A conversation with Mark Lilla
By Gage Hodgen
Mark Lilla, Professor of Humanities at Columbia and author of the new book The Once and Future Liberal, has angered many on the left by arguing that in order to win, Democrats must eliminate their focus on identity politics. Lilla argues that in order to protect disadvantaged groups, liberals must first win elections in order to exercise political power and implement real change, and that the way to do this is by offering a vision of America that is persuasive to voters of all groups. Staff Writer Gage Hodgen (CC ‘19) spoke with Lilla in his office in Kent.
The Blue and White: First, could you address what made you want to write The Once and Future Liberal? When did you start thinking about the problems you address and what made you think that now was the time to write this?
Mark Lilla: The book comes out of an op-ed I did in the New York Times in 2016. I wrote it in frustration after Trump’s election in a couple of days and thought it would be forgotten in a couple days; it turned out to be the most-read political commentary piece of the year at the Times. The reaction to what I had to say—which was focused on winning elections— was so over the top on the left that I was stunned in the reaction by how beside the point so many of the criticisms were. The piece was about how to gain political power. Most of the criticisms were not about that. They were about feeling wounded, or feeling that I hadn’t recognized something, or comparing me to David Duke, as one faculty member at Columbia did in print. So, I guess I hadn’t realized how bad the situation was and how few realists there were on my side. I wanted to write a book that explained how we got to where we are and my analysis of what’s blocking us from becoming effectively political again, aiming it mainly towards liberals who have felt that something has gone wrong but haven’t known how to articulate it to themselves, to tell a plausible story about it or what the alternative would be.
B&W: One of the words you just used to describe your thought was “realistic” or “realist.” The word that occurred to me when I read your book was “pragmatic,” in that your argument is about the way in which we can get political power, and that only once Democrats have political power can they implement the changes they want. Some people might say that if it’s just about pragmatism, you can wind up ignoring serious issues if they aren’t electorally significant because they affect only a small number of people. That seemed to be the focus of a lot of the criticism of your book: that the focus on only winning elections puts to the side the problems of minorities within the population.
ML: An election is not a seminar; it is not a class. It is not a teaching moment. An election is about seizing political power. You cannot help any people in a group—whatever group you’re thinking of—if you do not hold power. It’s not about telling the whole story; it’s not about putting America in the dock; it’s about seizing political power from a rabid Republican party. And if you think that parties don’t matter, just try telling that to an unemployed woman in Texas who can’t get an abortion. If you are not competitive in Texas you cannot protect women who need abortions, you cannot protect African Americans so that their right to vote is not chipped away at. You must win elections. It’s time to grow up.
An election is not a seminar; it is not a class. It is not a teaching moment. An election is about seizing political power. You cannot help any people in a group—whatever group you’re thinking of—if you do not hold power.
B&W: The way that you suggest for Democrats to avoid focusing on these small issues to their own detriment is to create a broader conception of citizenship, both in terms of rights that the government owes citizens and of citizens’ duties to the state and to other citizens. I think this is a very attractive vision, but how would you answer people who say that what identity politics or identity consciousness does now is draw attention to the groups within the “we” of the citizenry that have been ignored in the past? How can you advocate for the rights of all citizens, or equal protection under the law for all citizens, without singling out groups within the “we” that are disadvantaged and that don’t enjoy those protections?
ML: Sure, look: There are many ways in which we talk about identity that we need to talk about group identity, personal identity aside. In order to make sense of our history we have to talk about how various groups fared. We need to focus on marginalized groups; not exclusively, not primarily, but yes. In order to give our kids a moral education, we need to focus on these things to make sure that they are tolerant and understanding. Especially, to my mind, we have to focus on how certain disadvantaged groups fare in order to think about what policies might help them. You can’t understand criminal justice policy in this country if you don’t understand something about the disparity in sentencing. So in all those ways, yes, we need to talk about identity. But politics—real politics—is not about that. You do that before you get into politics so you know what you want to do. But in order to reach people who are not part of those groups, you need to articulate a principle that explains why you’re for those things and then can also show them why that principle applies to them too.
B&W: Some would say that the principle that justifies the focus on identity politics is equality for all people, or at least for all citizens. How is that different than the justified acknowledgement of identity within the concept of citizenship and actual political exercise that you advocate?
ML: The impression the non-Democratic America has of the Democrats is that we are nothing but a collection of groups with complaints about the country and that we want attention focused on groups—and not that we stand for a principle. We reinforce this idea, which then plays into the Republicans’ hands, that you’ve got one large group—white America—against all these other groups, or white males against women and so on. That is a losing proposition for us. The Republicans for a time can win with that strategy—not for long—but it’s deadly for us. So what you need to get everyone focused on is the vision of the country you have, and then explain to everybody how in that vision they will do. That means explaining it to an unemployed coal miner in West Virginia, and explaining it to a single mother on the South Side of Chicago. But you start there; you need to start from the top down intellectually.
B&W: Isn’t that process that you’re just describing exactly what you deride in the book as just adding another group to the groups you’re catering to? If everyone has to fit into this “we,” and you have to explain to them how they fit into the vision that you lay out, then don’t you do exactly what you said Hillary Clinton did poorly, which is single out African Americans, the LGBTQ community, Latinos—
ML: No. It’s a good question but that’s not what I mean. What I am saying is that instead of getting groups’ eyeballs focused on each other, you need to get their eyeballs focused on what kind of country this is and get them inspired about that so that what they want to do is create a certain kind of country. President Obama would appeal to that in a negative sense when he used to say, “That’s not who we are.” Now he never quite told us who we were, but “that’s not who we are.” If you can inspire people with that vision and the political values that it embodies, then you campaign the way you campaign. Campaigning is you speak to each group. But you do it with an eye to winning. And so, when Democrats are in power, of course they’re worried about transgender rights. Transgender people are one third of one percent of this country. They are not a significant constituency. You do not burn a lot of fuel in a campaign talking about that. Instead, you try to win to do something about it, which is more important than talking about it. But identitarians think talk is action, and it’s not.
B&W: Do you think that Democrats have become too focused on issues like that because they wanted to counteract Republican actions? It seems that Republican legislatures and Republican governors pass all these “bathroom bills” and then the Democrats are angry and talk about it and talk about it, and talk themselves into a hole where they are not making anyone happy and only alienating a lot of people. Do you think that they started that or do you think it was in reaction to this other thing?
ML: Well, as you know from reading the book, the history of identity politics on the American left goes much further back. But in terms of these particular issues, yes. What’s happened is that they want to trap us, and what they want is for us to behave in a way that confirms the standard Fox [News] viewer’s view of us. So they present all these challenges. That puts us in a very hard place. On the one hand you want to support certain kinds of legislation; on the other hand you have to keep your eye on the bigger prize. You have to make a calculation about whether this is a battle that you fight here and think might contribute to winning the war, or whether this is a battle you choose not to fight because you want to win the war.
B&W: But the war is never really won, and if you’re always putting off the battle because you’re not catering to a large enough constituency, when will you ever want to do things to affect or to improve the lives of this third of the one percent?
ML: But wars are won. The Republicans have won the war. They control two thirds of the state legislatures in this country, they control two thirds of the governorships, they control twenty-four states outright. We control seven. I call that victory in a war.
B&W: But it’s not one and done, the end, they won. They still have to keep fighting. They can’t just rest on their winnings because that’s when the Democrats can come back, I think.
But wars are won. The Republicans have won the war. They control two thirds of the state legislatures in this country, they control two thirds of the governorships, they control twenty-four states outright. We control seven. I call that victory in a war.
ML: No, they can rest on their winnings because their states are entirely Republican, because we are not competitive there, and so there’s not going to be any “bathroom bill” coming out of a fully Republican state to fight for. Who’s even going to propose it? There are no Democrats there. So how are you going to protect people there? The only way to protect people there, eventually, is to become successful in that state: in the state legislature and winning the governorship. It’s the only way to get what you want. These are standard tradeoffs in politics anywhere. This is just the nature of democratic politics. I’m shocked by people who are “shocked there’s gambling going on in this establishment.” This is what you have to do. But everyone’s so worried about purity, and they fall in love with noble defeats. Because when you’re in a movement mentality, noble defeats are victories. Why? Doubly victories: because, one, you stood up for what you believed in, and, two, you’re still in business, because you failed, and so that means you have to keep fighting. So you’re still in business.
B&W: I think that’s a good answer to that question. You seem to suggest that this concept of citizenship comes from a sort of high ideal before it is applied to these individual groups, but once you have established your vision then you acknowledge how each group fits into that. Is part of this understanding how each group fits into your vision from that group’s own point of view, or is that not worthwhile?
ML: Explain what you mean by that.
B&W: You seem to deride the entitlement that comes along with possessing certain identities, the entitlement of “as an X, I say this, and that’s why it’s valid.” A lot of the time such entitlement ends discussion and leads to apparently unquestionable declarations. But how can we have an ideal if we don’t understand those people’s points of view? Do not those people have an expertise or an experience that people who are not members of the group do not have, an experience that lets them see the shortcomings of the vision?
ML: I think you don’t mean the shortcomings of the vision…
B&W: I don’t mean the shortcomings; I mean the place where reality doesn’t line up with the vision.
ML: Well… possibly, but then they have to articulate that to other people so that they’re willing to take action.
B&W: But the credential is not “I am a member of this group so I know?”
I think it will take a couple generations to get out, because it starts with civic education in the schools, the way we teach about politics and American history. It depends, probably, partially on moral education in the family, and it would help to have a leader who comes along and articulates this in a way that people find persuasive.
ML: No, not at all. To begin with, people in groups disagree. To think that somehow one person because he or she belongs to a group can speak for the group is ridiculous. People do not agree in groups. We have a class society in this country. No one from the black middle class—a young person who has never experienced it—can fully understand on this model what it’s like to be that poor single mother in the South Side of Chicago. If she’s gone to Exeter Academy and come to Columbia, she has no street cred with me at all. What does she know? This is not genetically transmissible. You need something to hook someone else. The whole point of politics is to persuade someone else. It’s not about being authentic. You need to have a language and something that you can get people to believe in so that once they believe in that you can persuade them “if you believe in that, then you have to do this.” That’s the idea.
B&W: But is there no difference in credibility of people who have experienced things and who haven’t? You know, you write this book and you say…
ML: I f they experience it. Personally. N ot because they belong to a group.
B&W: Are there no experiences that are tied to the group? I understand that the wealthy black young person does not understand the struggles of the poor single mother on the South Side of Chicago…
ML: No, hasn’t experienced it.
B&W: Okay, hasn’t experienced it. But, do they not share some at least social stigmas that come tied with just the nature of being black, regardless of class?
ML: Well, then we’re talking about that, and we are not talking about the woman on the South Side of Chicago. But, of course. Then we have to talk about how much social stigma matters in relation to other things. Now, you could argue that there is a social stigma that is going to harm—only harm—the woman on the South Side of Chicago, and that there is a social stigma or some sort of association that might harm you in academic circles—and it will help you a lot at the same time. What I share with people well to the left of me, and who are further left than the identitarians, is that class swamps most of these things except for race. That every other difference is swamped. And now, because we have a black middle class, it becomes more and more difficult to talk about a common experience. That does not mean that there isn’t a common solidarity and heritage and a sense of wanting to do things for each other, which is noble. But, it is ridiculous to pretend that there is a social stigma [of] being black on campus that can in any reasonable way be compared to the social stigma of someone who is unemployed or has never been employed and has no life chances.
B&W: But this is acknowledgment of at least some problems specific to race. One of the things that you deride in your book is the notion that only people who share the identity of a group can speak on the behalf of that group or advocate the change that that group needs. I don’t mean to suggest that there is a single group experience, but at least some common problems that the group shares. Does a person who comes from a group not have some sort of special credential?
ML: You keep asking the same question; the answer is no.
B&W: So, then, does it not matter to have any type of group diversity amongst the people in power or the people speaking on behalf of everyone?
It depends to what purpose. If you want to understand America’s problems, you need to hear from a diverse group of voices. The only reason we use speech is because we can understand each other, otherwise we would just grunt and point.
ML: It depends to what purpose. If you want to understand America’s problems, you need to hear from a diverse group of voices. The only reason we use speech is because we can understand each other, otherwise we would just grunt and point. So in terms of understanding the country, yes. In terms of political strategy, not necessarily. In some places it might be [important], sure—it might help a lot. In other places it might not help at all.
B&W: Would you be comfortable with a political strategy by which the Democrats win, and they could then hopefully implement the changes they want to implement, but all the Democrats who win were white men? Or do you think that we need people who share the experience or identity of other groups to also be in power so that they are part of that conversation, or so they can give their viewpoint in governance, not just in understanding?
ML: Well, the question is whether they would do anything different. Now, if you’re saying that you have a group of white men who then go on to put the program into effect, what I would need to hear is that they are not doing something they would do once they’re in power had they come from a certain group. So, I think that’s a sterile problem or question. No, I think diversity is important for a very different reason, not because people bring special things… people do, but not simply by virtue of color. I think by class you bring much, much more, and especially when you add class to race. A struggling family on the South Side of Chicago shares much more with a struggling family in West Virginia than that family on the South Side of Chicago shares with a black professor at Columbia. And they would tell you that. The professor won’t tell you that, will deny that, but they will tell you that. To begin with, they probably all go to church.
No, the reason diversity is important to my mind is as a way of legitimizing institutions. It says in a simple way to people that we actually are listening to you. Diversity is aspirational. It’s not that people bring so much that’s so very different. The great diversity in my classroom among my students, what does it consist of? None of them can get through a sentence without using the word “like”, they all spend all their time on their machines, and they’re all obsessed about their careers. I’d love to see some Southerners here. Thirty-eight percent of the country lives in the South. You don’t hear Southern accents on this campus. You don’t find many military people on this campus. One out of five Americans is an Evangelical. You don’t find Evangelicals here except for Asians, generally. This is not a diverse place; this is a liberal’s imagination of diversity, being very selective.
But diversity matters in another sense—in an aspirational sense—because it says that the country we want to create would be a country where everyone’s doing well and everyone can participate such that this is what it would look like, naturally, without even having to think about it. That tells people, in a way that having a black cop on a street in a black neighborhood whether the behavior is different or not (and you know, studies look at this and it’s not clear that it is sometimes), that these are your institutions. That’s our aspiration: that we’re going to be your police, we’re not some alien force. And that’s very important. And it’s very important, therefore, that you have candidates from different backgrounds. That can happen here because Congress has districts that are small. If you have a black district you can have a black representative—that’s good! It’s as a way of legitimizing the institution; it’s not because people bring something special.
B&W: So it’s more of a symbol of what we want to be rather than a practical thing that we need in order to make good decisions?
ML: It’s a challenge to achieve that.
B&W: Alright. I have one final question for you. You’ve laid out your argument that a vision of common citizenship as the thing that we share is what we should move towards. How do you do that in an environment like the environment here on campus in which people shut you down or people don’t want to listen to you say that? And how do you try to get through to people? Are the identitarians who compare you to David Duke lost causes to you, or do you think that you can persuade them?
ML: Yeah… I don’t know the answer to that question. It took us a couple generations to get into this position, and I think it will take a couple generations to get out, because it starts with civic education in the schools, the way we teach about politics and American history. It depends, probably, partially on moral education in the family, and it would help to have a leader who comes along and articulates this in a way that people find persuasive. You can’t will these things into being.
All I’m trying to do in the book is get an enormous ocean-liner that’s been going in the wrong direction to shut off its engines at least, or begin a turn in another direction. I’m trying to solve just with ink on paper this problem of what do you do if people think of themselves as groups facing off against each other. The thought, which is based on historical example (whether we can do it again), is that when people get focused on large ideas and principles and a narrative of the kind of country we want to create, then it’s easier for them to understand other people’s situation, because they see it as playing a role in the story.
In terms of arguing with people now, I think the most important thing to tell students is: don’t be cowed by it. Don’t be cowed by people who try to play these cards on you. Try to engage them in rationale conversation, be polite, and if that’s not returned just walk away. Just walk away. Don’t be bothered by it, and don’t be cowed by it.