Identity Politics Hits a Brick Wall
Dave Weigel, the portly, nesting doll look-alike reporter for the Washington Post, is no fan of Mark Lilla, the Columbia University professor who issued a distress call to liberals about embracing identity politics following Donald Trump’s presidential victory.
Identity politics, Lilla argues in his new book The Once and Future Liberal, is a myopic tactic for regaining political ground. “As soon as you cast an issue exclusively in terms of identity you invite your adversary to do the same,” he explains. “Those who play one race card should be prepared to be trumped by another, as we saw subtly and not so subtly in the 2016 presidential election.”
The Spectator columnist Ed West made the same point in a piece published not long after Trump’s astonishing win. Trump, West observed, is “the triumph of identity politics,” a man who turned the Democrats’ emphasis on minority races upside down and cobbled together a winning coalition of whites, spanning from the well-to-do to the working class.
Licking their wounds and nursing their pride, Democrats woke up the morning after Election Day desperately searching for an answer as to why Trump outsmarted them at their own game. More than a year later, they have yet to devise a foolproof plan to resist the President, outside of rabid outrage over trivialities and vulva-shaped crochet hats.
Weigel, intrepid reporter that he is, thinks Democrats have figured out a way to fell Trump, or at least his Republican allies in this fall’s midterm elections. Following the President’s highly-praised State of the Union address, not one, not two, not three, but five Democrats gave rebuttals, each tripping over one another to deliver the most concise, “like”-friendly salvo that would, hopefully, be looped endlessly over social media. The party employed its usual cast of characters to give the team rebuttal: a Kennedy, a grandfatherly socialist, a Spanish speaker, an insipid third-party nobody, and a black woman who’s temperamentally incapable of not calling everything racist.
The messages were all the same. President Trump is simultaneously incompetent and masterfully devious; a hapless stooge and a cunning oligarch; a friend of benighted provincials and an ally of big business. Nothing of note stuck out in any speech other than Chapstick-laden lips of Bobby Kennedy’s grandkid.
One theme did stick out, however, according to Weigel. He notes the “debate about ‘identity politics’ that briefly distracted Democrats after 2016” has been “long forgotten.” In a tweet promoting the report, Weigel bolsters his conclusion, directly naming Lilla: “One takeaway: The battle over ‘identity politics’ has been settled, and Mark Lilla (remember him?) lost.”
Au contraire, Mr. Weigel, but to paraphrase Chesterton, ditching identity politics has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
The so-called squabble over identity politics that was supposed to swallow up the Democratic Party never actually happened. While a few introspective types like Lilla considered ditching the civically poisonous belief system, howling lonely in the cold night, the rest of the Democrat coalition kept right on chugging along, cutting and pasting political interests based on skin color, private parts, and troublesome legal status.
If there was any serious conversation among Hillary Clinton voters about the pitfalls of identity-centrism, it was vanquished when the first Women’s March crowded the streets of Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration. It lost further ground in the outrage following the administration’s first executive order limiting travel from a handful of Muslim-majority countries.
By the time liberal precincts started removing monuments dedicated to Confederate Army generals last summer, it was more than obvious the liberal obsession with racial and sexual identity wasn’t withering. If anything, Trump’s rise made it a more potent weapon.
In attempting to malign Lilla’s admonition of identity politics, Weigel creates a straw man, only to knock it down. Lilla’s small but instructive monograph was dismissed too quickly by the media set to have any sort of impact on voters. It was a shame. His message of social solidarity over sowing division, of reaching out to rural whites over dismissing them in favor of urban centers, is still a compelling one.
Democrats, if they’ve any care left for politicking, will be kicking themselves soon enough for not heeding Lilla’s advice. Already, the tenuous strands holding together the identity-driven voting bloc are stretching beyond capacity.
Chelsea Manning, the soldier-cum-transgender activist, was vilified by his fellow leftists for associating with pro-Trump writers. Rose McGowan, the actress who helped out Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein for being a lecherous abuser, was recently drawn into a shouting match with a transgender person over not doing enough to help trans women. A Snapchat video of a Hispanic girl calling black people “trash” who “need to die” recently went viral, eliciting a wave of backlash.
These small but significant outbursts portend a greater blowup for those motivated primarily by personal grievance. The identity politic coalition cobbled together by Democrats can’t last because, ultimately, identity is a selfish ideal. There’s nothing wrong with valuing the history and culture of people like you. But to maniacally focus on your own living traits, to put your superficial characteristics above thoughts of your own countrymen, destroys the potential for democratic governance.
Identity politics is a misnomer because it’s only effective at one thing: tearing a society apart. Politics is an art of persuasion and compromise. Linking it to identity is a sure way to tank cordiality, and, by extension, the democratic republic we call home.