Friday, November 25, 2016

What Does the End of Identity Liberalism Really Mean?

A fitting saying about academic politics is that the fights are so bitter because the stakes are so low. I don't think that applies exactly in the argument among lefties about identify politics--because the potential stakes are whether or not the party succeeds in ousting a group who, besides its authoritarian and white nationalist tendencies, is intent on undoing not only the small advances of the Obama administration, but the entire New Deal. But I do think the difference between the two sides is really quite small. And the argument itself gets at a more fundamental problem with the Democratic party, and American politics in general.

The jumping-off point for this debate, at least in the several essays I've read, is Mark Lilla's op-ed in the NY Times, "The End of Identity Liberalism". I have read and re-read Lilla's essay, and fail to find in it even one specific recommendation for how the policy positions of the Democratic party should change. Instead, his focus is on the rhetoric of various political figures emphasized either what united us (Bill Clinton and Reagan) or what made each group special (Hilary Clinton). Most of the essay is not even about politics, in the sense of parties, policies, and elections, but instead focuses on how teachers and administrators in elementary schools, high schools, and colleges encourage students to "focus on themselves" and celebrate the differences among them and their diverse group of classmates.

This proposal, then, has nothing really to do with what should be the meat of politics. Instead it is, as Echidne of the Snakes calls it, merely a "rebranding" of the Democratic party. In other words, a tinkering with stump speeches, not really a new direction in policy.

On the other hand, Echidne of the Snakes and other critics of Lilla's essay seem to believe that giving up the rhetorical strategies of identity politics would be potentially disastrous for the Democratic party. Hilary Clinton won significantly more votes than Trump did, and the urban and multicultural base of the party could well be less motivated to vote, or vote Dem, if the party did not continue to speak to the issues most important to them.

But much of what is being argued about here--and much of what the right likes to make fun of in stories about those crazy liberals on elite college campuses--has very little to do with the Democratic party. The party is conflated with a hazy notion of ultra-sensitive lefty social customs and administrative policies of schools and colleges.

What first attracted me to the Democratic party, and what attracts me to it still, is that it was trying to help most those who needed the most. It was standing up for the rights of the most vulnerable--whether they were vulnerable because they were poor, or because they were persecuted by the majority because of their gender, religion, sexuality, or what-have-you. What was most important was not who they were, but that they needed help to live their lives with the dignity, opportunities, and respect that is due to anyone, regardless of how they were differentiated, or differentiated themselves, from the rest of society.

Keeping this in mind as the core of the identity of the Democratic party, I think it is easy to see that it can encompass both support for minority rights and broad-based economic policies. There is no necessary choice between identity politics and class. What we're sticking up for is not one or the other; we are sticking up for the underdog everywhere, regardless of why they are disadvantaged.

There are two larger problems that I think the existence of this argument helps highlight. First is that the Democratic party may have let rhetorical support for identity groups swamp its more fundamental message of helping those who need help because it was consciously neglecting policies that undercut the power of corporations and the well-off. While advocating policies that disproportionally benefited those who had the most, the party may have emphasized the rhetoric of identity to keep its base loyal. I don't know enough about the history of Democratic politics to say for sure that this happened, but it does kind of make sense. A renewed Democratic party does not need to abandon identity politics, but it does need to reclaim its soul as the defender those most in need.

 Second, a still larger problem that this argument reflects is the incredibly diffuse nature of "politics" in American life. We're constantly asked to demonstrate our politics in our language, what we buy, what we post to Facebook or Tweet. We've begun to imbue our political position on the red-blue spectrum with a sense of identity--a language, a lifestyle, a tribe. This is, I think, corrosive to our politics in two ways: It encourages an us-versus-them attitude toward our political opponents that is corrosive to progressive ideals, and especially so in a country already dominated by only two political parties; It also substitutes authentic political participation--voting and winning elections--for a multitude of faux political stands and arguments that really have little to do with actual governmental policies politicians might enact.

We need to get back to a very basic Democratic politics, centered on helping the downtrodden through governmental action. To achieve our goals, we don't need to rely on some Rube Goldberg process of cultural change or demographic shifts. We need to get our supporters to the poles and win some damn elections!

This doesn't mean that schools and colleges--or even Democratic candidates--can't continue, if they so choose, to celebrate our differences and use the rhetoric of identity politics. But it does mean that we can't view that as exhausting our political duties. We need to focus our efforts not on rhetoric, but on actual laws and policies that we want to see enacted, and actually getting the votes to put them in place.

8 comments:

christian_left said...

Overall, even if I disagree somewhat with your conclusions, this seems like a reasonable take. In fact, it reminds me very much of what Bernie Sanders has argued recently. (Unfortunately, Bernie has been absurdly attacked by elite pundits like the increasingly insufferable Joan Walsh when he said we need to do both--she claims that when you say "We can keep doing X, but we also need to do Y" that you are saying you are against X, which, to me, is a very strange interpretation of the "but...also" construction in the English language.) I believe that Bernie Sanders has offered us a great chance to do exactly what you are talking about, because he was 100% ironclad on the identity politics issues (as much as any national politician can be) yet he did insist on exactly the shift in emphasis you have identified. He and his allies like Elizabeth Warren and Keith Ellison may still represent the best way forward in this vein. (to be continued)

christian_left said...

(Part 2) However, in the wake of the recent election, and some of the debates we are having, I am wondering if this fight on the Left (spanning radical to center) may end up being rather more consequential and divisive than you are hoping it will be. I think that I was at your position during the early to middle part of the primary season. But gradually I have realized that this is a deep, deep fissure on the Left. Maybe we are going to have to argue this out, in order to decide on a way forward. I was willing to tolerate the excesses of identity liberalism, not simply because I agree with them on most of the issues themselves (if not emphasis) but also because I (perhaps foolishly) believed the demographic argument that my old hang-ups about needing to win over the white working-class were no longer so important to worry about. But the prioritization of identity liberalism--as opposed to class or commonality based liberalism/Leftism--seems to be so publicly dominant among the Democratic establishment that is also driving a counter-reaction of toxic identity politics on the Right, in my view, which we can no longer ignore and hope will die out. The election of Trump, for me, was a definitive, final wake-up call that we can't continue in this direction any longer, or (ironically) we risk very real danger to the well-being of marginalized identity groups by regimes elected by reactionary backlash. (to be continued)

christian_left said...

(Part 3) Part of me still hopes we can adopt the "both/and" strategy you are advocating, with some shift in emphasis. However, there are some voices that are extremely intolerant of us even having this debate. The most shocking so far to me was the horrifying anti-Lilla diatribe by Katherine Franke--Mark Lilla's colleague at Columbia, though in a different department--in the LA Review of Books in which she explicitly calls him a "white supremacist" for writing that piece and links him with Bannon and Trump's other white nationalist friends for daring to write what he did. I am beginning to feel some sympathy with the right-wing opponents of campus PC culture, and the absolute shutdown of opinions that some have endorsed. I actually have some misgivings about Lilla myself--like you, I find his vaporous invocation of Reagan and Bill Clinton focusing on rhetoric rather than policy to be thin gruel, and possibly outright wrong in some ways (although possibly he is on to something purely from a purely rhetorical point of view). Baldly put, I don't believe Lilla is socialist or explicitly left-wing enough in his critique, although I am persuaded by what he says that about dreaming common visions together as a mode of political rhetoric (and policy?) that needs to be yoked to the more class/economic/anti-corporate rhetoric and policy I tend to favor. Moreover, I find his discussion of the key role of education, including college campuses, as something well worth reflecting upon, and I think there may be a great deal more to operationalize about all this for people working in university and college settings, than simply the vaporous rhetoric. In the end, I am partly in agreement with Lilla, but frankly terrified by the extremely harsh reaction of some advocates of "identity politics only" which confirms my apprehensions about getting involved in this fight at all. But with Trump's election, and the other political currents across Europe and elsewhere, I am increasingly convinced that we must confront this division, painful as it may be on the Left, if we are going to avoid the horrors of right-wing nationalism in the industrialized world. It is not going to go away easily. We must articulate a common politics of unity and universalism--a politics which is uncompromising about inclusiveness and equal rights for all races, genders, orientations, and other identities, but which puts at the center what unites us rather than divides us.

[Sorry for separating into three comments, but there seems to be a word limit]

Ambivalent_Maybe said...

If this fight proves to be divisive among the left, I think it will be a triumph of faux politics over the more basic politics that I am hoping for. I really don't see the issues of identity politics being of much moment outside of college campuses. It can exist as an actual political issue only in a vacuum of more concrete political proposals. My test is: If you can't envision it being written into a law passed by congress, or a federal policy enacted by a sitting president, it is more a cultural value than politics. Yes, I realize that the connection between laws and culture is a real one. But I think of it as something like heat; policing language is like trying to change the temperature of an object by changing the temperature of the room where the object is located. It's a variety of heat, and it can be effective, but it's not a direct way of achieving the desired effect.

If the left decides that arguments about language trump issues more directly related to policy, then we should just admit that we're more interested in hermeneutics than politics, and let the Democratic party find its own fate.

Ambivalent_Maybe said...

If this fight proves to be divisive among the left, I think it will be a triumph of faux politics over the more basic politics that I am hoping for. I really don't see the issues of identity politics being of much moment outside of college campuses. It can exist as an actual political issue only in a vacuum of more concrete political proposals. My test is: If you can't envision it being written into a law passed by congress, or a federal policy enacted by a sitting president, it is more a cultural value than politics. Yes, I realize that the connection between laws and culture is a real one. But I think of it as something like heat; policing language is like trying to change the temperature of an object by changing the temperature of the room where the object is located. It's a variety of heat, and it can be effective, but it's not a direct way of achieving the desired effect.

If the left decides that arguments about language trump issues more directly related to policy, then we should just admit that we're more interested in hermeneutics than politics, and let the Democratic party find its own fate.

christian_left said...
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christian_left said...
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christian_left said...

I think I basically agree with on this, especially your "test" that law & policy should always be far more important than policing language. I think where I differ with you is only in that I am even more intense than you in my view--spurred by the recent election--that focusing on policing language is not only a misplaced distraction but often generates such a backlash in the other direction (i.e. toxic white nationalist identity politics) that it is dangerously counterproductive.

I came across an interesting article today that is very much in line with your "test" and is well worth reading, by journalist Michael Tracey: "Things That Are Important Versus Things That Are Not Important"

Also, related to this conversation, here is the (completely reasonable and on target) response by Bernie Sanders to the "controversy" over his remarks that identity politics is not enough and must be matched by progressive economic and anti-corporate power commitments: "How Democrats Go Forward"

(Sorry for having to delete and repost after two failed attempts--third time is the charm, I hope? I kept getting the html formatting wrong for embedding the URL properly, which is not an automatic button in comments--and apparently we can't edit our comments either!)