Home / POLITICS / A Conversation with Mark Lilla on His Critique of Identity Politics

A Conversation with Mark Lilla on His Critique of Identity Politics

The Trump campaign and Presidency have sparked not only an ever-expanding
literature of biography, investigation, and pre-history but also a
variety of polemics and essays—pointed attacks on the President, his
character, his intentions, his abuses, and the political climate that he
has created.

Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale who is best known in academic
circles for his comprehensive studies of modern Europe, recently
published a best-selling polemic called “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from
the Twentieth Century,” a primer on authoritarian tendencies of the past
and how to resist them now. In October, Ta-Nehisi Coates will publish
“We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” a series of essays on race, written
during the Obama era, that concludes with the current predicament: “The
white supremacy swirling around Trump is neither notional nor symbolic
but is the very core of his power.”

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.

And yet there’s little question that Trump and the distorting lenses of
the right-wing and white-nationalist media have succeeded in inflating
the “threat” of identity politics and political correctness as a key
component of their rhetoric and electoral strategy. Steve Bannon
represented Trump’s id on this subject and made it a centerpiece of
Trump’s campaign, his Inaugural Address, and the early months of his
Presidency. Lilla, who disdains Bannon for myriad political and moral
reasons, also thinks that he may have a tactical point. And this is
where our conversation began.

REMNICK: We’re speaking a couple of weeks after Charlottesville, and a lot
of things are converging all of a sudden, not for the first time:
history, politics, identity. How would you rate the national
conversation we’re having at the moment, when it comes to race,
identity, and politics?

LILLA: Well, I wouldn’t call it a conversation. It’s an overused word.
I’m a little tired of it.

REMNICK: “The national conversation.”

LILLA: “The national conversation.” “We need to have a conversation”
about something—which is a euphemism for avoiding something and a real
conflict. But it’s something that’s been simmering below the surface for
a very long time—it’s not that we haven’t been talking about identity
issues. But to see this flash out from the right, very suddenly, just
brings home, I think, the incendiary nature of this, and how, when
passions are excited about identity issues, conversation stops. Not many
journalists picked up on this, but the demonstration was actually a
quotation of a demonstration in May, 1933, when Nazi students, shortly
after Hilter’s appointment as Chancellor, marched through the University
of Berlin at night, with torches, into the courtyard of the university.
That’s where the famous book burning took place. They knew exactly what
they were doing.

REMNICK: Then what’s the proper response to such a demonstration?
Persuasion?

LILLA: No, the first thing you do when fascists show up in the street is
you show up, too. And that’s what people did. I have all sorts of
problems with the Antifa people—we need to stay very far away from
them—but look at what happened in Boston over the weekend. You had all
these people show up. There really weren’t many people on the other
side. And so I think there are moments like this, which are rare, of
absolute moral clarity. People show their true colors in these moments.
I guess the question for me now is, How do we, on our side—by which I
mean, I’m a liberal Democrat, I’m a partisan—how do we use a moment like
this and not get used by a moment like this?

REMNICK: What do you mean used by a moment like this? There is a quote
recently that Steve Bannon, of all people, delivered: “The Democrats,
the longer they talk about identity politics, I’ve got ’em. I want them
to talk about racism every day. If the left is focussed on race and
identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the
Democrats.” And you have said that it works for them—it being identity
politics—but it doesn’t work for us. And there seems to be some link—not
that I’m saying that your politics, by any chance, are anything like
Steve Bannon’s—but you’re saying a similar thing, aren’t you?

LILLA: I just think it’s an objective fact. I mean, he has no reason to
lie about this. And the past two generations of our politics, I think,
demonstrate exactly that.

REMNICK: Let’s define what identity politics is, because it’s a phrase
that’s used now in all sorts of ways. And it seems to me that identity
politics has been at the root of politics for half of forever.

LILLA: Well, certainly on the American right, ever since the Ku Klux
Klan, we’ve had explicitly framed identity politics. That is in the
sharpest sense. Now, you can say that people think of themselves as
Italians or Jews or Germans, and then they become a kind of interest
group. We’ve had interest-group politics before. But there’s a kind of
essentialism to identity politics, where it means going out into the
democratic space, where you’re struggling for power and using identity as
an appeal for other people to vote for your side. And I think Bannon’s
completely right, and I’ll stand by what I said: that it works for their
side and it doesn’t work for our side, for all kinds of reasons. Now,
that is not to say that we don’t talk about identity. To understand any
social problem in this country, you have to understand identity. And
we’re more aware of that than ever, and that’s been a very good thing.
But, to address those problems with politics, we have to abandon the
rhetoric of difference, in order to appeal to what we share, so that
people who don’t share this identity somehow can have a stake, and feel
something that other people are experiencing.

To give you an example, I’m not a black motorist. I will never be a
black motorist. I don’t know what it’s like to look in the rearview
mirror of a car and see the lights flashing and feel my stomach churn.
But I am a citizen. And that person is a fellow-citizen. And, if we can
make the case that there are citizens in this country who can’t just go
for a drive without being worried about this, and they won’t be equally
protected by the law, I think I can make the case to people who aren’t
black that that’s a terrible thing, right? And so I want to frame the
issue in terms of basic values and principles that we share in order to
establish sympathy and empathy and identification with someone else.

REMNICK: But, Mark, what are you asking African-Americans to do? Be a
little less specific? More polite, somehow? You’re asking them to be
less aggressive in their demand for justice, whether it’s on the road or
on the street? I understand the over-all yearning for a more generalized
rhetoric of “us,” of liberal values, of civil rights. I’m not sure why
you have the disdain you do, the suspicion that you do, for a group like
Black Lives Matter. You’re saying that they’re going about it in all the
wrong ways, unless I’m misunderstanding.

LILLA: Well, to read the full passage of what I said about Black Lives
Matter, I said, “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to
build solidarity. There’s no denying that by publicizing and protesting
police mistreatment of African-Americans, the movement mobilized
supporters and delivered a wake-up call to every American with a
conscience.” I’m totally onboard with that.

REMNICK: So what did Black Lives Matter do that you’re, at best,
ambivalent about—and very critical, really?

LILLA: And then I say, “But there’s no denying that the movement’s
decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of
American society and its law-enforcement institutions and to use Mau Mau
tactics to put down dissent and demand a confession of sins and public
penitence played into the hands of the Republican right.”

REMNICK: But, Mark. “Mau Mau tactics.” Are you familiar with—

LILLA: Of course I remember it. What was that confrontation they had
with Hillary Clinton, if not that? They were shouting down people at
various venues. No, those were Mau Mau tactics, sure.

REMNICK: You’re comfortable with that phrase?

LILLA: Sure. I mean, “Mau Mau tactics,” I’m also thinking of Tom Wolfe—

REMNICK: No, I remember the opening of the Tom Wolfe piece. But I also
know where Tom Wolfe stands politically, which is much farther than
you’re saying you are to the right.

LILLA: Well, I’m not to the right.

REMNICK: So, some of the criticism that’s aimed at your book has less to
do with the generalized demand for a more common politics and a desire
to win than it does with a certain tonal thing. In Beverly Gage’s review of
your book, she says—and I’m not quoting, but I’m remembering—that you
seem disappointed in your students. There’s a tone to the book that you
have been offended by politics on campus to a degree that seems
outsized. Can you address that? What’s been your experience on campus of
identity politics that offends?

LILLA: Well, to begin with, what leads to my frustration and my tone is
that I’m sick of noble defeats. I’m tired of losing. I’m sickened by the
fact that Donald Trump is in power right now, and not just that but
that Republicans control two-thirds of our state legislatures,
two-thirds of our governorships, twenty-four states outright. If they
win two more they can call a constitutional convention. To my mind, that
is the biggest threat to every group that Democrats care about. That’s
the most important threat.

REMNICK: And it’s impossible to have both at once? You can’t have a
winning strategy without maintaining some semblance of a concentration
on identity?

LILLA: The distinction I’m trying to make—between analyzing a social
problem and developing a political program in order to win power—people
who are in movement politics fail to see the distinction, I think.
Because identity politics is maximalizing. That’s how you succeed—you
see this as the only issue. There’s a difference between speaking truth
to power and seizing power to defend the truth. And those require very
different things, right? And it’s important to speak truth to power out
in society. We’re journalists, right? We need to write about this kind
of stuff. But, 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 per cent of Americans live in
the South. Seventeen per cent, 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.

REMNICK: Why do you think they felt called out to by Barack Obama and
not by Hillary Clinton? What was the key difference there?

LILLA: Precisely because Obama did not list groups. Because he talked
about “we.” He didn’t always finish his sentences—he would say, “That’s
not who we are,” and wouldn’t quite tell us who we are. But he
understood that. Both Obama and [Bill] Clinton understood that playing
identity politics in electoral politics is a disaster for the liberal
side.

REMNICK: So, you don’t think, to any degree, that the Trump victory,
however narrow it was, was the result of a post-Obama hangover, of
having had an African-American President for eight years?

LILLA: Oh, I’m sure that’s true. I mean, there are so many things—it’s
overdetermined, any one explanation of this election. But we also know
that there are people who voted for Obama and voted for Trump, and
they’re kind of a mystery to us. But I think we get too focussed on
Presidential elections in order to read where the country is.

REMNICK: Because the Democrats are getting killed on a local level, on
the state level.

LILLA: Right. And what people in identity movements haven’t faced up to
is that institutional politics will trump movement politics all the
time. We have a constitutional right to abortion in this country. And
there are large sections of the country where a woman cannot get an
abortion. That’s not because we haven’t been speaking truth to power, or
we haven’t been organizing, or tweeting enough, or marching enough. It’s
because we haven’t gone out into those states and established a
beachhead. By being able to go out and speak to those people and get
them on our side.

REMNICK: Mark, would you have written this book if Hillary Clinton had
won? It was a victory by Trump of some eighty-thousand votes and some
key counties and three Midwestern states. Would your argument hold up if
it had gone just the other way?

LILLA: Yes, because it’s not about Trump. It’s really about the change,
electorally, at the state and local level, which is really where the
action happens now. That’s where the fight against unions is happening,
that’s where the fight against public schools is happening, that’s where
the fight against voting rights for African-Americans is happening. I
probably wouldn’t have been spurred to write it, but that’s where the
story is. But, even more, we are held in contempt—

REMNICK: Who’s the “we” in this sentence?

LILLA: Whenever I use the “we,” I’m talking about liberals. Liberalism
has become a dirty word. Now, that’s largely the result of very
successful work in the right-wing media in order to demonize us—

REMNICK: And one of the things right-wing media does is take some
examples of exaggerated identity politics, in your terms—cartoonish
moments—and blow them up on Fox or Breitbart or the rest, and make it
seem as if every student at Columbia or Oberlin or the University of
Chicago is inflamed with this. Am I wrong?

LILLA: Oh yeah. They are absolutely able to exploit things and
exaggerate them like that. However, when they use it to show a
mentality, a way in which we think about things, whether on campus or
elsewhere, I think we are exposed. 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.

REMNICK: What’s your experience on campus, in real life? You’ve been at
the University of Chicago, you’re at Columbia now, you’ve been
elsewhere. Is the cartoon true? How much does this enter your life as a
teacher, as a faculty member? Or is it all blown up? What’s the reality
of it, day to day?

LILLA: Well, my case is a little special. I don’t belong to a
department—I have a university-wide appointment—so I don’t have to sit
in on faculty decisions about hiring and things like that. I teach
“Homer to Virginia Woolf” to eighteen-year-olds. If I don’t send out
signals that we’re going to talk about identity, they don’t. We talk
about the books. But I see them after they go out, after their first
year, and I can see that many of them get absorbed in this. They come
into my office, and I just listen to them. I don’t argue with them.

REMNICK: And what do you hear?

LILLA: What I see, essentially, is that, to the extent that they 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. Of course, they’re
eighteen to twenty-two, and they’re also searching—searching politically
and to situate themselves in terms of racial and other identities. And,
certainly, sexually, they’re trying to figure themselves out. And so
they’re drawn to classes that speak to that.

REMNICK: But I can almost hear the listener questioning: O.K., there are
two white guys in a room discussing this. There are identity issues that
really are of tremendous urgency, whether it has to do with sexuality,
race, religion, and all the rest. “Easy for you to say”—easy for me to
say, perhaps. Why shouldn’t those things be of tremendous urgency to an
eighteen-year-old or a nineteen-year-old? Or do you think it just
overwhelms everything else?

LILLA: It’s the latter. I mean, I understand. These are real subjects
worth studying. But when you think of what should happen during these
four years, especially if you want to create liberal citizens who think
of themselves as citizens and are prepared to engage, and that means
understanding the whole country, it leads to a kind of truncated sense
of what politics is. It gives a distorted picture of what’s going on in
the rest of the country. 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. There are a lot of progressives
saying all of the same things, progressives who’ve written books
attacking identity politics. (Walter Benn Michaels is probably the best
known.) And they are saying that it’s taken our eyes off class in this
country. I’m very sympathetic to that point of view. 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.

REMNICK: Mark, it seemed that the Bernie Sanders campaign was almost all
about class. He had a real ambivalence toward, even antipathy toward,
what you describe as identity politics, no?

LILLA: He did, yeah. And we can talk about the Bernie campaign. Young
people were attracted to that once they saw it, right? But this was new
for them. They weren’t hearing that on campus. What we haven’t talked
about is that it’s a question of vision. Liberalism from Franklin Delano
Roosevelt into the seventies had a picture of the kind of country we
wanted to create. What we were as citizens, what was owed to us, what we
owed to each other. It was a political vision that legitimized the use
of government to build social solidarity and defend equal rights. And
the New Deal set the terms of political debate, even on the Republican
side. For example, Nixon proposed a guaranteed minimum income for all
Americans, he proposed a national health-insurance program.

REMNICK: But when the early civil-rights leaders came to Franklin
Roosevelt and made a series of demands about voting rights, civil
rights, Roosevelt famously said, “Make me.” You have to go out there and
make me. You have to create a politics that pushed the Democratic Party
and its leadership to act on it.

LILLA: Sure.

REMNICK: And that’s protest politics. In your book, you’re saying we need
less protest politics and we need more mayors. Don’t we need both?

LILLA: It’s a question of our time. There was a time in this country
from the fifties up until 1980 when all the action was in movement
politics, and that’s what made the change. As my colleague Ira
Katznelson writes in his book about the New Deal, the Dixiecrats
prevented many of the programs from helping—

REMNICK: But it was protest politics married to Lyndon Johnson. It was
not just Martin Luther King, it was also L.B.J.—which is something that
Hillary Clinton pointed out, to her peril. So why don’t we need both?

LILLA: Well, at the time, identity groups understood that that’s what
this was about. And they spoke not in terms of difference but about what
we shared. So, African-Americans had been—and still are—disenfranchised
from the great democratic “we.” That we all are citizens and they’re
being denied their rights as citizens. The same thing with women. So it
was, in a sense, wanting to actualize the vision that the Democratic
Party had and make it real. Then what happened, though, was that Reagan
came along with a very different vision of the country, that said, No,
we’re not a country about solidarity; government is the problem—essentially, we’re a country of individuals, you’re in your families,
churches, good luck to you, we’re going to get off your back, have a
happy day. Now, we know where that led. That vision has come to an end,
and Donald Trump helped to bury it. No one believes anymore that a tax
cut’s going to solve anything.

We now find ourselves in a visionless society. The two large visions of
what we are as a country and where we can go have both atrophied and
died. So, in a way, this is actually an interesting opportunity for us.
It’s really up to us now to give Americans a different way of thinking
about what we share and what we can do.

REMNICK: And is your hope simply a return to the Roosevelt dispensation?

LILLA: No, that can’t be done, because our situation is very different.
To begin with, we’ve learned that the government can only do so much,
and that certain programs don’t work, and we understand that better. Our
economic situation is completely different. We have a globalized
economy. It’s no longer possible to organize labor in the way we used
to. Women are a part of the workforce. All kinds of things have changed.
But our basic principles, I think, haven’t changed, and that’s that we
stick together. Citizens are not roadkill. We take care of each other.
We stand for the equal protection under the law. If we can only
articulate what those principles might mean in the present, I think
we’ll be able to move on from our obsession with, or our self-limitation
to, identity, in order to reach out to people we haven’t been able to
reach out to.

REMNICK: Mark, tell me about your own political journey. You grew up in
the Midwest, and somewhere along the way you were an editor at The
Public Interest
, which was identified as a neocon magazine. Is that the
way you would identify yourself, politically, and have you changed?

LILLA: No, I think the world has more changed around me. I grew up in a
place, Macomb County, Michigan, which is famous among Democrats and
journalists.

REMNICK: It’s the tipping point.

LILLA: It’s the home of the Reagan Democrats. Books have been written
about it. In the early nineteen-sixties, it was the most liberal
suburban county in America. This is flat-on Detroit. Eminem’s 8 Mile
Road. I grew up on 12 Mile Road. And 8 Mile Road was a racial barrier.
In 1972, George Wallace won the Michigan primary. He won more votes
there than in any other county north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The state and
the county ended up going for Nixon, and they never looked back.
Sometimes they voted for Democrats, but essentially they became the
white working class that’s resentful of liberals and Democrats. I saw
this happen in my family. I saw this happen in my neighborhood.

REMNICK: Your family was working-class Democrat that became Reagan
Democrat?

LILLA: My particular family was very liberal. My sister was a Democratic
county commissioner in Macomb County. But I saw these people who were
neighbors and so on, and a lot changed, and they became unreachable, for
a lot of reasons that would take a while to elaborate—a lot of it had to
do with Vietnam. So, ever since, I’ve been wondering why it is that
we’ve not been able to reach these people, trying to understand them. I
started at Wayne State, putting myself through school by working nearly
full-time, and finally I got a scholarship to go to Michigan, and it was
a very different environment. When I was at Wayne State, I was an
evangelical, and I was involved in prayer meetings with black members,
and belonged to the Union for Radical Political Economics.

REMNICK: You were an evangelical Marxist, in a sense.

LILLA: Yeah. And then I went to Michigan and suddenly found myself being
lectured to about the working class by the children of executives of
Ford Motor Company. They were running off on their fancy vacations and
had contempt for the people I grew up around, they had great contempt
for religion. And I reacted against that. I was drawn then to The
Public Interest
and what neoconservatism was in the seventies. And the
people who attracted me were Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Daniel Bell,
who was sort of my mentor, and Nathan Glazer, with whom I wrote a book.
And those people were pre-McGovern Democrats.

REMNICK: So, not the Commentary crowd. It was something different.

LILLA: No, no. They were interested in foreign policy and Jewish
affairs, and I was never that. So I became an editor of this
public-policy magazine, because I had a public-policy degree. I had
studied urban policy as an undergraduate. And then, in 1980, Reagan was
elected and I saw this world utterly transformed by power. Everyone was
going to Washington, talking about the Laffer curve. And at that point I
got off the bus. But I remain, kind of—and in that sense, I am a
dinosaur—at heart, a pre-McGovern, blue-collar Democrat.

REMNICK: What was called at one point the Bobby Kennedy coalition.

LILLA: Sure. It was not Gene McCarthy.

REMNICK: And how do you identify yourself politically now?

LILLA: I consider myself a centrist liberal. But it’s not even a
question of where we are on right and left anymore, you know? The
problem I’m having, and I try to make the case in the book, is that, as
identity consciousness has increased among liberals, political
consciousness has decreased. So, I’m a political liberal. Cultural
liberalism is another thing, and I’m sympathetic to a lot of it, but I
think our energies need to be devoted to seizing power and developing a
vision of where we want to take the country. A rainbow is not a vision
of the kind of world that we want to build together.

REMNICK: Do you see politicians on the horizon, whether on the national
or local level, that have a political vision and a political rhetoric
that you find appealing?

LILLA: No. I mean, our bench is very short. There are people who I feel
get this. Joe Biden certainly gets it. I don’t know if there are any
younger people coming up. And that’s what worries me. Because, within the
Party, the people who work in the Party, the people who are active in
the Party, are very focussed on not only groups but on the idea that
we’re putting together a coalition. And, you know, what was extraordinary
about Reagan is that, up until 1980, the Republican Party had all these
warring factions and they didn’t have one message. And once Reagan
offered up this very simple vision of the country, the differences
between those groups became much less important, because they all saw
themselves in this vision. And that’s what has to happen to us. We need
to be able to put forward a vision so that African-Americans look at it
and say, those are the principles I stand for, and white working class
people look at it, too, and they’re not thinking so much about their
differences.

REMNICK: Unless I misread your book, you seem to say that, in the
interest of winning—and politics is about power, ultimately—the
Democratic side ought to think about abandoning certain issues, certain
kinds of rhetoric, in order to win. But abandoning certain things like
full-throated opposition to bathroom bills will mean that certain
people—transgender people, some of the most vulnerable people in our
society—will get hurt. How does a party go about sacrificing people on
the altar of the general good?

LILLA: Well my main point is this, and I want to get this across: we
cannot do anything for these groups we care about if we do not hold
power. It is just talk. Therefore, our rhetoric in campaigning must be
focussed on winning, so then we can help these people. An election is
not about self-expression. It’s not a time to display everything we
believe about everything. It’s a contest. And once you hold power, then
you can do the things you want to do. Your rhetoric has to be
mobilizing, and it’s got to mobilize—

REMNICK: But you can imagine how outraged a transgender person would
feel about such a tactic?

LILLA: Of course. Of course. And the situation of transgender people can
be very, very difficult, especially young people, who feel trapped in a
body. And suicide rates are terrible, and homeless rates are terrible.
But let’s be concrete about this: transgender people make up less than
one half of one per cent of the country. There is no electoral group
that we’re trying to mobilize. That’s not to say that we don’t want to
help them, and focus on that when we analyze our problems and when we
get into power. But that is not how you seize power in this country,
especially in the states we need to win. Look, we have the two coasts.
We need to go to the middle of the country. And if we keep talking about
groups, and small groups, and especially if we touch on anything that
involves children and sexuality—that’s insane. You don’t campaign on the
basis of that.

REMNICK: Mark, you mention Joe Biden as somebody who gets it. Joe Biden
was probably the clearest and foremost voice for gay marriage in the
Obama Administration.

LILLA: Oh, of course, yeah, but how did we get gay marriage? It was not
just that there was a fiat from above. On the contrary, it’s that this
change happened socially. It happened in families, it happened at dinner
tables, when children came out to their parents—sometimes parents came
out to their kids.

REMNICK: But it also happened because you had people in the streets
shouting, “We’re here. We’re queer.” Which is something that, in the
book, you say will only get you a pat on the head. Didn’t that help get
power, too? Didn’t Stonewall help get power, the civil-rights movement help
get power?

LILLA: Well, Stonewall certainly mobilized people to then focus on
particular pieces of legislation, and also to mobilize in order to get
research and work on AIDS and H.I.V. But that’s, again,
just to focus on one particular issue and one particular group. And, if
each group is just thinking about itself, it’s not thinking like a
party. Party politics, right now, has to come first. Because we cannot
help any of these people if we don’t get elected.

REMNICK: The slogan of Occupy Wall Street was “We Are the Ninety-nine Per Cent.” That’s a
pretty big tent. What did you think of Occupy Wall Street?

LILLA: Well, as I mentioned, nearly forty per cent of the country is
Southern. One out of every four Americans is evangelical. I didn’t see
those people represented there. You know, I thought it was, the fact
that—

REMNICK: But that’s what the discussion was about. It was about class.

LILLA: It was about class, but it was bourgeois activists who were
there. And that’s fine, because at least someone was expressing outrage
by the bailout of the banks and what happened after the crash. So I was
happy that someone was saying anything. But it was theatre, right? And
it doesn’t lead to anything else.

REMNICK: Was it helpful theatre?

LILLA: Well, it was helpful in the sense that it certainly got liberals
talking more about this, and it was just there that people were
protesting. But by the time it descends into the drummers in Zuccotti
Park, and people arguing into the night about which groups are being
represented when they go up on the platform and speak, that just
illustrates what’s wrong with us.

REMNICK: How so?

LILLA: That we’re always about . . . Movement politics, I think, encourages
people to radicalize their positions and to impose purity tests on each
other. And so we’re always checking each other on our privilege or our
positions. And that does nothing to seize power out there. That’s all
about what you do within the group. Now the Women’s March was an
extraordinary thing, and was worldwide. My wife and daughter were there.
I was out of the country, or I would have been there. But it almost
didn’t happen. Why is that? Because this woman in Hawaii had a very good
idea and posted on Facebook: why don’t we show up in Washington and
protest the fact that this President has spoken about women this way.
What could be easier? And you know what happened afterward? She was
attacked by black groups because she didn’t have a committee, she didn’t
have other people represented—

REMNICK: But isn’t that a footnote—a glitch, really? I mean, look at the
outcome!

LILLA: I’m talking about the mentality that it reflects. And it hurts us
in other ways. And one way in which it definitely did hurt us is that
there was a group of pro-life feminists, religious feminists, who had
asked to join the group, were accepted, and then, once word got around
that they would be there, they were disinvited. That was an opportunity
to build a bridge. Now, I’m second to none in my support of abortion
rights—I’m an absolutist on a woman’s right to an abortion. But I also
know that there are other issues we have to care about, and there’s got
to be some way within the Democratic Party to accept that some
people are going to have different views while still standing by the
majority view. But when you’re involved in identity politics, you don’t
see that. Your mind is not tuned. And nothing that you learn in the
university prepares you to reach out and to speak thematically in this
way.

Now, we not only have to speak about identity when it comes to
understanding our social problems but we also want to change people’s
hearts and minds. And that doesn’t happen through electoral politics. It
happens through our churches, education, it happens through
television—“Sesame Street,” “Murphy Brown,” all these shows sort of made
this country a more tolerant place. But if we want to make people more
tolerant, the psychology of that is very complicated. What we do know—and psychologists study these sorts of things—if you call someone a
racist, they completely shut down. You’re not persuading, you’re not
building a bridge to that person. And while it’s satisfying to speak the
full truth about something, and I understand that urge, if you’re trying
to persuade people and move them a little toward your position, you’ve
got to find common ground. And that’s very hard to take for people who
are in movements, and feel frustrated that things aren’t going their
way.

REMNICK: If you look at those movements, though, there are always more
radical voices and less radical voices. You look at the AIDS activism—Larry Kramer was a radical voice, and said things, and
still says things, that make people crazy, and that seem extreme, and
all the rest. But couldn’t you argue that it depends on where you are in
time? In other words, without a Larry Kramer, without some of the
radicals in the civil-rights movement or in the women’s-rights movement,
that, in fact, things might not push forward quite as well, or quite as
quickly, or quite as effectively? But, in real time, when you’re
experiencing those radical voices, and they say things that are
outrageous or ridiculous, the tendency is to be dismissive of them or to
find them ridiculous.

LILLA: I see that. But, every time I look at a documentary, say, about
the civil-rights movement or about the African-American experience, and
it comes to the sixties, and Stokely Carmichael comes on, I’d follow him
anywhere.

REMNICK: Because of what he’s saying or because of his magnetism?

LILLA: His magnetism, and his willingness to call a problem what it is.
And to not beat around the bush. He was extraordinary. And so when you
see a clip of him next to Dr. King, King pales. Do I think that Stokely
Carmichael and the groups he represented did anything to help persuade
white America about race? I don’t think so. And I think Dr. King did.
Though the appeal for me, just given my personality, is—

REMNICK: Wait, wait, wait. In fact, a lot of white kids went down south
to follow Stokely Carmichael, every bit as much as Martin Luther King,
and leaders of S.N.C.C.—

LILLA: Oh, if you’re talking about white liberals, yes. I’m talking
about the attitudes toward race of other sorts of people.

REMNICK: So, here we are. How are any of us reaching broad numbers of
people among Trump voters, among Republican voters. Or is it folly?

LILLA: Well, as long as we think of ourselves as groups and think—as
the Democratic Party is, which has me worried—that now they have to just
add another group, or shift to another group, which is the white working
class, we’re not going to get anywhere. The big changes in political
life and consciousness in this country have come when a vision, again,
of what we are as a country comes along, so that we can identify, no
matter what group we come to, with the aspirations of that. It doesn’t
mean that we say it’s the reality.

REMNICK: What counsel would you then give to the university, to public
radio, to a magazine like ours—to what, certainly in the popular vision,
is seen as the coastal, blue audience rather than the rest of the
country?

LILLA: Well, in journalism and for students, I suppose that’s a
different question. But one thing that I’ve said to students is you’ve
got to get out of your comfort zone. You’ve got to go to places where
the Wi-Fi sucks, where you have no desire to take a picture of your
dinner, where you’re sitting at dinner with people who have their heads
bowed in prayer in thanks for that dinner, and they aren’t terribly
worried about whether spaghetti and meatballs is cultural appropriation.
That’s what you’ve got to do. And, if you can’t do that physically, you
have to do that mentally. And so the challenge is for us. Can we get
enough out of our own heads to not just treat the people who aren’t part
of our circles as yet another group—

REMNICK: You think narcissism is at the center, then, of the problem.

LILLA: Narcissism that’s fed by the fact that we’re a class-ridden
society—class-ridden and also now geographically divided. We need to
start thinking about the principles we hold that they also hold. We
can’t do that by demonizing them and thinking that they’re all hopeless
racists and reactionaries. Because that’s a comforting myth. Because
then you don’t think you have to do anything but lay back, get behind your
laptop, and send off some tweets.

REMNICK: Are you describing the President or are you describing liberals
here?

LILLA: [Laughs.] I guess I’d charge both of them with that. But we
need to get back to our principles and also tell other people’s stories.
By going out there and understanding just what it’s like.

REMNICK: Mark Lilla, thank you very much.

LILLA: That was fun, thanks.

This interview was transcribed and edited for length and clarity by
Jessica Henderson.


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