realize we have taboos when they are violated and disappear.

Trump is a good example of someone who violates once authoritative taboos as a political leader and we can see the consequences. So in general we need to think about what sort of authority enhances our freedom but also enhances the human good.

TVR: Is the problem with Trump and perhaps many leaders that they have absolute authority, and that the counter-authority of rules that balanced them before are put aside altogether?

ML: Yes I would say so. Should political authority help us live a moral life or should we be free to define our own goals? To say that human beings should be free to define their own goals is a moral position. It is not an amoral statement; it presumes a certain idea of the human good and enforces that in some ways.  

A lot of what’s going on now with respect to free speech and hate speech, is trying to reconstitute some kinds of authoritative norms to bind what we do. We have in the past years seen a lot of questioning of authority, breaking of taboos, suspicion of hierarchy, while on the other hand we are discovering ways in which we need authority and are trying to reinstate norms (for example, in the workplace).

TVR: To what extent then do you think authority is dangerous? Someone like Trump might give us a pause and think, do we want to give so much power to one person?

ML: Of course authority can be dangerous. However, I happen to be one of the rare Americans who think that we are far too suspicious of authority. Hollywood beats into us the idea that Washington and CEO’s are always corrupt.  But it’s not the case.  If anything we put too many constraints on our leaders in Washington today.  We want them to make positive change for us. And they need to have some elbow room to make this happen.

A childish kind of American progressivism has a Kafkaesque picture of power: There is a castle and we are not allowed in, so we have to organize and bang and bang and bang on the door until authority throw us something that we want. But that’s not an accurate picture of democratic life. There are all sorts of ways in which authority gets legitimated and constrained, and in which we can participate. Progressive activists are always fighting authority, but are incapable of becoming the authority. The only way to achieve your ends is to become the authority. And that means having to work within institutions and gaining some latitude to make decisions. There is a certain kind of activist that hates authority in a democracy, but then falls in love with a tyrant who wields it without constraint.  How else do you explain the recent idealization of Hugo Chavez on a certain left?

TVR: Jeremy Waldron, another speaker at HTLGI 2018, argues in his recent book Political Theory that we, and perhaps specifically the Left, don’t spend enough time thinking about our political institutions. This implies that either we will always get excluded from those institutions, or we will get power and have no clue how to use them to create change.

Or we end up criticizing those people that get into power as sell-outs. Remember the criticism that Obama got from the left when he was in office? Progressives have an adolescent view of power: Dad is always wrong. Perversely this is how the activist left always stay in business. If activists were to succeed in getting the things they want through our institutions they would be out of business. They get most excited and charged up when things are going badly for us. Weirdly they have a stake in that.

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