Transcending Individual Identity

Among the aftereffects of the recent election season has been a nationwide debate over the core values of the Democratic Party, accompanied by ample critical commentary on the electoral tactics the party employs in races up and down the ballot. This soul-searching has been partly defined by the outsize scrutiny directed at the party’s all-too-common strategy of identity-based political maneuvering, otherwise known as identity politics.

In a post-election piece for The New York Times, the political scientist Mark Lilla denounced what he called “identity liberalism” as a “disastrous . . . foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age.” The “omnipresent rhetoric of identity,” he argued, “has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.”

This was met with a frantic outcry on the part of the liberal intelligentsia, spurring a host of commentary that took aim at Lilla’s assessment and cast individual identity as an indispensable element of political discourse.

The NPR editor Tasneem Raja accused Lilla of playing “right into the hands of the newly emboldened neo-Nazis who helped put Trump in office.” Writing for The Nation, the writer Linda Hirshman declared it “inconceivable to envision an American left worthy of the name if it chose to do without identity politics.” The Daily Beast’s Craig Mills dismissed identity politics as “coded language for multiculturalism,” and The Huffington Post’s Michael Darer described it as “a dismissive and euphemistic way to address a political agenda that emphasizes and values the identities of non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-cisgender voters.”

Still other critics delivered their response in a more measured tone. “Recognizing and even celebrating individual identity groups doesn’t make America weaker; it makes America stronger,” the New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote. And the Princeton professor Imani Perry cautioned that “a dismissal of all calls for inclusive language and behaviors as political correctness is damaging.”

One would expect that after a cataclysmic election loss to the least popular candidate in modern American history, partisan liberals would refrain from complacency and be a tad more receptive to reasoned criticism. But instead, as the backlash against Lilla’s article illustrates, they have thought it wise to double down on precisely the type of rhetoric they are being urged to re-evaluate.

Compromised by this identity-obsessed ethos are the very objectives that constitute the broader liberal project. Gender equality, gay rights, reproductive rights, criminal justice, equal representation — none of these are attainable if our working strategy is to constantly highlight the distinctions between individual identity groups. As the author Walter Benn Michaels wrote in defense of Lilla’s thesis, “You don’t build the left by figuring out which victim has been most victimized; you build it by organizing all the victims.”

Individual identity, to the extent that it is determined by historical contingency — gender, race, complexion — is no more worthy of recognition and celebration than one’s date or location of birth is. Rather than congratulating (or ostracizing) folks for traits that are by no means of their making, we ought to lend weight to the content of their characters, and commend or condemn them based on the virtue of their self-determined attributes.

We do not help the cause of the marginalized by signing on to the perverse notion that they occupy a special corner of the citizenry, that because they are a minority they are to be regarded in a way that members of the majority are not. Sometimes the greatest wish of a “non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-cisgender” individual in America is to be addressed as simply an American, as opposed to a black American, Asian-American, Muslim American, or gay American.

There are no such things as ordinary and extraordinary Americans, no scale on which Americanness could be quantified, and no particular identity that optimally denotes our cherished American ideals. These might be self-evident truths in the eyes of mainstream liberals, but they are fundamentally undercut, however unwittingly, by the polarizing language of identity that the left has developed a penchant for.

There is much more that testifies to our commonality than our differences, much more that binds us together as a people, and as a species. To lose sight of this crucial fact would be to lose all grounds for political and social progress. Our central challenge, as the writer David Brooks noted in a recent New York Times column, is not to celebrate our differences, but “to rebind a functioning polity and to modernize a binding American idea.”

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