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Liberalism’s Crack Up

Mark Lilla on why identity politics is destroying the political Left's prospects
james damore 5

Mark Lilla, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, criticizes his own side (the left) for derailing itself with identity politics. He says that liberalism’s post-1960s embrace of identity politics resonates with young people in “our highly individualistic bourgeois society—a society that keeps them focused on themselves and teaches them that personal choice, individual rights and self-definition are all that is sacred.”

Lilla, who is a professor of the humanities at Columbia, and who identifies himself as a “frustrated liberal,” says he is struck by the difference between his liberal students and his conservative students. The conservative ones formulate opinions and make arguments based on ideas and principles. The liberal ones, though, base their arguments (such as they are) on an assertion of identity (e.g., “Speaking as a lesbian of color, I believe that…”). Lilla goes on:

Conservatives complain loudest about today’s campus follies, but it is really liberals who should be angry. The big story is not that leftist professors successfully turn millions of young people into dangerous political radicals every year. It is that they have gotten students so obsessed with their personal identities that, by the time they graduate, they have much less interest in, and even less engagement with, the wider political world outside their heads.

There is a great irony in this. The supposedly bland, conventional universities of the 1950s and early ’60s incubated the most radical generation of American citizens perhaps since our founding. Young people were incensed by the denial of voting rights out there, the Vietnam War out there, nuclear proliferation out there, capitalism out there, colonialism out there. Yet once that generation took power in the universities, it proceeded to depoliticize the liberal elite, rendering its members unprepared to think about the common good and what must be done practically to secure it—especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.

Every advance of liberal identity consciousness has marked a retreat of liberal political consciousness. There can be no liberal politics without a sense of We—of what we are as citizens and what we owe each other. If liberals hope ever to recapture America’s imagination and become a dominant force across the country, it will not be enough to beat the Republicans at flattering the vanity of the mythical Joe Sixpack. They must offer a vision of our common destiny based on one thing that all Americans, of every background, share.

And that is citizenship. We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals for solidarity—including ones to benefit particular groups—in terms of principles that everyone can affirm.


Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity. By publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans, the movement delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. But its decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society and demand a confession of white sins and public penitence only played into the hands of the Republican right.

I am not a black male motorist and will never know what it is like to be one. If I am going to be affected by his experience, I need some way to identify with him, and citizenship is the only thing I know that we share. The more the differences between us are emphasized, the less likely I will be to feel outrage at his mistreatment.

The politics of identity has done nothing but strengthen the grip of the American right on our institutions. It is the gift that keeps on taking. Now is the time for liberals to do an immediate about-face and return to articulating their core principles of solidarity and equal protection for all. Never has the country needed it more.

Read the whole thing.

The essay is adapted from The Once And Future Liberal, the new book by Lilla, which will be out next week. I’ve read it. It’s short, punchy, and challenging. I think we conservatives have a lot to learn from it too. I’ll be writing about that next week.

The Damore debacle at Google is a perfect example of what Lilla disdains in his book. Google engineer James Damore wrote an impolitic memo criticizing the way diversity is handled at Google. He said there are scientific reasons why Google’s diversity initiatives aren’t working to change Google’s male-female employee ratio. He said clearly that he favors diversity, but thinks that science shows there are more effective ways to achieve it. And he criticized Google for being the kind of place where people who disagree with cultural progressivism cannot speak out.

This got him fired. It also energized the mob of left-wing witch hunters, who piled onto Damore for his alleged sexist bigotry. Much of the hysteria had nothing to do with Damore’s actual arguments. It bashed him on identity politics grounds. Never mind that Damore said in the memo that he favors diversity, and that he thinks racism and sexism are real problems. Never mind that he simply complained that the way Google pursues diversity is unfair to men. And never mind that Google provided the internal forum precisely so that its workers can discuss workplace issues. (These three facts, by the way, are why Damore might well be vindicated in his complaint filed against Google with the National Labor Relations Board.)

Very few of us outside of the scientific community are in a position to discuss intelligently the science involved in this dispute. True, some scientists have weighed in to say that Damore is on solid scientific ground in his memo (which doesn’t mean it was a wise thing to share, given the cultural politics of the workplace). My guess is that most ordinary people see this case and wonder why it is that we can’t discuss Damore’s actual argument. Why was a guy who agreed with his company’s diversity goal but not with how the company goes about trying to achieve that result fired simply for arguing — based on science! — that there is a better and more just way to achieve that goal?

How does this relate to Lilla’s argument? In this way. James Damore made a reasoned argument in his memo. Read it for yourself and see. That doesn’t mean James Damore’s conclusions are correct. Perhaps his premises are mistaken, or maybe his logic is wrong. That did not matter to Google, whose vice president for diversity denounced Damore for advancing “incorrect assumptions about gender.” Google’s president fired him for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes.”

Sacramento Bee columnist Ben Boychuk points out how old-fashioned liberalism doesn’t stand a chance anymore:

Any conservative who read James Damore’s memo recognized at once that he holds fairly conventional liberal views of the world. But even conventional liberal viewpoints are no longer safe.

Damore did not claim women are “biologically unsuited” to work in tech (as, I regret to report, The Bee’s editorial asserted this week). He didn’t even argue against racial or gender diversity per se. On the contrary, he took pains to make clear in his opening paragraph that he values “diversity and inclusion,” does not deny “sexism exists” and doesn’t “endorse using stereotypes.”

Then what did he say? In brief, that Google’s efforts to achieve 50-50 parity between male and female programmers were unlikely to succeed because a lot of women simply aren’t interested in science and technology fields.

And why aren’t they interested? Not because they’re “biologically unsuited” but rather because there are biological differences that lead men and women down different paths.

Mind you, Damore doesn’t say he’s against the company’s goals for greater gender diversity; he simply argues that the executives are going about it the wrong way.

And that is still enough to get him fired. Why? Because of the left’s identity politics, which keeps expanding the boundaries of things you cannot say, even if you can demonstrate that they’re true, or might well be true. So, when Lilla says that “the politics of identity has done nothing but strengthen the grip of the American right on our institutions,” the Damore debacle provides him with a great example.

In her superb commentary on the matter, Megan McArdle talks about her own experience working as a tech consultant in the finance world, an industry heavily dominated by males, and how yes, it was more challenging as a woman because of the bros. But that’s not why she left that career. She left because the guys were a lot more committed to techie things than she was. She was good enough to do that kind of work, but she just didn’t have the same passion for it that her male colleagues do. So she went to work in a field that she did love with the same kind of passion.

And that, she said, is what’s at the core of James Damore’s argument: not that women are biologically unable to do tech work, but that the kind of detailed work tech personnel at Google do disproportionately attracts males — and that is bound to affect diversity efforts. Yet McArdle says that even if you concede Damore’s point, it’s still probably the case that a lopsided workplace culture can be an unfriendly place for women — and this is a problem.

She ends like this:

And yet, you still have to ask whether shamestorming Damore and getting him sacked was really the best way to convince him — or anyone else — that he’s mistaken. Did anyone’s understanding of the complex quandaries of gender diversity advance? If there were guys at Google wondering whether the women around them really deserved their jobs, did anyone wake up the morning after Damore’s firing with the revelation: “Good God, how could I have been so blind?” No, I suspect those guys are now thinking: “You see? Women can’t handle math or logic.”

The mob reaction did prove that women indeed have some power in tech. But the power to fire people is not why most people get into engineering. Good engineers want to make things. The conversation around Damore’s memo hasn’t made the world a better place, as they say in Silicon Valley. It has just made a lot of people angry.

Yes, and it has probably made a lot of people more likely to vote Republican next time. Mark Lilla can explain why.





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