“There’s Been a Slightly Hysterical Tone About Race”

Author Mark Lilla thinks Democrats’ focus on identity politics is destroying the party.

Mark Lilla

Mark Lilla

Christophe Dellory

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University and the author of a new book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. Lilla is known for his writing on history and political philosophy; in his latest book, he pins many of the troubles of the Democratic Party on the rise of identity politics. He argues that Americans have become hostile to the way the left speaks and writes and that “by the 1980s [identity politics] had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.” “The main result,” he writes, “has been to turn young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them outward toward the wider world.”

Below is an edited transcript of part of the show. In it, we debate whether Democrats are too focused on the presidency, whether identity politics is really affecting the way politicians operate, and whether racism explains why the South went red.

You can find links to every episode here, and the entire audio interview with Lilla is also below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: What exactly is your diagnosis of what has gone wrong with liberals since the 1960s in the United States, and what were the consequences of that politically?

Mark Lilla: I would really date the break around 1980. From the New Deal up until 1980, you can think of that as one era of American politics and American liberal politics. The sort of governing ideas were solidarity, equal protection under the law, public duty, and there was a sense of the country pulling together ever since the Depression and Second World War to take care of each other.

With the arrival of Reagan, there was what I call in the book a new dispensation so that certain assumptions about what matters in politics—what can be said, what is not said, what the terms of debate are—all changed.

We went from a political vision of what we are as a country based on equal citizenship to an anti-political vision of the government being the problem, of people being solitary individuals in the market, in their families, in their churches, but without any common purpose as a nation. And at that moment, beginning in 1980, that was the moment when it was up to liberals to meet this anti-political vision of the country with a new political one that was adapted to the times and took in account all the mistakes and failures that had taken place before. We didn’t do that.

You’re talking about a period between, let’s say, 1932 and 1980, 48 years, that you feel that there was more of a common purpose, and we were more united, so in your argument—

Even if we weren’t united, the idea was to be united. The idea was that we stick together and we stand up for each other’s rights and there’s a national purpose to doing this.

And you felt that that was the case during the 1960s?

Well, the people who were active in the 1960s were at first appealing to that—that here we’re supposed to be a country based on equality, and African Americans are not being treated equally. Women are not being treated equally. Poor people in the country couldn’t really exercise their citizenship and be part of the country because of their poverty. So that was the tail end of this great period in American history.

But in the majority of that period, we had segregation in this country, for example.

I’m not talking about the reality on the ground. I’m talking about the way we thought about the reality on the ground. The reason we fought in the civil rights movement isn’t because of difference. We fought for equal rights because every citizen, by virtue of being a citizen, deserves to have those rights. And so the language we employed on the left was that of equal citizenship and solidarity. When you lose that language, then you no longer have a weapon. The word we is the most important word in the Democratic lexicon. If you cannot appeal to that, you cannot rally people.

I want to read you a quote from the book: “What’s extraordinary and appalling about the past four decades of our history is that our politics have been dominated by two ideologies, that encourage and even celebrate the unmaking of citizens.”

That’s basically what you’ve been saying. “On the right, an ideology that questions the existence of a common good and denies our obligations to help fellow citizens through government action if necessary.” On the left, “An ideology institutionalized in colleges and universities that fetishizes our individual and group attachments, applauds self-absorption and casts a shadow of suspicion over any application of a universal democratic ‘we.’ ”

I guess what I’m unclear about is how you can say those are the two dominant ideologies in the last 40 years, when as far as I can tell one of them is indeed a dominant ideology—the right from Reagan all the way through Trump. And the other is an ideology on college campuses that I don’t really see reflected in Democratic politics. I certainly don’t see it reflected in the two major Democratic presidents of those 40 years, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Well I think you’re right about the two presidents examples. Certainly the upper reaches of the Democratic Party are affected by this. I’ve been talking to a lot of Democratic donors since my article last year that was the basis of the book, and a lot of them have expressed their frustration to me that it’s very hard to rally people and come to a common program without checking all the boxes of all the groups that have to be consulted and have to be mentioned along the way.

This is donors who are telling you this?

Yeah, donors and also journalists who cover the party. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are interesting because they resisted this.

But doesn’t that suggest it’s not a dominant ideology if it really has no place in the ruling repertoire of one side of—

Well, we had a lot of losing Democratic candidates along the way.

Sure, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that Al Gore and John Kerry were putting forth an “ideology institutionalized in colleges and universities that fetishizes our individual and group attachments.”

Oh, I think they’re susceptible, I guess. I’m glad you’re asking this. I guess it is that they become susceptible to the claims of these groups that are not only focused on the particular identity issues but also have a stake in looking at the world this way.

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.

Just an example that you know what happened at the beginning of the organizing of the Women’s March. After Trump’s election, it was a very simple idea: This woman in Hawaii posted something on social media saying, “We should just all go to Washington, and we ought to demonstrate against this president who has spoken about women the way he has, has acted the way he has, and to make our voices heard.” What could be simpler to rally people around the country? And immediately what happened is she was criticized because she hadn’t created a committee that was multicultural, everyone had to feel included, and the thing really ground to a halt.

Wait, but it happened, it was one of the biggest marches of the modern era and broadly considered a giant success.

Oh well, it was with us. But for instance, one feminist group that’s also religious and pro-life was originally accepted into the coalition, and when it was discovered that they were there by other groups, they were disinvited. This happens in public. I mean this was on Fox News every night.

Right, but Fox News is always going to find something to put on every night. I’ve been watching Fox News since I was 14 years old, and they will find a story like this in America every night to put on. It seems to me that the biggest issue of the last 40 years is that we have this left and the right, and the right’s lunacy on its side is shown in electoral politics.

The connection between the movement right and its craziness and the Republican Party as it exists in 2017 is extremely close. We have a president who is sympathetic to white supremacy, which is beyond even most of the right-wing activists. On the left, we have a situation where, broadly speaking, there are activists from antifa people to much more centrist Democrats, the donors you talk to, but the craziness doesn’t seem to reflect itself in Democratic politics.

We’ve had Barack Obama, we’ve had Hillary Clinton, we’ve had John Kerry, we’ve had people who are good and bad candidates, but there’s no kind of ideological extremism there, and certainly governing there’s no ideological extremism. That seems to me like the story the last 40 years.

Well, if you just focus on the presidency, you could tell a story like that, but as you know, two-thirds of the state legislatures in this country are controlled by Republicans. They hold two-thirds of the governorships. They hold 24 states outright, and if they win two more they can call a constitutional convention.

All the rights that movement politics people and identity politics people have fought for are under siege at the state level. There’s rollback on union rights, there’s rollback on voting rights for African Americans, there’s rollback on abortion. There’s a constitutional right to abortion in this country, and there are parts of the country where you cannot get one, and why is that? Because we are not competitive in these places because people have walked away from us, because of the way we talk, because of the things that with our seeming contempt for them.

When you ask them about identity issues, the people who are not voting for us, and ask them about what they perceive as political correctness, they respond. You only have to look at posts about this, and it’s a great recruiting tool for the right. Now, unless you assume that all of white America is racist and lost and cannot be saved—

Only about half.

If you don’t assume that, then you know that there are a lot of people who we could reach, and we must reach because this is a democracy, a federated democracy, which means if you are not competitive at the state and local levels, you can’t protect anything that movement politics achieves. Institutional politics trump movement politics always.

We just had eight years of a Democratic presidency, which I think most Americans found broadly successful. Despite that fact, despite that the president never, never, never engaged in the identity politics things that you’re talking about, at least as far as I can think about, and in fact went way out of his way not to do that: Why does that not have any effect on the American people, and why is that something on a college campus you think is what’s driving them into the arms of Republicans?

I’m not saying there’s one cause for this; there are very many causes, but I make two cases about identity politics. One is that the explicit calling out of groups and not including everybody is—

What do you mean by that? Give an example of that.

An example is every time Hillary Clinton went out on the stump, she would call out to various groups to women, to Latinos, to African Americans, to immigrants. She left out about 40 percent of the country in doing that, and she lost people: 51 percent of American women voted for Donald Trump. [Ed. note: The majority of women voted for Clinton. The majority of white women voted for Trump.]

Something is going on there, and it’s not just a question that people react explicitly to identity politics. What I really write about in the book is that it keeps us focused on movement politics and moral victories rather than political victories. With the rise, every increase in identity consciousness on the left has been followed by a decrease in practical political consciousness.

Roosevelt offered a new picture of America that everyone had to work within—even Eisenhower had to work within, even Nixon had to work within. He had to offer a guaranteed minimum income and health insurance for everybody. Those were the terms of debate with Reagan—that vision of what the country was changed. Now, that vision has died in this election because, as you pointed out, Donald Trump wiped the floor with these people. What we do not offer and Republicans used to offer is a picture of the country we want to create and that picture that people can see themselves in. We’re not even in the game. We have dropped out of the context with the American imagination.

We just had the most rhetorically gifted president in my lifetime, certainly maybe in years, who talked a lot about one America, who talked about uniting us. This was his defining political identity from when he came on the scene in 2004, who gave endless speeches about this for eight years and was popular. When you say that Democrats—or “we”—have turned away from this, I don’t know what that means after eight years of a presidency that by and large did exactly what you’re asking for.

Well, right, because he’s fighting against this inertia and this resistance in the country. I feel that you’re confusing the need to assert a program and fight for a program and its success out there. Obama did the right thing. I mean, he could have gone further. He always said, “That’s not who we are.” Well who are “we” then? What do you mean by we? We’re not to the point where we can offer a positive vision of the kind of country and on what principles that we want to create.

We’ve got a daddy complex about the presidency. We always turn to presidential elections for examples. That’s not where the action is. We have had two Democratic presidents since Reagan who were stymied at every turn by Congress, a Republican Supreme Court, and state and local governments. That’s where the battle is. You have to reach people out there.

We have to get outside of our too-closed bubble. We need to be able to go to places where the Wi-Fi sucks, where you don’t want to take a picture of your dinner, where you’ll be sitting with people who are giving thanks to God for that dinner, and they’re not worried about whether spaghetti and meatballs is cultural appropriation.

You’re acting a little bit as if local Democratic candidates are telling voters that eating meatballs is cultural appropriation. Or Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi is telling people that they shouldn’t eat Italian food because that’s offensive. I’m sure there are stupid people online who have some stupid comment about meatballs—I have no doubt that you could find that. I have no doubt on college campuses, where you now spend more of your time than I do, that there’s all kinds of silliness going on all the time. I understand how that’s broadcast on right-wing media. But who’s sending the message that the Democratic Party cares about cultural appropriation of meatballs or that local candidates or candidates for governor do?

Again, that’s not my point. Certainly, this is fodder for Fox News, and it’s not sufficient to say they’ll always find something. Look, I want them searching the garbage cans for something, not feeding them it on a plate. What I’m saying is that the focus on identity and groups has prevented Democrats and liberals and progressive together from thinking. It’s a mentality question, thinking about the need to develop a message. We have an allergy to the word we.

I guess I’m just not sure who’s focusing on groups. You’ve quoted a Hillary Clinton speech where she would mention other groups, but broadly speaking it seemed like she was offering a program that said, “Every American should have health care. Every American should have a right to good education,” whatever the Democratic agenda of the day is. Obviously the Hillary Clinton campaign was screwed up in all kinds of ways, and there are all sorts of things that could change, but I guess my main concern is that … Do you feel at all that maybe you’re taking what’s going on in college campuses and kind of putting that onto the country as a whole or the Democratic Party as a whole?

Liberal elites in this country—and not just in the party but also in media, in the legal profession—are produced by the university now. Democratic Party elites used to be mayors, governors, county commissioners, union officials—people and farmers who are shaped by those experiences out in the world after the ’72 election that changes the rules. Those people were pushed out of power, and now it’s the college-educated who run the party and are the leading figures in American progressivism and liberalism. They come out of this university, and this way of looking at politics rubs off on them.

I write in the book about the websites of the Republican Party the Democratic Party. You look at the website of the Republican Party and smack in the middle of it is a list of 11 principles, 11 sentences of what we stand for. That’s the product of thought, and that’s the product of a lot of debates that happen in the conservative movement.

Until a few weeks ago, if you look at the Democratic Party website, you would find no such statement. Instead, you would go to the bottom and find a link to 17 different groups, most of them identity groups. That’s our inability to articulate a vision.

It’s a mess, and it doesn’t cohere because there’s no sense of a governing principle behind it. The Republicans have that.

You think the Republican Party right now under Donald Trump coheres in ideology or in message or in anything?

Well no, they’re collapsing right now, not because they’re not coherent but because their coherence doesn’t reflect a lot of social reality. You keep coming back to Trump. Trump is not the issue.

Well, he is president.

He’s only president. That’s my point. He’s only president and we learn under Obama and under Bill Clinton that presidents only have so much power in presidential elections follow their own rhythm. We’ve got to get off this daddy complex about the president. That’s not where the power lies.

Famous last words when North Korea nukes us: “He’s only president.”

I think our disagreement is just over how to do that and why the Democrats haven’t done that. I would point to some of the things you’re saying, but also things like gerrymandering, things like lack of local organizing, things like the fact that there are more Republican states, so it’s much harder to win control of the Senate, and so on.

Yeah, but they weren’t always Republican states. That’s the thing to remind yourself of: A lot of them used to be Democratic states.

The one thing I maybe disagree with your book about the most was that bigger question of why all these former Democratic states are now Republican states. It seems to me that the overwhelming answer to that question is race, which is not something you talk particularly about in the book. Do you not see what’s happened racially post the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in this country as being the primary driver of the fact that a majority of states now are Republican states, which was not the case 50, 60 years ago?

I certainly do not.

You don’t think race is the central reason?

The central reason? Not at all, not at all. Just go out there. It’s not the central reason.

Wait, go out there?

Yeah go out there. Let me tell you, I grew up in Macomb County, Michigan, which is a blue-collar county right at the border of Detroit. It’s known as the home of the Reagan Democrats and studied to death. In the early ’60s, it was the most liberal suburban county in the United States. By 1972, it had gone for Nixon, and it never looked back. Now, where I grew up it was blue-collar and blue-collar ethnic, and there was a lot of racism, no doubt about that.

What was motivating them was lots of issues. They felt they weren’t being heard. They resented the college kids who were spitting on the flag when a lot of their sons were coming home in coffins that were draped in that flag. I had a paper route, and I looked at all the stars in the window. I was an altar boy; I served at the funerals.

There was a deep cultural resentment that built up because they felt that the country they loved and the kind of way of life that they were attached to was treated with contempt. It’s a complicated thing. Trust me.

I agree that it’s complicated but I mean the entire South used to be Democratic, and now the entire South is Republican, and we know when that switch broadly occurred.

The Southern strategy played some role in that, but that’s not how you win local elections. It’s not how you capture the governorship.

I just don’t see how you can’t think that all these things are intricately filiated with race and with the way white Americans see their country, the way they perceive black people, whether it’s immigrants getting their jobs or whatever it is.

Again, the reason the Democratic Party is no longer what it was is that the vast majority of the South is now strongly Republican in terms of senators, in terms of governors, in terms of how it votes in presidential elections, and in terms of state legislatures. I just can’t believe that you don’t think that race is the primary driver of that over the last 50 years. Maybe we disagree.

We do disagree, and frankly I have to say I feel you are illustrating my point. The fact that liberals have gotten so focused—even in the past three years, America hasn’t changed that much. We had the problem before, we have the problem now, but there’s been a kind of slightly hysterical tone about race that leads us to overestimate its significance in particular things.

Mark, we have a racist president who won’t condemn neo-Nazis. You’re saying people are overreacting to race?

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.