Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Crisis for Liberalism Identity Politics Is No Match for Foundational Values

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Crisis for Liberalism Identity Politics Is No Match for Foundational Values

Article excerpt

The 2016 campaign was a crisis for conservatism; its aftermath is a crisis for liberalism. The right, delivered unexpectedly to power, is taking a breather from introspection as it waits to see what Trumpism means in practice. The left, delivered unexpectedly to impotence, has no choice but to start arguing about how it lost its way.

A lot of that argument already revolves around the concept of "identity politics," used as shorthand for a vision of political liberalism as a coalition of diverse groups - gay and black and Asian and Hispanic and female and Jewish and Muslim and so on - bound together by a common struggle against the creaking hegemony of white Christian America.

This vision had an intuitive appeal in the Obama era, when it won the White House twice and seemed to promise permanent political majorities in the future. And the 2016 campaign was supposed to cement that promise, since it pitted liberalism's coalition of the diverse against Donald Trump's explicitly reactive vision.

But, instead, 2016 exposed liberalism's twofold vulnerability: to white voters embracing an identity politics of their own, and to women and minorities fearing Mr. Trump less than most liberals expected, and not voting monolithically for Hillary Clinton.

So now identitarian liberalism is taking fire from two directions. From the center-left, it's critiqued as an illiberal and balkanizing force, which drives whit-cis-het people of goodwill rightward and prevents liberalism from speaking a language of the common good. From the left, it's critiqued as an expression of class privilege, which cares little for economic justice so long as black lesbian Sufis are represented in the latest Netflix superhero show.

Both of these critiques make reasonable points. But I'm not sure they fully grasp the pull of an identitarian politics, the energy that has elevated it above class-based and procedural visions of liberalism.

It's true that identity politics is often illiberal, both in its emphasis on group experience over individualism and, in the web of moral absolutes - taboo words, sacred speakers, forbidden arguments - that it seeks to weave around left-liberal discourse.It's also true that it privileges the metaphysical over the material, recognition over redistribution.

But liberal societies have always depended on an illiberal or pre-liberal substructure to answer the varied human needs - meaning, belonging, a vertical dimension to human life, a hope against mortality - that neither John Stuart Mill nor Karl Marx adequately addressed.

In U.S. history, that substructure took various forms: The bonds of family life, the power of (usually Protestant) religion, a flag-waving patriotism and an Anglo-Saxon culture to which immigrants were expected to assimilate. …

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