But how should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.
While I would take issue with his characterization of liberalism, which I view as a conflation of liberalism with progressivism, that’s just my pet peeve. I’m big on definitions, which have gone out of fashion among intellectuals. But putting aside the labels, he makes a point that must have been painful:
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.
He Gertrudes heavily, but that’s to be expected of an academic proposing such a contrarian view. But he ultimately goes to classic liberalism:
But it is at the level of electoral politics that identity liberalism has failed most spectacularly, as we have just seen. National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality.
Read the op-ed. Read the comments to it as well. While he gets there by different paths than I have, we end up in the same place. Is he right? Am I right? Am I the racist, sexist, homophobe, xenophobe, some other kind of -ist or -phobe that I can’t recall, that all the angry progressives tell me I am?
I made an observation yesterday on the twitters:
Ironic that a liberal today finds discussion with libertarians and conservatives more intellectually worthwhile than progressives.
Is there any hope of engaging beyond being called names? My efforts to do so have come to naught. Is there any way out?
Update: Ross Douthat tosses his two cents into the mix.
A lot of that argument already revolves around the concept of “identity politics,” used as shorthand for a vision of political liberalism as a coalition of diverse groups — gay and black and Asian and Hispanic and female and Jewish and Muslim and so on — bound together by a common struggle against the creaking hegemony of white Christian America.
That’s how it may appear following Trump’s win, but it ignores the fact that identity politics was going full steam before there was any “creaking hegemony of white Christian America” to attack as the enemy. Each identitarian group was focused on its own bitch, which included complaints against everyone else in the coalition to the extent one’s demands conflicted with another’s.
To his credit, he attempts to define the problem, but instead creates a strawman:
So now identitarian liberalism is taking fire from two directions. From the center-left, it’s critiqued as an illiberal and balkanizing force, which drives whit-cis-het people of good will rightward and prevents liberalism from speaking a language of the common good. From the left, it’s critiqued as an expression of class privilege, which cares little for economic justice so long as black lesbian Sufis are represented in the latest Netflix superhero show.
It’s hardly so limited and simplistic, but as with all strawman arguments, if you express the counterargument with accuracy and depth, it becomes substantially harder to knock down. But at least institutional pundits like Douthat are starting to recognize, even if inadequately, that cries of identitarian pain and special treatment are driving people away from their demands rather than toward them.
It’s true that identity politics is often illiberal, both in its emphasis on group experience over individualism and, in the web of moral absolutes — taboo words, sacred speakers, forbidden arguments — that it seeks to weave around left-liberal discourse. It’s also true that it privileges the metaphysical over the material, recognition over redistribution.
But liberal societies have always depended on an illiberal or pre-liberal substructure to answer the varied human needs — meaning, belonging, a vertical dimension to human life, a hope against mortality — that neither John Stuart Mill nor Karl Marx adequately addressed.
While Douthat has yet to scratch the surface of understanding the causes and extent of the divisiveness of identitarian progressivism (not liberalism, please), at least he’s not just calling everybody racist. Maybe there is hope. Or maybe he’s just trying to rationalize away the objections by creating a narrative that nobody but progressives will buy.
Update 2: Fellow(?) Columbia professor Katherine Franke explains why Lilla is worse than KKKlansman David Duke.
In the new political climate we now inhabit, Duke and Lilla were contributing to the same ideological project, the former cloaked in a KKK hood, the latter in an academic gown. Both men are underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as lives that matter most in the U.S. Duke is happy to own the white supremacy of his statements, while Lilla’s op-ed does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable. Again.
Yes, more nefarious. Not just as nefarious, but more. Why?
Let me be blunt: this kind of liberalism is a liberalism of white supremacy. It is a liberalism that regards the efforts of people of color and women to call out forms of power that sustain white supremacy and patriarchy as a distraction. It is a liberalism that figures the lives and interests of white men as the neutral, unmarked terrain around which a politics of “common interest” can and should be built.
Well, that was blunt. Equality is so white supremacy and patriarchy.