Monday, November 21, 2016

The End of Identity Liberalism - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

By MARK LILLA NOV. 18, 2016, New York Times

image from article

It is a truism that America has become a more diverse country. It is also a beautiful
thing to watch. Visitors from other countries, particularly those having trouble
incorporating different ethnic groups and faiths, are amazed that we manage to pull
it off. Not perfectly, of course, but certainly better than any European or Asian
nation today. It’s an extraordinary success story.

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. [JB emphasis]

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.
Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American
interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy.
But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large
vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American,
Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic
mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all
of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data
show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong
religious convictions. Fully two­-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted
for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.

The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects.
Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has
delivered a wake-­up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood’s efforts to
normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American
families and public life.

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a
generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside
their self-­defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in
every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk
about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach
college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have
shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy
and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history
curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto
the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped
our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were
real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand
the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on
the guarantee of rights.)

When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on
themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time
job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox
News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the
“campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are
right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to
delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How
to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students
the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing
them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of
Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

This campus-­diversity consciousness has over the years filtered into the liberal
media, and not subtly. Affirmative action for women and minorities at America’s
newspapers and broadcasters has been an extraordinary social achievement — and
has even changed, quite literally, the face of right-­wing media, as journalists like
Megyn Kelly and Laura Ingraham have gained prominence. But it also appears to
have encouraged the assumption, especially among younger journalists and editors,
that simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs.

Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full
year I read only European publications, not American ones. My thought was to try
seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return
home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in
recent years. How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism —
about the “first X to do Y” — is told and retold. Fascination with the identity drama
has even affected foreign reporting, which is in distressingly short supply. However
interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it
contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and
religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own. No
major news outlet in Europe would think of adopting such a focus.

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. And it will be dominated by whoever best
captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny. Ronald Reagan did that
very skillfully, whatever one may think of his vision. So did Bill Clinton, who took a
page from Reagan’s playbook. He seized the Democratic Party away from its
identity­-conscious wing, concentrated his energies on domestic programs that would
benefit everyone (like national health insurance) and defined America’s role in the
post­-1989 world. By remaining in office for two terms, he was then able to
accomplish much for different groups in the Democratic coalition. Identity politics,
by contrast, is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins
elections — but can lose them.

The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male
reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much
maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the
recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because
he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash”
thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and
allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns. It
also encourages the fantasy that the Republican right is doomed to demographic
extinction in the long run — which means liberals have only to wait for the country
to fall into their laps. The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went
to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this
country, the more politically diverse they become.

Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not
recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural,
religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity
is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the
reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of
the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity,
which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that
the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still
exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.

We need a post-­identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes
of pre­-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base
by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a
vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in
this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly
charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching
on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with
a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of
hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)

Teachers committed to such a liberalism would refocus attention on their main
political responsibility in a democracy: to form committed citizens aware of their
system of government and the major forces and events in our history. A post-­identity
liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also
confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. A post-identity
liberal press would begin educating itself about parts of the country that
have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion. And it would
take seriously its responsibility to educate Americans about the major forces shaping
world politics, especially their historical dimension.

Some years ago I was invited to a union convention in Florida to speak on a
panel about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech of 1941. The hall
was full of representatives from local chapters — men, women, blacks, whites,
Latinos. We began by singing the national anthem, and then sat down to listen to a
recording of Roosevelt’s speech. As I looked out into the crowd, and saw the array of
different faces, I was struck by how focused they were on what they shared. And
listening to Roosevelt’s stirring voice as he invoked the freedom of speech, the
freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear — freedoms
that Roosevelt demanded for “everyone in the world” — I was reminded of what the
real foundations of modern American liberalism are.

Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia and a visiting scholar at the
Russell Sage Foundation, is the author, most recently, of “The Shipwrecked Mind: On
Political Reaction.”

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