Can the Left Escape the Identity Politics Trap?

Ex-Hillary Adviser: Dems Must Double Down on ‘Identity Politics,’” a headline at Breitbart.com notes this week:

In what may be music to the ears of former White House Chief Strategist Bannon, former Hillary Clinton adviser Zerlina Maxwell urged Democrats to double down on “identity politics” during an MTP Daily discussion on Monday.

Maxwell said on MSNBC that “identity politics need to be at the center of what the Democrats need to do going forward” even though Bannon told the American Prospect‘s Robert Kuttner that Republicans would “crush” Democrats if they become the salad-bowl party.

“The Democrats,” Bannon told Kuttner, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

The article goes on to quote Mark Lilla, which isn’t too surprising given the splash that his new book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, has made on the right. When the promotional machine for it cranked up last month, Rod Dreher of The American Conservative was practically turning cartwheels:

Lilla has a knack for pithy, stinging phrasing. Look around, he says to fellow liberals, and see that the Republican Party, at the state level, dominates. They keep winning elections. They do so in large part because “they have successfully persuaded much of the public that they are the party of Joe Sixpack and Democrats are the party of Jessica Yogamat.”

If liberals really want to improve the lots of minorities within their broad coalition, they have to first win elections. But the way they think of politics all but guarantees that they won’t. Lilla visits the Democratic Party’s website, with its pages and pages for various identity constituencies, and moans, “You might think that, by some mistake, you have landed on the website of the Lebanese government — not that of a party with a vision of America’s future.” He writes:

Identity liberalism has ceased being a political project and has morphed into an evangelical one. The difference is this: evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.

But Lilla’s book (and its key parts have been widely quoted online by Dreher and others, and excerpted in a long Wall Street Journal article by Lilla himself [not a surprising location, considering its publisher is HarperCollins, like the Journal, also owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp]) is at various moments a fast, fascinating, and frustrating read. In 1995, Thomas Sowell wrote a book on the left famously titled The Vision of the Anointed. Today, two decades later, Lilla, a left-leaning professor of the humanities at Columbia University, correctly writes that the vision of the would-be anointed class boils down to one thing: identity politics.