The Junto

Identity and the Founders: A Response to Mark Lilla

This weekend, Mark Lilla, a historian of ideas at Columbia University, published a New York Times op-ed on “identity liberalism.” Reacting to the outcome of the presidential election, Lilla argues that contemporary American liberalism’s celebration of diversity, however morally salutary in private life, has been politically suicidal at the national level. “National politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference,'” Lilla writes; “it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny.”

Lilla’s argument is a response—one of several possible responses—to what I see as a real problem. In contemporary America, demands for inclusion, equality, and dignity often seem to be made in the name of particular groups rather than in the name of the common good. Whether this perception is accurate is another matter. I won’t address that complicated question here. But Lilla’s perspective on early American history warrants a critical response.

In his op-ed, Lilla invokes early America in two ways. One is implicit: he draws on the American republican tradition. “A post-identity liberalism,” he writes, “would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote.” This, he counsels, would mean teaching citizens about history. It would also mean paying attention to “parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion.” These words at least squint toward a Jeffersonian-Jacksonian suspicion of corruption, civic lassitude, and metropolitan power.

The other way Lilla invokes early America is explicit. He gives the Founding a crucial role in later reform movements:

[H]igh school history curriculums … anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

This seems misleading. Across the nineteenth century, the most important bases of women’s activism—including international republicanism and socialism, antislavery activism, and Christian moralism—were vulnerable to a critique much like the one Lilla offers here. At key points, women’s rights activism was an indictment of the American state far more than an appeal to common ground. Moreover, the most momentous assertions of human rights in early America—those of antislavery activists—ran a gamut that included denouncing the entire American constitutional settlement.

There are also at least two deeper problems with Lilla’s use of the Founding. First, it seems to assume that a natural relationship links U.S. constitutional architecture and democratic politics. Any practical harmony that exists between these things is actually the legacy of highly divisive political warfare at many different points in the past. Second, Lilla’s argument overlooks the fact that Americanness itself is a particular constructed identity—and therefore, that any politics of the national common good is an identity politics. Lilla writes:

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. [Emphasis added.]

However appropriate that recommendation may be strategically or as a matter of proportion, it is still a recipe for a form of identity politics. It requires asserting that Americans share a common interest simply by virtue of that group membership. It implies members of the nation owe a loyalty to each other that they may not owe to other groups—and which may override other important forms of human affinity and fulfillment.

Of course, we have seen many times that American identity can be highly exclusive, and even when it is not, American nationalism often misrepresents the interest of a dominant group as the shared interest of the whole. In saying this, I am not condemning the idea of an American common interest; I am merely pointing out that it has the same dangers as any other especially effective form of identity politics. The chief of these dangers is that the national “common good” may become—as it has been so often in the past—a mere decoration for the interests of a powerful particular subgroup.

In this light, Lilla’s claim that “the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan” seems especially strange. If Lilla means the revived Klan of the early twentieth century, as I think he must, then it’s worth noting the KKK was an aggressively nationalistic movement, claiming to represent the American people—by which they meant white Protestants—against the many millions of people who were not “one hundred percent” Americans. In other words, the KKK claimed to be defending the general against the particular, the American from the hyphenated-American. And in any case, far from being the first of its kind, the Klan stood in a long tradition of American nativist and populist movements extending back to the early republic.

On the other hand, there is an important sense in which Lilla and I agree. In a republic, all politics ultimately must be identity politics because “the people” are always in the process of definition. We the people are a fiction that we make more or less real by conducting politics.

“Before we ascribe sovereignty to the people,” as Edmund Morgan observes, “we have to imagine there is such a thing, something we personify as though it were a single body, capable of thinking, of acting, of making decisions and carrying them out”—and this is “a fiction so palpably contrary to fact” as to be hard to defend.[1] It was to manage this difficulty, Morgan adds, that the English and Americans learned to celebrate the armed yeoman farmer as the visible epitome of their race—a symbol in identity politics that remains powerful in the twenty-first century.

If this is true, then the key challenge of contemporary liberal democratic society is not to avoid identity politics. It is rather to collaborate—and engage in struggle—to construct a more inclusive common identity. That will require addressing the claims of particular groups who argue they have been excluded from full participation and dignity. The question is whether this can be done without surrendering belief in the necessary fiction that there is one American people for the republic to represent.


[1] Edmund S. Morgan, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988), 153.

Image: Sampler by Mary Munro, embroidered silk on linen, Providence, Rhode Island, 1788. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.