Identity Politics, Progressives, and the contemporary political scene

Leonidas Petrakis

Mark Lilla’s book, "The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics"

Almost immediately following the shocking defeat of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump a multifaceted autopsy got underway to identify what went wrong in 2016, and how the Democrats can regain their footing in 2018 and beyond. It was not just Hillary Clinton’s loss to someone so widely considered unqualified for the presidency as Mr. Trump that has caused consternation. The defeat of the Democrats was far wider, and it was the climax of a bleeding that continued for eight years, the entire two-term presidency of Barack Obama. During that period, despite President Obama’s reelection and continuing personal popularity, the Democrats had a net loss of about one thousand elected positions –Senators, Congressmen, Governors and others. In the ongoing autopsy the Democratic leadership not only eschews responsibility for the disastrous results of policies and tactics that they themselves put in place, but they appear preoccupied with seeking excuses that exonerate Hillary from responsibility for the Party’s losses. In this effort they are led by Secretary Clinton herself in blaming others for her defeat, with the main culprits in their view being the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the FBI Director James Comey.

In spite of the Democratic leadership’s narrowly focused attempts at determining what went wrong, a robust and much broader discourse is under way that seeks to identify the root causes of the Party’s recent failures.  A particularly important item that is being scrutinized is the role of identity politics. This issue came to the forefront with the publication by Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University, of an article in the NY Times shortly after the presidential election. The article was expanded into his recently released book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. As the title of the book states, Lilla wants progressives to abandon identity politics. For this startling stance, he has been taken to task by fellow progressives, and especially academics, whom he strongly criticized in his book.

Identity politics refers to political activity by a social group that is organized not on ideology or economic status, but rather around a characteristic that defines the group (gender, race, religion, age, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, nationality, veteran status), and it seeks to remedy injustices suffered by the group because of its very identity (denial of civil rights, violence, stereotyping, marginalization, exploitation.) Undeniably identity politics has been responsible for advancing the progressives’ agenda; and in helping underprivileged segments of our society (African Americans and other minorities, women, disabled persons, gays and lesbians, and American Indian movements) identity politics has benefitted society at large.  

In spite of significant successes both the ideology and practice of identity politics have received strong criticism, even before the term came into widespread use. The distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger, a strong believer in civil rights for disenfranchised minorities, in his book The Disuniting of Americarejected political activism that is based on emphasizing marginalization. Democracy, he posited, functions best in a non-fractured society, which politics that emphasize marginalization does not promote. "Movements for civil rights should aim toward full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into the mainstream culture, rather than perpetuating that marginalization through affirmations of difference", he wrote.

Identity politics is not an issue just for the US Left.  Richard Spencer (one of the leaders of the radical Right that rejects conventional conservative ideas in favor of white nationalism) refers to “Alt-right” (“alternative right”, a term which he coined) as  “identity politics for white Americans and for Europeans around the world". And in Europe the “Alt-right” has caused a political upheaval in Germany (as in Austria and other European nations) undermining Chancellor Merkel’s government to a large extent because of her policy towards refugees and immigrants.

Lilla is not interested in engaging in theoretical nuances and vacuous debates. As a dedicated progressive, he is concerned about the losses being sustained by the Left, and he wants his fellow liberals to take concrete steps to stem and reverse their losses. He has stated that his “central argument” is that “identitymovement politics is preventing liberal Democrats from developing a vision of our common destiny that would expand our appeal and help us seize institutional power from the Republican radical right, and thereby actually protect the groups we profess to care about.” He blames Democrats for how they formulate issues and for tactics they employ, and he is particularly critical of academic liberals for not teaching students how to approach gaining power and advance progressive causes. He writes, “What’s crucial at this juncture in our history is to concentrate on this shared political status, not on our other manifest differences”, and “You don’t build a Left by arguing over who has been most victimized; you build it by organizing all the victims”.

Whether the language and tactics employed by the Democrats can be causally related to their failures in the last several election cycles has been vigorously challenged. On the other hand Bernie Sanders (who came close to defeating Hillary Clinton despite the Clinton supportersusurping the independence of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and undermining his campaign,as confirmed by the explosive revelations by the former DNC Chair Dona Brazile) is not approving ofidentity politics. Berkeley was not the only place where one encountered Hillary supporters’ hectoring slogan, “it is our turn”. To which Bernie Sanders has countered, “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough.”

What apparently critics of Professor Lilla’s thesis find especially upsetting is that he opted to attackidentity politics at this time when several movements under the banner of “Resist” aim to stop Mr Trump’s agenda and even impeach him. There is no arguing that times are bad:

  • a political landscape defined by a Citizens United culture; political discourse in a nadir, two camps speaking in parallel to their base; deep division resulting in paralysis in Washington leaving a vacuum that Mr Trump is eager to fill;
  • a President impulsively improvising and advocating inconsistent even contradictory positions on key issues, and using jingoistic harangues threatening nuclear annihilation of adversaries, his finger on the nuclear button;
  • the Democratic leadership still caught in the big money raising frenzy, mesmerized by the prospect of impeachment, and focused on demonizing Russia as a panacea and key to regaining power;
  • and liberal activists ever attached to identity politics, with Halloween costumes and other cultural appropriation issues, choice of bathroom, politically correct Shakespeare, “Math is racist”, and other such claptrap,

all crowding out critical issues, health, income inequality and even existential issues, climate change and nuclear weapons. But precisely because times are bad, it is imperative to reassess at this time the wisdom of staying the course with approaches that did not prevent the Trump presidency, and in fact some would argue that they contributed to the ascendancy of Trumpism. For as Laurie Patton, the President of Middlebury College, put it (during that ugly episode when Middlebury students opted to shut down Charles Murray instead of engaging him and debunking his odious views, an episode as metaphor of what is happening on many campuses), “If there ever was a time we need to argue back to declare ourselves committed to arguing for a better society, it is now.”

If winning elections and governing effectively, especially in a democracy of great diversity, require political skills that convince fence straddlers and make alliances and compromises, then progressives need to reconsider identity politics and emphasize the “shared way of life”; and liberal academics need to prepare students for  “the art of the possible, the attainable, the art of the next best”, as Bismarck put it, rather than their opting for shutting down discourse. Professor Lilla has made a significant contribution to the current political discourse by raising the controversial issue of identity politics.  His book deserves to be read and debated.


(first published in CHRONOS magazine, December 12, 2017)

photo: Wikimedia Commons
ΧΡΟΝΟΣ #56, 12 Δεκεμβρίου 2017

Leonidas Petrakis holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley; has taught at various universities—in the US, France and Greece; was Department Chairman and Senior Scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory; and worked in the private sector. He specialized in energy and environmental issues, and has authored, coauthored, or co-edited six books and more than one hundred and fifty scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals.

In spite of the Democratic leadership’s narrowly focused attempts at determining what went wrong, a robust and much broader discourse is under way that seeks to identify the root causes of the Party’s recent failures.