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 Trump less than most liberals expected, and not voting monolithically for Hillary.
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 good will 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.
Each of these foundations often manifested illiberalism’s evils: religious intolerance, racism and chauvinism, the oppressions of private and domestic power. But they also provided the moral, cultural and metaphysical common ground that political reformers — abolitionists, Social Gospellers, New Dealers, civil rights marchers — relied upon to expand liberalism’s promise.
Much of post-1960s liberal politics, by contrast, has been an experiment in cutting Western societies loose from those foundations, set to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” No heaven or religion, no countries or borders or parochial loyalties of any kind — these are often the values of the center-left and the far left alike, of neoliberals hoping to manage global capitalism and neo-Marxists hoping to transcend it.
Unfortunately the values of “Imagine” are simply not sufficient to the needs of human life. People have a desire for solidarity that cosmopolitanism does not satisfy, immaterial interests that redistribution cannot meet, a yearning for the sacred that secularism cannot answer.
So where religion atrophies, family weakens and patriotism ebbs, other forms of group identity inevitably assert themselves. It is not a coincidence that identity politics are particularly potent on elite college campuses, the most self-consciously post-religious and post-nationalist of institutions; nor is it a coincidence that recent outpourings of campus protest and activism and speech policing and sexual moralizing so often resemble religious revivalism.
The contemporary college student lives most fully in the Lennonist utopia that post-’60s liberalism sought to build, and often finds it unconsoling: She wants a sense of belonging, a ground for personal morality, and a higher horizon of justice than either a purely procedural or a strictly material politics supplies.
Thus it may not be enough for today’s liberalism, confronting a right-wing nationalism and its own internal contradictions, to deal with identity politics’ political weaknesses by becoming more populist and less politically correct. Both of these would be desirable changes, but they would leave many human needs unmet.
For those, a deeper vision than mere liberalism is still required — something like “for God and home and country,” as reactionary as that phrase may sound.
It is reactionary, but then it is precisely older, foundational things that today’s liberalism has lost. Until it finds them again, it will face tribalism within its coalition and Trumpism from without, and it will struggle to tame either.