Columbia Professor Says Democrats Need To Move Beyond Identity Politics Steve Inskeep talks to Columbia University professor Mark Lilla about the end of identity liberalism. Lilla is the author of The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.

Columbia Professor Says Democrats Need To Move Beyond Identity Politics

Columbia Professor Says Democrats Need To Move Beyond Identity Politics

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Steve Inskeep talks to Columbia University professor Mark Lilla about the end of identity liberalism. Lilla is the author of The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.


Many Democrats are in a reflective mood this holiday weekend. They lost the White House this year, which would not matter as much as it does, except they also failed to take back the Senate, remain out of power in the House and are out of power in most states. For the historian Mark Lilla, it's even more painful because Democrats lost to one of the least popular candidates on record.

MARK LILLA: Donald Trump is in office. It's not just another Republican candidate - Donald Trump. And people were so disaffected with the liberal message that they were willing to vote for him.

INSKEEP: Lilla is a professor at Columbia University in New York, and he has waded into the debate about what Democrats and liberals should do now. Some Democrats answer nothing. Hillary Clinton, they say, leads the popular vote by two million, and a shift of a few votes in a few states would have won the election. Lilla sees a deeper problem, and he wrote an article in The New York Times denouncing identity liberalism.

He says liberals have appealed to African-Americans or women or the LGBT community but failed to craft a strong, broad national message. He's not the only person saying this. Long before the votes were cast, Bernie Sanders argued the Democrats lost the white working class by not speaking broadly to the country.

What are Democrats doing wrong?

LILLA: Well, Democrats have simply lost the country. They have lost the capacity to speak to the vast middle of America, an America that is, in large part, white, very religious and not highly educated.

INSKEEP: Let me stop you for a second because already some Democrat out there, maybe many of them, are shouting at the radio, hold on a minute; Hillary Clinton actually got way more votes than Donald Trump - popular votes. What do you mean Democrats have lost the country?

LILLA: Well, we have 31 Republican governors in this country. We have roughly the same number of Republican legislatures. We have 24 states where Republicans run both of them. But in terms of a liberal project that people feel they can sign on to, that feels that it speaks to everyone in the country, that speaks to what we share and the principles we hold, Republicans have developed a message for all of that, you know? Ever since Reagan, they've been able to capture the message and an understanding - or persuade people of a certain understanding of what the nation is about and what's good for it.

INSKEEP: What is identity liberalism?

LILLA: Identity liberalism, as I understand it, is expressive rather than persuasive. It's about recognition and self-definition. It's narcissistic. It's isolating. It looks within. And it also makes two contradictory claims on people. It says, on the one hand, you can never understand me because you are not exactly the kind of person I've defined myself to be. And on the other hand, you must recognize me and feel for me. Well, if you're so different that I'm not able to get into your head and I'm not able to experience or sympathize with what you experience, why should I care?

INSKEEP: Who were some of the groups that liberals have appealed to in ways you find to be counterproductive?

LILLA: To take one example, I mean, the whole issue of bathrooms and gender - in this particular election, when the stakes were so high, the fact that Democrats and liberals, more generally, lost a lot of political capital on this issue that frightened people. People were misinformed about certain things, but it was really a question of where young people would be going to the bathroom and where they would be in lockers. Is that really the issue we want to be pushing leading up to a momentous election like this one? It's that shortsightedness that comes from identity politics.

INSKEEP: I'm just imagining some of your fellow liberals being rather angry at you saying such a thing.

LILLA: Well, those are the liberals who don't want to win. Those are the liberals who are in love with noble defeats, and I'm sick and tired of noble defeats. I prefer a dirty victory to a noble defeat. The president who did the most for black Americans in 20th century history was Lyndon Johnson, and he got his hands dirty by dealing with Southern senators, Southern congressmen, horse trading with them, cajoling them, learning what not to talk about. And he got civil rights passed and Great Society programs. That should be the model. Get over yourself.

INSKEEP: Do you oppose transgender rights, or simply...

LILLA: Oh, my God, no.

INSKEEP: ...Oppose talking about them in the way that people have been talking about them?

LILLA: No, it's a question of emphasis. The fact that - I mean, these are things to be talked about. You can't do anything without educating the public, right? And that's a slow work.

INSKEEP: So toward the end of the campaign, we interviewed some voters in Raleigh, N.C., which is a generally Democratic city, and I'm thinking of a young couple. They had two kids. They described themselves as Christian. They oppose gay marriage. And they were saying that even though they didn't like Donald Trump, they were thinking of voting for him. And one of the reasons was they felt that they were - their very views were making them socially unacceptable. They were feeling a little alienated from the world.

LILLA: Oh, I've just been flooded with emails of people just giving testimonies of their lives, saying exactly this. I got an email from a guy who works for some sort of defense contractor, some lower-level job, served in the military. And he said, look, I served in the military with black and Latino soldiers. My supervisor is a young black woman who's smart as a whip, and I admire her, and we get along great.

I belong to a bowling team with black and Latino coworkers. And when we get together and we talk about politics - I'm almost quoting him - he said, we don't talk about Black Lives Matters. We talk about what matters to our families. We talk about jobs, and we talk about the fate of the country. That is America, and you can reach those people.

INSKEEP: So you published an essay on this the other day. How's it going over at Columbia University, where you are - New York City?

LILLA: Well, I don't know yet. I do know that a law professor there published an article calling me a white supremacist.

INSKEEP: Are you? Just thought I'd throw it out there.

LILLA: Yes, of course. Of course I am. Of course not. And even having to answer the question is offensive, but it shows the narrow-mindedness. I was very glad to see the article because it showed exactly what I'm talking about. The only response I would have is, I rest my case.

INSKEEP: Mark Lilla is the author of the "The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction."

Thanks very much.

LILLA: Thank you.

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