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December 19, 2016

The End of Identity Liberalism

Always an optimist, I hoped that the election of 2008 would lead to better race relations in the US; turned out a terrible missed opportunity. Instead the proliferation of special identities accelerated, each with their own grievances, needs, and “rights”.

There was a wonderful post-election op-ed in the NY Times, from which I stole the headline of this post, by Mark Lilla, who says all this much better than I can.

“One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome [his opinion although I’d agree that we had a deplorable choice to make] is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end. Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded…”

I heard Hillary give a speech in which she said something like “If Trump is elected we’ll lose our rights as women; we’ll lose our rights as blacks; we’ll lose our transgender rights; we’ll lose our rights as native Americans; we’ll lose our rights as Hispanics; we’ll lose… I don’t know… all our rights.” She sort of tailed off, perhaps realizing that, no matter how long she went on, she’d leave someone out.

We don’t have rights because of our various identities; we have rights because we’re people and because America holds certain rights to be “inalienable”. If I have “Jewish rights”, that means the rest of you who aren’t Jewish don’t have some rights which I have; that would be wrong. Blacks or others can legitimately complain if there is some explicit or implicit white right; but they have no more or less claim to human rights than the rest of us. If anyone gets special rights, someone else is being denied.

Here’s more of the article but it’s worth reading it all:

“We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)

“Teachers committed to such a liberalism would refocus attention on their main political responsibility in a democracy: to form committed citizens aware of their system of government and the major forces and events in our history. A post-identity liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. A post-identity liberal press would begin educating itself about parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion. And it would take seriously its responsibility to educate Americans about the major forces shaping world politics, especially their historical dimension.”

Yes, Trump should have been much faster to denounce Klansman David Duke. But Al Sharpton is a racist demagogue who’s been invited by Democrats to both the White House and Gracie Mansion.

I’m still an optimist.  It is not at all clear that Trump will be a great protector of human rights; I certainly hope so. But the failure of identity liberalism to sweep Democrats into power may bring them back to a belief that bringing us together is much more effective than pitting us against each other. Republicans say – and I agree – that the best way to help people who are disadvantaged in any way is to improve the whole economy. Given control of the presidency and both houses of congress as well as most state governments, they have to demonstrate that they are not just about protecting rich people’s rights. I wish both parties well.

For different opinions, see the NY Times Room for Debate on Lilla’s op-ed.

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