Mark Lilla: the nemesis of “identity liberalism”

The US intellectual defends his claim that left-wing identity politics is to blame for the rise of Donald Trump. 

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On 18 November 2016, while Democrats were still mourning Hillary Clinton’s defeat to Donald Trump, Mark Lilla disturbed the liberal wake. In a New York Times comment piece, which became the paper’s most-read op-ed of the year, the US academic and historian of ideas blamed “identity liberalism” for Trump’s victory and accused progressives of being “narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups”.

Lilla, who treaches at Columbia University in New York, became a bête noire of the liberal left. But undeterred by this response, he elaborated his argument in short polemical book, The Once and Future Liberal.

I met Lilla, who is 61, one recent afternoon in a cafe in Bloomsbury, London. “I’ve become a meme, not a human being,” he complained of the left’s response to his work.

Liberals, he said, had swapped the struggle for electoral power for the pursuit of “cultural reform”. As well as holding the presidency and Congress, the Republicans now control two-thirds of US governorships and two-thirds of state legislatures (25 of these with outright majorities). “If they win a couple more, they could conceivably call a constitutional convention,” Lilla said. “That’s how bad it is. There’s nothing to be cheerful about, there’s no reason to be optimistic right now.”

But is the “identity politics” he denounces not merely the collective action of long-marginalised groups (women, black and ethnic minorities and the LGBT movement)?

“We’re a more tolerant society, people are being recognised, we have affirmative action, which is very important – it’s our reparations programme,” Lilla said. But he warned: “With the rise of identity politics, young people have no coherent views about foreign policy, they don’t have a world view about that or economics. The rhetoric turns off the rest of the electorate because you’re certainly not expressing any concern about their position and, more than that, you’re condemning people as racist, sexist and homophobic by a standard that is impossibly high.”

In his book, Lilla writes with empathy of the alienation felt by white working-class voters in deindustrialised US states. Is he not in danger of privileging the grievances of whites above all others? “That argument only works if you assume that any political demand that comes out of the mouth of a white person is motivated by their whiteness… People want jobs, they want healthcare, they want a fairer economy and they want their views to be, if not accepted or even respected, to be left alone. There’s a religious fanaticism about cleaning people’s souls that has infected the left.”

How did he respond to his Columbia University colleague Katherine Franke accusing him of “making white supremacy respectable”? “With silence,” he replied. “I don’t respond to things like that.”

Lilla’s outlook was indelibly shaped by his childhood. He was born and raised in Macomb County, Michigan, the incubator of the “Reagan Democrats”: blue-collar trade unionists who defected to the Republicans in the 1980s. His father was a Chevrolet auto worker, who later became a draftsman, and his mother was a nurse. Lilla’s paternal grandmother kept a portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt on the wall. “She was a Catholic and every Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, she’d get a palm from church and put it behind his picture, like a votive.”

For Lilla, his family exemplified the civic liberalism that he aspires to regenerate. “I’m a French republican stranded in the United States – there are very few of us left,” he told me. “[We] have a secular state that teaches citizens what they share, teaches them that they have duties, teaches them their nation’s history.”

At school, Lilla was a self-described “Jesus freak” – “that was my way of getting through the Seventies”. But he left the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement when he realised it was a “kind of cult”.

After graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Lilla began his journalistic career in 1980 at the Public Interest, the now-defunct neoconservative journal, where he was mentored by Irving Kristol and other New York intellectuals. “The new conservatism of the Seventies was exactly where I was at,” he recalled. “Grown-up – a sense that the utopianism of the student left had not been fruitful.” Yet he rejected the neocons after their embrace of free market dogmatism and foreign policy adventurism.

Was Lilla, who disdains Clintonite feminism, encouraged by Bernie Sanders’s championing of socialism? “Bernie inspired a lot of people to care about something larger than themselves – and that was crucial. The problem is that, like [Jeremy] Corbyn, he’s living in the 19th century when it comes to the economy. And also you need to do the maths: two and two have to equal four, not five. And Bernie kept saying, ‘It’s five, it’s six! We can do everything.’ That’s one of the reasons he wouldn’t have been elected.”

In the age of Trump – an unashamed racist and misogynist – Lilla’s hope for a retreat of identity politics appears forlorn. Does he understand why, to many, the liberalism he condemns feels more necessary than ever?

“It’s a sign of the narcissism of these people to think it’s all about them – it’s not all about them,” Lilla replied. “It’s true, as Steve Bannon said, that we’re making breakfast for him every morning when we talk about this. The more they talk about identity, the more someone like Trump can come along and play with those symbols.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?