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Mark Lilla's Polemic about Identity Politics in the Democratic Party is Timely (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) August 16, 2017: In his new book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017), the political scientist Mark Lilla of Columbia University claims that he is himself a liberal, but he vigorously critiques identity politics in the Democratic Party. For him as a liberal in the Democratic Party, the New Deal hammered out under President Franklin D. Roosevelt represents the kind of liberalism that he would like to see the Democratic Party today represent.

However, at the present time, practitioners of identity politics are in power in the Democratic Party. In the Democratic presidential primary, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont ran as the anti-establishment candidate, and he attracted large enthusiastic crowds. By contrast, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ran as the candidate favored by the Democratic Party's establishment, and she did not attract large enthusiastic crowds, except for her last rally in Philadelphia when she was ably assisted by then-President Obama and then-First Lady Michelle Obama.

In contrast to Hillary, both in the Republican primary and in the general election, Donald J. Trump ran as the anti-establishment candidate and attracted large enthusiastic crowds.

However, as Mark Lilla notes, the Democratic Party at the present time is the out-of-power party not only at the federal level but also at the state level in many states. Therefore, it makes sense for him to address the people in power in the Democratic Party today.

It probably will not be sufficient for the Democratic Party to present itself and its candidates as representing the anti-Trump party. After all, Hillary ran as the anti-Trump candidate in 2016, and she lost the electoral vote decisively, even though she won the popular vote.

(Mark Lilla is silent about manifestations of identity politics in the Republican Party, even though white Christian voters contributed significantly to Donald J. Trump's decisive electoral victory in the 2016 presidential election.)

No doubt Mark Lilla's book is a polemic. In this respect, it stands in the American tradition of jeremiads that Sacvan Bercovitch ably describes in his book The American Jeremiad, 2nd ed. (University of Wisconsin Press, 2012). But the various groups in the Democratic Party that Mark Lilla critiques also stand in the American jeremiad tradition.

Now, on April 25, 2017, I published a piece at OEN titled "Will the 'Political Correctness' Crowd Ever Change Their Tune? (BIBLIOGRAPHIC ESSAY)":


For all practical purposes, what I refer to in that piece as the "political correctness" crowd in the Democratic Party includes what Mark Lilla refers to as identity politics in the Democratic Party.

But I style my OEN piece about the "political correctness" crowd in the Democratic Party as a bibliographic essay because I include bibliographic references to five themes in the American Jesuit cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong's work and selected related works by certain other scholars.

Also see my 3,300-word online essay "A Concise Guide to Five Themes in Walter J. Ong's Thought and Selected Related Works":


Over the years, I took five courses from Fr. Ong at Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri. For example, in the summer of 1971, I unofficially audited, with his permission, his course on Polemic in Literary and Academic Tradition. In that wide-ranging course, Ong did not focus sharply on polemic in our American political tradition, which is Mark Lilla's focus.

Nevertheless, Ong did call our attention to Richard B. Gregg's recently published article "The Ego-Function of Protest Rhetoric" in the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric, volume 4 (1971): pp. 71-91. Mark Lilla traces our contemporary identity politics in the Democratic Party back to the protest rhetoric of the 1960s that Gregg discusses.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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