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The Enduring Importance of Identity Liberalism

Mark Lilla argues that the Democratic Party needs to move beyond identity politics. But that's precisely where the country's salvation lies.

Saul Loeb / Getty Images

In his 1962 essay “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” James Baldwin identified the largest obstacle to progress in this country as the undying belief in American greatness. This is a myth that would have to be abandoned, he argued, if the country were to see itself as it truly is and redress its wrongs. Happily, there is at least one group in America who could see the matter with clear eyes, he wrote: “The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace.”

You would think that the election of Donald J. Trump on November 8 would, once and for all, dispel the myth of American greatness. But it continues to undergird our political conversations, including those that address how to move forward from this calamity.

In the wake of their devastating loss, Democrats find themselves in the midst of ontological crisis, spurred in large part by the mass defection of disgruntled white working-class Americans from what used to be a blue firewall in the Upper Midwest. Last week, Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University who is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, offered up a solution. In an op-ed column for the Times titled “The End of Identity Liberalism,” Lilla argues for a post-identity liberalism, one that exchanges “diversity issues” and “the omnipresent rhetoric of identity” for appeals to “Americans as Americans.” A post-identity liberalism would treat issues of race, gender, sexuality, or religion “with a proper sense of scale” and focus on teaching American citizens about their political responsibilities in both the domestic and international spheres.

While seemingly well-intentioned, Lilla’s arguments—when read closely—parallel the uncomfortable demands of the president-elect to “Make America Great Again.” The problem with Lilla’s line of thinking is that it depends on a nostalgic and incomplete rendering of this nation’s past, while merely nodding at the necessity of identity politics in forming a more perfect union. He refuses to discard the myth, and avoids the challenge of genuinely reimagining American liberalism.

Lilla begins with the assertion that issues of race, gender, and sexual identity have caused American liberalism to slip into a “moral panic.” His attempts to acknowledge the benefits of focusing on these issues feel like a stiff corporate presentation that insists on its commitment to diversity. Affirmative action has “had many good effects,” and Hollywood has helped “normalize” homosexuality in American families and public life.

But these attempts at inclusivity come at a cost, which Lilla defines as a generation of Americans who superficially engage with diversity and “have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy, and the common good.” He blames the American education system, which has failed to convey “the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.” While Lilla is right to criticize the quality of education in this country, he does not acknowledge that these perennial questions are inextricably linked to issues of race, gender, and sexuality. How can we talk about class without recognizing that the poorest Americans are often people of color? Can we have a serious discussion about the common good when people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ community are treated as outsiders? And while few people would disavow the work of the founding fathers in creating a system of government we minorities remain loyal to, can we honestly understand that system without acknowledging the founding fathers’ concerted efforts to exclude minorities and women from those guaranteed rights?

Lilla offers Europe as an example of successful post-identity liberalism, detailing an experiment he recently conducted while on sabbatical in France. “My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did,” he writes. Europeans, according to Lilla, would never dare adopt news coverage based on the “identity drama.” The choice of Europe, and France in particular, as an exemplar is odd at best. A lack of “identity drama” in the news does not efface the country’s myriad problems with forming an inclusive society. This is the same country whose cities are choosing to maintain a burkini ban despite a court ruling that called it an infringement of religious freedom. This is the same country that has come under regular terrorist attacks from disaffected minority citizens.

But to Lilla the issues raised by identity politics are more a passing fascination than a necessary part of the discourse. “Interesting as it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt,” he writes, “it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own.” In other words, if the focus on global human rights does not inform our political interests in a particular country, they are little more than fun facts. But who is to say that the recent crackdown on gay and transgender Egyptians does not contextualize the aggressive return of military rule since the 2013 coup against Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected head of state in Egypt’s history? And how can we, at the very least, not learn from these situations, and reflect more deeply on how we infringe rights in our own country?

Perhaps the most striking part of Lilla’s essay comes toward the end when he outlines what post-identity liberalism would look like:

Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another.

Lilla lists Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Franklin Roosevelt as examples of politicians who united Americans by asserting their commonalities. But this ahistorical assertion ignores the damaging effects that their respective administrations had on particular groups of Americans. While the legacy of the New Deal can’t be overstated, it left out African Americans from its benefits. Reagan did more than anyone to usher in the era of small government, which is to say a government that was limited in its ability to protect and raise up the most vulnerable. And while Clinton presided over a robust American economy, he also signed the 1994 crime bill that amplified the effects of mass incarceration and enacted welfare reform in 1996, both of which disproportionately affected communities of color.

Lilla’s essay not only revises the history of the aforementioned presidents, but also ignores the last eight years of President Barack Obama’s attempts to create a liberalism that fuses identity politics with the idea of American greatness. Last March, Obama delivered a moving speech honoring the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma, in which he asked us to consider the words of our founding fathers. He held that the language of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are a roadmap, living words that remind us that the “success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all of our citizens in this work.” Like Lilla, Obama evoked the memory of Roosevelt, but he was not blind to the truth of the past. Selma and the fight for the civil rights of all Americans, he argued, is affirmation that “America is a constant work in progress” and “that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.” Obama’s groundbreaking premise was that American greatness can be measured, more or less directly, by how much progress African-Americans and other minorities have made toward the full equality that the founding fathers promised.

If we were to follow Lilla’s line of thinking, we would be doing just the opposite. Instead of boldly forging into the future—on a course that will force us to reckon with our national identity—we would be pining for a nostalgia-tinted past. The answer to the Trump presidency is not to abandon the progress we have made. It is not to yearn for the past glories of a nation that has wronged so many people. It is to do the hard work of abandoning this country’s self-serving myths, and realizing that America’s greatness is yet to come.