Who Is to Blame For ‘Identity Politics’?
I read Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal (2017) shortly after it was published, and since then I have contemplated the argument against so-called “identity politics.” I think the 2017 round of this argument has successfully been put to bed by the election of Joe Biden, but, for the record, here’s what I thought of the book.
The Book Is Against ‘Identity Politics’
Lilla criticizes the invocation of “identity politics,” which is basically marginalized groups pointing out the fact that they exist and demanding equal rights. It’s not because he opposes equal rights but because he doesn’t believe that asking for them directly is the best way to get them.
He says we need a shared vision beyond just “values, commitment, policy proposals.” Liberals need to articulate “principles that everyone can affirm” even when specific groups are the intended beneficiaries. We need language “for invoking the common good or addressing class or other social realities,” not just to distinguish identities.
He offers up a truism that, when discussing any important principle with a political opponent, “there are usually other, equally important principles that might have to be sacrificed to preserve this one.” Of course politics requires compromise, even sometimes in our principles, if we are negotiating with someone who has different principles.
For example, he says, we can see that women “have a distinct perspective that deserves to be recognized and cultivated, and have distinct needs that society must address.” In today’s movement politics, however, he complains, people instead learn to emphasize that women’s “experiences are radically different, depending on their race, sexual preference, class, physical abilities, life experiences, and so on,” which means that one cannot “generalize” about women’s needs, and this makes it hard to fight for any goals.
Wasn’t movement politics successful during the 1950s to the 1980s? Yes, but we have to strategize for the current moment, he says. Political institutions are powerful, and movements must expect to engage in “slow, patient work” to pass legislation and run bureaucracies. Realistically, most change will require compromise.
Who Should Be Thrown Under the Bus?
For better or for worse, he does not identify the dividing line between saying something like all citizens should have equal rights regardless of race and gender and whatever other statement supposedly gives undue political emphasis to an identity group. We have to identify that other statement, don’t we, if we’re not supposed to say it aloud? Who are the groups we’re not supposed to mention, and what are the problems or remedies we’re not supposed to talk about?
Here’s the ominous part. According to Lilla, the overarching principle of liberalism is (or should be) a version of no citizen left behind. If we begin compromising away that, aren’t we left asking what citizen is to be sacrificed?
Yes. This book appears to be asking just that. By arguing against “identity politics” — the defense of an identity group by itself or others — he’s basically supporting the alternative of sacrificing that group. And the pragmatic question would then be: Which groups are in and which are out?
In his imagination, the sacrifice is only momentary. If people could just stop handwaving about their identities for a hot minute, the theory goes, supposedly the straight white abled English-speaking Christian cis men (who typically aren’t thought of as having identities) will be more likely to vote Democratic, and then, with Democrats in office, legislation will be immediately passed that magically helps people of all identities. The marginalization of groups, you see, is a real problem, but the pragmatic solution (in his view) is not to ask for equal rights directly but to trick bigots into voting for politicians who actually have secret antiracist, feminist policies up their sleeves.
I don’t think that’s how it works, but this is a popular view.
Exactly How Are Identity Groups Shooting Themselves in the Foot?
His criticism is imprecise. He says “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity,” a criticism he supports with one sentence mentioning some generalities about this enormous grassroots movement.
Part of his objection is that a Black woman once publicly criticized Hillary Clinton with a banner and an outdoor voice (he does not so precisely describe the incident, but I think I found the one he had in mind) during her presidential campaign. Yes, election campaigns need to be won, and solidarity is needed to some extent. But for Lilla to omit the political question raised by the Black activist implies that the question itself is irrelevant, which in turn makes him appear to suggest that Black Americans are never supposed to publicly criticize Democratic leadership over anything. Of course, people who keep their mouths shut all the time are demonstrating not solidarity but sycophancy. While sycophancy, too, might often prove to be in the short-term service of Democratic campaigns, it’s ultimately not in the service of real democracy.
He doesn’t mention the “All Lives Matter” counterslogan, but we’re nearing that territory.
For another example, he says that transgender people have been “given temporary totemic significance” in the political arena, a comment he does not explain at all. If, by “totemic,” he means that transgender people are concepts or emblems of some other struggle — well, no. Transgender people are real. If, by being “given…significance,” he means that it only matters what other people believe about them — again, no. Transgender people are already personally significant to themselves and have to claim their political significance because why would they expect anyone else to do that for them. If, by “temporary,” he means that the identity is a fad, that the feigned concern ought to wear off, or that it could just as easily wait until tomorrow — again, no. Transgender people have existed since the beginning of human history. Living transgender people have been fighting, or simply waiting, all their lives for basic recognition. They need to care for themselves all the time (not just for one election cycle, and definitely not never), all the more so if their so-called political leaders don’t do some of the caring for them.
The book’s only other reference to transgender people is that they do “suffer far worse” injuries and indignities than being threatened on the street, a statement that at least acknowledges that they have material existence and face actual problems. So, given that the oppression is real, I don’t see how we can tell anyone to be quiet and wait.
Similar Ideas in a 2016 Article
In an earlier opinion piece for the New York Times called “The End of Identity Liberalism” published a week after the election of Donald Trump, Lilla was more pointed in his comments regarding transgender people. He said that “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”
He went on to say:
“Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the ‘campus craziness’ that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. [emphasis added]…How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in ‘His Majesty’?”
What I need explained to me in this passage is why the average voter would possibly assume, when they are voting for president, that they are really voting for the moral urgency of anyone’s gender pronouns. Gender pronouns are important; fortunately, they are easy to understand. Even if one does not understand why some people are “he” and others “she,” and even if one thinks it amusing to ask for the pronouns “His Majesty” (OK, it is amusing; there are versions of this joke in drag shows everywhere), ultimately this should not prevent one from understanding the difference between a Republican candidate and a Democratic candidate and grasping the importance of casting a vote for the President of the United States. They are just different issues.
Someone who was inclined to vote Democratic is really going to switch their vote to Republican just because they’ve spent the last several years laughing at the existence of transgender people? Really? That unrepentantly anti-transgender protest voter was truly, in recent memory, a Democrat? Even in our imaginations, that makes sense?
In that article, Lilla goes on to say that it is more important to comprehend Egyptian politics as a whole than to read “about the fate of transgender people in Egypt.” He also says that “America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.” (Apparently, transgender people turn bathrooms liberal, somehow.) That’s a lot of commentary on transgender people without defining who they are or what their needs are, especially for a single opinion article that is supposed to be about liberalism more generally. Odd that (in his view) non-transgender people can rest assured that a transgender person’s perspective has nothing to do with the world’s political future, and yet these non-transgender people won’t even be able to imagine what a transgender person looks like because they were just told not to read newspaper articles about them.
Moreover, in this same opinion piece, Lilla blames liberals for indirectly stoking identity politics among the Ku Klux Klan. It is liberal advocacy for “the omnipresent rhetoric of identity” that prompts “white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored,” he says. He doesn’t solely blame the Ku Klux Klan for being a beast; he also implies that liberals should stop poking the beast in the eye and just hope that it will go to sleep forever.
I do not think that’s how it works. I think this argument winds up, on balance, giving aid and comfort to the other side. Telling marginalized people that their existence is causing the Ku Klux Klan to organize — even if true on some level — is a tough sell to those marginalized people, and the mere statement of it amounts to a micro-victory for the Klan. It is a victory for every right-wing person whose main value is the Trumpian “winning!” The message that liberals should stop trying so hard to get specific things done because, when they make the effort, conservatives win harder is, itself, a message that makes conservatives feel like they are winning.
At the very least, if we’re going to be booed as having brought hate upon ourselves just for declaring our existence, I think the writer is responsible for providing facts to support that allegation.
In comparison to this November 2016 opinion article, which provoked some controversy, Lilla’s August 2017 book somewhat dials back its dismissive attitude toward marginalized people. However, the thesis did not change.
What I Can Agree With
This list is brief. Yes, Americans should support each other’s basic rights. We can do that for the “positive” reason that we share (or want to share) a common experience as Americans. We can also do it for the “negative” reason that we believe our more specific identities should not matter when it comes to enjoying equal rights. So far, so good.
But I Have Questions
Say we agree to build that “big tent.” What does it look like? How will it be set up? To what individuals or institutional leaders will it possibly appeal? What if there is no partner for dialogue to get off the ground?
And exactly what we should do when marginalized people are at risk, whether from overt, direct attacks or from subtle institutional processes? Should we create the appearance that we are casually ignoring hostile words and actions and unfair processes while we are actually secretly planning to take political action to fix it? If so, should we give this appearance of ignoring the problem only during political campaigns when Democrats are the underdogs, or should we continue to dissimulate once Democrats are in power? Should we even more explicitly stop defending or outright reject the interests of certain identity groups? At what point do those identity groups, who have been treated as footballs, get welcomed back? Why would they want to come back, after that experience?
They wouldn’t have meaningful relationships with individuals in the grassroots movements or the powerful institutions because those leaders would have previously told them to scram. Having been sidelined for so long, how can they now be heard? If a movement has managed to go for a while without acknowledging an identity group’s specific needs, then, when it is finally time to implement the plan for the moment to serve as their savior, how will the movement know who they are and what they need? If a group makes up, say, 5% of the population, how will the other 95% of the population suddenly know what needs to be done to acknowledge and include them, when the strategy all along has been to intentionally obscure their needs, desires, and beliefs and to call them out as being somehow inherently ridiculous (“temporary,” “totemic,” daring to criticize a Clinton)?
Those who are forced to remain invisible and misunderstood will be the most easily sacrificed. Once they are sacrificed, they can’t easily be saved, contrary to Lilla’s theory. Ongoing exclusion makes it increasingly harder, not easier, for them to save themselves.
Maybe Lilla is saying that liberals should continue to defend vulnerable people but preferably in a way that identifies them simply as “citizens” and downplays their differences from other, more mainstream identities. That sounds better, surely, but how can we credibly explain why someone is vulnerable if we don’t acknowledge the specific realities of who they are?
And The Big Tent Isn’t Just a Recommendation for Democrats, Right? Republicans Have to Do It Too?
As long as we’re being idealistic, that exhortation should not be limited just to the Democratic Party. The Republican Party also needs to get real about what American unity and mutual concern would entail. They need to change their policies and rhetoric.
In some pleasant future when both parties vigorously defend human rights and dignity in the abstract, each can get down to the more concrete labor of hammering out specific policies, and then the electorate can cast their votes in favor of the tax laws or healthcare policy they would prefer to see rather than out of existential fear that one party is out to destroy them.
When Do We Find Out What Strategy Was Correct?
Here is a thing I would like to acknowledge: Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.
More pointedly, I would like to acknowledge that, just 18 days before the election, Biden tweeted about the need for “national leadership” to prevent violence against “Black and Brown transgender women.” He still won. He said something that Americans actually want to hear. This message wasn’t something he needed to compromise away. He didn’t need to stay silent. There was nothing for anyone to gain by his doing so. The collective victory was in speaking the truth.