Identity Politics and the Liberal Crack-Up

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Why liberals are losing the world

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics |  Mark Lilla | HarperCollins

THE SAFEST PLACE for a liberal today is the echo chamber. Step out and you’re with tricksters: populists, nativists, right radicals, leftist militants and other sundry revolutionaries selling salvation gratis. The liberal holds the mirror to himself, and his righteous narcissism peaks as he realises what he has become in this world without ideals. So he plans the next march with a poetic flourish on the placard; he divides this damn world into categories of victimhood; looks down on the “deplorables”; and withdraws further into political irrelevance. The usurpers, rising from below, shattering the certainties of the establishment on both sides of aisle, lose op-ed pages but win elections.

In the wake of Brexit and then Trump, the liberal has been left with nothing but anger. Action is in the outsider’s tent. Zeitgeist readers have been busy deciphering what really went wrong. We thought—how comforting it was— the victory of liberal democracy in 1989 was an irreversible historical correction. Now, increasingly, ‘liberal’ is an adjective incompatible with the politics of freedom, and as a noun, its existence is purely self-referential. Post-Brexit, the English writer David Goodhart saw the upheaval in the otherwise placid countryside as an assertion of the Somewhere people, ‘socially conservative and communitarian by instinct’. Set against them was the losing side, the Anywhere people—liberal, cosmopolitan globalists. Home is somewhere, and Goodhart called this political quest ‘decent populism’.

It’s not necessarily decent everywhere. The Trump moment may have brought out the indecencies of garish populism, but, more starkly, it marked the misplaced—and ineffectual—loftiness of liberals. Mark Lilla, in his book-length essay, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (HarperCollins), argues that they have become ‘America’s ideological third party, lagging behind self-declared independents and conservatives, even among young voters and certain minority groups.’ Lilla, one of the sharpest political essayists of our time and ‘a frustrated liberal’ himself, says that liberals need to look beyond their favourite bogeyman. They are in a mortal crisis, for they have ceased to be spokespersons of ‘the great American demos’.

Essentially, it’s a crisis of ‘imagination and ambition’. They have become far removed from the aspirations and attitudes of people out there, from their fears and dreams. They have forgotten the fundamentals of politics, best articulated by Lincoln: ‘Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.’ And for two generations, since the Reagan inauguration to be exact, the liberal has been in denial. ‘In the contest for the American imagination, liberals have abdicated,’ Lilla says. Look around and we realise that it’s an abdication bigger than America.

Identity is not destiny; it is a private ghetto. It lets you float in simulated alienation. In politics, it takes you nowhere. Today’s liberal is yet to understand that he is damned by mythified identity

In the American context, the backstory begins with the Roosevelt Dispensation, which invested in collective destiny. ‘We the People’ was a singular invocation of the common good. It lasted till the onset of the Individual in the Reagan Dispensation, where the state was a disposable shackle. As Lilla says, the political was followed by the anti-political. Meanwhile, liberals retreated into the politics of identity, which brought in the third stage: pseudo-politics. They failed to ‘develop a fresh political vision of shared destiny’. The self-referential politics of identity, legitimised by classrooms but rejected by the people, magnified liberalism’s cosy irrelevance: ‘They are losing because they have retreated into caves they have carved for themselves in the side of what once was a great mountain.’ It has become, as Lilla says, not a political but an evangelical project. ‘The difference is this: evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.’

Such aphorisms make Lilla a delightful debunker of a political pretence. In identity liberalism, the duller We has become the romantic Me. You are what your biology, geography, sexuality or race says you are. A shift from ‘commonality to difference’. A new rhetoric of ‘the feeling self and its struggle for recognition’ is born. And the study of identity groups in American universities ‘encouraged an obsessive fascination with the margins of society, so much so that students have come away with a distorted picture of history and of their country in the present—a significant handicap at a time when American liberals need to learn more, not less, about the vast middle of the country.’ Politics has become, literally, self-indulgence. Everyone is special, and politics is a journey within. This politics of the personal is largely history-proof. It’s politics as a permanent identity crisis. ‘Identity is Reaganism for lefties,’ goes another Lilla aphorism.

Liberalism can regain its ideals in what Lilla calls a post-vision America, or anywhere, only when politics is freed from its inherited prefixes: anti- and pseudo-. In America, liberals play out their anti-Trumpism in an empty space, for Trump has, for the moment at least, made both Republicanism and conservatism in their original sense redundant. So look beyond the convenient bogeyman. But they can’t. ‘At a moment when political consciousness and strategizing need to be developed, we are expending our energies on symbolic dramas over identity. At a time when it is crucial to direct our efforts into seizing institutional power by winning elections, we dissipate them in expressive movements indifferent to the effects they may have on the voting public. In an age when we need to educate young people to think of themselves as citizens with duties toward each other, we encourage them instead to descend into the rabbit hole of the self.’ The author’s advice: stop being a Marcher (an identity liberal-activist), be a Mayor (get elected). That cannot be achieved without recognising Demos, as in democracy. Politics, in the end, is about power, which in an evolved civil society is about elections, legislations, negotiations, consultations, and it can be for some less thrilling than a seminar or a candlelight vigil.

The true liberal needs to return to democratic citizenship which ‘provides a political language for speaking about a solidarity that transcends identity attachments’. Democratic citizenship, as Lilla writes, ‘implies reciprocal rights and duties. We have duties because we have rights; we enjoy rights because we do our duty.’ In individualistic or identity liberalism, one is aware of rights but sceptical of duties. Citizenship turns Me into Us. It is not constrained by individual identity in its pursuit of a shared destiny. It overcomes differences to attain political inclusiveness. Identity is not destiny; it is a private ghetto. It lets you float in simulated alienation. In politics, it takes you nowhere. Today’s liberal is yet to understand that he is damned by mythified identity. Mythified on the campus. A sense of the common future should begin from the classroom.

It is a powerful argument, and resonates far beyond Trumpdom. In the liberal angst factories of India, identity is still an overused catalyst. The effect is telling when we see them at a candlelight march or read their identity on the placard.