Monday, November 21, 2016

The End of Identity Liberalism. Or The Re-Branding the Democratic Party

As is common in the aftermath of a loss (1), various voices are proposing a new and improved Democratic Party or a new and improved liberalism, the kind which can attract the white working class guys in the Rust Belt.

So you'd guess that those voices would mention that we need to fight income inequality, that we need to fight for saner labor markets, living wages, better parental and sick leave arrangements and so on, right?

You'd guess only partially right.  Some do advocate those things, as have I many times in the past.  But others advocate something different, and Mark Lilla is one of those.

Mr. Lilla wants to see the end of identity liberalism, because it divides us and doesn't unite us:

But it is at the level of electoral politics that identity liberalism has failed most spectacularly (1), as we have just seen. National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny. Ronald Reagan did that very skillfully, whatever one may think of his vision. So did Bill Clinton, who took a page from Reagan’s playbook. He seized the Democratic Party away from its identity-conscious wing, concentrated his energies on domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance) and defined America’s role in the post-1989 world. By remaining in office for two terms, he was then able to accomplish much for different groups in the Democratic coalition. Identity politics, by contrast, is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them.
 It's ironic that Bill Clinton's national health insurance proposal failed miserably.  It's even more ironic that Bill Clinton's support for various globalization initiatives is where the seeds of the Rust Belt devastation were scattered.  But never mind, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were unifiers, says Mark Lilla.

Lilla's piece is cleverly written, because most of the important achievements of what he calls identity liberalism are picked from the past, while the more recent examples he mentions are largely about the "celebration" of diversity and about the doings of privileged (hah!) college students inside the gentle world of academics.

Stacking the deck that way is unfair.  Many might agree with his message if the forms  identity liberalism take consist of nothing but, say,  a focus on trigger warnings and linguistic purity policing on the left.  But Lilla's examples are carefully picked to give that impression.

In reality the concept of "identity" is much more important than that:  Consider that "identity" is something others can impose on us (you n***er, you c**t), consider that it can determine what we may do with our economic careers and working lives, consider that it can determine what kinds of crimes might victimize us, consider that people like Mark Lilla don't really see their own stances determined by "identity," because the face he sees in the mirror while shaving is the default face of this country.

Thus, I have several points to make about his argument that the Democratic Party must now focus on issues which unify us, not on issues which divide us.

First, it is naive to assume that those who are currently motivated by what Lilla calls "identity liberalism" would stay and work for the Democratic Party if their concerns were put on a back burner.  The proposal he makes appears to simply assume that this is what would happen.  But a sizable group of those who vote for Democrats do so because of the party's policies on race and gender and on reproductive rights.  That group has people with fairly high levels of education and income, and the tax cut policies of the Republicans might draw them away from Lilla's Unity Party if it offers them nothing more than the Republicans do.

Second, Lilla repeatedly mentions his desire to attract religious individuals to the Democratic Party, perhaps even white Evangelical Christians.  That group is an excellent example of identity conservatism:  It votes its fundamentalist Christian values, not its American values, and its main focus has for a long time been the fight against other people's identities.  To attract that group in large numbers into the Democratic Party requires a welcome meal where the main course consists of reproductive rights and same sex marriage.

Mr. Lilla doesn't see that.  Identity, for him, only applies inside the wrong type of new liberalism.  Other people are quite free of any identity concerns.  Yet I see partial identity concerns color the votes from the extreme right to the extreme left.

Third, one might argue that the rise of white nationalism is in itself a clear form of identity politics.  Lilla wants to counter the right's renewed focus on putting women and/or minorities back in their proper places by a re-branding which would gently push women and/or minorities to the benches in the back of that large Democratic tent.  I find that unsavory, in the light of the coming fights.

Fourth,  the article treats identity as if it was quite separate from the more unifying topics, those he deems worthy of greater attention.  But "identity" seldom works like that.  I cannot wake up in the morning and decide that today I want to be a white guy.  My identity is imposed on me by the way others behave, and that is true of almost all identities which don't match the default in the United States.  This means that I cannot simply drop my identity, as if it was a soiled coat, and join Lilla's Kumbaya choir.

And few identities can be dropped that way or even ignored.  Consider something Lilla would probably judge a unifying topic for the Democratic Party:  A renewed focus on respectable work at decent wages.  Whether that respectable work at decent wages would be available for all depends on many of the issues which Lilla would label identity liberalism.

For one example, let's analyze this comment from the article:

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. 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. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)

What are the issues which affect a vast majority of Americans?  What are the issues on which liberalism would work quietly, in the corner, behind the door?
Take reproductive rights.  The religious fundamentalists want them gone, Lilla wants the religious fundamentalists in the large Democratic tent and appears to suggest that the issue of abortion would be talked about behind that door, in that corner. 

But if reproductive rights went missing in this country, could women still fully participate in the labor market?  Suppose abortions became illegal and suppose that access to the contraceptive pill became harder.   The more severe that situation, the fewer the women who could confidently plan their future labor market hours.  The more severe that situation, the fewer the employers who would have no doubts about promoting fertile women to important positions.  And the more severe the situation, the fewer the women would be who would even have time to sit on those back benches in Lilla's big unified Democratic tent.

Reproductive rights are an issue which affects all fertile Americans, by the way. Opinions on those rights vary, of course, but the issue itself is a central one.  As far as I can tell, Mark Lilla doesn't see it that way  (2) , perhaps because it directly affects only people who don't share his own invisible identity.  Someone else will take that pill.

In a very real sense identities matter, because they can be imposed on us from the outside, because they affect our chances of participating in the mainstream of economics and politics,  and because we haven't gone far enough to stop that outside imposition and labeling.(3)

Fifth, and finally, Lilla's article reminds me of those signs along the highways which state that a particular rest-stop has "no facilities."  That is a euphemism for no toilets, and I've often wondered if tourists from other countries, driving their cars with crossed legs, know what the expression really means.

In a similar manner I wonder if Lilla understands the demons he would be willing to let loose in his desire to cleanse the Democratic Party of those he finds burdensome.  Who would rise to protect those school children whose classmates told them to go back to Mexico?  After all, being concerned about issues of that kind is simple identity liberalism.  Or who would help to create candle-light protests after swastikas are found spray-painted on the walls of synagogues or mosques or elsewhere?  Is this work to be done on the quiet so as not to upset the new Democratic majority?  Those swastikas are about identity politics.

I also wonder if Lilla understands how much unpaid work the "identitarians" are doing for the Democratic Party, what the many unpaid workers of the party look like, what his message sounds like to them (4).  Or perhaps he knows but doesn't care.  Perhaps he will pick up the broom to sweep the floor, perhaps he will ring doorbells or make calls to potential voters.

That's my short list of problems with Lilla's thesis.  To conclude this long post, it's only fair to point out the few areas where I agree with him.

Let's begin with this quote:

One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end. Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded.

I don't agree with the idea that politicians, in general, discuss all demographic groups in inclusive terms.  Rather, the reverse has been the rule for decades, when the practice of speaking to men and whites as the proper audience of political speeches was wide-spread.  But those exclusions might be invisible to Mark Lilla.

That's not the case in the above exclusion (5),  because it leaves out white Anglo heterosexual men: the group which is the identity of most of those who hold the reins of power in this country (6).  Those men occupy most seats in the Congress, most leadership positions in American churches and the military, and most CEOships of powerful firms.  Their average earnings are higher than that of any other group except Asian-American men.

And these are president-elect Trump's first five choices for his administration:

I believe that Lilla is not talking about these powerful men when he deplores the exclusion of a whole demographic group.  He talks about the white working class men of the Rust Belt, though he doesn't specify in what ways that group should have received greater inclusion, because he doesn't really specify what he believes the unifying topics to be.

I'm going to take a guess on economic progress in that context, on trying to revive the ghost towns of the Rust Belt, on trying to stop the ravages that outsourcing and globalization have wrought there and on trying to make the Democratic Party refocus on combating income inequality and other similar economic topics.

But doing so doesn't mean that the party should drop human rights and civil rights concerns.  It should be able to chew gum and pedal that unification bicycle at the same time.  The political games inside the Party do not have to be zero-sum games in the manner Lilla seems to think.

Thus, I'm all in support of greater emphasis on the condition of the American workers, but I include in that group both women and men and workers of all races and ethnic backgrounds, and I also believe that strengthening the Party's economic focus doesn't have to detract from its human rights focus.  The two are intricately intertwined in any case.

There's another sense in which I might agree with Lilla.  It's hard to discern in his article, though it appears to be among its foundations, in the way he views the term "identity," and that is its use as a signifier of much more than the way the rules about life differ between groups.

I have repeatedly seen "identity" used in lefty circles as a way of defining who may participate in a debate, and not only because someone who doesn't have a particular "identity" coat may not know how scratchy it is, how insufficiently it protects one against the cold, but also as a way of privileging certain participants over other participants and as a way of forcing silence.  I have seen plenty of evidence that this is not a psychologically efficient way of producing more allies.

I also disagree with many on the left and inside feminism on the value of over-generalizations (7) to whole demographic groups, including the #notallmen hash tag debacles, because a) over-generalizations are false, b) over-generalizations are also used as building blocks in both sexism and racism and c) especially because that device is psychologically counterproductive:

Those who are yelled at and excluded mostly will not tend to hang around and silently educate themselves:  They will leave in a huff.  It doesn't matter that the initial anger is justified, real and painful.  Few humans are capable of the kind of abstraction and magnanimity that the success of this approach would require, because most individuals want to feel good or at least neutral about themselves when supporting others.

Still, I doubt that all this is what Mark Lilla wants us to take home from his article.  Rather, he imagines a post-identity liberalism which will look pretty much like pre-identity liberalism, and that means certain people will sit in the back of the Democratic tent. 


(1)   It's always worth remembering that Hillary Clinton's current lead in the popular vote count is currently around 1.6 million votes, that it is the way the Electoral College operates that has picked Donald Trump with fewer popular votes as the president.  That's not sour grapes, by the way, because Lilla's thesis is that "identity liberalism" has failed miserably.

(2)   I wonder if he would have seen the protests against the draft during the Vietnam war era as an important issue.  After all, it directly affected only a minority of all Americans.  One might then argue that all the relatives and friends of the conscripted soldiers, of the dead soldiers and of the damaged soldiers were so numerous as to make the issue a central one.  But similar arguments can be made about the impact of an unplanned pregnancy on whole families.

(3)  Indeed, the second new strand in the re-branding of the left appears to glorify in Trumpian vulgarity, appears to employ the pretend-marginalization of three white guys in their twenties or thirties, one with a famous father, and seems to borrow from the playbook of the Alt Right, only with somewhat gentler versions of the same.  Thus, we have the fail-sons, as opposed to the success-daughters!  Time for the latter to shut up.   The Alt Left of dudebros is rising.

(4) And/or to African-American women who have shown exceptional fidelity to the Democratic Party.

(5)  I haven't researched this assertion, so I don't know if Hillary Clinton in fact did what Lilla says she did.  But I'm accepting his words for it in this post.

(6)  In other countries those who hold the reins of power might not be white or Anglo but they are still going to be men.

This does not mean that white working class men in the United States are among the powerful, and neither does it mean that their lives cannot be awful.  But surely some of the resentment we see expressed by Trump supporters has to do with the fact that the Others have been trying to dislodge the underpinnings of the social ladders which support their kind in the top positions?

(7)  I want to be careful here:  What I'm referring to are constructs where all white Europeans are seen as guilty of what king Leopold II of Belgium did, because of their closer genetic link to him, even if they are not even Belgians, even if their country never participated in any colonial adventures, but just because of that racial link.  I am NOT referring to the fact that white Europeans, in general, may have benefited from the exploitation of Africans and the rich resources of that continent.  The former is incorrect, the latter is correct.

Likewise, even though all men do benefit from patriarchal structures, it is incorrect to argue that all men are actively sexist or potential sexual harassers.

One part of the problem the group guilt approach elicits is that change begins to look impossible.  One can't change one's DNA, and no one person can fix the ravages that past sexism and racism have produced.  To hoist that guilt on someone's shoulders will, at best, immobilize them.  On the other hand, focusing on, say, the way institutional racism functions in the United States offers a different message to those whites who want to be good allies.

Added later:  See also Scott Lemieux on how politics IS identity politics.