The Perils of Identity Politics

I don’t agree with all of Mark Lilla’s positions—he is, after all, an abortion-rights liberal—but his critique of the Democratic party’s fatal rejection of unifying themes in favor of identity politics is spot on.

As Lilla told the New Yorker:

…when we go out on the stump, it makes no sense to call out to various groups, as Hillary Clinton did, and inevitably leave people out. She would list the groups that liberal Democrats care about today: African-Americans, gays and lesbians, women. One out of every four Americans is evangelical. Thirty-seven percent of Americans live in the South. Seventeen percent, as many as there are, of African-Americans in this country live in rural areas. There are different ways in which people think of themselves, right? And those people did not feel called out to. …

When some of the campus craziness happens, it reveals something that is there in the university that doesn’t always take the craziest form. And the way in which we have ended up educating, and in my view miseducating, the liberal élite in this country for political action.

What I see, essentially, is that, to the extent that [college students] are political, their political interest is circumscribed by either how they see their own identity or what they think identity issues are. I’m struck by the lack of interest in military affairs, class structure, economics that’s not economics in order to get into business school. There’s a lack of interest in American religion. All of these subjects that might help you understand the country in a richer way. They’re very much drawn to classes that are about themselves….

And so we end up producing liberal élites who are clueless about the rest of the country, and clueless about all sorts of other themes, especially class. … We end up talking to ourselves and training young people in this limited range of issues that tend to be self-referential, so that when they go out there, and are ready to engage, they’re incapable of talking in large themes.

Judging from many of the negative comments Lilla’s interview received from the left, it looks like many base Democrats are intent on keeping their party limited to wealthy liberals plus minorities, overwhelmingly on the Northeast and West coasts plus Chicago. From the New Yorker comments to their Facebook posts of the interview (it was posted more than once), for example:

White supremacy, not just for the right anymore but also the left!

Giving in to racism isn’t the answer.

Lilla seems to be saying that liberals need to accept people who will not accept them in return.

Lilla’s working definition of “narcissism” is when folks don’t behave as though straight white men are inherently more important than everyone else.

Why is it always the same looking white professor guy who is critiquing identity politics?

Utter illogic. Lilla suggests that liberals’ willingness to embrace diversity and honor difference is an example of snobbery–when it is, in fact, literally the opposite.

Of course, in most of these instances, Lilla said no such thing.

3 Comments for “The Perils of Identity Politics”

  1. posted by JohnInCA on

    … you know, this whole “Democrats don’t have a big enough tent” angle would probably be a lot more persuasive if (A) Trump had gotten more votes then Clinton, and (B) the Republican tent wasn’t even smaller.

  2. posted by Tom Scharbach on

    Ah, “identity politics”.

    I’ve been fascinated for many years about the way in which political pundits grab onto a simplistic explanation of complex political currents underlying election trends and market the simplistic explanation as if it meant something. When I was younger, I fell for it like everyone does before they’ve had enough experience not to, but after four decades of political involvement, watching pundits and catch phrases come and go while working on campaigns (both issue and candidate), I don’t any longer.

    As the election of 2016 is studied and analyzed over the course of the next decade, we might be able to understand more about what happened, and why, and what that means. Right now, we are stuck with slogans like “identity politics” and “the politics of resentment”, and so on. Don’t take it too seriously, and certainly don’t confuse it with Gospel.

    Meanwhile, the complex social and economic currents that are reshaping the electorate will go on unabated, and candidates and campaign managers will try to ride currents that are only dimly understood.

    As to the dangers of so-called “identity politics” — that is, narrow-casting to “the base”, whatever that base may be — one might compare and contrast the “Priebus Autopsy” (arguing that the Republican Party must stop narrow casting and become an inclusive “big tent” in order to win in 2016 and beyond) with the actual 2016 election results.

    President Trump did well for himself by narrow-casting on “base” (dual meaning intended) issues, chewing up and spitting out sixteen of the best and brightest that the Republican Party had to offer and going on to win the general election, while all the political pundits predicted disaster every step of the way.

    Consider that when bemoaning “identity politics” and predicting imminent disaster for the Democratic Party.

  3. posted by Jorge on

    Well, I think the quote you highlighted explains the difference between the old and new Democratic party better than anyone, myself included, ever has.

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