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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.

As a teacher, I am increasingly struck by a difference between my conservative and progressive students. Contrary to the stereotype, the conservatives are far more likely to connect their engagements to a set of political ideas and principles. Young people on the left are much more inclined to say that they are engaged in politics as an X, concerned about other Xs and those issues touching on X-ness. And they are less and less comfortable with debate.

Over the past decade a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: Speaking as an X…This is not an anodyne phrase. It sets up a wall against any questions that come from a non-X perspective. Classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. What replaces argument, then, are taboos against unfamiliar ideas and contrary opinions.

As Lilla writes, the old left, including FDR and LBJ, believed in an inclusive worldview; LBJ had his “Great Society” after all. But starting in the 1960s, the New Left preached the notion of an atomized society – a hyphenated society: African-Americans, gay-Americans, transgendered-Americans, and on and on to the point of absurdity. As one wag quipped a couple of years ago about Facebook offering 70+ gender options for its members to click on, why so few choices?

Not surprisingly, much of middle America views the notion of identity politics as something more than a little frightening, especially after watching Christian cake bakers and midwestern pizzerias having their lives upended for publicly expressing their beliefs, and the raging new war on bathrooms opened up late in the Obama-era. Which is why, in addition to the lies Obama told during his first term about "if you like your plan, you can keep your plan," being anti-gun control, and arguably, his lie about disapproving of gay marriage, identity politics are one of the chief reasons why, on a state and local level, Democrats have gotten slaughtered at the ballot box since the 2008 election -- at first on a state and local level and this past November, the presidency.

And Lilla knows it:

There is a mystery at the core of every suicide, and the story of how a once-successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed liberal politics of “difference” is not a simple one. Perhaps the best place to begin it is with a slogan: The personal is the political.

This phrase was coined by feminists in the 1960s and captured perfectly the mind-set of the New Left at the time. Originally, it was interpreted to mean that everything that seems strictly private—sexuality, the family, the workplace—is in fact political and that there are no spheres of life exempt from the struggle for power. That is what made it so radical, electrifying sympathizers and disturbing everyone else.

But the phrase could also be taken in a more romantic sense: that what we think of as political action is in fact nothing but personal activity, an expression of me and how I define myself. As we would put it today, my political life is a reflection of my identity.

But Lilla's prescription, his promise of a "post-identity politics left" (it’s right there in his book’s subhead), is ultimately a naive one – and arguably more than a little disingenuous as well. As Andrew Egger writes at The Federalist, “For all his insights about the pathologies of the modern left, Mark Lilla has not divested himself of the most ubiquitous intellectual quirk of today’s establishment liberal: He equivocates the common good with the electoral success of the Democratic Party. Lilla is not trying to convince leftists that they stand to learn anything from voters in Appalachian West Virginia or rural Missouri. He’s just trying to convince them to be able to stand their presence long enough to win their votes":

This can be seen in Lilla’s infantilizing prescriptions for real political action. Do Trump voters have valid political concerns? Maybe, but the real problem is that they’re acting out because they’re tired of being yelled at. “Children do not respond well to scolding and neither do nations,” Lilla writes. “They become better only when they are told that they are already good and therefore can improve.”

A yet more jaded analogy is that of the fisherman: “When you fish you get up early in the morning and go to where the fish are—not to where you might wish them to be. … Once the fish realize they are hooked, they may resist. Let them; loosen your line. Eventually they will calm down and you can slowly reel them in, careful not to provoke them unnecessarily.”

Like car salesmen, politicians can and will say anything to get elected. As Ann Coulter accurately noted at the end of 2003:

When they're running for office, all Democrats claim to support tax cuts (for the middle class), to support gun rights (for hunters) and to "personally oppose" abortion. And then they get into office and vote to raise taxes, ban guns and allow abortions if a girl can't fit into her prom dress.

The common wisdom holds that "both parties" have to appeal to the extremes during the primary and then move to the center for the general election. To the contrary, both parties run for office as conservatives. Once they have fooled the voters and are safely in office, Republicans sometimes double-cross the voters. Democrats always do.

Two years later, Rahm Emanuel apparently took Coulter’s words to heart for the 2006 midterms, recruiting his so-called “Blue Dog Democrats,” a group who appeared remarkably conservative and centrist sounding…and then proceeded to vote in lock step for Obamacare. No doubt in 2018, at least some Democrats will attempt a similar strategy to woo Trump voters, which in the short term could very well work -- used car salesmen always sell at least some of their product, no matter how tainted.

In contrast, rooting out identity politics from Democratic monopolies such as academia and the media will make cleaning out the Augean Stables seem like a fun Saturday afternoon project. Getting someone to change his core philosophy, particularly when it contains a built-in boogieman and makes victimhood seem like a strength is virtually impossible. Perhaps only time, and/or some massive outside force (which brings us back to the Depression and WWII) could result in the left altering this core element of their worldview. Considering that “Progressives” began the 20th century with a remarkably racist worldview, sadly, Martin Luther King’s midcentury vision of an inclusive and colorblind society may be a stillborn one on the left.

QED.