November 4, 2020   5 mins

Exactly four years ago, in the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning electoral victory, I published an article that caused a ruckus. Titled “The End of Identity Liberalism,” it was written out of all too apparent anger. Like so many Americans, I felt betrayed by a Democratic Party that not only failed to capture the White House in order to advance its agenda. It also failed to protect the United States and the world from a human menace. Little did I anticipate how bad things would eventually get.

A significant factor in the Democrats’ defeat, I argued, was a style of politics that prevented them from developing an ambitious vision of America’s future — one that was capable of inspiring people from all walks of life. Indeed, it seemed that ever since the 1980s, American liberals had gotten out of the vision business altogether. They redirected their energies from party politics to movement politics, focusing attention in particular on minority and gender identity movements.

While that shift was morally comprehensible, it made it harder for liberals to speak of the common good across group lines. It also ingrained the habit of forgetting large constituencies that did not fit into the liberal-Left identity narrative, such as working-class whites and evangelicals — the latter group making up about a quarter of the adult population. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. Otherwise you give your opponent the opportunity to, as Donald Trump did with great success.

This movement politics mindset proved to be electorally suicidal. From the 1980s on we witnessed a massive transfer of political power, in large sections of the country, from the Democrats to an increasingly radical Republican Party. The most perverse consequence was that as Democrats ceded ever more geographical ground to Republicans, particularly in state and local governments, they lost the ability to protect the very identity groups they professed to care about — in particular, their right to vote. More than half of all African Americans, for instance, live in the deep red South.

Yet Democrats resisted the obvious lessons to be drawn from these developments: that you cannot help anyone if you do not hold institutional power. And you cannot acquire that power without a vision that transcends group attachments, without denying them.

Democrats have had four years to ponder their defeat as America crumbled around them. Now that hopes of a Democratic landslide have been dashed and defeat is within the realm of possibility, the question remains as to whether they have drawn the right lessons from their electoral performance. The signs are decidedly mixed.

The good news is that Democratic politicians, party functionaries, and most importantly donors focused their energies on addressing the common good and capturing the political centre. They had seen that in the 2018 midterm elections the seats the party gained were mainly won by centrist candidates who focused on building a suburban base, particularly among white women.

They also realised that while minority groups make up an important part of the base, many of their members are culturally conservative. African-Americans, particularly older ones, are more likely to have reservations about the LGBT movement. A significant portion of Latinos oppose abortion due to their Catholic faith and have more conventional views about marriage and gender roles.

That seems to have registered, because in the recent election Democratic candidates generally avoided cultural and identity themes (apart from police reform), despite the efforts of Republicans and Fox News to provoke them into it. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris ran a rather old-fashioned campaign based on policy, competence, and basic decency, and pointedly did not portray the Democratic Party as a “rainbow coalition” of distinct groups. This bodes well for the future.

The bad news is that the cultural Left is even more focused on identity than it was in 2016. In part, this is due to the Trump experience. What we back then genteelly called “populism” has degenerated on the Right of the Right into a reactionary force of poorly-educated whites with their own identitarian agenda. It is tempting to want to fight fire with fire.

But over the last summer, other events revealed just how large the gap has grown between the ambition and tactics of political Democrats and those of the cultural Left. Here I am thinking of elites whose power base is in universities, the media, Hollywood, the publishing and advertising industries, the art world, and philanthropic institutions. It also includes young activists whose notion of political engagement is identity-based, confrontational, and social-media driven.

This cultural Left has been behind the so-called “Great Awokening” on race of the past five years or so. I speak here not of economic and social policies intended to improve the condition of African-Americans, which is a historical duty. Nor of legal protections for gay, lesbian, and trans people. I refer to the focus on symbols and gestures meant to display one’s conformity with enlightened opinion on such matters.

Consider the aftermath to the impressive early demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd in May. There were massive, peaceful gatherings in cities and small towns across America (and the world). But very quickly the situation degenerated into conflicts over symbols. Countless cultural institutions felt compelled to make statements about racial justice, and some of their directors resigned after making acts of contrition.

Many businesses followed suit and announced requirements that employees attend “anti-racist” training sessions, run by highly-paid, self-declared “consultants”. Twitter mobs descended on people thought to hold impure views. Editors were fired for running controversial pieces, while a researcher was fired for circulating an academic study on racial attitudes. What began as a summer of civic solidarity ended with squabbles about “cancel culture” that contributed nothing to improving life for non-elite African Americans.

A major force behind this wrong turn was the liberal media, which has fallen into bad habits during the Trump presidency. Feeling that they had not been hard enough on Trump in the 2016 election, reporters got used to calling out “lies,” of which there were plenty. But the distinction between demonstrable lies and differences of opinion has gotten lost in the process. The standard of journalistic impartiality is being jettisoned in the name of an undefined “moral clarity.”

Central to these efforts has been editorial pressure on reporters to emphasise the racial dimension to stories and to play an active role in rewriting the national narrative. For example, in 2019 the New York Times launched “The 1619 Project” to mark the date when African slaves first arrived in the United States. What began as a thought-provoking idea soon became a tendentious effort to make the crime of slavery the true founding of the republic. Historians complained about inaccuracies and the Times silently corrected them, while still standing behind the project’s editor, who won a Pulitzer Prize. Young reporters were left with the impression that such efforts will still help them to advance their careers.

While the Biden campaign was not overly distracted by these psychodramas, it would be a mistake for Democratic leaders to pretend any longer that they don’t exist. Right-wing media will keep the culture war over symbols before the public eye, which can only help the Republican Party. That means that the Democratic politicians must explicitly distance themselves from ideological “anti-racist” rhetoric and political theatre, such as efforts to tear down statues of American presidents. And they must resist efforts to distort American history in our schools.

Democratic voters care about racial justice but they are focused on the present and the future, not on litigating the past. They also believe in fair play, open debate, and legitimate differences of opinion. They want to build America, not indict America. Democratic leaders must make it crystal clear that they feel the same way. No matter what the final results of this year’s elections, they desperately need to do some housecleaning if they hope ever to build a durable Democratic majority in our lifetimes.

Mark Lilla is an American political scientist, historian of ideas, journalist, and professor of humanities at Columbia University in New York City.