lilla illustration

This essay was published in the Observer on 17 September 2017, under the headline ‘In a society too short of common goals, identity politics are an imperfect answer’.

Last November, Columbia University historian Mark Lilla published a comment piece in the New York Times, entitled The End of Identity Liberalism. Numbed by Trump’s election victory, Lilla placed the blame largely at the door of ‘identity politics’, which, he argued, had atomised American politics, undermined civic culture and destroyed the Democrats’ electoral chances. Liberalism, he wrote, ‘has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing’.

Lilla’s essay became the eye of a furious political storm. Some critics suggested that he was whistling in the wind – all politics, they insisted, is necessarily identity politics. Others saw it as an attack on minorities. Katherine Franke, professor of law at Columbia, and a colleague of Lilla’s, claimed that Lilla was doing the ‘background work of making white supremacy respectable‘.

It’s a debate equally significant for politics on this side of the Atlantic. Here, too, the left has considerably weakened, society has become more fragmented and there has developed an equally fraught debate about the politics of identity.

Now Lilla’s op-ed has become a book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. Its publication has reignited the debate over the politics of identity. According to Lilla, the high point of American liberalism came with Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, which focused not on individual needs but on the collective good. To regain power, Lilla argues, the liberal left needs to rediscover that notion of the common good by adopting a pragmatic form of politics that can ‘widen its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them’. He is particularly caustic about protest movements such as Black Lives Matter. ‘We need no more marchers’, he writes. ‘We need more mayors.’

Between them, Lilla and his critics sum up well the impasse of contemporary politics on the left. Many of his critics cannot see that the politics of identity, far from defending the marginalised and the powerless, fragments the possibilities of meaningful social change. Lilla is blind to the fact that the self-proclaimed ‘liberal centrist’ politics he espouses has helped create the fragmentation of which he despairs. In Europe, too, debates about immigration and multiculturalism, about nationalism and federalism, expose a similar kind of deadlock.

The roots of contemporary identity politics lie in the new social movements that emerged in the 1960s to challenge the failure of the left to take seriously the issues of racism, homophobia and women’s rights. The struggle for black rights in America, in particular, was highly influential in providing a template for many other groups to develop concepts of identity and self-organisation. Squeezed between an intensely racist society, on the one hand, and a left often indifferent to their plight, many black activists seceded from civil rights organisations and set up separate black groups.

This is where Lilla’s celebration of New Deal liberalism looks so threadbare. The ‘Roosevelt dispensation’, Lilla argues, inaugurated a liberalism filled with ‘confidence, hope, pride and a spirit of self-sacrifice’. Except that it was not quite like that. It was also a liberalism that accommodated Jim Crow laws, segregation and lynchings. Millions of Americans were excluded from the American ‘we’ that Lilla wants to defend. It was in the struggle against such exclusion that the origins of postwar identity politics lie.

Jacob Lawrence Lynching

‘As identity consciousness has increased among liberals’, Lilla has observed, ‘political consciousness has decreased’. That is to look at the issue back to front. It is not so much that identity consciousness has diminished political consciousness, but rather that the diminishment of ideological politics has allowed the politics of identity to flourish. In the 1960s, the struggles for black rights and women’s rights and gay rights were closely linked to the wider project of social transformation. But as the labour movement lost influence and radical struggles faltered, from the 1980s on, so the relationship between the promotion of identity rights and broader social change frayed. Eventually, the promotion of identity became an end in itself. The universalism that once fuelled radical movements has largely evaporated.

The erosion of the power of labour movement organisations, the demise of radical social movements, the decline of collectivist ideologies, the expansion of the market into almost every nook and cranny of social life, the fading of institutions, from trade unions to the church, have all helped to create a more fragmented society. These are the changes that have snapped social bonds and hollowed-out civic life.

That hollowing out has been exacerbated by the narrowing of the political sphere, by politics that has self-consciously become less ideological, more technocratic. The Democrats in America have discarded much of their old ideological attachments as well as their links to their old social constituencies. Dick Morris, former chief political adviser to the then president Bill Clinton, whom Lilla lauds, called this the process of ‘triangulation’ – the left stealing the right’s clothes, so that it can appear to be above ideological politics. It was an approach appropriated by Tony Blair for New Labour; many see in Emmanuel Macron’s policies an attempt to fashion a new Gallic version of the same.

It is not, however, through triangulation or managerialism that people bind together. They do so through common struggles for social change. Such struggles enable people to reach out beyond their own identities and give meaning to civic solidarity. It is through such social struggles, and only through such struggles, that we can define what common goals should be, and what we might mean by the common good. Otherwise the notion of the common good descends into the ‘We’re all in it together’ kind of vision that the Tories have promoted through the austerity years, in which the least powerful in society pay the price for what those who wield power define as the common good.

As the influence of the labour movement has declined, and broader social struggles have faded, so ‘solidarity’ has for many become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in much narrower terms of group identity. Trump himself is a product of this. So are the anti-immigration populists of Europe. One of the consequences of the mainstreaming of identity politics is that, on both sides of the Atlantic, racism is becoming rebranded as white identity politics.

What Lilla fails to recognise is that the demand for ‘mayors not marchers’ – for pragmatic politics over social movements – is a change that has already happened; and the consequence has been the kind of identity politics he rightly despises. The problem is not that there are marchers rather than mayors. It is, rather, that both marchers and mayors, both activists and politicians, operate in world in which broader visions of social change have faded. How to restore a sense of solidarity based on broader politics rather than narrow identities – that’s the real challenge we face.



The images are, from top down: The illustration for the original Mark Lilla essay in the New York Times, by Dan Gluibizzi; Jacob Lawrence’s painting of a lynching, part of his Great Migration series (I published the full set of paintings in that series over 6 posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)


  1. I do like the fact that many left social commentators and academics even are looking towards a politics of hope. Personally I’m finding it difficult to imagine a way in which to integrate people en masse due to centuries of social fragmentation as a result of capitalism.

    Moore, J.W. 2017a. The Capitalocene, Part I: On the nature and origins of our ecological crisis. Journal of Peasant Studies.
    Moore, J.W. 2017b. The Capitalocene, Part II: Accumulation by Appropriation and the Centrality of Unpaid Work/Energy. Journal of Peasant Studies.

    has alot of insight into how capitalism since the 16th century in particular has cheapened life for many humans and nonhuman over this time and so civil rights movements and current identity politics seems to be like a corrective force that tries to remedy the cheapening that has been happening through the worldwide forces of capital accumulation and exploitation.

    This process of capital accumulation and exploitation is still occurring obviously and therefore so is the social fragmentation and abomination. These capitalist forces are so ingrained and naturalised now that life seems to be about coping and at least getting one’s voice and concerns heard over the rest and so I guess identity politics is considered the best way to achieve that for so many.

    What alternatives are there when we are faced with such overwhelming odds in the face of capitalism and it’s tendency to create a competitive field of interests and concerns that not only affects different people differently but encourages people to sharpen their political focus on a certain set of personal issues as a way of addressing the cheapening effect that capitalism uses to maximise profit.

    In a sense then, capitalism reduces the political power of individuals through its cheapening effect and this drives individuals to compete over the scraps of power and resources that are left over after much of it has been removed from the public and civic domain into concentrated private hands. Therefore the capitalist system has disenfranchised individuals to such a degree that most people just accept it as a way of life and all that parliamentary politics can reflect is who the miniscule amount of power and resources that is left over are distributed. As such we are left fighting for scraps which identity politics effectively epitomizes.

    How to take back control the power that capitalism has accumulated is beyond me even if I try to imagine the impossible..

  2. Thanks for this. It really lays out (more articulately than I’ve mustered) many of my thoughts about Lilla’s ideas since I first read his NY Times op-ed. Basically, I came to his critique sympathetic, since I too see the shortcomings of the current craze for identity politics, or at least, those identity politics that have no grounding in a larger humanism. But Lilla simply loses me when he points to a mythic New Deal or Clintonian golden age when politics was supposedly about the good of the entire society and transcended conflicts between different interest groups. As if this ever existed.

    Lilla’s centrism reminds me a lot of Jonathan Chait’s, really, and it’s ultimately a very limited, establishmentarian view. And even though we share the same, jaundiced view of ‘political correctness’ (or whatever you want to call that phenomenon), there’s ultimately a difference between centrism and pluralism, and it’s the latter that I value.

  3. lessthantolerant

    Liberals of today have chosen fringe issues and actions. Let’s explore St. Louis and the current riots. Privileged whites and blacks join together to entice poor blacks to take to the streets and demand an outcome they failed to achieve through the legal process. Their answer?

    Riot, burn and loot to show America if they can prove their point they will unleash the feral in their charge to destroy everyone’s property.

    An Asian immigrant had her nail salon trashed and she is looking at thousands of dollars of repair to get her business back up and running. Why? Because liberals who choose emotion over rationality are able to entice poor blacks into the street to destroy her property.

    After all, does that not justify it?

  4. I think your distinction between ideology and identity politics is much too simple. In the UK, traditional Labour politics owed a great deal to working-class solidarity (hence, indeed, the name of the party), and to the self-image of people like me who wanted to see themselves as progressive intellectuals. In the US, Reagan’s achievement was to tie together into an identity package the logically disparate but strongly ideological strands of evangelical Christianity, anti-intellectualism, climate change denial, a touching faith in free market economics, and American exceptionalism.

  5. There is no simple answer to the splintering of societies into not just interest groups but exclusive interest groups. Why and how it happened is understandable. As Lilla indicates, we have to reunite. I would argue that neither Roosevelt nor Clinton did much to reach out to minorities. In fact Clinton hurt at least a couple of them. But I’m not entirely sure it is liberals who should be the ambassadors by themselves which sometimes seems to be what is sought. Maybe this is because articles are and recommendations come from this coastal class. There are plenty of people among the white working and middle (and upper middle) classes who live across the country who would probably be happy to work to break down barriers. And there are many common interests. AND we have to remember, institutional racism or not, the noisy Trumpistas are still a minority. Until recently even though racism has been a dark and dangerous and toxic current in our national identities, it had become something that people at least regarded as undesirable. We have to once again make it so, this time working harder at developing a much deeper understanding of our common humanity. These are not easy tasks, but it’s time to face them.

  6. jswagner

    > a sense of solidarity based on broader politics rather than narrow identities – that’s the real challenge we face.

    “Broader politics” should almost always center on economic justice, which is mostly fighting poverty, where the root of most identity political concerns are quickly found to reach. Equality in the sense of level playing fields, equal rights, and a modern take on labor security, particularly for the poor: one of the great ironies of the age is the abuse of the notion of “economic freedom” by the right to recruit economic benefit almost solely to the rich and powerful, resulting in blacks in America, for instance, going backward in earned income over the last 15 years rather stridently, while the nation clearly thrives “overall”, i.e., in terms of total growth. Solidarity is built on the foundation of focusing on the poor, which has historically united and strengthened healthy identity-based efforts. You’ve pointed out as much elsewhere. That effort at justice in the workplace should bleed into a broader social effort to eliminate the causes and inertia of poverty: education equality/integration, job training, scientifically sound criminal justice, anti-recidivism projects, effective social safety nets. But economic justice alone would draw us more than halfway toward a “solidarity based on broader politics”.

    > the diminishment of ideological politics has allowed the politics of identity to flourish

    I’ve not been as big a fan as you of this general argument, though I see scapegoating as significant on the right’s descent into nationalism, discrimination, and autocracy. Lilla’s and the media’s earnest pitting of identity against big-tent thinking on the left, though, is a terrible feint. First, it’s a terrible thing to pick on identity politics as if anti-hate crime work or immigrant integration are qualitatively the same as the U.S.’s white nationalism, or more overt racism elsewhere, or, for that matter, whether people other than blacks can have afros. We cling unaware in these arguments to an assumption that all celebration and expression and defense of identity, healthy or hateful, left or right, have to show up at the party as a group; that they somehow cause each other, and grow or shrink together, or steal systematically from healthier political efforts; or that when identity sense strengthens, that it’s all for the worse. Abuse of identity politics happens more than it did, but it happens alongside the same terrible silences we’ve always heard, where good identity-based work could create justice and doesn’t.

    Secondly, there’s a tendency to assume that the all-too-small “pie” of citizen activism is too filled with identity, but the problem on the left is much more that societal involvement isn’t enough to allow for a solidarity based on a “broader” anything at all. The institutions are there: government, charitable, religious, service and market-based and volunteer and activist organizations. But we’re distracted, our efforts diluted, our institutions underutilized. Even our identity connections are usually too weak, despite the vibrant horror of a loud Yale student, or defaced campus statues.

    At parties nowadays, anyone can call for more mayors, and all heads will shake in listless agreement. Lilla’s false dichotomy between mayors and marchers is the message that matters, and it leans dangerously on this zero-sum vision of how societal change happens. I know this, anyway: I need a helluva lot more of these excess marchers of his. Mark Lilla wasn’t in Cleveland last year, apparently, when less than 200 of us marched outside a stadium as Donald Trump was nominated for the U.S. presidency. We dissipated rapidly, bluffed and outmaneuvered, after being told by over 500 cops from all across America that we couldn’t follow the approved route. Later, over 300 cops cordoned off about 4 acres of park downtown during lunchtime, to arrest 15 people for legally burning a flag (attempting to, actually). No more marchers necessary? Kiss my ass, Mark. Give me ten thousand more marchers; your mayors will be climbing the barriers, or otherwise inspiring us to useful action.

  7. Dag Vegger

    Having worked for many years with development projects in Africa and Asia, I doubt that identity politics has contributed to much good. I had a particular experience in Nigeria some time ago. The boss of our local partner company would always use racism accusations and blame colonialism if he was hindered in going along with his corrupt practices. My other Nigerian partner, who actually was very professional, would always use rational arguments – never blame unfair treatment due to identity. He got the job done, and of course, he was rewarded for that. I recommended him for new assignments and he has become very successful. In Africa, you can experience how identity politics becomes a powerful tool for the wrong and unfair people. Look at Robert Mugabe, what he has accomplished with identity politics. This blame game has become a tool for the mighty in Zimbabwe, but not for the ordinary people. I cycled through most of Zimbabwe some time ago. I have never been so welcomed by the ordinary people while cycling in the countryside, as in Zimbabwe. People would ask me to stop for a drink, invite me into their houses and even the police was very friendly. This was in a country that has had propaganda against white people like me for decades! Well, the ordinary people feel that identity politics has become a powerful blame game for the rich and mighty – a very good excuse when something goes wrong – and in the end a tool for domination of ordinary people!

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