The clash over removal of Confederate images in Charlottesville, Virginia in August and Donald Trump’s failure to specifically call out the white nationalists as the lead culprit in the melee have continued to reverberate and, as the Wall Street Journal has noted, it is unfortunate that most of the attention was focused on the deficiencies in the President’s response rather than the underlying problem, which is the poison of identity politics in this country.
In an editorial at the time of the Charlottesville confrontation, the Journal reminds us that the politics of white supremacy was a poison on the right for many decades, but the civil rights movement rose to overcome it with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership and message of equal opportunity and color blind justice. Alas, those principles have been abandoned in favor of a new identity politics that seeks to divide Americans by race, gender, ethnicity, and class.
This new variety of identity politics is primarily a creature of the radical left, aided, abetted, and often led by our leading institutions of higher education and executed in the field by the millennial generation, and the acknowledgment of this fact has been manifest in a vigorous debate that is underway among liberals and progressives. To wit, Mark Lilla, professor of the humanities at Columbia University and a leading liberal intellectual, has recently penned an essay adapted from his new book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, in which he suggests that liberals have lost the public’s confidence by embracing the divisive, zero-sum world of identity politics and that they need to find their way back to a unifying vision of the common good.
Lilla rightly notes that, unlike the generations that found their liberal grounding in the civil rights movement, liberal political education now takes place on college campuses far removed, socially and geographically, from the rest of the country, and particularly from the sorts of people who once were the foundation of the Democratic Party. And Lilla emphasizes that these students of the Facebook age are drawn to courses focused on their identities and movements related to them. As a result, he says, the line between self-discovery and political action has become blurred and this confusion is much more pronounced in his experience as a teacher with his progressive than his conservative students, the latter of whom are far more likely to connect their engagements to a set of political ideas and principles, while the progressives are less and less comfortable with debate.
As a prominent liberal, he abhors this problem with progressivism and the liberal turn and feels that identity liberalism is misguided and counterproductive and should be condemned and replaced with an emphasis on a political consciousness grounded in our common heritage of citizenship.
In a recent response to Lilla in The Weekly Standard entitled “The Primal Scream of Identity Politics”, Mary Eberstadt of the Faith and Reason Institute writes that the deeper question here is the elemental one: How has the question of “identity” come to be emotional ground zero for so many in America and elsewhere in the Western world? In this view, what is lacking in Lilla’s analysis is “why have so many people found in identity politics the very center of their political being?” To Eberstadt, it is clear that something deeper is afoot than individualism run amok and she in fact does analogize it as something of a primal scream because its source is ultimately grounded in the fact that our macro-politics have gone tribal because our micro-politics are no longer familial, centered in the small civilization of the family unit.
In essence, she says, identity politics cannot be understood apart from the preceding and concomitant social fact of family implosion over the past five decades. And she asks, did anyone really think things would turn out otherwise–that the massive kinship dislocations produced by increases in unwed motherhood, abortion, and divorce of the past 60 years wouldn’t produce increasingly visible, trans-formative effects not only in individual lives and households, but on politics and culture as well? And, of course, millennials have become the demographic backbone of identity politics because their generation has borne the brunt of the primal urge to identify themselves.
I think Lilla and Eberstadt are both onto some perceptive thinking here, but neither leaves me with much optimism about a way out of this corrupting phenomenon. In fact, Eberstadt leaves us with the unsettling notion that, while identity politics has become an object of conversation primarily in the left-leaning circles of political thought, deliverance from this disfiguration cannot come from the same source, for a simple reason–the sexual revolution out of which much familial dislocation grew is off-limits for revision with the left. It is their moral bedrock.