Take a look at Mark Lilla‘s smart critique of identity politics and liberalism in this Sunday’s New York Times. I tend to agree — strongly agree — with every point of his criticism; however, I am unsure of the tenor of the essay and the conclusions he draws. Perhaps you can help me.
Lilla is absolutely correct that the depth and reach of identity politics — which is primarily, but not exclusively, the purview of the intellectual left in the United States — has perhaps gone a little too far and found itself in the realm of the ridiculous. Popular culture has adopted it into a comedic niche in television programs like “Parks and Recreation” and “Portlandia.” It is a schtick that practically writes itself.
But you don’t want the pendulum to swing too far! The triumph of diverse identity indeed is something to be celebrated. However, I think it needs a better context or outlet perhaps. This is where I think Mark Lilla’s essay comes a little short.
When he says, for example, that American politics succeeds when it is about “commonality” and a “shared destiny” and says that ongoing legitimacy on the part of Republicans is due to their success at doing exactly this. And, again, I tend to agree. What troubles me, however, is how this is not in a way a sense of identity politics. How is not a revolt against a so-called liberal practice of identity politics not in itself a sort of identity politics?
Republicans have long been better than Democrats — and liberals and progressives generally — at selling a message. Make no mistake about that! Although I would argue it is such because Republicans keep their message simple in large part by presuming that everyone IS in this together and identifies as one even as they draw divisive lines between we and them. They master the Other.
If you agree with that, then I think we are in a clumsy space at best, because you don’t want to cede the Other to make peace to win Pyrrhic political victories. This is where I think the pendulum would swing too far away from the positives of identity politics back to a more singular dominant discourse which, in all likelihood, would be a white, straight, and ersatz middle-class narrative.
To make this simple, why isn’t the Trump’s victory with disenchanted white voters, for example, not itself a feat of identity politics in a practical sense? It is a win for a struggling narrative that once was dominant, after all. I think the real answer is one of execution than kind. The Trump narrative — despite its lack of credibility — spoke simply to an identity that was large enough to win!
In the end, it was a victory of a broad appeal attached to a simple active message. It literally appealed to a group and said to those who identified with it that we will do this — take back our country, make us great again — for you. And in the case with Trump, it was literally sealed with “Believe me.”
I see no reason why the left should not be able to achieve the same. In fact, the left should be capable of doing this and more and do so with more than “believe me” as justification. History favors progress. Indeed, I think Bernie Sanders was proving that. So I’m not entirely sure that identity politics is dead. I agree with Mark Lilla that it is a bit overdone, perhaps, but maybe diversity — and the opportunities it presents — just needs to be contained within a different unifying message.
What do you think?