Eyes Off the Prize

Mark Lilla isn’t wrong about identity politics, necessarily; but he’s wrong to see it as a greater danger than capitalism unchained.

By Jim Sleeper

Tagged conservatismFranklin D. RooseveltFree MarketsLiberalismraceRacismRonald Reagan

“The day after the presidential election, Mark Lilla had to get something off his chest,” wrote a sympathetic Evan R. Goldstein, an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, introducing an interview with the author of “The End of Identity Liberalism,” a November 18 New York Times essay that blamed the election’s “repugnant outcome” on liberal Democrats’ slippage “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.”

“I wrote in a fever,” Lilla told Goldstein. And he’s still doing that in The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, the “instant book” that HarperCollins commissioned to capitalize on the explosive reactions to his Times essay, the most-read opinion piece in the paper in 2016. Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia, calls urgently for the revival of an older liberalism, one supportive of a shared citizenship and civic solidarity transcending racial and sexual preoccupations. However necessary they have been at times for resisting oppression, they’ve also been frozen into censorious protocols of “political correctness” that thwart civic unity. Praising what he calls “the Roosevelt dispensation” of the New Deal, he presents himself as one of its liberal legatees: “We have stood together to defend the country against foreign adversaries in the past. Now we must stand together at home to make sure that none of us faces the risk of being left behind.”

Lilla condemns, in turn, Reagan Republicans’ sentimental misappropriations of that dispensation. But if he wants to make sure of anything in his new book, released in this post-2016 election moment, it’s that these identity movements—which he lacerates as corrupted by university-bred racial and sexual politics—won’t  produce a repeat of 2016.

Counseling us “to direct every bit of that energy into electoral politics,” he writes that “identity liberalism…paralyzes the capacity to think and act in a way that would actually accomplish the things it professes to want.” He embellishes the argument across the book’s 141 pages, less by analysis or historical evidence than by repeated assertion, vivid imagery, and felicitous, often arresting, turns of phrase.

Rightly enough, Lilla, in his article, urges professors to stop wallowing in fantasies of ethno-racial and sexual difference and to “refocus attention on their main political responsibility…to form committed citizens aware of their system of government.” A post-identity liberalism would also emphasize that democracy “is not only about rights; it also confers duties… to keep informed and vote.” And: “We must re-learn how to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals—including ones to benefit particular groups—in terms of principles everyone can affirm.”

Ronald Reagan mightn’t have changed a word, however hypocritically. But neither would most liberals or even social democrats. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Russell Jacoby, Todd Gitlin, David Hollinger, and this journal’s editor Michael Tomasky have flagged the political and moral dangers of bureaucratizing racial and sexual differences and argued that “diversity” protocols shouldn’t only broaden civic and political membership, but deepen it. (My own book Liberal Racism anticipated Lilla’s criticisms of liberal identity politics, almost point for point, 20 years ago this summer.)

In Lilla’s somewhat ahistorical telling, racial and sexual political correctness comes across as more causal of, than reactive to, conservatives’ long rollback of the Roosevelt dispensation. “Contrary to what the centrist coroners of the 2016 election will be saying, the reason Democrats are losing ground is not that they have drifted too far to the left,” Lilla writes. “Nor, as the progressives are already insisting, is it that they have drifted too far to the right, especially on economic issues. They are losing because they have retreated into caves they have carved for themselves in the side of what was once a great mountain.”

Lilla’s metaphorical “mountain” is surely the Democratic Party’s proudest achievement: its New Deal network of narrative and institutional supports for strong, common citizenship and economic interdependence—from Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” and the “We Do Our Part” ethos of his National Recovery Administration, to the institutionalization of Social Security, work programs, anti-trust laws, and other regulatory supports for secure employment and social safety.

The “caves” are the safe spaces that identity liberals and progressives have created for ethno-racial and sexual wound-licking and posturing. In so doing, one might add, the self-insulating allow even less civic-minded and more powerful interests to pollute the mountain’s open meadowlands and block pathways to its summit.

Lilla is far from clear on how and why the remembered (and somewhat imagined) civic solidarity of the postwar years came undone. His stirring calls to “stand together” are skewed by an unsubtle animus against “movement” progressives, whom he’s determined to save us from and to save from themselves. His zeal to correct the politically correct in order to elect more Democrats raises questions about where economic and social injustices really come from and about what we should all stand together against (and for), beyond Reaganomics’ most obvious abuses and “identity” divisiveness on the left.

Lilla also doesn’t note that it isn’t only liberals who’ve retreated into mountain caves to create “safe spaces” for their racial and sexual identities. And it isn’t only conservative Republicans who’ve polluted and chipped away at the mountain itself: More than a few neoliberal Democrats have done that, too. The most probable cause of the “identity” excesses he bemoans isn’t the professorial performance artists, mandarin deans, and coddled adolescents who, in his telling, have sprung up like noxious weeds in the groves of academe. More likely, identity politics is a reaction to widespread strip-mining of a once-democratic civic culture and its once-honored rites of passage. These have apparently been driven out by civically mindless engines of entertainment and marketing that have turned our public narratives and citizenship-building efforts into reality-TV “Survivor” spectacles that mold frantic consumers, not citizens. Peddling depictions of “violence without context and sex without attachment”—as Senator Bill Bradley put it years ago—these powerful engines bypass our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and wallets, accelerating impulse-buying over public-spirited thinking. Smartphones may be more influential than identity liberalism in infantilizing the young.

Lilla does occasionally lament market forces’ emptying, atomizing effects on democracy. In a chapter titled “A Word From Marx,” he acknowledges that material conditions often shape what people are willing to believe and fight for. And he does recognize, at one point, that the economic premises and policies of the “Reagan Dispensation”—along with its sentimental misappropriations of Roosevelt’s New Deal ethos—have drained civic solidarity and justice, most often at the expense of Reagan’s own supporters, and, now, of Trump’s: “Most Americans now recognize that Reagan’s ‘shining city upon a hill’ has turned into rust-belt towns with long-shuttered shops, abandoned factories invaded by local grasses, cities where the water is undrinkable and where guns are everywhere.”

But it isn’t such betrayals and delusions that animate this book. Haunted perhaps by his long interest in “philotyrannical” European intellectuals, and immersed as he is in academic and other controversies that most Americans consider rarefied, Lilla pays far more attention to the depredations of ivory tower iconoclasts than to the assiduous under-regulation of the powerful engines I’ve mentioned—and to the conservative movement’s equally assiduous promotion of these market premises and practices that have empowered them, especially since Reagan’s time. He’s preoccupied with condemning identity liberals for adding insults to the economic injuries that Reagan and Trump supporters have suffered at the hands of their own conservative champions.

A more thorough reckoning would show that Roosevelt’s dispensation relied not as much on his invaluable public narratives as on the material circumstances of his time. We don’t need “a word from Marx”—Lilla’s clever gesture at economic realism— to know that the New Deal’s success owed a lot to the material realities of a long, fully nationalized war against fascism (that tempered and then discredited American racism); the capitalist implosion that was the Great Depression; and, in turn, the labor and political movements that forced obdurately segregationist and high-capitalist Democrats to make defense industries hire blacks, desegregate the Armed Forces, recognize unions, and enforce a decent social compact between capitalists and workers as fellow citizens.

Not only does Lilla gloss over this; he explicitly, even vehemently, denies that our finest advances toward full citizenship and justice have been won only when labor, suffragist, civil-rights, and other social movements have waged long, ecumenical struggles against both Democrats’ and Republicans’ accommodations to the concentrations of wealth and power that foment and feed on our divisions. Although he acknowledges that the civil rights movement was “essential” in its time and place, he’s more intent on exposing the puerile posturing of naïve, neurotic so-called social justice warriors whom conservatives already spotlight and lampoon.

He cites “an inspiring passage about an inner search for meaning” in the New Left’s Port Huron Statement, only to ask, “But what did it have to do with voting rights in Mississippi, or strikes against U.S. Steel?” Actually, a number of Port Huron writers helped to advance voting rights in Mississippi, directly and bravely, by registering voters and by supporting the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s disruption of the 1964 Democratic National Convention, which was dominated by segregationist congressional chairmen. Without such struggles on many fronts, the Democratic Party wouldn’t even be worth saving.

Lilla does note astutely that some liberals’ facile conflation of personal desires and public agendas is “not all that different from Reagan’s anti-political rhetoric of the producing self and its struggle for profit. Just less sentimental and more sanctimonious.” But he’s clearly more bothered by identity liberal self-absorption than by the Ayn Randian self-absorption that grips Republicans in Congress and the corporate world. He does worry that “the Facebook model of identity has also inspired a Facebook model of political engagement.” But he doesn’t note that that vapid model owes more to market liberalism’s groping of citizens as narrowly self-centered consumers than it owes to identity politics, which is itself a consequence of commercialism’s reduction of citizenship to civically impoverishing consumerism.

He announces that identity liberalism must be ended, but not that the engines of wealth and power that identity liberalism obscures must be substantially redesigned. Leftist skepticism about common citizenship can be damaging, but it isn’t what’s really diminishing our civic and private lives. It’s the juggernaut of casino-like financing, predatory debt-mongering, and ever-more relentlessly intrusive, degrading marketing—the very disease of which Trump, the casino financier and predatory self-marketer, is a carrier and an excrescence.

“My version of the story” of liberalism’s failure “places special emphasis on the universities,” where “[t]oday’s activists and leaders are formed,” Lilla declares. He acknowledges, in passing, that conservative activists, too, are formed in well-funded campus “safe spaces”—and, I’d add, under speech-chilling conservative protocols and the market premises that infuse most college students’ actual courses, shaping them as investors in their own careers, rather than citizens whose education emphasizes the importance of a common civic culture. Before rushing to rescue civic solidarity from left-academic insularity, he might have taken into account the kinds of “solidarity” and identity politics that held most pre-diversity American colleges (particularly those led by conservatives) in an iron grip throughout the past century.

Instead, he lampoons liberal academics, especially those at leafy little colleges supposedly isolated from “real” American diversity, who seek out “sister cities… in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, (though not in the conservative rural communities nearby that one passed on the way to the airport).” Clever though this and others of his sardonic jabs are, he conspicuously ignores warnings like that of Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington who, in a widely noted 2004 essay, “Dead Souls,” argued that cosmopolitan, corporate leaders were bypassing their American workers on the way to the airport to seek less-expensive workers and bigger profits abroad. To hear Lilla tell it, you’d think that it’s campus orientalists who’ve emptied American factory towns.

Lilla might also have pondered the irony of the great crossover of the late 1960s in which many liberals and conservatives virtually swapped approaches to ethno-racial and sexual identity. Liberals had long embraced the “melting pot” ethos of citizenship-building “Americanization” programs that dominated public schools from the 1920s through the mid-1960s. Liberals back then presented assimilation as a liberation from Old World ethnic and racial superstitions and feuds. They worked to reduce cultural and political differences among Jewish, Italian, Slavic, and other immigrants in favor of a republican ethos of trust, candor, and self-sacrifice for the common good. Blacks were still excluded, as they were from many New Deal provisions, but leftist “Popular Front” activists affirmed an “all-American” identity that, in turn, affirmed strategic slogans such as “Black and White, Unite and Fight!”

Conservatives, by contrast, had long embraced a “multiculturalism” that put every group in its place, with a label on its face. They did this in the South, where they covered racist brutalities with syrupy professions of endearment to blacks who were willing to “know their place.” They did it also in the North, drawing clear distinctions among Hebrew, Slavic, Italian, Celtic, and other white “races.” They trained immigrants’ children to adopt Anglo-Saxon paradigms and manners, but only as subordinates, not equals. If the left faltered during those years by underestimating the power of nationalist and religious yearnings, the right faltered by reinforcing them hypocritically, even as its capitalist premises and practices drained cultural identities of meaning.

So how does Lilla propose to renew America’s battered civic solidarity and strengthen its New Deal provisions? “‘[R]esistance’ will not be enough,” he insists; Liberals must break “the spell of movement politics” and undertake “a lot of tedious, incremental work” to elect governors, legislators, and prosecutors who’ll ensure that, for example, police don’t profile and brutalize unarmed black Americans. “Martin Luther King Jr. was the greatest movement leader in American history. But, as Hillary Clinton once correctly pointed out, his efforts would have been futile without those of the machine politician Lyndon Johnson…. One must keep winning elections to defend the gains that social movements have contributed to…. The age of movement politics is over, at least for now. We need no more marchers.”

Electing liberal Democrats rather than Republicans is indeed imperative in the system we have, but this system is so badly compromised that only movements active both without and within electoral politics can help Democrats win and make them govern responsibly. As a senator, John F. Kennedy opposed the 1957 Civil Rights Act with the Democratic Party’s segregationist, Southern committee chairmen. Only a movement’s sustained, disciplined, sometimes brutality-provoking marches persuaded Kennedy to recast the public narrative about race and American identity.

Liberalism is a philosophy that’s strong because it’s “not too sure it’s right,” Judge Learned Hand remarked decades ago. But Lilla is quite sure that, as he puts it, “We’re all Americans and we owe that to each other. That’s what liberalism means.” Five years ago, though, he asked in another essay, “What does it mean to call oneself a liberal or conservative today? Does it make sense to distinguish ‘progressives’ and ‘reactionaries,’ or are those just terms of abuse and self-flattery?…. Getting it right… requires a certain art, a kind of dispassionate alertness and historical perspective, a sense of the moment, and a sense that this, too, shall pass.”

The time has passed for urgent jeremiads against liberal identity politics and the Democrats who pander to it. Far more threatening are moves by demagogues, plutocrats, and the cave-dwellers of alt-right identity politics. The time has also passed for airy paeans to civic solidarity and the New Deal. Electing Democratic majorities remains absolutely necessary, but the cultural and economic riptides that have carried a financier of casinos and predatory self-marketer to the White House are too swift and strong for elected liberals who aren’t backed—and kicked—by deeply disciplined movements, as Roosevelt himself was. These movements can’t be what they were in Roosevelt’s time, and they certainly can’t be fixated on racial or sexual self-justification. They’ll need to reach deeper into the wellsprings of their members’ humanity—as the civil-rights movement once did—in order to reach farther afield than ever before. And then they’ll have to unite with others and fight.

The late writer Jonathan Schell taught that real power flows from seemingly powerless, unarmed people, when they stop obeying an immoral authority in such great, well-organized numbers that they reconfigure public life without “permission,” certification, or reward from above. Schell’s The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People is a useful antidote to Lilla’s book—as well as to what’s wrong in identity politics itself. It shows how, historically and philosophically, seemingly “helpless” people have indeed reconfigured vast empires and national-security states, from British India to South Africa to Soviet Eastern Europe. Non-violent non-cooperation is hard to achieve, but it is also indomitable; no army or police force can imprison millions who stop obeying and start organizing society in new ways. Schell points to the above-mentioned examples, as well as instances from the American Revolution, illustrating just how many risks and burdens people have borne before reaping the rewards of their efforts.

Many fail, but those who succeed in reopening and strengthening their societies are the liberals of the future, not the past. They get there not by finger-pointing but by pointing forward.

The irony that’s caught up with this book is that while Lilla may well have hoped to chasten his identity liberal targets, alt-right identity nationalists, who weren’t very much in his sights, may be uniting liberals across their differences, much as Aryan fascism united Americans of my parents’ generation across theirs.

Read more about conservatismFranklin D. RooseveltFree MarketsLiberalismraceRacismRonald Reagan

Jim Sleeper is a writer on American civic culture and politics. He taught political science at Yale for 21 years and is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism.

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