Columbia professor Mark Lilla is notorious for his opposition to identity politics. Lilla’s argument, in brief, is that liberal “moral panic” over affronts to identity politics, real and perceived, has alienated the “white working class and those with strong religious convictions,” pushing them into the welcoming arms of the far- or alt-Right. Predictably, this analysis has infuriated many progressives: Yale historian Beverly Gage called Lilla’s writing “trolling disguised as erudition,” while Lilla’s colleague at Columbia, Kathrerine Franke, said he was “making white supremacy respectable. Again.” One might conclude that these reactions only served to prove Lilla’s point: According to his progressive detractors, Lilla was not simply mistaken; he was morally corrupt, irresponsible, and bigoted.
As Professor Gage concedes, Lilla raises some good questions, particularly with respect to whether it is possible to reconcile an increasingly strident insistence on diversity, defined as an unequivocal embrace of ever-growing number of cultures and identities, with any common vision of citizenship or civic virtue. But identity politics is hardly the greatest threat to the Republic, or even to a progressive political agenda. Lilla’s critique of identity politics misses the mark because rather than aiming at the bull’s-eye, he directs his fire at a mere reflection of it.
The unfortunate truth is that liberal identity politics is just a symptom of a much larger social pathology, one that many Americans of all races, creeds, sexual orientations, and political identifications share. As some of Lilla’s critics have pointed out, identity politics did not begin in the 1960s—politics has always appealed to identity, even if, at its best, it also gestures to something larger; as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias writes, “politics is not and will never be a public policy seminar . . . people are mobilized poitically around . . . identities.” Similarly, Franke is right to insist that racial identity politics—in the form of white supremacy—has been a staple of American politics since the territory was called British Mainland North America.
What is new is not identity politics, but politics as identity—the bipolar identifications of the American politico. Today “liberal” and “conservative;” “Left” and “Right,” are, too often, less reasoned positions that could be subject to discussion, compromise, and thoughtful revision than pre-cognitive identifications that come with received dogmas, and require assent to a grab bag of logically distinct commitments and policy positions joined only by their association with an ideological platform that one must take or leave en tout. What, for instance, do opposition to abortion, Second Amendment absolutism, and a commitment to laissez faire economics, or, say, support for organized labor, an expanded welfare state and environmentalism, have in common, other than that each set holds together a historically contingent coalition of interest groups and is bundled and marketed as part of an ideology?
What we might call political identity politics leads us to take positions on political controversies by identifying the correct liberal or conservative position rather than by considering facts and merits. Ultimately, political convictions become elements of a carefully crafted individual self-image, much in the same way certain brands of consumer goods convey personality: flashy Versace as opposed to understated Hermes; macho Budweiser versus urbane microbrew; an ostentatious Cadillac Escalade as against a hyper-tech Tesla; Sean Hannity’s red-faced rage or Rachel Maddow’s low-key snark.
Political ideology has come to be as much a lifestyle as a philosophy. As evidence, consider that National Review has compiled a list of conservative rock songs, most of which bare no obvious relationship to the ideas of Edmund Burke or even Ronald Reagan. It includes, perhaps reasonably, “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd (I hope Neil Young will remember, southern man don’t need you around); implausibly, ”Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who, and “Heroes” by the outspoken poet of the late counterculture David Bowie; and, astonishingly, “Rock the Casbah” by the overtly socialist band, The Clash.
Ultimately the band, the music, and even the lyrics are all beside the point: Political identity politics is first and foremost a validation of the self through identification with a totem. Once the totem is chosen, the content is unimportant—what matters is what my identification says about me. So, what we have is something one would have thought impossible: Expressive individualism nested in group “identity” feathers.
The substantive politics of this strange mash-up are, as often as not, just bullshit. Before you take offense, understand that bullshit is not a term of profanity but of art: In his brief and savvy pamphlet, On Bullshit, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt explains:
Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about “our great and blessed country, whose founding fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.” . . . . the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our country’s history, or the like . . . the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. . . . What he cares about is what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and the mission of our country, who is sensitive to the greatness of our history, whose pride in that history is combined with humility before God, etc.
Just as Frankfurt’s Independence Day orator really doesn’t care about any of the things he’s saying, but rather wants to come across as the kind of person who cares about them, so political identitarians adopt their positions to shore up their image and sense of self as committed partisans. Unlike race-based, feminist, or LGBT identity politics, this is not a substantive politics based on sincerely felt identity but rather an arbitrary politics filling up an empty identity. So perhaps it’s no surprise that many liberals who claim to be dismayed by the widening wealth gap and political cronyism happily overlooked Hillary Clinton’s close ties to Wall Street and the murky finances of her family’s foundation, and many conservatives who fret over moral decadence enthusiastically supported a two-time divorcee, compulsive liar, and serial adulterer for President and—oh yes, let we forget a loser—a likely child molester for Senator.
Self-validation through such arbitrary affiliations is ultimately unsatisfying, as every sports fan understands; such vicarious pride has, in the words of Bertrand Russell, only the virtue of theft over honest toil. As a consequence an enduring sense of victimization unites political identitarians of all colors and stripes—a self-pitying narrative more shrill and angry than all but the most belligerent extremes of identity politics—and far less justified. The self-righteousness and over-sensitivity of “liberal snowflakes” is an evergreen topic for middle-brow pundits, but it may have been conservatives who wrote the script for the righteously indignant ideological martyr. As Rick Perlstein noted in 2006 in The New Republic, the romance of a brave, beleaguered resistance to an oppressive status quo has been a mainstay of conservative rhetoric since the 1960s, when M. Stanton Evans had the audacity to claim, a mere ten years after the McCarthy era, that “for decades Liberalism has ruled the government and the opinions of the United States with little or no effective challenge to its pretentions.”
Today, with two of the three branches of Federal government controlled by conservatives and the third trending rightward with each Trump appointment, liberals have good reason to feel like victims. Conservative victimology, meanwhile, must focus on the “cultural elite” of the entertainment industry and, of course, academia. Conservatives bemoan a campus life dominated by political correctness that stifles conservative ideas and mocks traditional values. But progressives insist that the same colleges and universities are the instruments of white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, and imperialism.
Both of these claims cannot be true; possibly, neither one is. What allows the simultaneity is that both groups self-identify as victims—of each other and of a power elite that always seems to side with their enemies. Unlike politics based on substance, where mutually beneficial compromise is possible, politics-as-identity is a competitive team sport where the game is rigged and both sides always lose. So, if progressives demand “safe spaces,” conservatives must insist on the right to be offensive; if liberals want the inclusion of once-marginalized groups, conservatives lobby to preserve the conventions that kept those groups out or, failing that, mock their antagonists and demand “ideological diversity.”
College students are conspicuous targets, but only poor sports take the shot. It’s understandable that undergraduates, most of them away from their families for the first time, seek assurances that they are the favorite children of institutions that, at least symbolically, stand in loco parentis. What’s worrisome is that middle-aged adults and senior citizens seem to crave the same type of validation. What would David Riesman say, were he still with us, about the relative trajectories of inner- versus outer-directed personalities?
Indeed, maybe this similarity explains why so much such outrage and contempt is directed at the age-appropriate dramatics of teenagers on the cusp of young adulthood, and why pundits and talking heads express shock and horror at the sophomoric behavior of sophomores. The old lambaste the young for the traits they most abhor in themselves. And yet, in the weeks after the Parkland school massacre, a group of teenagers with their college years still ahead of them has reminded us what responsible and thoughtful political engagement looks and sounds like. Meanwhile, the grown-ups have responded like children, with name-calling and personal attacks, as if their very sense of self were being threatened. It is being threatened, because, artificial and shallow as it is, it doesn’t take very much these days to threaten it.