William Voegeli recently published a compelling article entitled “Liberals, Shipwrecked,” reviewing Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, a book discussing the disastrous effects that identity politics have had on American liberalism. Identity politics have created division amongst Americans, leading many to feel that because each person has his or her own experiences and identity, traditional American values do not necessarily apply. Truths have become relative to culture and circumstance in this world of thinking, principles intrinsic to America’s founding now rendered seemingly obsolete. Both Voegeli and Lilla recognize this division as a problem, though their reasons for desiring a solution are different. Lilla’s aims are focused on rebuilding the liberal movement, which he feels will only be possible if efforts are concentrated on winning elections through the cultivation of a renewed sense of commonality and duty among Americans:
Effecting beneficial changes requires wielding power, he argues, and in democracies, securing power requires winning elections. In America–vast, diverse and unruly–such victories can be secured only through “the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from [oneself] to join a common effort.” Lilla thus finds it necessary to instruct fellow Democrats that elections are neither prayer meetings nor therapy sessions nor seminars nor “teaching moments.”
Voegeli goes on to relate Lilla’s assertion that movements such as the New Left, environmentalism, feminism, etc. have contributed to the increase in groups preaching moral superiority over others with differing views:
This rejection of the very idea of an impartial dialogue is, Lilla believes, how the noble legacy of “large classes of people–African Americans, women–seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions” gave way, by the 1980’s, to “a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition.” Inherent in it is identitarians’ “disdain” for the “ordinary democratic politics” of “engaging with and persuading people unlike themselves” in favor of “delivering sermons to the unwashed from a raised pulpit.”
Contrary to Lilla’s beliefs that the problem of identity politics can be solved, Voegeli is of the mindset that it is too late for Democrats to turn away from the practice. When people choose to affiliate themselves with a political cause strictly associated with one group, culture, religion, or the like, it becomes harder to view issues from different perspectives, and creates an echo chamber of sorts. While there may be strength in the cause itself, it is unlikely that the overarching political party will be unified because each individual group will make efforts to push its own priorities, effectively weakening the party. This weakening is also reflected in today’s society as morals and truths become relative to the group with which one aligns. The absence of absolute truth creates more division among citizens, making Lilla’s dreams of unity in the Democratic party unlikely. Voegeli expands on this thought, describing how the lack of absolute truths further creates a society in which debate and discussion amounts to nothing:
“Pursuing our own absolute truths” is an excellent summary of identity politics. On no other basis can modern liberals combine moral fervor with moral flexibility. Because my truths are subjective, they become unassailable—but at the same time, I’m under no obligation to base my truth on any proposition about the nature of things, because we accept that the final word on such realities belongs to no one. Speaking as an X, I possess a truth borne of my experience that no non-X critic can fully appreciate or fairly challenge. As a Yale undergraduate wrote during that school’s identity-politics convulsions in 2015: “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”
Unfortunately, for Americans, it does not seem likely that identity politics are going anywhere for the time being. With this in mind, however, it is necessary to contemplate what serves to unify us as American citizens, most notably our belief in true freedom, because a successful future can only be accomplished through a nation standing in solidarity.
Read the full article here.