The trouble with election post-mortems, even perceptive and interesting ones like Mark Lilla’s The End of Identity Liberalism, is that they answer the wrong question. They try to provide an answer to the question, Why Did We Not Win? or How Could We Possibly Lose to That Guy?
But political parties aren’t machines for winning elections. Campaigns are created and organized for winning elections. Hillary’s team found sympathetic white guys who had been screwed over by working for Trump and put them in ads, organized a convention that was soothing to suburban sensibilities because they thought that would help them win. Trump targeted his rallies to areas of swing states where his campaign staff thought he had potential appeal because they thought that would help them win. Both were right, as far as it went- Hillary did unusually well, relative to previous Democrats, among white college grads, Trump won most of the swing states and the election.
But political parties are both more and less than politicians and elections and campaigns; they’re jobs for politicians and activists and journalists and think-tank talking heads, and to a lesser degree for heads of religious organizations and college campus administrators and heads of non-profits, all of whom spend a good portion of their days negotiating political relationships.
Trump was, needless to say, largely outside the Republican party apparatus, which was broken enough to let him muscle his way into the nomination and is perhaps more broken still as a result, in spite of Republicans’ overall striking electoral success. But nothing happened to break the Democratic party apparatus, apart from losing, which might have been due to an unusually poor candidate or simply to this being “a Republican year.”
The Democratic Party has to worry about whether voters are alienated from Identity Politics liberalism. But nobody seriously thinks that Campus Diversity Deans are alienated from Identity Politics liberalism. Teach for America isn’t alienated from Identity Politics liberalism. Hell, the Pope is probably not that alienated from Identity Politics liberalism. Identity Politics liberalism has proved to be the most effective means of coordinating priorities among the corporate, academic, philanthropic, governmental and media worlds yet invented; losing an election or two isn’t going to make it go away. In fact, the stand against “normalizing Trump” that many publications have taken isn’t just about maximizing subscription revenues (though, as the old joke at the Nation magazine went, “What’s bad for the nation is good for The Nation,”) but about coordinating a Democratic-aligned identity in the absence of electoral power.
As political identities become more-and-more central to ordinary people’s lives, as other forms of identity recede, this kind of everyday politics outside of the context of elections and even policymaking may grow still more important, and even harder to dislodge for the benefit of winning office for your team. Since Democrats’ stunning triumphs in securing nationwide gay marriage, they have struggled to find winnable battles, and from Ferguson to transgender bathroom rules it’s unclear that Democratic activism has produced much in the way of policy benefits from a liberal perspective, putting aside its effects on elections. But it’s not because these agendas were boring or unengaging- it’s because they so were electrifying to politically-engaged elites, even if they left many less-engaged voters, black as well as white, bemused and indifferent to the Democrats’ cause.
Vince Lombardi might have told the Green Bay Packers that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, but party politics isn’t football. Putting aside Identity Politics liberalism isn’t just a matter of thinking that doing so will help you win.