Sean Illing: I’ve argued that all politics is identity politics insofar as politics involves the assertion of values in the public sphere. If you grant that values are bound up with identity, it’s not clear to me how you circumnavigate this problem.
Vox’s Matthew Yglesias made a similar point in his response to your piece, which is that politics is not — and has never been — a public policy seminar. People have identities, and they’re mobilized around those identities. And so, as Yglesias wrote, “there is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”
Mark Lilla: To begin with, identity can be used to mobilize people for political action — that’s for sure. But political action is something else. I certainly agree that someone’s identity may affect their political views. Again, though, democratic politics is about persuasion. It’s not about self-expression.
However you come to your values or positions, you become political the moment you enter the arena trying to persuade other people of your values. If you have a certain value and you attach to that a whole picture of your identity, and then ask the other person not only to accept your position but to accept your account of your identity, you’re setting the bar very high for political agreement.
If I can convince someone with a very different identity, or someone who doesn’t accept my account of my identity, to agree about certain principles, I can then walk that person down from a principle to a particular case.
I think that this is a very good point. As many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am a Christian and I teach mostly Christian students at Messiah College. Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, has a language all its own. That language is spoken in church and it is often spoken on campus at Messiah. In most cases, this language stems from my students’ belief in the Bible or the authority of the Christian church. So when they argue with one another they make appeals to this language. They may quote the Bible as part of their argument or appeal to a Christian theologian in the past or present. (Frankly, I wish they did more of this!). This is because they have a shared identity–a common religious language.
But sometimes the language they speak in their churches or in their dorms at Messiah College may not be suitable for public discourse with people who are outside this identity group. I want my students to develop a public voice–one that allows them to speak in the public square with people who do not share their identity. For some of my evangelical students, this might mean learning how to engage with people from other Christian traditions–such as Catholics–who do not share their particular view of Christianity. This might mean trying to figure out what aspects of the Christian faith–and there are many–that they share with Catholics. It means finding common ground.
The same might be said about their engagement with people of different faiths or no faith at all. I do not want my students to enter public discourse using the language of their evangelical identity. They are not going to persuade people who are not Christians by citing Bible verses or appealing to the Judeo-Christian God. Again, if they care about moving the conversation forward and working for the good of the whole they must find some common ground. In other words, they cannot lead with their particular identity–whether it be a religious, ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, or political identity–when not everyone in the conversation shares that identity. It seems to me that the act of participating in a democratic society requires this.
Here is another part of the interview:
Sean Illing: Can you explain that last point by way of an example? What would that process look like in practice?
Mark Lilla: Here’s an example of the kind of argument you’d make: Black motorists are being targeted and mistreated by American police officers — we know this. If my principle here is equal protection under the law, and I want to convince someone who doesn’t know black people or doesn’t particularly care about the black experience, if I want to persuade that person to get engaged and care about this issue, I can do one of two things. I can get that person to agree to the principle of equal protection under the law, and then I can walk them down to saying that black motorists, as citizens, deserve to be protected.
If, on the other hand, I try to persuade that person of a certain picture of the black experience today and the injustices of the country, or what it’s like to be black or how I define myself as black, I’ve made my job much harder and increased the odds, fairly or not, that they’ll reject my message.
So I think identity politics mixes the work of social reform, which has to do with recognition and incorporation and diversity, with the work of political action, which requires political speech that encourages people to agree with you.
And one more excerpt:
Sean Illing: Another concern I’ve heard on the left, and this was articulated nicely by Slate’s Michelle Goldberg, is that you’ve conflated the illiberal excesses of the “social justice warriors” with race and gender politics as such, and these are not the same things.
Do you take this point at all?
Mark Lilla: I want to distinguish political discourse from general cultural discourse. In general cultural discourse, there’s a lot to be said about race and gender, and talking about it has led to extraordinarily positive changes. Making these arguments is critical to mobilizing people, and I didn’t say that in my article.
But when it comes to seizing power, that will not win you a single election. It will not pass through the spam filter of Fox News. Appealing to principle is our best chance of passing through the right-wing media filter.
Read the entire interview here.