Barack Obama
Credit: Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons

Mark Lilla stirred up quite the hornets nest back in November 2016 when he wrote that liberals need to reject identity politics. He followed that up with a book on the topic titled, The Once and Future Liberal. Today, Tocqueville 21 hosted a symposium about Lilla’s views on liberalism and identity politics and the discussion provides some important insights.

My biggest issue with Lilla has always been that I don’t define “identity politics” in the same way that he does. That might be because I am ignorant about how it all plays out on elite university campuses, the places that inform Lilla’s descriptions. But in reading his contribution to the symposium today, I put that aside and actually found myself agreeing with some of what he wrote.

Lilla acknowledges that, up until now, he has focused primarily on what is wrong with liberalism these days and hasn’t written much on prescriptions. It was when he went there today that I found myself both agreeing with a lot of what he said and wondering if he knew that he was basically describing what Barack Obama was all about.

Lilla’s overall issue with politics today is that we have dismissed the idea of a common good. He posits that “modern Western societies that have been atomized by economic, cultural, and technological changes that have left us more private, more self-absorbed, and less capable of thinking about and engaging in common enterprises than people a century or more ago.” Lilla goes on to suggest that Republicans don’t believe in a common good and Democrats have succumbed to the individualized issues of identity politics.

The answer for Lilla lies in the concept of citizenship.

…the one thing that all American citizens share despite our real and imagined diversity is exactly that: citizenship. No matter where you come from, what your private beliefs are, where you work, or who your parents are, you and I are in fact citizens. At the very least, this is what we concretely have in common…

Let’s face it: we are a republic within the borders of a nation-state, sharing a common destiny. Yes, different individuals and groups have different life chances and face different problems. But we can only address those through the system of government we share as citizens…

…you can’t have a progressive politics unless the word “solidarity” means something to people, and is rooted in citizens’ pre-existing feelings of attachment to one another and to their common project. They must first give a damn about each other.

I could highlight all of the ways that has been a theme for Barack Obama through his campaigns, his presidency, and even his post-presidential focus on citizen engagement. There were times it was in the background, but Obama actually made citizenship the focus of his speech at the 2012 Democratic convention and sounded all of the same themes Lilla does up above. For example:

We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world’s ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations…

We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

Prior to all of that, one of the stories Obama told during his 2008 campaign happens to be about a 23 year-old white woman named Ashley who did outreach for the campaign in a primarily African American community. She said that she got involved because of her traumatic experiences as a child when her mother got cancer and they had no health insurance. After sharing that with a group, an elderly black man simply said, “I’m here because of Ashley.” Here is how Obama concluded his famous 2008 speech on race after telling that story:

“I’m here because of Ashley.” By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the 221 years since a band of patriots signed that document right here in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.

In talking about future elections, Lilla suggests Democrats need “to place the issues and policies they care about in the context of a larger civic vision of the common good.” I agree with that 100 percent. He also says that Democrats need to compete everywhere and, because of that, tone matters. I was reminded of the fact that way back in 2005, Barack Obama wrote a blog post titled, “Tone, Truth and the Democratic Party.”

And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose.  Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose.  A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate…

Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will.  This is more than just a matter of “framing,” although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required.  It’s a matter of actually having faith in the American people’s ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.

What it comes down to is that Barack Obama was the embodiment of almost everything Lilla prescribes for the Democratic Party. Beyond that, there is a whole new generation that is running in local races with similar messages. For example, here’s what Stacey Abrams said during her victory speech after winning the Democratic primary in Georgia’s gubernatorial race:

We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s history where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired. We are writing a history of Georgia where we prosper together…For the journey that lies ahead, we need every voice in our party and every independent thinker in the state of Georgia…That is why we are here to ensure that all Georgians, from farmers in Montezuma to mill workers in Dalton, know that we value them. So that educators in Sparta and airport workers in College Park know that we see their efforts. So that former prisoners across our state who are working towards more know that we believe in their redemption.

Or how about David Garcia speaking to an audience that was primarily white in Arizona?

“Did you hear me beat up on Republicans today?” Garcia asked. “No,” the crowd responded. “Did you hear me talk about us and them?” he followed. “No,” the crowd assured.

“You are not going to hear that from me, and let me tell you why,” he continued. “When you walk away from here, I want you to walk away with a set of values. A value about the importance of immigration, a value about public education — because I don’t care what party you’re in. If you share those values, I want you to be welcome to mark my name on that ballot, because when we do this approach — this ‘us and them’ approach — we turn people off.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why Lilla isn’t hearing these voices is because there are still those on the left who haven’t come to grips with the fact that it is actually women and people of color who are most likely to lead this party into the future with an embrace of the common good. I can’t help but think about what President Obama told the young black men graduating from Morehouse University about that.

As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share.

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers…

So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern — to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody.  Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world.  To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table.

Lilla might hear that as yet another invocation of identity politics. But Obama was helping those young men connect the dots from their own marginalization to a place where they can ensure that everyone gets heard and everyone has a seat at the table. In other words, to build a vision for this country on the idea of a common good requires empathy, which, as Obama articulated in another speech, is this country’s essential deficit.

I must admit that it is surprising to find myself basically agreeing with a lot of what Mark Lilla has written when I expected that the opposite would be true. But it leaves me even more confused to recognize that for eight years we had an African American president who embodies so much of what he prescribes, but he doesn’t seem to recognize the connection. I have to wonder if people of color have gotten a seat at his table yet.

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