Free Essay on Mark Lilla: How The Liberal Vision for America Is Impaired by Identity Politics

Published: 2022-05-02
Free Essay on Mark Lilla: How The Liberal Vision for America Is Impaired by Identity Politics
Type of paper:  Book review
Categories:  Political science
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1899 words
16 min read

Mark Lilla teaches human sciences and political science at Columbia University. With the publication of Mark Lilla's The Once and Future Liberal, the debate in the United States on what is called identity politics has ignited. Mark Lilla's new book focuses on the politics of identity, which refers to public affairs, and civic platforms that focus on the claims of specific groups, mainly ethnic, but also groups defined by socioeconomic status or cultural preferences. Thus, the "politics of identity" consists of the construction and promotion of ideas and programs that revolve around what affects or interests that group. In this way, the political message, the political program, and the political exercise are articulated around the identity of the group.

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Lilla starts from the observation that if the liberal left wants to rediscover the notion of the common good, they need to adopt a pragmatic form of politics that widen its base and appeals to all Americans, not just the minorities. Lilla argues if we really want to protect blacks from police persecution, they need prosecutors with democratic vision and therefore appoint lawmakers with an open mind. This calls for electing the right people during elections.

One of the strengths of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics is that it offers an interesting and provocative analysis of identity politics in the US, its causes, and the problems it raises in the context of American politics. It is a book aimed primarily at political organizers, and members of the Democratic Party. Lilla's thesis is that the Democratic Party chasing identitarianism has progressively lost sight of the American electorate - mostly the white working class, which is the social and political foundation of the United States. The cost of this identity drift has been the progressive and systematic exclusion from local, state, and federal government bodies. To give an idea, the Democrats today control the executive and legislative bodies in seven states, against the twenty-four of the Republicans; while at the federal level, the Republicans have had a majority in both branches of the Congress for three years.

In my opinion, the fact that the Democrat defeats are to be blamed on the politics of identity is not obvious. For Lilla, it is the legacy of two great independent and apparently antithetical cultural revolutions: the extra-parliamentary radicalism of the sixties and seventies and the Reagan individualism of the eighties of the last century. The subject is clearly delicate: civil rights battles are rightly considered a glorious chapter of the American left. The fight against racial segregation, the abolition of the laws against homosexuality, the legislation on abortion and divorce are victories of which the Democrats are justly proud. Lilla is not a revisionist (a supporter of a policy of revision or modification) and agrees that these great achievements must be celebrated and defended by all left-wing men and women. He also argues, however, that radical movements have introduced a way of doing politics that, in fact, has paved the way for identity politics.

Lilla emphasizes two aspects, on the one hand, the movements of the Sixties would have taught three generations of activists that one could make politics effectively while staying outside the institutions. On the contrary, it would have introduced the idea that politics should be taken out of institutions, as opposed to the politics of traditional parties and the compromises that this inevitably requires. The movements policy from this point of view offers considerable advantages: firstly, it allows investing all the energies in the pursuit of a single objective. By not setting itself as the goal of governing the country, moreover, it can afford to ignore the construction of stable majorities, does not need to hold together heterogeneous coalitions, and can abdicate the task of finding a balance between the different interests represented within the great parties.

The second important legacy of movements - partly linked to the first - is the idea that one can make politics by selectively choosing one's warhorses, and that through political activity it is possible to affirm one's own individual identity. Struggling for rights, militants also struggle to assert their identity - of women, homosexuals, transgenders, natives, Afro-Americans - side by side with other women and men who care about the same political and personal goals. Identitarianism, therefore, provides formidable motivations which, paradoxically, are compatible with the culture of the individualist right. After all, what is more, important than the right to freely express oneself, and to live as we please?

I believe that The Once and Future Liberal is written to provoke. Predictably, Lilla has been accused of superficiality, of excessive generalization, and of privileging the anecdote to solid empirical research. However, it is, in fact, a pamphlet. Like all good pamphlets, The Once and Future Liberal focuses on a real problem, and like many pamphlets, (which is one of its major shortcomings), it does not offer precise solutions.

Lilla wonders what the political malfunction of America is, first in an op-ed in the New York Times and then in a pamphlet that amplifies the treatment, making it even more nervous: The Once and Future Liberal - After Identity Politics is committed - with all the risks of an elite reading - to throw fuel on the fire. Lilla's theory is that American liberalism has slipped into an ethical panic about racial, sexual and gender identities, which ended up distorting its message and preventing it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing. The mobilization in favor of the identity causes, starting from that for the racial disparity and against the forms of racism, up to those in defense of the homosexual communities or other entities at risk of discrimination, has ended up modifying the essence of the liberal vision. It has transformed it into a group which generates minority aggregations invisible to the majority and perceives them as foreign.

According to Lilla, this identity policy undermines the pursuit of the common good, the primary objective of the liberal American vision. The division into groups of claims - women, African Americans, Hispanics, gays, Indians etc. - nourishes a divisive rhetoric of difference, which, in the name of victimization, grants motivations to the hegemonic overwhelming of white power. Lilla stated that one of the lessons of the recent presidential election, with its repugnant outcome, is that the age of identity liberalism must end. Too many Democrats are indulging in a "politics of narcissism", indifferent to the solution of the real problems of America. Indispensable for him is the return to a pragmatism of politics, whose only goal is to win and take back control of as many centers of power as possible. Progress, in social and economic terms, of equality and opportunity, passes through political power, which must be the primary target. Progressives must start doing one thing: winning the elections by attracting the masses on their side. If in 2016 a substantial number of Barack Obama voters voted for Donald Trump, the cause lies precisely in the progressive dominance of identity policies, which have made anyone who did not identify himself in one of them, feel out of place.

I agree with Lilla that it is natural that the hostility expressed against the movements - Black Lives Matter, to cite one of the most relevant, which disputes the persecution suffered by blacks by the police forces - and the acrimony towards the mobilizations in the universities, has procured a lot of criticism in Lilla. Trump and his men have successfully insinuated themselves in the interstices of this multiple claim scenario, which has accentuated the divisions in the progressive front, creating noisy clusters, but destined to defeat. His proposal lies in the advent of a new form of progressivism, based on common goals. Lilla states we need realism, where subject matters are presented truthfully, without artificiality and sugar coating things to make a selected group of people happy.

Another strength of the book is that Lilla recognizes the role played by civil rights movements in past decades, but considers them counterproductive in current scenarios, how they suck energy with the sole purpose of bringing Democrats back to their command posts. According to Lilla, Black Lives Matter "is an example of how solidarity cannot be built". His are incendiary arguments, which have the merit of shedding light on what has happened in recent seasons in America and how Trump and his distortion of truth have managed to turn identity movements into the threat against "America for as we know it ". Steve Bannon, the orchestrator of Trump's victory, inspired the campaign of his candidate for this dictation and he won. "We do not need other marches - writes Lilla - we need more mayors". The only identity to be pursued in the democratic front is that of Americans ", giving rise to a unitary force capable of governing. Obama won because, in his words, he never isolated a group, but he always spoke of "us". Like Bill Clinton before him, he had understood that the serializations in politics are the antechamber of defeat. In addition, that a concrete work of involvement and inclusion is needed, not a distinction. Thus, one wins and acquires the power to decide. The right has succeeded, investing capital in networks, websites, blogs and talk shows. The paranoid vision of power embodied by Trump has its roots in that mediatic broth, seasoned with economic anxiety, crime, and cultural rancor. "Liberals should remember that our first identity movement was the Ku Klux Klan. Those who follow that furrow must prepare to lose ".

In my opinion, Mark Lilla provides a convincing analysis especially in the American context, where social segregation has reached a more advanced stage than in European countries. An ever-deeper ditch divides, on the one hand, the liberal, highly educated and economically privileged professionals who live on the two coasts; and on the other, the low-educated, intensely religious petty white bourgeoisie, threatened by globalization, which lives in the central part of the country. However, the politics of identity is not a purely American matter, and it is impossible to read the pamphlet of Lilla without being dragged by analogies with what happens in Italy and in Europe. After four years of government, the law on civil unions is perhaps the only unequivocally 'left' victory that the Italian Democratic Party can boast. A difficult victory gained following many postponements and after a long meditation with the centrist parties of the coalition. Since in the politics of identity every compromise is an unacceptable compromise, the approval of the law has been accompanied and followed by bitter controversy - even by the resignation of deputies, such as Michela Marzano, who had fought in the front line for the rights of homosexuals.

The analysis of Lilla, therefore, leads to a broader reflection. The politics of identity becomes a problem when it moves in a vacuum, ending up occupying spaces that do not compete with it. It is good not to delude ourselves that traditional politics can be replaced by identitarianism, but it is not clear how to fill the void. Lilla offers no solutions, except for a vague invitation to bring the idea of citizenship to the center of left politics. It seems that the traditional sides today are not able to coagulate around an idea of common destiny. The struggles for rights are an integral part of democratic life, and no democracy can live without...

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