Reaffirming University Values: “After Identity Liberalism” with Mark Lilla and faculty discussants

Reaffirming University Values: “After Identity Liberalism” with Mark Lilla and faculty discussants

afternoon, everybody. It’s good to see
I’m Chris Paxson. I’m President of Brown. And I’d like to
welcome everybody to the second event of this year
in our Re-affirming University Values series that Provost
Rick Locke and I host for the second year. We started this last year. And this series has a
very special purpose. What we’re aiming to do is to
empower the Brown community to model the ways that we
can have open, honest, , intellectually grounded
conversations that prepare us all to listen and navigate
in a pluralistic society. Previous lectures
in this series have given us much to
reflect on during what I think we can all agree is a
very difficult and polarizing time in the country. And I hope that they provided
us with a deeper understanding of how, in a
practical sense, our values as university guide us
in what we do and how we learn, which is maybe the
most important part. So over the last
year, we’ve discussed issues like unsafe
spaces of democracy, and free speech,
and science denial– I’m looking at Ken Miller
who gave that lecture– Islamophobia. And last month, we had a
really terrific faculty panel on white nationalism in
the context of events at Charlottesville, Virginia. So today, we’re going to
consider identity politics with our guest lecturer, Professor
of Humanities at Columbia University, Mark Lilla
and two Brown faculty . Discussants so before
I do introductions, I just want to say a few
very brief words that are thoughts on setting the
table for tonight’s talk, which is on After Identity Liberalism. Professor Lilla is the author
of probably one of the most provocative and
talked about op-eds of the past year, The End of
Identity Liberalism, which ran in The New York
Times in November? Is that right? Yeah? I thought it was later than
that, but last November. So almost a year. And in this piece,
Professor Lilla suggested that
America’s diversity, while an extraordinary
achievement and a national
asset, has prompted positive social
change, but maybe is failing at the level
of electoral politics. And in his view,
maybe he can disagree with my paraphrasing
of his view, it was identity liberalism
that fractured the left and delivered the unexpected
outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election. And his argument is that what
we share as citizens and not our status as members
of different groups, identity groups that
build solidarity, and expending energy
on the latter, we miss may be strategic
opportunities to form common goals across identities. His thesis, that our broad
focus on identity has, quote, and this is a direct quote,
“produced a generation of liberals and progressives
who are unaware of conditions outside their
self-defined group,” really got people’s
attention in a very big way. And the ensuing debate
has been extended further in his recent book,
The Once Future Liberal After Identity Politics,
and the debate, I think, on these topics has
been very spirited. Now I’m not going to summarize
the key aspects of the debate. I think our speaker,
our discussants, and some of the Q&A that
we get from the audience will be the most informative. But I think it is important
that this work has sparked just a really important
conversation, and it’s helped us think about how
we construct our identities, how our unique life experiences
and personal histories come to define who we
are, and how this bears on our values, what we care
about, the world we live in, and how we relate to each other. So today, I’m very pleased
to welcome Professor Mark Lilla, intellectual
historian, essayist, scholar, and educator, to share his
views with us at Brown. So let me just say a
few words about him, and then I’ll turn
to discussants. Among the highlights
of Professor Lilla’s distinguished career
are professorships at NYU and the Committee
on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He’s now at Columbia
University, as I said. He’s a regular essayist for
The New York Review of Books and other publications. He specializes in
intellectual history, with a particular focus on
Western political and religious thought. Among his books are
The Shipwrecked Mind, On Political Reaction, The
Stillborn God, Religion and Politics in the
Modern West, and GB Vico, The Making of an
Anti-modern, in addition to the book that I already noted. So I’m going to introduce
our discussants right now, so that when they come
up, I don’t have to jump up and do it again. I’ll do it all at once. And in alphabetical order
and in order of speaking, the first is Professor
Charles Larmore, who is the W. Duncan
MacMillan Family Professor in Humanities in
the Department of Philosophy at Brown. He is noted for his writings
on political liberalism, The Nature of the Self and
The Nature of Moral Judgment. Charles is a scholar in
the history of philosophy from the 16th to
the 20th century, with particular interest
in German idealism and the work of Kant, Nietzsche,
Descartes, Sartre, and others. He’s a contributor to Brown’s
Political Theory Project, a member of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences, a recipient of the Presidential
Faculty Award at Brown, and I suspect his work on
reflection in human agency will be top of mind
during today’s discussion. Professor Prerna Singh
our other discussant is the Mahatma Gandhi
Assistant Professor of Politics and
International Studies at the Center for Contemporary
South Asia at the Watson Institute. Beyond her research on
comparative politics, the political economy of
development, social welfare, and the politics of
South Asia and East Asia, Professor Singh also examines
identity politics, particularly the causes and consequences
of ethnic and national identifications. Among the many books
she has authored, her first book, How
Solidarity Works for Welfare, was awarded the Woodrow Wilson
Foundation Prize for the Best Book on Government,
Politics, or International Affairs from the American
Political Science Association. So please join me in
welcoming the three of them. [APPLAUSE] Just to set the
ground rules, we’ve asked Professor Lilla to speak
for about 30 minutes, and then each of the discussants to come
in for maybe 10, 12 minutes. Something like that. And then we’ll open it
up for Q&A. So please, Professor Lilla, come on up. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] MARK LILLA: Can you
hear me all right? Good. OK. Before we discuss
anything tonight, I want to make something clear. And that is that my
remarks are partisan. I am a liberal
speaking to fellow, or addressing myself,
to fellow liberals. And tonight, I’ll
use the word liberal as a catch-all phrase
for anyone left of center, all the way over
to progressives and beyond. Because our universities
are dominated by liberals and liberal
ideas, we sometimes forget that there are
other points of view. And we speak of politics in
the classroom and elsewhere in a way that presumes that all
moral, right-thinking people agree with us. We don’t even perceive how
partisan we are, and therefore, have trouble understanding why
many Americans find a smug. So to the conservative
students in the audience, and if there is one,
conservative professors in the audience, welcome. If there’s one thing
that I’ve learned in discussing or trying to
discuss what we call identity politics, it’s this. You had better
begin with politics. Because once Americans
start arguing, and shouting, and beating their
chests about identity, they never get to politics. So let me start by
making something clear. The Once and Future Liberal
is a book about politics. It has nothing to say about
the metaphysics of personal or group identity. It does not present
a moral balance sheet on American history. Neither does it ring
God’s judgment down on the country for its sins. There are plenty of books
out there that do that. This is not one of them. The Once and Future Liberal is
about politics, and therefore, about power. In the book, I sketch
a history recounting how a once vibrant liberal
tradition lost its hold on the American imagination. I then draw some lessons
from that history, and I conclude by offering some
tentative suggestions, very tentative, about what
we might do differently to regain power and accomplish
the things that we profess to want. And that’s all my
book sets out to do. Though if you spend your life on
Twitter, you’d never know that. Tonight, though, given
the time constraints, I’ve decided not to
summarize my book for you, but try something else. Instead, I want to lay bare
the underlying structure of the argument underlying it. And in doing it this
way, hopefully, I can deflate some of the
hysteria surrounding the book. The Once and Future
Liberal rests on a premise, and from this premise, I
draw certain conclusions. Now there may be very good
reasons to reject my premise or commodify it. Or you might feel that
even given my premise, I have drawn the wrong
conclusions from it. And I welcome that
kind of debate, because that’s
the kind of debate that I can learn something from. My premise is the following,
that you cannot help anyone in American politics over the
long-term unless you maintain a durable hold on
institutional power. And by institutional
power, I mean holding public offices
responsible for making and enforcing the law. Of course, institutional
politics is not the only way to practice politics. There’s movement politics. And there was a time
in our recent history not so long ago, I’d
say from the late ’50s up until around
the early ’80s, when social movements were
the only thing making the American system budge. There were issue-based movements
like those against the Vietnam War or to protect
the environment, and there were what we call
now identity-based ones, for the rights of
African-Americans, and other ethnic minorities,
for women, or for gays. And it can’t be
denied that thanks to these latter
movements, the country is a more tolerant, more
just, and more inclusive place than it was 50 years ago. I know, because sad
to say, I was there. But that period is over. And in fact, it’s
been over for decades. The truth is that
since the Reagan years, the overall balance of political
power in the United States has not been greatly
affected by social movements, movements have continued to make
advances on particular issues. Gay marriage, for example. And our culture, just the
way we deal with each other, even how businesses
operate, those things have been transformed
by social movements. There’s no doubt about that. And it’s something
that conservatives complain about bitterly. But for more than
three decades now, changes in the structure
of political power, in the sense I mean
it, in this country have been determined
almost wholly by the gains and losses of our
two major political parties. And there is a deep
lesson in this. It is that in America,
institutional politics can always, at some point,
undo whatever gains are made through movement politics. This is an inconvenient
truth that movement activists would prefer to ignore. But it’s hard to ignore
if you’re actually paying attention to
politics across the country, and not just in Washington,
DC, and certainly not just on campuses. If you look at the
states where Republicans hold undisputed
power today, you will see what happens
to movement gains in the face of
institutional power. Thanks to the Women’s
Movement, women have a constitutional
right to get an abortion. That was an achievement. But in large swaths
of the country, Republican legislatures are
erecting spurious barriers to getting one. So that de facto, women living
in certain places cannot exercise their
constitutional right. In some Republican states,
the equal voting rights of African-Americans,
the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights
Movement 50 years ago, are steadily being eroded
through gerrymandering and the manipulation
of voting hours. And in other states, progressive
gay rights legislation passed at the local
level is being overturned by Republican
legislatures and governors. Liberals have had only
two Democratic presidents since the Reagan era. But the truth of
their administrations is that they were stymied at
almost every turn by rabidly right wing Republicans
in Congress in the state offices, Not to
mention the Supreme Court. And this situation is
only getting worse. Today, Republicans
hold 2/3 of the state houses in this country and
2/3 of the state legislatures. They control 24 out
of 50 states outright. Democrats control only seven. And radical right billionaires,
like the Koch brothers, are pouring money
today into state races. For them, this is
the new frontier. And as a result, unions
and public schools are now under severe attack. And if Republicans gain one or
two more state legislatures, they could conceivably call
a Constitutional Convention. Now just think for
a minute about what that would mean,
a Constitutional Convention in the
age of Donald Trump, for the rights of
African-Americans, women, and gays. It’s no longer time to talk
about making future gains. We live in an age of
rollback, and that’s what needs to be focused on. That means that the
greatest proximate threat to the gains
made by social movements over the past 50 years is not
white supremacy, or sexism, or homophobia any
more than it is the fall in the Garden of Eden. The present danger
is a hyperradical and institutionally
powerful Republican Party, and they acquired their power
through electoral politics, not movement politics. So that’s my
premise, the primacy of institutional politics
over movement politics, not always, but at this
moment in our history. And if you accept this premise,
I think two conclusions follow. The first is that liberal
political strategy must be adapted to the
peculiar institutions we have in this country. We only have two effective
political parties, we have the separation of powers
into different governmental branches, and we
have a federal system that reserves significant
power to states and localities. Consequently, the main
focus of our energies must be on those
particular institutions, strengthening the
Democratic Party, winning congressional elections,
especially in swing states, and winning state and local
races across the country. We liberals have
a problem, though. To be a credible competitor
in all of these races, we need to be
present everywhere. We need to be a widespread,
grassroots party, which is what the Republican Party
has been since the ’80s, and the Democrat
party has not been. After the Reagan
Revolution, Republicans went out seducing voters in
small and medium-sized towns across America, setting
up party offices, visiting church, and VFW
halls, and small town parades, while liberals retreated
to the two coasts into the womb of the
university and into the media establishment, into an elite
club where contempt for Fly Over America is considered
a sign of good breeding. The second conclusion I draw
from my premise is this. If you aim to regain
institutional power by winning elections in every
part of the country, then your party’s message
must play in every part of the country as a whole. Sorry I should have
printed this differently. But how is that possible? To have one message
that addresses the country as a whole? I’m asked this constantly
by fellow liberals. They say, the country is now
made up of diverse groups, and now they’re hostile groups. This dogma about
diversity is, I’m afraid, a large part of the problem. If when you look
in America, you see nothing but a
collection of groups defined by their
identities, and if you assume that is what motivates
everyone in politics, if you assume that
there’s no shared experience in this
country, no democratic we, then you will be inclined
to give up on certain people and places, and to think of
campaigning as an exercise in targeting. First, you construct
a list of groups, then you make a
list of policies, and then you go out on the
stump connecting groups with policies,
speaking differently in different places
about that connection. And this is exactly what
makes democratic candidates, with a few exceptions, seem
wholly inauthentic to those not already convinced. Voters know when
they’re being targeted. What they don’t know is what
the candidate and the party fundamentally stand for. From the time of Ronald
Reagan to George W. Bush, voters knew what Republicans
fundamentally stood for. Even we as liberals did. And that’s because what the
party inherited from Ronald Reagan was not a
list of policies or a list of identity groups,
or a list of target groups. What it inherited from
Reagan was a vision of the country, what it
is, what it stands for, and what it might
become, in a sense, what, it means to be an American,
though we know there’s a very narrow sense of what it was. It was an anti-political vision,
a picture of an America made up of individuals and families and
churches who would magically flourish if only they were
freed from the evil clutches of government. That certainly is not my vision. Prior to Reagan,
of course, liberals had their own vision of the
country, a political one, which they inherited from
FDR and the New Deal. It portrayed the
US as a republic where citizens were joined
in a collective enterprise to build a strong
nation and protect each other through
assertive government action. Whether they achieved it or not,
what liberal Democrats stood for was clear to everyone,
solidarity, opportunity, and public duty
for all citizens. But during the Reagan
years, that clarity was lost for all
sorts of reasons having to do with what
happened in the ’60s and ’70s and Vietnam, and all the rest. Increasingly obsessed
with group differences, liberals grew distrustful
of the word we. They got out of the
habit of addressing all citizens as citizens. Who’s we? Which we? Which only left the impression
that the Democrats were just an agglomeration of angry
groups with different demands without a vision
of a common future that Americans might build
together if Democrats were voted into office. Make no mistake about this. We is the most important word
in the liberal and progressive lexicon. If there is no we, at
least an aspirational one, then how can
solidarity be built? How can people in
one walk of life, or one region of the
country, or one group be inspired to make sacrifices
for people in another? That’s the magical thing
you need to have happen. . If we’re only groups,
why should they care? I hope you see what
I’m driving at here. If all you see in the
country is diversity, just different groups
with distinct interests and different degrees of
privilege and victimhood, you will be incapable
of projecting a vision of the future. And if you have no
such vision, you will never develop a message
that can potentially reach people across the country. And if you fail to do that,
then you lose elections. And I’m not talking
about the presidency. We’re too focused on that. Congressional and state
and local elections. And the more elections
you lose, the less you’re able to help any of
the identity groups that you say you care about. To state it somewhat
paradoxically, the only way to gain
institutional power to protect disadvantaged
groups in America is to develop a vision and
a message that do not focus single-mindedly on groups. You must make it
clear to everyone that you are aiming for
the country as a whole before you explain what
that might mean for one group or region in the country. You enunciate the message,
and then when you go around, you explain how that message
applies for particular voters in particular places. But the message, the
vision, remains the same. I’ve now spoken for 15 minutes,
perhaps disappointing you, without mentioning
identity politics once. And that was by design. Because what I’ve learned
over the past year ever since I published
that New York Times article is that the mere mention
of the word identity causes Americans across
the political spectrum to lose their minds. And once that happens,
hard strategic thinking about political power
screeches to a halt. Let me get a couple of
things out of the way. I think we all
agree that there are many ways in which
Americans do and must discuss race and gender. We need, for example, to
explore the legacies of racism, and sexism, and
homophobia if we want to fully understand
our history and have a reckoning with our history. We also need to talk
about race and gender in order to provide moral
education to our children, so they learn to avoid
prejudices and stereotypes and discrimination. I personally think it’s
most important that we talk about race and
gender when analyzing our many social problems. One cannot understand, to
take the most obvious example, our criminal justice system
and how it needs to be reformed if we don’t focus on racial
disparities in sentencing and many other things. And once we do that,
then it becomes possible to actually
mobilize people in these affected groups
for power politics, institutional politics. So if we agree on
all this, what’s my problem with
identity politics? It’s this. That over the past three
decades, every advance of liberal identity
consciousness has marked a retreat of liberal
political consciousness. Politics, again,
understood as the quest for institutional power. Moral posturing has replaced
political calculation, and as political
consciousness has waned, liberals have learned how to
reach the country at large and win elections so they can
benefit the very groups they care about. Now you might object that there
is no necessary reason why identity consciousness and
political consciousness should be inversely
related, and you’re right. There’s no necessary reason. But in America, they are, for
reasons peculiar to ourselves. It is our Puritan heritage. Identity politics today
is movement politics. And social movements tend to
follow a certain trajectory. In party politics, the forces at
work are basically centripetal. They encourage
factions and interests to come together to work out
common goals and strategy. In movement politics, the
forces are centrifugal. They encourage splits into
ever smaller factions obsessed with single issues
and practicing ideological
purification rituals. You rise to the
head of the movement by being the most pure. And before long, the
main enemies to be fought are not external
enemies, but rather fellow movement
members who are not, as we would say today,
sufficiently woke. Over time, the rhetoric gets
more heated and hyperbolic, so to keep motivated
movement members have to convince themselves that
the sky’s never been darker, that all seeming
progress is an illusion, and that all but a trusted
few are traitors to the cause. The Weather Underground
in the United States, the Red Brigades in Italy, the
Red Army faction in Germany, are just a few
examples from the ’70s of the self-induced and
self-defeating radicalization that has plagued
left wing movements throughout modern history,
and that time again have provoked the reaction
that tighten the right’s hold on institutional power. Every country in
Europe, and it’s happening now in this country. In Europe, hysterical
leftism tends to end in violence
directed at the state. In the US, it usually ends
in an evangelical crusade. The Civil Rights Movement
and the early women’s and gay rights movement
were actually quite savvy political endeavors. They sought power and were
strategically self-aware. They did not reject
the aspiration to forge a great democratic we. Rather, they claimed
that they had been excluded from
that we and now deserve to be fully enfranchised
as citizens and as equal members of civil society. Their demands were
strong and strongly put, but they were also veiled
invitations to all Americans to join in a common
effort to guarantee the rights of citizens and
to build a country together. Not so today’s
identity politics, which has become a pseudo
politics of the self projected onto society at large. Most of you are
too young to know that there was a time when we
talked about racial and gender justice in America
without invoking the word identity at all. The word identity did not really
enter the American lexicon until the ’50s, when a
German emigre psychologist by the name of Erik
Erikson announced to Americans that, you
all have identities and you’re all in crisis. And suddenly,
everyone was convinced they had an identity crisis. And then the word
migrated– there are books about this– the
word migrated into politics in the early ’70s. But even then, identity in
the early ’70s, identity was thought of as a
social category, something that was imposed by
society in order to set up artificial distinctions. No longer. Today by identity, we
mean something internal, a kind of inner homunculus
that’s uniquely my own, a mix of freely
chosen subidentities, a fragile little thing
that needs tending to. If you believe that,
it’s little wonder, then, that for liberal identitarians,
political issues immediately could transform into
intimate issues. A challenge to my
political position is felt if you think that
politics is all about identity. An attack on your
political position seems to be an attack
on your self-definition and subjective experience. And who are you
to challenge that? That’s what’s happening,
I think, on our campuses. And what happens then is that
argument is replaced by taboo, because we can’t talk. We can’t presume
to know anything about each other’s
intimate selves. At times, our more
privilege campuses whipped up into
an identity frenzy can seem stuck in the
world of archaic religion. Only those with
approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed
to speak on certain matters. Scapegoats are denounced and run
off campus in a purging ritual. Propositions become pure or
impure, not true or false. And not only propositions,
but simple words. And not only simple
words, pronouns. So what becomes then of
intellectual and political interaction on campus? It begins to disappear, or it
is replaced by lame appeals to an ephemeral and
ever-shifting intersectionality which commits no one to
anything in the long-term. Intersectionality
is not solidarity. Political engagement
out in the risky world gives way to proselytizing
and denunciations safely from behind a laptop. I no longer want to beat
my adversary in argument and then beat my
adversary at the polls, or I don’t want
to simply persuade that person to join my side. What I want to do is express
myself and demand from everyone else a confession of sins
and a profession of faith. This is typically American. You don’t find this
kind of fanaticism on any left in the
world, though it’s starting in Britain
and a little bit in Germany, Protestant
countries both. Americans don’t want a
revolution and never have. They don’t want to
talk about class. Instead, Americans
want a Great Awakening, hence the omnipresent
use of the term woke, which comes from Protestant
American theology. Every so often, surges
of fevered fanaticism come over America in
our political life and in our religious life. We lose all sense of
proportion, and everything seems to be of
unbearable moral urgency. That’s why truth
be told, we are not having a national conversation
about race and gender today. It feels more like being
stuck in a revivalist’s tent, where are all expected
to approach the altar, convert, and start
speaking in a new tongue. Hallelujah. The problem is this. Identitarian evangelism is
about speaking truth to power. I accept that. But politics is about
becoming the power. If you don’t want that, if you
don’t want to become the power, if that’s not your
ultimate goal, if you’re not willing
to sacrifice and swallow a little bit of yourself to gain
power to actually do something, then you’re simply not
a political person. Don’t kid yourself. Well, as what I’ve just
said will bear out, I too am on an
evangelical crusade. But my aim is not to make
you confess your sins or change your politics. Instead I want to
encourage you to change your thinking and
your tactics to reach your own ends, to be less
moralistic, and more ruthlessly strategic. To become more political
than you actually are, not less political. Students have tremendous
energy, and it’s visible now in the efforts
to resist Donald Trump. But that energy
must be redirected if you are to become the
change you say you seek. In the last chapter
of my book, I develop some very
sketchy thoughts about– or put forward, I don’t
even develop them– some thoughts about what such
a reorientation might mean. So let me conclude by
mentioning a couple. First and most important,
escape the trap of yourself to find identity. Get over it and discover
the political world outside your head. Not that you
shouldn’t be issues– interesting issues connected
to groups you belong, but I mean get away from
your self-definition. Learn what matters out in
the world right now, not just to you personally. Race and gender are
not the only issues that matter in America
today, and if that’s all you can talk about, you’re
not going to reach many people. Not by a long shot. The question of class, for
example, looms over everything. And let’s say you wanted to
understand class in America. Well, then you would
have to steep yourself in history, philosophy, and
economics which I encourage you to study, and you would have
to avoid like the plague all bullshit theory classes. Second, discover America. I think that if I offered
any of you in the room right now, students, a chance
to deliver disaster relief in Somalia, or go work
on women’s issues in Pakistan, you’d jump at the chance, and
that speaks very well of you. Tonight, I’m asking you to do
something much harder for you. I’m asking you to go to a
swing state in middle America for a summer. Spend some time in places
where the Wi-Fi sucks, where you have no desire to
post a picture of your dinner on Instagram, and where
people have their heads bowed in prayer in
thanks for that dinner. Take a big humility pill
and get to know them. Visit their churches
and their homes. And while you’re visiting,
work on winning back for the Democratic
Party one seat. Just one seat in the state
legislature or Congress. That would be an
enormous contribution to seizing power and
becoming the power again. Next, descend from the
pulpit with your adversaries, except what’s obvious to
almost everyone in America, that we’ve made incredible
progress on race and gender issues of the past half century. But use that progress
as motivation to continue the work, and use it
to persuade others to join you. Remind yourself that
no one has ever, in the history of
the human race, been motivated to do
good by being hectored about their failings, any
more than you were ever motivated by the hectic
hectoring of your parents. Remember that no one
has ever gained power in any country in the world
by denouncing that country. Take a look at the history
of the McGovern race in 1972. Finally, and I’ll conclude,
stay focused and hungry. Don’t get distracted
by campus trivia and exaggerated sensitivities
of privileged fellow students, and if you’re in
this room, you’re privileged, and by those
teachers and college administrators who make a living
heightening your sensitivities. Your adversary is not
the unwitting person who uses the wrong
word and certainly not one who has a different opinion. Your adversary is the
radicalized Republican Party that’s doing real damage
out there in the real world beyond the gates of this campus. Avoid the traps set by
the right wing media. Don’t become fodder
for Fox News. The whole country is
watching your every move. Wake up every morning wanting
to ruin Steve Bannon’s day. If that isn’t motivation,
I don’t know what is. And welcome to the NFL. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] CHRIS PAXSON: Thank you. So Charles, come on up. Thanks. CHARLES LARMORE: It’s a
great pleasure to be here, and in particular, a pleasure
to debate my old friend, Mark Lilla, about a book,
his book, which in many respects quite admire. The main object of Mark Lilla’s
critique, as we’ve heard, is the identity
politics he believes has taken over the
Democratic Party and played a major role in the
Democrat’s catastrophic losses in the 2016 election. By identity politics,
he means a politics focused on the particular
ethnic, racial, and gender identities with which many
people may align themselves, and in terms of which they
may feel unjustly treated in this society. The Democratic
Party, Mark believes, is becoming
increasingly something like a coalition of minorities,
plus an intellectual elite that sympathizes with their plight. This strategy, he complains, has
allowed the adversary, namely the Republican Party, to present
itself as the party committed, not to special
fractional interests, but instead to the common good. The result is the debacle
we saw last November. As Mark indicated in an
interview with The New Yorker, he agrees on this point, I
presume it’s the only point, with Steve Bannon, who has
said, I quote Bannon now, “The Democrats, the longer they
talk about identity politics, I’ve got them. I want them to talk
about racism every day. If the left is focused
on race and identity, and we go with
economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” So much for Bannon. What the Democratic
Party must instead do, Mark argues, is
articulate a common vision of what it is to be an
American, one that transcends various group identities,
and then on this basis, appealing to things that
all Americans share, defend, and enhance the
rights of minorities, among indeed other
political objectives. I want to mention
quickly two reservations I have about Mark’s diagnosis
as so far described. Quickly, not because I
regard them as insignificant, because there are other
points I want to discuss more. First, it is in
my view undeniable that the Republican Party too,
and not just the Trump Bannon faction, has been practicing
identity politics, even if in coded, dog whistle
form, as it presents itself, in effect, as a defender of the
interests of aggrieved whites who feel they are
becoming, as indeed they are, a minority
in the United States. And second, I think it
is an overgeneralization to say that identity
politics has taken over the Democratic Party,
since many of its leaders have championed justice
and equal rights for various minorities
precisely on the grounds that these are American values
guaranteed by the Constitution. But let us look somewhat
further at Mark Lilla’s picture of the floundering or the
present day Democratic Party. As people of the left come more
and more to identify themselves with their particular
cultural identities, instead of thinking of
themselves first and foremost as American
citizens, they become more interested in
political movements that claim to represent their
particular identities than in the nitty gritty of
winning elections and passing legislation, which must always
involve compromise with people of different persuasions. The distinction between
movement politics and institutional politics
is an essential one for Mark. It’s the difference between
demonstrations, strikes, protests, marches, and
petitions on the one hand and winning elections,
holding offices, and doing deals to pass
legislation on the other. It underlies one fundamental
axiom of his position to which he alluded his talk
today, which in his book he called an “iron
law in democracies.” And I’m quoting him here. Says in the book,
“since anything achieved through movement
politics can be undone through institutional politics. We should recognize,”
still a quote, “the priority of institutional
over movement politics. The ultimate failure of identity
politics stems from the fact,” and again I’m quoting
Mark, that, quote, “movement politics began to
be seen as an alternative rather than as a supplement
to institutional politics.” I disagree. Without denying the dangers
of an exclusive concern with particular
identities, I do not think that movement
politics should be seen either as an
alternative or as a supplement to institutional politics. Rather the two are
equally necessary. Yes, institutional politics,
a new party in office, can often undo the achievements
of movement politics. And political
movements will come to naught if they do
not succeed in scoring institutional victories. But let’s not forget that
movement politics does indeed achieve important things that
would otherwise simply not have happened, and that an
institutional politics that is not forced to respond
to political movements easily begins to look
only after itself, and to turn a blind eye to
existing forms of injustice. Both Martin Luther King,
Jr. and Lyndon Johnson played a central roles in
advancing the civil rights of African-Americans. Indeed, the interplay between
these two kinds of politics has been for centuries
a central ingredient in the development of
social justice in America. One need only think, earlier
than the 20th century, which Mark was focusing
on in his talk, you only think of the
Abolitionist Movement and the election of Lincoln
in the mid-19th century, or the Labor Movement and
Progressive legislation at the turn of the 19th
and 20th centuries. As I’ve said, I agree
with Mark’s complaints about an exclusive concern
with identity politics. But let’s examine now
the remedy he proposes. His view is that the party of
the left, the Democratic Party, needs to appeal to
people not in terms of the separate identities
they may possess or espouse, but rather in the name of
what all Americans share. That, he claims, can only
be their common citizenship. At least, that’s what
he claims in his book. Now this idea of citizenship
seems to me rather vague. It might mean simply
the legal status of having certain rights,
duties, and benefits, a status that, as we know today, people
living in a country without it or living elsewhere may
desperately want to achieve. But it’s precisely
the significance of that status, the
values and ideals it supposedly embodies, and
not the status just by itself, that citizenship
must be understood to mean if it is to serve
as a political rallying cry. Moreover, these values and
ideals will have to be ones, which at some level
of generality, even if there are differences
of interpretation, all Americans
supposedly endorse. And I would add they must also
be values and ideals by which Americans can distinguish
themselves from other peoples, that they can find
pride and purpose, not merely in being citizens
of a modern liberal democracy, which Canada, Britain,
Germany, and others is as well, but in being American citizens. For the aim is to bring
about a more just society by refashioning our
sense of common destiny, a term often used by Mark in
his book, that binds us together as a people. Mark himself, in
the book anyway, ventures no account of what
these shared values and ideals are. Perhaps he thinks
this is something that must be worked out
in the give and take of democratic discussion. Yet, I have serious
doubts about whether there is any longer much
of an American we to be retrieved and steered
in the direction of goals that liberals would
want to pursue. In general, the fact that
something is desirable is no reason to think it exists. Let me be clear about the
nature of my criticism. I’m not faulting
mark for failing to offer a concrete
prescription for the weakness of the left in this country. I have none to offer myself. But analysis must
precede prescription, as I’m sure Mark would agree. And the analysis
I’m going to sketch will suggest that a
sense of the Americanness that all Americans
can share and regard as the meaning of their
common citizenship is today, if indeed it ever
existed for all Americans in the past, a
thing of the past. No doubt the dominant
conception of what is distinctive and valuable
about being an American citizen has been the idea of
American exceptionalism. It’s the idea of America
as different from all other countries in virtue of having
consciously broken with the tyrannies of the past and
of founding itself as a new beginning– that’s the novus
ordo seclorum on your $1 bill– on a commitment
to the principles of liberty and equality
for all, and on the promise that with hard work, every
American has the opportunity to better his or her condition. America is, as the
phrases go, a city upon the hill, the
last hope of Earth. Can this idea still
move us and form the basis of a liberal
democratic program for the future? I doubt it. Though many of us may
still profess allegiance to the idea of American
exceptionalism, the knowing part
of ourselves has come to realize that
it was always a myth. First of all,
America was founded not just on certain ideas,
but on what we today call crimes against humanity,
namely genocide and slavery. These are not merely
evils that happened to accompany the creation
of the American republic. There would have been no
American republic without them. They were essential
preconditions. America is not exceptional. It is not, of course,
worse than other countries, but it is not better
than many either. And second, most of us also
know when we reflect and do not parrot pieties,
that it is not true that every American has the
opportunity through hard work to better their condition. Many Americans are the object
of systematic discrimination, and those who are born
in economically depressed circumstances have as a
rule far less opportunity than others, if
any, however hard they work, to do better
than their parents. And in addition to living at a
time in which the American myth is dissipating, we also
live today in a society ruled by the new digital media,
by Facebook, the internet, cable news, and talk radio. That’s just a partial list. I should add Twitter. In which Americans
increasingly inhabit, for much of their time,
worlds of their own choosing, in which the only
encounter views of the sort they already have. Plenty of psychological
research shows that when like-minded people
discuss only among themselves, their shared views move away
more and more from the views of other groups of people. The chances, therefore,
of any common vision of what it means
to be an American and of what path American
society should take are, I believe, becoming
increasingly small. I do not know myself what can be
done when older visions of what it is to be an American
are seen to be myths and newer visions,
such as suggested, become more and more
difficult to work out. I do know that appeals to
citizenship as such do nothing. And I also know,
quite generally, that everything ends or dies. Not just individuals,
but republics too. America is not exceptional
in this regard either. [APPLAUSE] PRERNA SINGH: So first
of all, thank you to Professor Lilla for this
timely and thought provoking talk, and to President Paxson
for giving me an opportunity to respond to it. So I want to begin by briefly
summarizing Professor Lilla’s argument as I understood it. So the only way to
bring meaningful change in American politics is
through institutional power. The route to institutional
power is by winning elections. And the way to win elections
is through a common vision that speaks to all
citizens as citizens. The way not to win
elections is through narrow, sectional,
increasingly fanatical visions that are articulated
through identity politics. It’s an elegantly
structured argument about a deep
political predicament that the US faces today, and
there is much in this argument that I’m deeply sympathetic to. So as a political scientist,
I will be betraying my tribe if I don’t wholeheartedly
endorse both the centrality of institutional power
for bringing about change and electoral
victories as a vehicle for gaining institutional power. As a scholar of
political communities, know as someone who
studies social solidarity and has recently published a
book on the power of we-ness, I’m completely sympathetic
to the necessity and indeed the power, again, of
the unifying vision that Professor Lilla is urging
American liberals towards. Yet, and here I
echo Charles’ point, what is this vision
that is going to bring Americans together? As I mentioned, I think a
lot about this sense of us, of how historically
in different places, at different points in
time, ideas of we-ness have been constructed. And so I was curious when I
read Professor Lilla’s book to read what he had in mind. And we here a lot through this
book about what this vision is not. And what it’s not is the
movement politics of identity. It’s not a turn
towards the self. It’s not, I’m here, I’m queer And that is elegantly
presented and extremely clear throughout the book. We also hear about how we are
going to get to this vision, or perhaps this is how
we’re going to spread it. I was a little bit unclear. But the process, as
Again Professor Lilla said in his remarks
today, is to descend. We need to learn to listen. We need to imagine. We need to visit, if
only with our mind’s eye, places where the Wi-Fi is
crap, the coffee is weak, and we don’t post pictures
of our dinner on Instagram. So we know that
this vision is not. We know how we will get
to and spread this vision. But what is this vision? We only really begin to hear
in this book, about page 120. I flagged it. And I quote now from
Professor Lilla, “The only way out
of this conundrum is to appeal to something that,
as Americans, we all share, but which has nothing
to do with our identity without denying the existence
and importance of the latter. And there is something, if
only liberals would again begin to speak of it,
and that is citizenship.” And Professor Lilla immediately
admits that citizenship is an unusual choice. I quote from him again. He says, “The word citizen
has a very musty air. It brings up this image
for people of a certain age or people who lived in a
different country, as I did, of schoolteachers
tapping blackboards with wooden pointers
during civics class.” But citizenship,
Professor Lilla insists, has great potential,
and that’s because it is a political status, nothing
less, and nothing more. I quote from him again. “So here, then, is where
I began to struggle. Meaningful change will come
through elections that will not be won by divisive
identity movements, but by transcending,
though not abandoning our identities in
a unified vision, at the heart of which is a
political status, nothing less and nothing more.” Now this political
status does a lot of work for Professor
Lilla, because in a sense, the whole argument rests on it. It has to establish some
sort of identification, and I’m quoting here,
between the privileged and the disadvantaged. It has to induce
a sense of duty. It has to provide a way
of encouraging people to identify with one another. And I couldn’t help
but begin to wonder, can citizenship as a shared
political status do all that? Does citizenship
in America command the kind of affective
attachment which is the necessary glue
of all unifying visions? Does it move for Americans? “Can it,” and I quite again,
“convince the well-off that they have a permanent
duty to the worse-off? Can it encourage shared
duties and obligations? Can it indeed,” quote,
“provide Americans a way to talk about what
they already share?” So I have a confession. I’m not American,
and neither am I a student of American politics. But as someone who has lived in
and been an everyday observer of American politics
for over a decade, I was a bit surprised
by this singling out of citizenship as
the rock upon which this edifice of a
unifying solidarity, which I completely agree is
necessary, should be built. Now this surprise
deepened when I put on my hat is a scholar
of comparative politics, because historically, there
are very few cases in the world in which citizenship
as a political status has been that shared
glue of we-ness. That work has usually been
done by a concept that is glaring in its absence in
both Professor Lilla book, as well as his comments today. And that is nationalism. So you do not have an index
for your book, Professor Lilla, which is fine, because
it isn’t really meant to be read by the
index-obsessed like me. But reading it, I was struck
that many other isms figure very prominently– liberalism,
Marxism, socialism, even romanticism. But there’s really no real
discussion of nationalism. And yet, to speak as a political
scientist for a second, that is the missing variable. Or now, to resort
to a colloquialism, the elephant in the room. Nationalism has historically
provided a powerful unifying vision, fulfilling
the very criteria that you set for a
unifying vision, which is transcending identities
without abandoning them. So post-war Europe is only
one, albeit a very prominent example. Historian Linda
[INAUDIBLE],, for instance, has shown how the construction
of an idea of Britain allowed the English, the
Northern Irish, the Welsh, and the Scots not to
abandon these identities, but to transcend
them to also identify with the subordinate
identity of Britons. And this British
identity, but not only, a Spanish identity
that sits above, for instance, the
Basque, Catalan, and other regional identities,
a Canadian identity that has sought to include
indigenous Francophones, and increasingly
immigrants, they would all qualify as examples of
attempts to create quote, “a solidarity that transcends
identity attachments.” But, of course, Professor
Lilla has thought about this. He made a deliberate decision. He chose not to
identify nationalism as the basis on which
Americans could come together. And I guess the question
that I’m asking is, why? Perhaps because nationalism
enjoys a pretty bad rep. Chauvinism, xenophobia,
conflict, discrimination, exclusion. These are only some of
the many odious phenomenon that it seems to
bring in its wake. And I can see why Professor
Lilla didn’t perhaps want to rest the edifice of
this coherent, unifying vision that’s going to rescue
American liberalism, that’s going to put the
Democrats in power, it’s going to give them
the institutional authority to put in place long
lasting, meaningful change– why would you want
to wrest something as grand as that on
something as potentially unpalatable as nationalism? And Professor Lilla is certainly
not the first, and likely not the last liberal, to be
scared by nationalism. Citizenship just seems so
much more respectable, so much safer, so much more dignified. But does it move? Does it motivate? Does it inspire? Does it, to use Professor
Lilla’s own words, appeal to Americans
of every walk of life and inspire them to sacrifice? Isn’t what does that,
isn’t what the real source of potential affective
attachment in the US, is nationalism, however
fraught and contested it is? Isn’t this, perhaps, what
Professor Lilla really has in mind? Isn’t that unifying
vision nationalism and not citizenship? Let me say a little
about why I think this. As I mentioned, we don’t really
hear much through the first 100 plus pages of the
book about what this thing is
around which America is going to come together
and win elections. But we hear a lot
about what it’s not, about what is preventing us
from coming together and winning elections. And in fact, not so much
the talk today, but the book is really about what
is driving us apart. And what that is is
identity politics. But what is identity
politics taking us away from? What is it stopping us from
coming together around? Is it citizenship,
or is it nationalism? Is the problem with
young people engaging in politics as an x– that’s
an example that Professor Lilla brings up in his book. He says, we all
engage these days as x, as a person of color,
as woman, as transgender. Is the problem that they’re
not engaging as citizen, or are they not
engaging as Americans? So in the book, Professor
Lilla compares the homepage of the Democratic Party with
the homepage of the Republican Party, and he lays
out the problem that he has with the
Democratic party’s web page in some detail. He says it has a little
link that clicks to people. And under that, it has
messages for Hispanics, for the LGBT community,
for Native Americans, for African-Americans,
for Asian-Americans. And he thinks that’s a problem. He does not say much about
the Republican web page, except that it
prominently features a document entitled “Principles
for American Renewal.” But hereinthen
deepens the conundrum. The Republican Party does seem
to have some kind of vision. And while Professor Lilla isn’t
really concerned about why the Republicans won– his focus
is really on why the Democrats lost and how they
can win again– following the lines
of his argument as he did today in
his earlier remarks, the Republicans won
because they were able to articulate
a unifying vision. They did not play
identity politics. And that unifying vision,
as per the document that Professor Lilla
himself highlights, is about American renewal. So Republicans won because they
articulated a unifying vision around the idea of a
nation, a vision of America, a vision of making
America great again. And the Democrats lost because
they played identity politics. They did not articulate
such a vision. But that document
on the homepage was not the only thing that
the Republicans put out. And if you begin to
look at that document not in isolation or in
comparison to the Democratic Party’s homepage,
but in the context, for instance, of what was said
on the Republican presidential campaign trail, what
begins to stare out at you is not what the document says
so much as what it doesn’t say. The silence of the
document on who is part of this
American renewal, indeed on who is American, on
whether those people that you criticize the Democratic
Party, Professor Lilla, for explicitly addressing
on their home page– women, Hispanics, LGBT
community, Native Americans– are they included as Americans,
or is the American nation white America? And isn’t white
nationalism also a form of identity politics, or
is identity politics only the politics of minorities,
of blacks, and queers, people of color,
and transgender? And identity politics
of the dominant group is not identity politics. It’s nationalism. So isn’t to not talk explicitly
about American nationalism, to give it up to the identity
politics of the dominant group? Isn’t instead the challenge to
seize the idea of the nation, to reconstruct it, to fashion
it as this we that will allow us to stand together? But herein is another
stumbling block. By setting up identity politics
and this unifying vision in opposition,
Professor Lilla seems to be suggesting, perhaps
even despite himself, that if we recognize identities,
we undermine nationalism. Cohesiveness and inclusiveness
of national identities are rendered mutually
incompatible. [INAUDIBLE] clause, this idea of
a hyphenated national identity. There is no Black
American, queer American. And yet someone like the
Canadian political theorist Will Kymlicka would argue that
this is precisely how nations should be constructed today. His new work suggests that
First Nation Canadian, Syrian Canadian, Greek Canadian,
Chinese Canadian, these are not all just
complementary with, but they are actually
constituitive of Canadian nationalism. And there’s a lot of
empirical research on Spain, on India, that has shown that
dual identifications strengthen and not undermine
national identity. So rather than dissing
political identity, isn’t the real hard
work to construct a vision of a unifying
American national identity that includes these different
identities and issues? But here, Professor
Lilla would say that his problem with
contemporary identity politics is that they have no issues. Older social
movements had issues. Contemporary social movements
have these precious identities. And it’s an interesting
temporal distinction. The Women’s Suffrage
Movement, Civil Rights, these were older,
issue-based movements. Women’s Marches,
Black Lives Matter, these are precious contemporary
navel-gazing, inward-looking identity movements. But let’s pause to think for a
minute about this distinction. How do we know if a
social movement is issue-based or identity-based? Might we not at that time have
seen the Suffragettes or Civil Rights activists
marching in the street as women expressing their
identity or blacks talking about their problems? Wouldn’t we say to
them, get over it? Do we deny contemporary
social movements, like women’s marches or Black
Lives Matter, their issues, only because we do not have
the benefit of hindsight? And what is the
cost of doing this? What is the cost of abandoning
American nationalism to constructions of it in
terms of the dominant identity, and not fighting to reclaim it
and reconstruct it inclusively? What is the cost of
dismissing these movements as identity-based, of denying
these movements, their issues, and not letting them influence
our own agenda for change. I’ve engaged so far with
Professor Lilla’s idea of a unifying vision,
and in conclusion, I just want to return to his
overall goal, which as I said at the beginning, I’m
deeply sympathetic to and board with. And the goal is to
institute, and I quote, “the changes we
want and America needs.” And this happens through
institutional power. Institutional power happens
through winning elections. Democrats win elections by
abandoning identity politics and adopting a unifying
vision that will allow them essentially, and I quote from
Professor Lilla, “to win back centrist, working class
voters in small town middle America who have been put off
by these narrow, personalized, navel-gazing, precious
campus politics.” But what if this working class
to be won back is not centrist? What if it instead espouses
ideas, a vision of the nation, you might say,
that we find deeply exclusionary or unpalatable? How far are we willing
to go to win them over? Professor Lilla makes
an important point that coming together involves
listening to other people’s points of views. It involves concessions. It involves reaching out. And he says, and I
quote, “not everything is a matter of principle.” And he gives his own example. He says, as he
mentioned again today, that he is an
absolutist on abortion. He says, and I
quote, “he believes that it should be safe and legal
virtually without condition, on every square inch
of American soil. But not all Americans agree,”
and I’m still quoting from him, “so what should my strategy be? Should I drive Pro-Life
voters out of the garden and into the waiting arms
of the radical right? Or should I find a way to make
a few compromises in order to keep the liberal ones
in my own party and voting with me on other issues?” It’s a very good question. But I couldn’t help
but wonder, when does a compromise, a concession,
become a capitulation? Not everything is a
matter of principle, but at what point
in the reaching out do you lean so
far that you tip over and forgo the entire
principle that you stand for? How many restrictions
to abortion, I was wondering
Professor Lilla, are you willing to see imposed before
your pro-choice principle begins to become so fuzzy
that it is meaningless? In other words, at what point
do the means violate the ends? At what point does the
vision we need to espouse, the concessions we need
to make to win elections, change our
understanding of quote, “what America wants and needs.” The last lines of
Professor Lilla’s book read, “If you want to resist
Donald Trump and everything he represents, this is
where you must begin.” But by the time I reached
the end of the book, I couldn’t help but wonder
if Professor Lilla’s root for effectively resisting
Trump would turn us liberals into some version of Trump. If the only way to
win elections is to espouse a unifying
vision in which the identity politics of the dominant
group is broadcast as American nationalism, and the
voices of those who have been historically marginalized and
excluded are to be silenced, then is that election
worth winning? Is such an anthem worth singing? Shouldn’t we rather
kneel on one knee? [APPLAUSE] CHRIS PAXSON: I want to
thank all of the speakers. It was very
interesting, terrific. Some people probably
have to leave, so this is a good time
if you’re going to. The rest of us can stay
for some discussion. Before we open it up, we
only have 12 more minutes. So I was going to ask you
if you wanted to respond, but we also really want to
have questions from the floor. So what would you like to do? MARK LILLA: You’re my
host, so you decide. CHRIS PAXSON: Are
there any things that you’re dying to respond to? MARK LILLA: Oh. Yeah. I mean, there are far too many
threads here and important ones that both Prerna and
Charles brought up. And I have answers
for all of them. Almost. But I guess to make clear,
the third part of the book is about where we go from here. I didn’t want to write
this part of the book, because I wanted to
write about a problem. But in America, you’re
expected to tie everything into a neat little bow, and
give your five point plan, and put it under
everyone’s Christmas tree when you write a
book about politics, not write a depressing European
book that ends with a problem. So when I said that what
I offered was a sketch, I mean a sketch. And you know my
task in the book is I saw it was to try to get
the ocean liner redirected a little bit and say,
here’s a direction you might want to go in. Start thinking about what we
all share, one of the reasons being that it will distract
people from the things that differentiate them, so
they’re psychologically more focused on common problems, so
they can establish a working relationship, and then
we can cope with things a little better, I would think. Because the question I posed to
myself is, what vocabulary can we employ in order to convince
a guy who runs a real estate company in Mississippi that
his destiny is connected to the life of a single mother
in the south side of Chicago? How do you induce that
feeling in someone? Now, that feeling was in
America for a rare period in our history. And even then, it didn’t
extend far enough. But there was a feeling– we had a common experience
with the Great Depression and the Second World War that
created a sense that we have common problems
And we have a stake in each other’s
well-being, right? And then that
disappeared for reasons I talk about in the book. Now, it used to be that the
Bible taught that you had to take care of your neighbor. Well, the Bible doesn’t
teach that anymore. The Bible teaches that you have
to get successful and rich, and that will prove
that you’ve been saved. And abortion’s the
most important thing, so vote for any maniac
for president who promises to change the Supreme Court. Charity is not mentioned. Charity is left up to the
discretion of the customer. So how do we even start
to try to make an appeal? Is it enough? No, it’s not enough. Things are never enough. Can it replace national feeling? I don’t know. But to my mind, by
process of exclusion, the only tool I have
to grip someone else, those two people I mention,
is to say that goddamn it, you belong to the same country. You owe it to each other by
virtue of being a citizen. I don’t have to pack a lot
into what that citizenship is. We can also leave
it open for debate. What do we owe each other? What I worry about
is that we can’t even begin a conversation
because people don’t feel they owe things to each other. And I talk in the book about
how we got to that point, and I think we have
gotten to that point now. So to speak sort of
university speak, I want to start a national
conversation about citizenship. But something has to be
done to get us to think about what we owe each other. Now what gets packed
into that, where our differences of background,
and gender, and race, and ethnicity fit into
that, is something we talk about and negotiate. And there are ways
in which you can have this dual sense of attachment. And I say that in the book. Yes. Your citizenship
relation to everyone else lays on top of your
other relationship to other people in your groups. I’m just trying to
say we can thread– we’ve got to try to put
a thread through these, so people see what we share. Because in fact, there
is a we in this country. Because we suffer
the same problems. There is no identity
dimension to global warming. We all have a stake in having
an economy that works properly. We all have a stake in having an
educated and healthy workforce and children who learn things
for the future in school. Those are common problems. And if they’re
common, that means there’s a we that’s experiencing
this and has to do something. I don’t have to go deep
into everything about you to know that. There is a common good on
certain particular issues. What I’m interested in
is motivating, finding a way to reach out to people. Now, someone’s sympathy–
and I’ll stop here. And this is just a vague
thought on my part, is that if I ask this real
estate guy in Mississippi who goes an evangelical church
and is convinced that everyone wants to change the
gender of his kids and that abortion is the
biggest threat in America, and everyone’s taking
money from him, in terms of education,
what I’d want to do is to get him to walk a mile
in the shoes of the woman in the south side of Chicago. That’s the job for
schools and churches. Right? Television does it a little bit. And we don’t do enough of it. But I’m searching
for something else. And maybe there is
nothing else left. There is nothing else left. I’m searching for a way to
convince both of those people that we share
things together, we have a duty to each
other, a word that doesn’t appear at all in any
political discourse today. Duty. Yeah? And that by focusing on
the country and our history of pulling together
and helping each other, I can maybe budge that real
estate guy just a little bit. And politics about that. CHRIS PAXSON: Thank you. So we have two microphones here. People can come down
and ask questions. So please get up and come down
if you want to ask something. And we’ll go back
and forth, each side. So we’ll start right here. Thank you. ARISH: Hi. My name’s Arish. I’m a senior concentrating
in development studies and public policy. And I want to start
with that notion of duty that you just left off on. Because the first
thing that I thought of was [INAUDIBLE]
chant, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. Is it our duty to win. We must love each other
and support each other. We have nothing to
lose but our chains.” And I think that’s one of
the most powerful calls for solidarity that
has ever been uttered. I think that a lot
of the organizers who I’ve met on the ground who
are doing movement power, movement politics-based work are
uniting around losing chains, are uniting around
the differences that their identities lead to
in outcomes of health and class, but with a common
understanding that we all have chains that we
were trying to lose. I think that this is
much, much more a comment than anything else, I think,
but that we can unite around values, and that the
proposed idea of nationalism, was a nationalism that
unites around values, rather than any sort of
citizenship that we share, and that those values
can be an aspiration, and those values
can be something that links together our
collective solidarity for a future that we want. And so the question
that I would leave you with is, what would you say
are the concessions that we make if we put class at the
forefront of this struggle? And yeah, that’s all. MARK LILLA: OK. Just very quick– [INAUDIBLE] MARK LILLA: Yeah. Yeah, well, I’m
glad you said what you did, because one way
of interpreting what’s going on with identity
in the country is the reverse of
what I’ve been doing, to see it not as an expression
of our individualism, but rather the search for
attachment among people in a highly
individualistic society. That’s an interesting thought. Conservatives have raised
this objection to me, and it’s something I
need to think about. And it’s in some of
these groups that you can develop that sense that we
all have chains to lose, right? But as soon as you’re
talking about common values, those values need to
be rooted in something. Right? For me to say we
share the value, it’s because we both
recognize something, unless we have to
completely different reasons for believing in those values. And those common values is
what I’m calling citizenship. So I wouldn’t get
hung up on the word. I’m saying that there is
a category to which we all belong. That we are citizens
of the United States. And I want to pack in the values
that we share to give that a kind of robustness,
so that when you’re involved in one group that’s
working to loosen chains, people in another group
will understand that, not because they’ve been
taught it in church, but because they’ll
understand that this is a country where citizens
stand up for each other. That’s the idea. ARISH: You didn’t articulate
any of those values [INAUDIBLE].. MARK LILLA: I mean,
it’s a short book. No, but the conversation
about the values is something that then begins. You know, I have some thoughts. I may have a few thoughts. But what I want is for us to
start talking in those terms and start packing
that with meaning, so we can get
something done together rather than just focusing on our
differences and our grievances with each other. CHRIS PAXSON: Charles
or Prerna, did you want to add
anything to that? CHARLES LARMORE: Well, I
would just sort of repeat, I guess, one of the points
I was making in my response. And that is that it’s
not just a matter of trying to find values, which
we share with other people, but the values which we share
with the people as Americans, and values that
we can understand our Americanness as consistent. We can all think we have a
duty to stand by one another in the face of
natural disasters, but that’s going
to lead me to care about the people in Barbuda, and
the British Virgin Islands, as much as about the people
in Puerto Rico or Florida. We need, if we’re going to
talk about a common vision for America, values that
define us as Americans. Maybe national values. I think, as I was suggesting,
there has in the past been this image of
American exceptionalism. But that seems to
me what one would have to be looking for to flesh
out this idea of citizenship. Not just values, values,
which would orient us toward all humanity
perhaps, but values that can circumscribe what is
important to us as Americans. Are there such values? I’m doubtful of that. MARK LILLA: I’m going
to respond to that, because it’s a common thread
between both of their comments. I don’t understand the
point, I have to say. So I guess we would have to
have another conversation to have it explained to me
about American exceptionalism and nationalism. What distinguishes to my
mind the United States is that it’s not encumbered
by a pre-Democratic past, that other countries have
something we do not have, and what distinguishes
us is that. Now the longer we’re
together, we do have a past. And a lot of it is about white
dominance and all the rest. That’s true. But you don’t need to
have a brand that’s distinguished from
everyone else, as if we’re all in a market
looking for places to land because we prefer what
this country stands for rather than another. Because it lacked
those common things, Americans have always thought
of the country as a project, as a construction site. Other countries don’t think
of themselves that way. There is no Belgian project. There is no Sri Lankan project. Other things come with that. So the only thing that
distinguishes us, in our minds at least, has been that
we don’t have that, and so we’re always trying
to do something together. And I think that’s
something you can appeal to, because what we do share now is
a history of trying to do that. And we can be proud of that. One can also be ashamed
of the crimes that have been committed. Even admitting a crime and
recognizing a common crime is a weird kind of,
but genuine attachment. Look at Germany. The only thing holding Germany
together today, I would say, is a sense of a shared,
problematic past. But we would have to go
farther into nationalism, and I have a sense that my
interlocutors mean a lot more, and I haven’t fully
understood what or appreciated what they’re trying to say. CHRIS PAXSON: You know what? Thank you. Again, we’re short on time,
and I hate to go over. I’m going to ask each
of these two people who’ve waiting patiently
to ask their question, and then we can do one
last wrap up answer. So why don’t you go ahead? SPEAKER 1: OK. Thanks a lot. My question involves
the figures of– is this working? Can you hear me? My question involves the figure
of Bernie Sanders, who I think is a troubling figure for
both Mark Lilla’s analysis and for Charles
Larmore’s response. Sanders came close to clinching
the Democratic nomination. He had a vision that
was not identity-based, but he had the nomination stolen
from him, according to at least several analysts, by the
machinations of one of the two major parties that,
according to Mark Lilla, form the institutional
basis for political change. But the simple fact that he
almost won the nomination, that without the Democratic
Party, he might have done, and very possibly
the election, also I think challenges Marks,
Charles Larmore’s sense, that’s such unifying narratives
are no longer viable. Sanders had a
unifying narrative. I don’t think it
was about values. I think it was about class. And I think it was
providing something like the nationalist
vision that Prerna was kind of gesturing towards. So I’m interested in what you
make of the Sanders phenomenon. CHRIS PAXSON: Thank you. And let’s get one more
question over here. SPEAKER 2: Hi. I really enjoyed the talk. So I wanted to chart the
conceptual space at play, because I think that there
are two distinctions you could make that might ultimately
help to advance your case. Like, one is that there’s a
distinction between pitching a message that’s unifying and a
message that’s nondisjunctive, in the sense of like
discreetly trying to appeal to discrete groups. And as I take it, you
could sever your thesis as not being one in favor
of a unifying message, because let’s be honest,
a unifying message won’t work politically. Right? If your message appeals
to 80% of the population, an opposing party
can always just pick a subset of that message,
plus tailor some other 60% of the population to win. And so instead of advocating
for a unifying message, you should just advocate for
nondisjunctive messages, right? And that I think
gets through some of your criticism with
relation to the problems that identity politics
faces, and will also avoid Professor Singh’s
criticism to some extent about the problematic roles
that unification can play. Another response you can have– MARK LILLA: Can I stop
you for one second. And we don’t have much time. CHRIS PAXSON: Yeah, we
need a question here. MARK LILLA: Give me
an example of what a non-disjunctive
message sounds like. Just one example. Six words, whatever it would be. SPEAKER 2: So that
would be “vote for me, because I support x,” instead
of “vote for me, if you are A, I support x, and if you are B,
I support y, and if you are C, I support z.” So that would be,
with your example on the Democratic web
page, I would just have one tab for
what I stand for, and I wouldn’t make discrete
appeals to discrete groups. OK. Sorry. I guess I’ll drop the
second part of the question. But the question,
in essence, would be to ask whether charting out
this conceptual possibility would be something that you
find potentially desirable, and I think would save a number
of the interesting theses in the book? CHRIS PAXSON: I’m trying
to put that together with Bernie Sanders. So let’s go ahead. MARK LILLA: Can we
really not stay later? CHRIS PAXSON:
Well, I don’t know. Are people are willing to
say another 10 minutes? OK. Because we have a few
more questions too. MARK LILLA: I’ll eat
really fast at dinner. CHRIS PAXSON: OK. Fine. Good. MARK LILLA: I’ll
take my dinner home. CHRIS PAXSON: OK. If people do,
though, I know people have families to get home to. If you have to go,
please feel free. Go ahead. MARK LILLA: Are we going
to collect the questions? CHRIS PAXSON: Well, let’s
collect two more questions, and then we’ll wrap up. So go ahead, please. SPEAKER 3: Thank you very much. I wanted to ask a similar
question to the question that was asked earlier,
which is, why is it that we hesitate from
feeling this positive vision that everyone seems to agree
is slightly underdeveloped with classic principles of the
liberal tradition, liberty, equality of opportunity, freedom
from want, things like that? Why are we shirking from
putting those on the table? And I think we
could maybe even– I mean, I don’t think your book
was perhaps the place for this, but why, when we talk
about this unifying vision, don’t we put even more
concrete things on the table in terms of policy. I mean, to me, the
politician, and this is why it relates to the earlier
question, the politician who probably best embodies this
today is someone like Bernie Sanders who talks about Medicare
for all, which is exactly the kind of demand that
could unite your South Side single mother in
Chicago with maybe not the realtor in Mississippi, but
a coal miner in West Virginia? So I wonder why,
Professor Lilla, you shirk from putting those
concrete sorts of things on the table? What’s wrong with doing that? CHRIS PAXSON: One last question. Thank you. SPEAKER 4: Hi. So I’m wondering– I feel
like a lot of what you say, in terms of advocating for the
separation between identity and politics, to be quite frank,
I find it to be very troubling, and it personally bothers
me, because I think that for marginalized
communities in this country, policies, for example, in my
community, for the Muslim ban, or the Muslim Brotherhood
Designation Act, these policies have real and
tangible effects on people in my community,
and they translate into real and tangible violence. And I’m wondering
to what extent you believe that what
you’re saying is emblematic of your
own privileges as ostensibly a white man? CHRIS PAXSON: OK. So here we go. MARK LILLA: OK. The P word has come up. Well, I’ll just answer that. It needs to be said in,
universities unless you know someone well
and their lives, you know nothing about them. You know nothing about
what they’ve been through. You don’t know their
life experiences, and you cannot presume to judge
anything about their privilege on the basis of a
social category. That out of the way, you
ask a great question, and to give me an example now to
explain what I’m talking about. Something like the Muslim
ban is a great example of where– and Donald
Trump’s handling of it. He’s dissing Muslim
Americans and dissing people whose children have
fought for this country and died for this
country, right? Why should that upset me? Should that upset me because
I have a deep understanding of Muslim American life? I’m a busy guy. I might not have that. But he is dissing
American citizens. They are being
treated differently on the basis of their
religion and the countries they come from, and
that is outrageous. And if you have planted
in people’s minds two basic principles, which gets
back to what we were talking about before, solidarity and
equal protection under the law are the two things I
mentioned in the book. I think just about
every liberal cause can be put under one of
those two categories. And this would be a
case of equal protection under the laws in solidarity. That I have a stake as
a citizen in the fact that people in your community
and maybe even members of your family are not
being treated equally in this country. And unless I think of you as a
citizen and not just a person from a far away place
in another group, I’m not going to be moved. And so what I’m
concerned with is building a kind
of civic education where kids learn this in school,
that all Americans should matter to you. Now you also need
to understand, just to understand the
diversity of America, it makes you a smarter
richer person to learn. All of that is all good. But I need something
to appeal to. And those two principles
seem to work for me. And I think Bernie Sanders
is appealing to those. Because there has to be
principal behind class. You can’t just say I’m
appealing to class. Well, OK. There are classes. Now, motivate me to action. What motivates me to
action is that if there are class disparities among
Americans, I’m against it. If there are serious harms
caused by class distinctions, I don’t want my fellow
citizens to experience that. And it goes back to the four
freedom of speech of Roosevelt, you know, freedom of
religion, freedom of thought, freedom from want,
and freedom from fear. It doesn’t get any
better than that. CHRIS PAXSON: Any final
remarks from our discussion? CHARLES LARMORE: If I could
make a very brief reply to two questions that
came from that direction. One of them was was
yours, but the other one is was a person I
don’t see her anymore. Bernie Sanders, did he
have a unifying message? Well, he had a unifying
message for some people. But Medicare for all is, I
doubt, a unifying message for all the
residents of America. In other words, it is a
message that addressed a we that is too narrow. Liberal principles, because
of your question now, liberal principles in the
abstract, well, of course, that’s something
that I would affirm, but that’s also something we
find in institutionalized, instantiated in many, many
other countries besides America. If that’s around which we’re
going to construct our we, now the we’s too big. The question is– MARK LILLA: Can you explain– oh, sorry. Go ahead. No, no. It’s OK. CHARLES LARMORE: — was a we
that designates something that we as Americans
distinctly share. All of us. And that’s what I
doubt the existence of. MARK LILLA: Isn’t
it possible, and I think this is a case, that
America thinks that they do have universal values
that apply everywhere, which is more than questionable,
but we just happen to be here. That’s all. You know? We don’t need to
distinguish ourselves as having a special brand. We just happen to be here. CHRIS PAXSON: So now
we’re really of over time. We’re going to continue this
conversation over dinner. I’m looking forward to it. And those of you who are
going elsewhere for dinner, I hope you enjoy your dinner. And please join me
in thanking Professor Lilla and our discussants. [APPLAUSE]

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