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Editors' Picks Interviews National

An Interview With Columbia Professor Mark Lilla, Author and Critic of Identity Politics

Mark Lilla is a Professor of Humanities at Columbia University who specializes in intellectual history, with a particular focus on Western political and religious thought. Lilla is also a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.

Recently, Lilla waded into the debate on the future of Democratic Party with his book The Once and Future Liberal. In it, Lilla argues that a focus on identity politics has failed American liberalism, calling out college activism and social movements like Black Lives Matter as particular culprits, while proposing a new appeal for commonality and citizenship.

Lilla sat down with The Politic’s Gregory Jany to talk about his book, identity politics, the path to electoral victory for the Democrats in 2018, and free speech on campus.

The Politic: In your opinion, what is identity politics?

Mark Lilla: Well, there are two kinds of identity politics. One kind of identity politics is really just a form of ordinary democratic politics, like interest group politics, where a group of people who share some condition and concerns end up lobbying and trying to gain votes to meet their needs. That is a sort of ordinary democratic politics where the interest of groups is defined by what they take to be their shared identity, which is a product of history or self-definition. It is a way of doing group politics within a democratic system. That kind of politics is about a shared solidarity due to common experience, which can be centered on a socially defined identity.

There’s another kind of identity politics that is not focused on the democratic process, but rather is about one’s intimate definition of oneself. The focus of politics here is about discovering yourself and having your politics come out of your personal identity. Now, you may share characteristics with other people, but in this kind of identity politics, the assumption is that each individual is a very special mix of all these identity elements.

The first kind of identity politics I described contribute to ordinary democratic politics, and from my point of view, electoral gains. Whereas the second sort distracts people from the kind of work that is necessary for our political system.

Your book was a source of controversy in the media and it also received criticism within academic circles, including from Yale Professor Beverley Gage. What were your intentions for writing this book and what were you trying to achieve?  

I’m writing this book for my fellow liberals who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid and who have felt that the focus on the Type II Identity Politics I described has been electorally disastrous, which I think it has been. More than that, however, I wanted to explain how such identity politics might not just put off other sorts of voters, but [also that] the focus on the self has actually depoliticized people. People who are involved in that kind of identity politics, in fact, are not interested [in], or even resist, doing what needs to be done to actually gain institutional power. So, in this book, I wanted to explain this situation to people who are liberals and are dissatisfied with what’s going on right now, explain quickly the history behind it, and the gist of where we might go from here.

In your book, you established a dichotomy between appealing to racial and gender identities, and on the other side, winning elections. Why do you think those two can’t go hand in hand?

It depends on where you are and what you’re fighting for. Certainly, it’s a mobilizing force in California, New York, the two coasts, and some major cities. But in other places, people both have different concerns and they feel that there is a focus on groups who have different problems than themselves. If the Democratic Party presents itself as a party of marginalized groups with different sorts of complaints, it can feel to independent voters in the Midwest that their concerns are not being addressed. The main issues of the country, which have to do with economics, basic social protection like healthcare, are not being addressed.

Do you think it is possible to satisfy the concerns of marginalized groups without alienating Americans that might feel uncomfortable with the elevated status of those groups, as you mention?

I think there is a general allergy from anything that comes from elite culture. And this is part of that, but it’s not just that. There’s kind of an allergic reaction to what we’re seen to represent entirely, and it’s not just identity concerns.

The case I make in the book—and I suppose those uncomfortable Americans are my other audience, although I am less hopeful in convincing them—is that you cannot defend the gains of any disadvantaged groups you care about unless you win elections. So, it makes absolutely no sense to place heavy emphasis on this issue if that prevents you from developing a general program that persuades people to vote for you. What I genuinely don’t understand is why people involved in identity politics don’t realize that they have a stake in winning elections in red states to protect the people who belong to their groups in those states. And it’s not just a question of winning the presidency—you need to win local and state-level elections if you want to protect African-Americans, women, and activists.

A lot of the activists for identity politics live in blue states, so losing in the red states doesn’t affect them. But there are people in those red states they ought to be protecting, and the only way to do that is to win the election by focusing on issues of general concern and putting them in the context, principles, and narrative that the person stands for.

In your book, you proposed a notion of a united “us” to appeal to a collective notion of citizenship, rather than focusing on individual identities and groups. However, in a vitriolic atmosphere that can be anti-immigrant, anti-minority, and anti-women, can’t this notion of citizenship and nation itself be exclusionary? Wouldn’t there need to be direct appeals to those individual groups to include them in the nation?

Look, the kind of “we” I’m talking about is a political “we,” in the sense that there are issues that affect all of us. You know, I’m not interested in some metaphysical “we” that people have to be involved with. But rather that we share a destiny, we’re all in the same country. So, what happens in healthcare affects all of us. What happens in the economy affects all of us. What happens in foreign policy affects all of us. And so we have a common take in getting those sorts of things right. As a Democrat, you also want to win in order to make progress on other sorts of issues as well. But it’s important to distinguish changes in civil society from political strategy. And so, yes, you want a more inclusive society where people are recognized but made to feel at home. But that’s a project for changing civil society, that’s not a project of electoral politics. Electoral politics is about seizing power, period.

You also talked about social movements and how protests are an ineffective method of political action. However, don’t you think these social movements can produce results in the voting booth? At the very least, they are bringing awareness to certain electoral issues.

I don’t believe that, at this moment, that’s the case. There is no reason why in principle that should not be the case. But the mentality that “identitarians” bring to politics right now is not focused on victory. They don’t want to make tradeoffs, they don’t want to recognize that there are times to talk about your issues and there are times not to talk about your issues, because there is a common cause in a party. But the mentality right now is so self-involved, narcissistic, radicalized, and evangelical that the atmosphere in these movements right now does not contribute to what they could contribute to.

In the early day of the feminist movement during the civil rights period, social movements did mobilize people to go out and vote for Democrats. These are periods in our history where Type I Identity Politics did contribute to electoral victory. But now we have Type II Identity Politics, [which] is somehow short-circuiting the political instincts and thinking of people who are involved in these movements.

During his campaign, Bernie Sanders did appeal more to class rather than identity issues compared to Hillary Clinton. If Bernie Sanders competed against Donald Trump in 2016, do you think he would have won?

Oh, I have no idea. But, if I was forced to make a guess, I don’t think so. Because in this particular election, it really was a contest over who could portray elite culture in America as the problem and win votes as a way to teach a lesson to those of us who are in the elite class. And Trump not only spoke about economic issues, but also religion, and all sorts of dog-whistles about cultural issues in the South and the Midwest. Bernie was the Johnny-one-note, you know, it was all economics with him. So, I think, he is culturally tone deaf. And that is true for a lot of economic progressives who think economics is the only issue. That’s just not where the country is right now, there is kind of a cultural war going on.

Looking forward to the 2018 midterms, what do you think the Democrats should do?

To begin with, Democrats should focus on winning elections and put that above everything. What is happening, and is encouraging, is that there are a lot of organizations springing up that are helping people who want to run for office. There are seminars for potential candidates, the groups meet with them, they give them little packets with documents that tell them how to raise money, how not to spend too much money, how to do advertising—all that is good. But it really is the long-term that I’m concerned about.

The long-term concerns the Democratic Party’s ability to articulate a general message, present a vision of what kind of country Democrats want to create, and then deriving all of the policies that the Democratic Party is for from that general picture. If we can help people understand why we are for all these things that might not seem [like] they hang together, if we can show that there is some vision and thinking behind it, then I think we have a chance. Because the Republicans right now don’t have a compelling picture for the country—except, of course, a picture of resentment that is held by large fringe elements in our country, but still, it is not for everybody else.

Demographics are changing. The minority population is growing and the younger generation is more diverse than ever. Bearing that in mind, would identity politics be important in the future?

If you mean concrete electoral politics, I think somewhat, but not much. Because I don’t think young people are very diverse. Young people in this country are looking at their screens all the time and they can’t get through a single sentence without saying “like.” And it doesn’t matter what the color of their skin is. The real diversity in this country is not ethnic at all, but it is class diversity. I think those sorts of issues that pertain to class are going to matter much more because the situation is getting worse.

Also, it turns out that as immigrants that come from various ethnic groups start doing well in this country, they become more conservative. There is no reason, for example, that Asian-Americans are going to be Democrats in the future. And young people get old, and as people get older, they become more conservative. Therefore, there is no demographic magic pill that we can swallow and hope for the best. We still have to go out and talk to people everywhere.

Certainly, economic issues and the feeling of disenfranchisement are more important electorally than whether or not certain identity groups are being oppressed. That is my particular reading of the situation. But if it’s wrong, if identity issues are going to be more important, than we absolutely have to address them, because I am interested in winning.

Before moving on to the rapid-fire questions, let us talk about universities because they also form a significant part of your criticisms in your book. Lifting my question directly out of Professor Beverly Gage’s New York Times article: how should universities preserve free speech in an age of impassioned conflict?

Well, by defending free speech on campus. A number of university presidents have made a public commitment to ensure that no talks beyond the racist fringe are going to be shut down. For example, at Chicago, at Berkeley, at Brown—these are places I’ve been speaking where there is that sort of commitment. But it’s not just a question about whether speeches and talks are allowed to go on. It’s more about how the universities are set up right now. There are people who work in universities whose jobs, it seems to be, are to heighten students’ sensitivities about these issues, because there are deans for that. The atmosphere this creates is one of hyper-sensitivity and an unwillingness to challenge people of minority groups with an argument. People are being coddled and their sensitives are being heightened. If that were to change and the universities, together with professors, send the signal that we’re going to have tough conversations in class—and that’s what class should be about—then I think that would help a lot. So, it’s not just a question about inviting speakers, but it’s a willingness to not coddle students so much and to both invite them into serious argument and make sure it happens.

Where do you usually get your news?

For my daily dose, The New York Times, beginning with the Sports section.

What place would you most like to visit?


If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?

I’d be the best blues guitarist of my generation.

Which living person do you most admire?

At this moment, Syrian refugees.

What keeps you up at night?

Our president.

What is your advice for college students?

Realize that real political life begins the moment you step out of campus.

What is your favorite book?

The Pickwick Papers—it’s a beautiful book.

What is your favorite TV show?

NCAA football, especially when the University of Michigan plays.