Just when it seemed as if the election of Donald Trump had rendered his supporters incoherent with triumphalism and his detractors incoherent with rage — thereby dumbing-down political conversation for a long time to come — something different and more interesting happened. A genuine debate has sprung up among liberals and progressives about the subject of the hour: identity politics.
Jump-started by a short manifesto called The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, it’s a conversation worth following for reasons beyond partisanship. As in his New York Times essay published 10 days after Trump’s electoral victory, Lilla’s purpose in this broadside is two-fold: to excoriate identity politics, sometimes called “identity liberalism,” and to convince his “fellow liberals that their current way of looking at the country, speaking to it, teaching the young, and engaging in practical politics has been misguided and counterproductive.”
The discussion now underway on the left illuminates a fault line that has yet to be sufficiently mapped or explained. The deeper question raised is not the instrumental concern of Lilla and others — how liberalism can retool itself in order to win more elections. Rather, it’s the elemental one: How has the question of “identity” come to be emotional and political ground zero for so many in America, and elsewhere in the Western world?
As the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains in its entry on identity politics, “wherever they line up in the debates, thinkers agree that the notion of identity has become indispensable to contemporary political discourse.” In The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla offers one kind of answer to why that’s so. “[T]hirty years of economic growth and technological advance that followed the Second World War,” he argues, combined with new geographic, institutional, and erotic mobility and led to a “hyperindividualistic bourgeois society, materially and in our cultural dogmas.”
Flush with prosperity and unprecedented new freedoms, we moderns, Lilla believes, went on to atomize ourselves: “Personal choice. Individual rights. Self-definition. We speak these words as if a wedding vow.” By the 1980s, such hyperindividualism coalesced into what he calls the “Reagan Dispensation,” which prized self-reliance and small government over the collective — thus marking a radical break from the preceding “Roosevelt Dispensation” emphasizing more communal attachments, including duty and solidarity.
By embracing the politics of identity, Lilla says, liberals and progressives have unwittingly contaminated their politics with a “Reaganism for lefties,” resulting in the toxic consequences visible today: shutdowns of free speech on campuses, out-of-touch urban and globalized elites, and a political order deformed into a “victimhood Olympics.”
In effect, his is a supply-side answer to the “why” question: Identity politics became the order of the day because it could. What’s lacking from this analysis — as from other critiques, right as well as left — is what might be called the demand-side answer: Why have so many people found in identity politics the very center of their political being?
Read more at the Catholic Education Resource Center.