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An Intellectual Historian Argues His Case Against Identity Politics

Lilla adopts the tone of a long-suffering professor who just wants to discuss Marx and Emerson but finds himself besieged by hybridity and intersectionality. And yet he often fails in some basic professorial imperatives, like familiarizing himself with the relevant literature and providing research and evidence to support his argument. Lilla contends that the New Deal initiated a golden age of liberalism, filled with “confidence, hope, pride and a spirit of self-sacrifice,” all but ignoring extensive scholarship on the era’s conflicts and structural inequities. His narrative of the modern conservative movement is no more nuanced, depicting the fractious post-1980 Republican Party as “an ideologically unified and electorally potent force that thought and acted like a ‘fine-tuned machine.’”

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This is not, of course, a work of historical scholarship. It is a polemic about the dangers of “identity liberalism,” and a critique of the misguided professors and students who seem so enamored of it. Campus movements admittedly make for an easy target, with their self-serious posturing and ever-lengthening strings of abbreviations. But for an intellectual historian, Lilla seems remarkably incurious about what all of this actually means to the people involved. One might suppose that an author taking aim at college activists would interview a few of them — find out what their experiences have been, how they view the world, why they do what they do. Instead Lilla draws on a handful of quotes from the 55-year-old Port Huron Statement, the long-ago manifesto of the white student left, to capture most of what has gone wrong ever since.

Lilla’s labels can be slippery; he often conflates liberals, leftists and Democrats. By contrast he takes a rather narrow view of “identity politics” as something practiced mainly by left-wing movements and not, say, by the Republican Party. His dislike of this form of activism seems to have something to do with its claim that “the personal is political,” that we are all social and political beings even in the most intimate settings. Lilla rejects what most feminists would say about that venerable phrase: that it opened up new areas of life to political analysis and civic action. To the contrary, he sees it as a disastrous turn inward, a rejection of tough-minded electoral warfare in favor of “aimless self-expression.”

Lilla acknowledges that social movements like feminism and civil rights played important roles in American history, raising questions and insisting on changes that could be secured no other way. At the moment, however, he finds such movements to be counterproductive, sucking energy away from the simple and urgent task of getting more Democrats into office. He disparages Black Lives Matter as “a textbook example of how not to build solidarity,” and dismisses “sex relations, the family, the secretarial pool, schools, the grocery store” (read: women’s issues) as all but irrelevant to serious politics.

This is a shame, because he identifies some truly important questions that liberals and leftists of all stripes will have to face together: How should the Democratic Party balance diversity with a common vision of citizenship? How and where should concerned Americans focus their energies — on social-movement activism, on “resistance,” on electoral politics? How should universities preserve free speech in an age of impassioned conflict? How, for that matter, can Democrats start winning a few more local races? Lilla acts as if there are easy answers to these questions. “We need no more marchers,” he writes. “We need more mayors.” But isn’t it possible that we need both?

Lilla concedes that many Americans think of themselves at once as members of identity groups and as citizens of a national polity. “Both ideas can be — indeed, are — true.” He argues nonetheless that our particular crisis calls for prioritizing one over the other. “What’s crucial at this juncture in our history is to concentrate on this shared political status, not on our other manifest differences.”

Unwittingly, however, “The Once and Future Liberal” provides a case study in just how challenging that may be. Despite his lofty calls for solidarity, Lilla can’t seem to get out of his own way — or even to take his own advice. He urges fellow liberals to focus on “the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort,” then proceeds to insult his own audience. He denounces the modern university for churning out students “incurious about the world outside their heads,” yet fails, in the end, to get much outside of his own. He decries identity types for “delivering sermons to the unwashed from a raised pulpit” while offering up his own elaborate jeremiad. He reminds liberals that “nothing will turn voters off more surely than being hectored,” and then — on the very same page — scolds the “identity conscious” for treating political meetings as “therapy sessions.”

As it turns out, Lilla himself could have used more rather than less introspection, a healthy dose of examining his own contradictions and biases. He laments that “American liberals have a reputation, as the saying goes, of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” If so, he has proved his bona fides as a member of the tribe. “The Once and Future Liberal” is a missed opportunity of the highest order, trolling disguised as erudition.

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