The good part about Mark Lilla’s NY Times column calling for a “post-identity liberalism” is that he touches on the fundamental difference between the European and the American lefts. The bad part is that he draws the wrong lesson from that difference.
The short version of Lilla’s column is that he’s sick of hearing about the blacks and the women and the gays and what-have-you, so the Democrats should spend more time talking about straight, cis white dudes.
Scott Lemieux explains why Lilla’s advice isn’t actually helpful; I would only add that ignoring three large Democratic voting blocs – women, African Americans, and LGBT people – is not a great way to increase turnout for Democrats.
What struck me was where Lilla is right:
Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones. My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in recent years.
After living for a decade in France, I’ve found this to be generally true. European politics, which covers as diverse an array of topics as American politics, is fundamentally a story of class. Sure, the right is anti-immigrant and generally less favorable to feminism, but if you had to pick one thing that the left/right divide is about, it’s class.
In the US, it’s about white solidarity. If you think that the white race deserves special privileges, or just that the advancement of the interests of white people is more important than other things, then you’ll probably vote Republican. While there are lots of issues that are important and people vote for who they vote for for complicated reasons, the fundamental line along which we organize is racism, and has been for quite a while: the 3/5 Compromise, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the realignment of the South to solidly Republican after the Civil Rights Act was passed… it’s all about that one thing.
But the lesson Lilla draws from this is all wrong. For example:
But it is at the level of electoral politics that identity liberalism has failed most spectacularly, as we have just seen. National politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference,’ it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny. Ronald Reagan did that very skillfully, whatever one may think of his vision.
Reagan famously founded his campaign for presidency in 1980 on racism against African Americans. Even though he supported the ERA as governor of California, he opposed it when he ran for president. To say that he was about “commonality” is to re-write history; Reagan was focused on difference and how to ensure that one group of people gets treated better than others.
The absence of any mention of Obama in Lilla’s column is telling in its own way. The Obama coalition was diverse and Obama didn’t shy away from identity politics. Not only did he win the presidency twice, Obama managed to expand Medicare, increase the minimum wage, and pass a stimulus package, three major pieces of legislation that help people of all races.
The tell in Lilla’s column, though, is a lot more subtle:
The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure.
If I were drinking a glass of water when reading that, my computer would be all wet.
I’ve been hearing about how angry white males are the most important voters my entire life. They’ve been called other things, like “Reagan Democrats” when Bill Clinton tried to get their votes or “Real Americans” when Sarah Palin was sure they’d turn out for McCain. Every time the mainstream media wants to know what “the working class” thinks, they go talking to white men, as if everyone who isn’t white and male is a CEO or a doctor.
I don’t know how Lilla was able to ignore this long-standing media obsession. I can only guess that he simply found it to be normal, and asking women and African Americans what they think is abnormal. The interest is only “newfound” to people who just haven’t been paying attention.
And he almost seems to get it:
Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.
It’s amazing that Lilla thinks that identity politics didn’t appear in the US until after the Civil War, as if slavery had nothing to do with white supremacy. And the only reason he brings up this example is to show that identity politics should be avoided, instead of what it obviously means: that identity politics is unavoidable in the US.
The generous reading of Lilla is that he thinks that a bunch of nice white dudes got together one day and formed the KKK, for no reason at all, and then that began a tailspin into identity politics. Someone just needs to shout “can’t we all just get along?” loud enough and we’ll all be friends again.
The less generous reading is that a white dude thinks that liberals should listen to white dudes more. Since Hillary Clinton was actually talking a lot about issues that affect the whole working class more than Trump was, one can only surmise that talking about oppressed people at all is just too much for Lilla’s sensibilities. (He even says that liberals should advocate for LGBT rights “quietly”… because, you know, the closet is such an effective advocacy tool.)
America’s original sin is slavery, and we’re still paying for it today. It is not Europe’s original sin, so we can’t superficially imitate Europe by sweeping our history under the rug. Dealing with it directly won’t lead to immediate success either – the siren call of being told that you’re better than vast swaths of the population merely because of how you’re born is just too strong for some people to ignore. A post-racism America will only happen after a lot of slow and hard work, and that’s if it is to happen, something that the election of Trump makes me to doubt.
Alex Bollinger was the managing editor of The Bilerico Project from 2007 to 2011 and has a Masters degree in Economics from the Paris School of Economics. He lives in Paris with his partner.