Mark Lilla and Our Affirmative Action Program for Mediocre White Men

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Just after Donald Trump was elected, Columbia professor Mark Lilla infuriated a lot of people with a lengthy New York Times op-ed in which he said that identity politics had doomed the Democratic Party to defeat, and that a new, supposedly more unifying message was needed.

The piece was the kind of hysterical denunciation of campus leftists, political correctness, and the tendency of marginalized people to push loudly for their civil rights—real quote: “America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms”—that white men are always writing and white institutions are always publishing.

It’s the sort of argument that can feel persuasive—the Hillary Clinton campaign suffered terribly from both her inability to stitch together a basic, coherent pitch to the country and from her lack of a truly transformational economic policy—but only if you ignore the people being thrown under the bus. The notion that you could look for a way to have a populist message about universal rights and values that didn’t also tell trans people or people of color that their rights were a low priority apparently did not occur to Lilla. The defects in his case were easy to spot, and many smart people wasted no time in enumerating many of them.


In a just world, that would be the end of it, but we don’t live in a just world. Rather than go away, Lilla has now spun his thesis into a whole book, The Once and Future Liberal. He recently spoke to Slate’s Isaac Chotiner about the book, and, to read the transcript of their chat, it’s clear he probably shouldn’t have.

It’s obvious from the get-go that Lilla’s arguments fall apart amid even the gentlest scrutiny. For one thing, he has no clear answer to Chotiner’s point that what he describes in his NYT piece as a “moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity” and an “obsession with diversity” that’s supposedly infected college campuses and liberal politics has actually been rejected by...the biggest leaders of the Democratic Party. (In fact, it would be a hell of a lot better if Democrats were more like that instead of, for instance, the kind of party that openly promises to give anti-abortion politicians a pass.) Here’s one exchange:

CHOTINER: I guess what I’m unclear about is how you can say those are the two dominant ideologies in the last 40 years, when as far as I can tell one of them is indeed a dominant ideology—the right from Reagan all the way through Trump. And the other is an ideology on college campuses that I don’t really see reflected in Democratic politics. I certainly don’t see it reflected in the two major Democratic presidents of those 40 years, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

LILLA: Well I think you’re right about the two presidents examples. Certainly the upper reaches of the Democratic Party are affected by this. I’ve been talking to a lot of Democratic donors since my article last year that was the basis of the book, and a lot of them have expressed their frustration to me that it’s very hard to rally people and come to a common program without checking all the boxes of all the groups that have to be consulted and have to be mentioned along the way.

CHOTINER: This is donors who are telling you this?

LILLA: Yeah, donors and also journalists who cover the party. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are interesting because they resisted this.


“Donors and also journalists.” It’s not quite a representative sample, is it?

Lilla also astonishingly denies that race has anything to do with the advancement of the Republican project over the last few decades, or that it’s an important feature of our politics now. Really!

CHOTINER: I agree that it’s complicated but I mean the entire South used to be Democratic, and now the entire South is Republican, and we know when that switch broadly occurred.

LILLA: The Southern strategy played some role in that, but that’s not how you win local elections. It’s not how you capture the governorship.

CHOTINER: I just don’t see how you can’t think that all these things are intricately filiated with race and with the way white Americans see their country, the way they perceive of black people, whether it’s immigrants getting their jobs or whatever it is.

Again, the reason the Democratic Party is no longer what it was is that the vast majority of the South is now strongly Republican in terms of senators, in terms of governors, in terms of how it votes in presidential elections, and in terms of state legislatures. I just can’t believe that you don’t think that race is the primary driver of that over the last 50 years. Maybe we disagree.

LILLA: We do disagree, and frankly I have to say I feel you are illustrating my point. The fact that liberals have gotten so focused—even in the past three years, America hasn’t changed that much. We had the problem before, we have the problem now, but there’s been a kind of slightly hysterical tone about race that leads us to overestimate its significance in particular things.

CHOTINER: Mark, we have a racist president who won’t condemn neo-Nazis. You’re saying people are overreacting to race?

LILLA: No, no, overreacting in the sense that we are thinking that it’s moving more than it’s moving. That’s psychologically not how it works.


There ya have it folks! You’ll forgive me if I’m not incredibly persuaded. Anyway, you should read the whole interview.

What really gets me is not so much the transparent flimsiness of Lilla’s arguments—or his apparent disdain at actually having someone question him about them. It’s that, despite all this, Lilla’s ideas have been taken seriously enough to land him not only a very long article in the New York Times, but also a publisher ready to pay him to put those ideas into a book.


It’s ironic that affirmative action for people of color is under such attack in this country, because our biggest and most enduring affirmative action program is the one we have for the mediocre white men who continue to infect our discourse no matter how often they show us they don’t deserve the platform.