Post-Trump, Post-Identity?

‘The fixation on diversity… 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… [with] shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good.’


November, it can broadly be agreed, was not a good month for Liberal Democracy. However, emerging from the outpouring of grief and recrimination, hope may yet spring. From the brightest minds – Columbia’s Mark Lilla, who advocates for a post-identity Liberalism, above – we see a new phase of sober self-inspection; a new capacity to explore ambiguity; a hushing of the hysteria which has, in recent months, reached fever pitch in our media, schools, and universities: no-platforming intellectuals and humanitarians; straitjacketing liberal values in safe-space; neutralizing Liberalism’s hard-won battles into platitudes.


In his much discussed essay in the New York Times last month, Lilla called for an end to the Liberal identity politics which, he and many others now argue, lost Clinton the presidency. This sentiment is echoed by The Times’ Matt Ridley, who, contemplating this ‘new apartheid’ of the Left, observes a central and too-often overlooked truth: ‘It is just bad biology to focus on race, sex or sexual orientation as if they mattered most about people… the genetic differences between two human beings of the same race are maybe ten times as great as the average genetic difference between two races’ – as the Paleontological Scientific Trust works tirelessly to remind us.


Identity politics has enabled a politics that gives voice to multiple, frequently marginalised narratives; but in its extremity, it erodes the common ground that holds us. To embrace similarity is not to deny difference. By forgetting this, Ridley argues, ‘The left has vacated the moral high ground on which it won so many fine battles to treat human beings equally’.


And this problem of division is one that goes well beyond rhetoric. Trevor Phillips, former Equalities Commissioner, believes we are ‘sleep walking to segregation’. The long-awaited Casey report into British integration finds much the same. Even London, hailed as a triumph of multiculturalism, was found to be furthest behind in its expected levels of integration by the 2014 Independent Social Integration Commission. As its Chair Matthew Taylor writes, ‘[i]ntegration doesn’t happen naturally as an accident of proximity, it is something we have to work at, including permitting a degree of social engineering.’


To create a Liberalism that works on paper and in practice, we need to recognize the power, not of the self, but of the community: for Lilla, this means a ‘post-identity Liberalism’ which emphasises commonality – ‘speaking to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another’ – and education that delivers the main responsibility of any democracy: ‘to form committed citizens’, aware of their system of government and history, and their duties, not just their rights, to learn, understand, and vote.’