Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Limits of Identity Politics

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Limits of Identity Politics

Article excerpt

Last November, after Donald Trump's surprise victory in the US presidential election, the American academic Mark Lilla published an opinion piece in the New York Times in which he argued that the "age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end". He argued that "moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity" had "distorted liberalism's message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force".

A self-described "liberal centrist", Professor Lilla was alarmed that Hillary Clinton had failed to build the necessary coalition of support among blue-collar Democrats, many of whom had been attracted by Mr Trump's blunt populism. For Professor Lilla, left-liberal identity politics and the rhetoric of diversity, so popular in the Ivy League universities, had alienated voters, especially the white working class whose primary concerns were inequality and social justice.

Mrs Clinton's liberalism - during the campaign, she denounced Mr Trump's less fortunate supporters as a "basket of deplorables" - appealed to the educated middle class, the west and east coast elites, as well as minorities, but it alienated voters in the crucial swing states of the Rust Belt. This cost her the election and put Donald Trump in the White House.

Professor Lilla has now expanded his argument into a new book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. "There is a good reason that liberals focus extra attention on minorities, since they are the most likely to be disenfranchised," he writes in an essay on page 28. "But the only way in a democracy to assist them meaningfully - and not just make empty gestures of recognition and 'celebration' - is to win elections and exercise power in the long run, at every level of government."

What relevance does this have to Britain? Quite a lot, as it happens. …

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