What Lilla Gets Right and Wrong About Identity Politics

You might remember that last November Mark Lilla published an article in the New York Times titled, “The End of Identity Liberalism” in which he argued for the end of so-called “identity politics” in favor of a more inclusive message that would be attractive to white voters. Lilla has now published a book in which he expands on those thoughts titled, “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.”

Issac Chotiner interviewed Lilla about his book and published a transcript at Slate. Let me first of all point out that there are some areas where I agree with Lilla. For example, I think he’s right to distinguish between “movement politics” and “electoral politics.”

Movement politics is about speaking truth to power. Electoral politics is about seizing power in order to defend the truth. Now, when people are in movement politics they have this mentality, and that’s the reason they’re successful. It’s the only issue that matters. They’re maximalist about this. They don’t like to compromise, and that’s why certain things happen, that’s why certain things in the ’60s happened because social movements made a real contribution there in breaking the logjam of electoral politics and effecting change in this country.

There comes a time when we are now or have been in a different period since 1980 where the energy of the right has been directed into electoral politics, and they dominate the country right now. The Democratic energies are dissipated by this movement mentality, and it’s very hard for people to get along.

Lilla isn’t the first person to identify this as a problem. Way back in 1981, Bernice Johnson Reagon gave a speech titled “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century.” Here is how she began:

We’ve pretty much come to the end of a time when you can have a space that is “yours only”—just for the people you want to be there…To a large extent it’s because we have just finished with that kind of isolating. There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. It’s over. Give it up.

And here’s how she ended:

There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the 60’s that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we’ve got to do it with some folk we don’t care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.

More recently, Rev. William Barber has been saying the same thing with his focus on “fusion politics.”

There are a lot of other portions of Chotiner’s interview with Lilla that are interesting. But for right now I’d like to jump to the end of the transcript because I think it sheds light on where the differences among liberals right now are grounded. It starts when Lilla says that “there’s been a kind of slightly hysterical tone about race that leads us to overestimate its significance in particular things.” Chotiner questions whether it’s an overreaction when we now have a president who won’t condemn neo-Nazis, and Lilla responds with this:

No, no, overreacting in the sense that we are thinking that it’s moving more than it’s moving. That’s psychologically not how it works. Marxists are much more on-point here. Their argument has always been that people become racist—and there are lots of reasons why they do, but the people who might be on the edge are drawn to racist rhetoric and anti-immigrant rhetoric because they’ve been economically disenfranchised, and so they look for a scapegoat, and so the real problems are economic. I think they’re closer to the truth right now than to think that somehow just some racist demon is directing everything in this country. It’s just not where the country is.

That is the classic split between those on the left who are socialists vs. the anti-racists. It is also the kind of thing that got Bernie Sanders into trouble in the Democratic primary before he was schooled by people in the Black Lives Matter movement and stopped making overt statements about how classism is what undergirds racism.

Let’s be honest. In a rational world it is hard to come up with a logical reason for racism—especially if you are looking for one true explanation. A lot of (mostly white) people solve that problem by suggesting that it is a result of economic disenfranchisement. There is a layer truth to that, especially since Republicans have been dog whistling that message to white people for decades now.

But a lot of the current disagreement among liberals is based on the fact that there are those who don’t buy that argument and see it as a rationalization for back-benching the very real issue of racism. There are a whole host of questions that such a view doesn’t even begin to address. For example, how does it explain racism among the upper classes? How does it explain the persistent discrepancy of outcomes in everything from criminal justice to employment to education to health that tend to be systemically rooted and persist regardless of the economic plight of white people?

Things like racism are social constructs that, over the decades, have built up via factors that are irrational as well as systemic. They become cultural norms with feedback loops that are self-reinforcing. As I have attempted to study this issue, I find that identifying one expression of racism is like peeling back one layer of an onion—only to reveal the next one, and the next one, and the next one.

All of this is to say that Lilla has identified but one layer on which the construct of racism has been built. If he stops there and assumes that enough white people will dispense with racism when their economic plight is improved, he is very badly mistaken.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.