Monday, August 28, 2017

Intersectionalism Suffocating On Its Own Fumes


theintercept |  Shortly after the 2016 election, Columbia University historian Mark Lilla published an op-ed in The New York Times lamenting 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.”

Lilla attacked “identity politics” as atomizing the American public and losing elections, contrasting it with a holistic variation of liberalism that powered the New Deal Coalition — Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, which focused not so much on who individual Americans were, but what rights they all needed. The column went viral, sparking countless hot takes, and he quickly padded out the argument into enough words to call it a book, “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.” Let the hot takes resume.

The reaction to Lilla’s original piece from left and liberal writers was harsh. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Lilla’s Columbia University colleague Katherine Franke compared his ideology to that of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s, arguing that “Duke is happy to own the white supremacy of his statements, while Lilla’s op-ed does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable.”

But while Lilla may be a white male professor in New York City, his concerns are hardly uncommon among those in left-liberal politics. For instance, former Democratic state representative LaDawn Jones — an African-American woman who chaired Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in Georgia — lamented earlier this year that her party’s Atlanta convention seemed to offer caucuses and councils for every racial and affinity group except white people. In the state of Georgia, less than 25 percent of white voters choose Democrats at the ballot box, meaning that white Democrats are indeed a minority group. Would the logic of identity liberalism then dictate that the party design messaging aimed directly at them? Traditionally, identity liberalism justifies itself by organizing around groups that have been historically oppressed, but when traditional majority in-groups become out-groups in certain organizations and societies, is there a need for special categorization and organizing for their inclusion as well?

These are the sort of questions Lilla tries to wrestle with in the short book released this month. “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics” is a breezy 165 pages that he uses as a short overview of contemporary American political history and what he believes are the shortcomings of modern American liberalism.

The book is at its best when it is reviewing the strengths of modern conservative thought and liberal shortcomings — when Lilla reviews the towering political rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, who reset American politics, to his laments of over-reaching identity sectarianism on American campuses — but comes up much weaker when suggesting an alternative way forward.

TheNewYorker |   Now into the arena comes a distinctly more conservative brand of liberal and Trump opponent, Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia, who, on November 18th, published an Op-Ed in the Times declaring, “One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.” His article, written while Clinton voters were still in a kind of disbelieving haze, outraged not a few readers of the paper with its blasts at “the fixation on diversity in our schools” and the “moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force.” Lilla is hardly indifferent to injustices against women, the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and people of color, but he claims that too many liberals and leftists, indulging in a politics of “narcissism,” are “indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.”

Lilla, who has expanded that article into his new, brief book, “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics,” insists that his is the pragmatic view: that in order to secure progress for overlooked and oppressed peoples—in order to advance a liberal economic, environmental, and social agenda—political power must be won, which means that elections must be won. At the moment, the Democratic Party—from elections for the White House to state legislatures—is failing. The Democrats, he says, were once the party of the working class; now the Democrats are largely a loose coalition of educated coastal élites and minorities. Why is it now possible to drive across the country for thousands of miles without hitting a blue state or county? How did the Democrats lose a decisive number of Obama voters to someone like Donald Trump? Lilla believes that identity politics is a central part of the answer.

When I read Lilla’s book and then talked with him for The New Yorker Radio Hour, I found much to disagree with, not least his cutting dismissals of “social-justice warriors” or movements like Black Lives Matter, which he sees as a “textbook example of how not to build solidarity.” Lilla was once an editor at The Public Interest and a neoconservative on domestic issues, though not on foreign policy; Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were his elders and allies. He still writes with marked ambivalence and irritation about the contemporary left, particularly as he sees it on university campuses. Beverly Gage, Adam Gopnik, Michelle Goldberg, and others have already delivered serious critiques of Lilla’s argument about identity politics.