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Mark Lilla has become the face of the anti-identity politics crusade that has roiled some liberals and progressives since last fall’s election.
The Columbia University humanities professor made his case 10 days after President Trump’s election in a New York Times op-ed, arguing that the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s “tragic mistake” was focusing too much on “calling out specifically to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop.” This turned off white working-class and evangelical voters, Lilla said, who found their place instead in Trump’s more exclusive appeals. He said what is needed is a “post-identity liberalism” that would “concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them.”
Lilla turned that essay into a book, “The Once and Future Liberal,” which came out last month, and which has generated much discussion. I talked with Lilla about the central argument of his book, that the Democratic Party must abandon “identity politics” if it expects to have any shot of beating Trump in 2020, flipping Congress and stopping the dismantling of laws and policies that help people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals and immigrants.
He said his message is aimed at the “activist class [who] don’t know how to think about politics except in terms of identity.”
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In his book, Lilla makes reference to one such political activist, Symone D. Sanders, former national spokeswoman for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign against Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
In a footnote to an argument, he praises Bernie Sanders for stating that candidates’ and public officials’ stance on the issues is more important than their race or gender. He expresses disapproval at Symone Sanders (now a Democratic consultant and CNN commentator) for noting that the Democratic Party is diverse and its leadership should reflect that diversity.
In recent interviews, we asked Lilla and Sanders to address each other’s arguments. Their responses — Lilla’s via phone and Sanders’s via email — have been lightly edited for length.
- Lilla effectively calls on people of color, women and LGBTQ individuals to forego pressing for issues important to them because talking about those differences is not a winning political strategy.
“To win elections, it requires something else entirely. That is to develop a vision that different people from different walks of life will see themselves in. If you have a larger message and principles that people can look to and see how it will help them, then they can come together without having to focus on differences, because with the electoral politics in our system of democracy, you have to win elections in every part of the country. I’m focused on how to defeat a rabid Republican Party so that we actually protect the people we care about. That’s the job of political persuasion, not self-expression, not having your say. … We have to focus on what binds us.”
- Sanders says Lilla’s thinking ignores major demographic shifts in American society.
“The working class and America are browning. Based on projections from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Economic Policy Institute has found the working class of the U.S. will be majority minority by 2032. Furthermore, the U.S. Census Bureau reports the combined populations of all nonwhite racial and ethnic groups will make up more than half of the U.S. population by 2043. This means when we talk about effective communication to Democratic voters, we should be talking about white, black, Latino, Asian American, Native American and other people of color who identify as working people. That also includes women. This is our base. The base of the Democratic Party is also LGBTQ people, millennials (who are the most diverse generation ever by the way) and black women. Succumbing to the false assertion that we must abandon attention to some in hopes of earning a few ‘white working-class voters’ runs the risk of alienating reliable Democratic voters.”
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- Lilla says it’s easier to unite people around principles, rather than asking white people to try to imagine what it’s like to be of a different race or ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
“Rather than immediately talking about African Americans or transgender or gays or women or whatever group, instead, you should start by saying, ‘Do we or don’t we agree about equal protection under the law?’ If we believe in equal protection, then women being paid three-quarters of what men earn is unfair. What about redlining or lending policies that prevent African Americans from moving to the suburbs? Once you have people in parties agreeing on principles, then you can try to persuade them.”
- Sanders argues that can be accomplished without silencing everyone else. She pointed to a survey of “swing voters” (Trump voters who had voted for Obama previously) and Democratic voters who didn’t vote in 2016 (largely African Americans and millennials) commissioned by Priorities USA.
“The results might be stunning to some. Both groups were concerned the government might make cuts to Medicare and Medicaid or other important government programs, both were concerned about their economic situation, both supported increased spending on infrastructure and both supported providing paid leave to new mothers. A strategy of separating ‘white-working class voters’ from the rest of the electorate, is what Donald Trump did in 2016 and harks back to the ‘Southern strategy’ of the Republican Party during the presidential election of 1968. It is a type of ‘identity politics’ for white people. This is a strategy that feeds off inflammatory rhetoric, false dichotomies and the ‘othering’ of people. When in fact, voters actually have more in common with one another than they think. We do not have to deny or ignore our differences to find common ground.”
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- Lilla says some groups are too wrapped up in “movement politics” and are more interested in making a statement than winning an election. He cited Black Lives Matter, both in his book and the interview. He praised the young protesters for issuing a much-needed “wake-up call” to the country about the issue of police use of lethal force against African Americans, but:
“What did they do after that? Adopted a confrontational tone and showed up where Hillary and Bernie and others were speaking. They were attacking the people who are on their side. Movement politics leads to this kind of increasing radicalization. They don’t care about winning, they only care about making their point. The message I want to get across is you cannot protect yourself unless you win elections. You’ve got to make a choice: Do you want to make a point or do you want to make a difference?”
- Sanders notes that American activism has a long history of making a difference.
“The Black Lives Matter movement pushed the conversation and the campaigns to talk about issues that otherwise would have gone uncentered. We should be thanking the young activists who boldly stood up and demanded their voices be heard. Now, as a campaign staffer, do I like my candidate being interrupted at a rally? Absolutely not, so the remedy to that was to get in rooms and have conversations. To learn from activists and allow them to inform and help direct policy. Both campaigns engaged in this work and I think both campaigns were better for it.
“Perhaps Lilla’s privilege has blinded him from the fact that movement politics has proven effective in recent years. It was a movement that ended apartheid in South Africa and helped establish the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It was a movement that fought for and achieved the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a movement that won the right to vote for women. It was a movement that helped achieve marriage equality. And it is a movement of bold, radical and revolutionary young people that will change America for the better. Members of the movement are running for office, creating policy and are stakeholders at the table. Maybe Lilla just is not ready for the revolution.”
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