Lilla, Liberalism, and American Politics

4 September 2018


What is there left to say about Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal? Few serious books about American politics in recent years have prompted such an impressive volume of reviews and commentary. Yes, in these polarized times, much of it has been either vituperatively or snarkily dismissive. But much of it has been serious and engaged, and many of the reactions I had in first reading the book have already found clear and cogent expression elsewhere. Perhaps, to save time, in lieu of a review I should simply cut and paste, or provide links: this argument from Damon Linker in The Week; that point from Samuel Moyn in The Boston Review;  this line from Jonathan Rauch in The New York Review of Books; that one from Beverly Gage in The New York Times. Mix well and serve.


But the mid-term elections are approaching, and as the first wave of commentary has subsided, the landscape looks different from a year ago, when Lilla was writing his thoughtful and provocative polemic. So I have gone back and re-read The Once and Future Liberal, to my profit, and have some hopefully not entirely unoriginal thoughts to offer. Above all, these thoughts turn around a very simple question: where do we go from here?


In the book, Lilla casts himself as a pragmatist, and identifies one very simple task for American liberals: “Liberals have elections to contest and centrist working-class voters to win back. That is job number one.”  Above all, liberals need to win elections similar to those of 1932 and 1980, each of which ushered in what Lilla calls a new “dispensation” in American politics: first Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and later the “Reagan Revolution.” In an argument that Lilla first made in his much-debated New York Times op-ed immediately after the 2016 election, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” he insists that as long as liberals cling to the narrow, narcissistic politics of “identity,” rather than appealing to the nation as a whole and to concepts of citizenship, they will continue to fail. The Trumpian populist politics of resentment will prevail.


Like Lilla, I think of myself as a pragmatic, moderate liberal. I loathe the current administration and would support any Democratic candidate against Donald Trump. I think it is a terrible mistake to view Trump as little more than a blustery, populist sort of Reaganite, and to minimize the differences between him and the mainstream Democrats who do their own share of cozying up to Goldman Sachs. Lilla briefly but cogently points to why in his lines about “the shameless and massively influential right-wing media complex” that supports Trump. Conservative talk radio and Fox News, along with organizations like the NRA, have transformed the GOP into a radical, militant organization, much closer in spirit to the Jacobins than to a traditional American political party. The Republican “base,” which Trump all-too-perfectly embodies, and which constitutes a sizable minority of the American voting public, now cares more about victory over the leftist “enemy” than about the norms sustaining American democracy. The longer it stays in power, the more damage it will do. So I have no patience with the ideological purists who supported Jill Stein over Hillary Clinton, and who even today insist they could never vote for an Andrew Cuomo or Cory Booker. I would support a new centrist party if I thought it had a better chance than the Democrats of defeating the GOP. As Lilla says, that is “job number one.”


But for all my agreement with Lilla on these points, and for all my admiration of his powerfully-written book, I don’t think he is right about the way American politics works, and about the way American elections are won. Nor do I agree with his diagnosis about the state of American liberalism today. And so, grateful as I am to him for jump-starting a critically important conversation, I can’t agree with him as to the path that American liberals and the Democratic Party need to follow.


As a distinguished intellectual and historian of Western thought, Lilla takes ideas very seriously. When discussing Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 he acknowledges its “material preconditions”, but concentrates above all on Reagan’s “new, anti-political conception of the good life.” He suggests that Reagan summed up this conception in a “catechism” consisting of four points: the importance of individual self-reliance, a preference for building wealth over redistributing it, a commitment to the freest possible markets, and a belief that government is the problem, not the solution. All of these points, Lilla argues, resonated with the experience of Americans living on the new suburban frontiers of the 1970s and 1980s.


In the abstract, I think Lilla is largely correct in this analysis. But American politics does not undergo a sea change because voters are persuaded by a set of abstract ideas, however powerfully and engagingly presented. They go to the polls and vote for a change because of specific issues which engage—and often enrage—them. Bringing about a new “dispensation” requires identifying the issues around which large bodies of voters can be mobilized, and persuaded to change longstanding political allegiances.


In the 1970s, two of the issues that worked most powerfully for Reagan and the Republican Party were abortion and affirmative action. Liberals, then and now, too easily associate opposition to abortion and affirmative action with misogyny and racism. But whatever role misogyny and racism may have in fact played in the two cases, most of the opponents did not consider themselves misogynist or racist, and were terribly offended at being labeled such by liberals. They saw the issues as ones in which “big government,” running roughshod over the wishes of ordinary people, imposed policies that they believed were deeply immoral in the first case, and deeply unfair in the second. Reagan and other Republicans played brilliantly on this outrage and resentment, using them to motivate millions of longstanding Democrats to abandon their party and vote for the GOP. Reagan exploited other issues as well, of course: high taxes (supposedly in return for little but payouts to “welfare queens”); national humiliation (the Iran hostage crisis), and so on and so forth. They too contributed to the outrage and resentment. Without this collection of concrete issues, the abstract Reagan “catechism” would never have achieved traction in the American electorate.


Today, in the face of the Trump Republicans, Lilla is proposing that the Democrats adopt their own new catechism. For too long, he argues, they have used a bad one, a false one, a “pseudo-political” one. This is of course the catechism of identity politics which he sees as a catechism of narcissistic obsession with personal identity, of melodramatic stagings of competitive victimhood, and of the denigration of American history and values—a catechism which favors “me” over “we.” In its place, Lilla wants a new catechism, a new vision, which takes seriously the hard work of politics (Max Weber’s “slow, steady drilling through hard boards”) and brings “we” back to its rightful place. “If only,” Lilla writes, “liberals would again begin to speak of citizenship.” Liberals need to talk about what Americans have in common, what Americans owe each other, what Americans are ready to sacrifice for, and how Americans envisage a common future.


When I first read this section of Lilla’s book, I found it stirring. But I’m afraid that on a second reading, it sounded emptier. For one thing, don’t Democratic candidates already routinely employ this sort of rhetoric? Lilla acknowledges that Barack Obama did so, but Hillary Clinton was not actually so different. Read through Clinton’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Democratic Convention. What Lilla would call “identity politics” is mostly absent, but the speech is full of lines like the following: “We Americans may differ, bicker, stumble, and fall; but we are at our best when we pick each other up, when we have each other’s back. Like any family, our American family is strongest when we cherish what we have in common, and fight back against those who would drive us apart.” Clinton didn’t much use the concept of “citizenship,” but boilerplate appeals to national unity—to “we”—were a centerpiece of her presidential campaign. They didn’t work. And one reason they didn’t work is because Clinton failed to attach them, in any significant way, to concrete issues that might engage and mobilize voters. The only serious issue that Clinton seized upon at all effectively during her campaign was the threat to the republic posed by Donald Trump. She clearly believed, given how unbelievably awful Trump looked to people like her (and me, and Lilla), that this issue would be sufficient to win. It was already difficult enough for her, as a candidate of the incumbent president’s party, to pose as the champion of change, so she played it safe—what she thought was safe—and failed to develop a significant positive program.


But will any future Democratic candidates do any better, simply by organizing their campaigns around the theme of “citizenship” that Lilla proposes? And can they “win back” middle- and working-class Trump voters by linking this abstract theme to a firm rejection of “identity politics,” without the articulation of a concrete program of their own? What votes might they sacrifice in the process? Is the key to their electoral success really another “Sister Souljah” moment (i.e. Bill Clinton’s carefully-strategized repudiation of a radical African-American activist and recording artist in 1992)?


This point brings me to Lilla’s treatment of “identity politics.” Lilla notes, quite accurately, that a certain story about identity politics has done significant damage to the Democratic Party. This is the story relentlessly peddled by Fox News and conservative talk radio, and also bolstered by much mainstream media reporting. It is a story about pampered latter-day hippies who care only, so the story goes, about transgender bathrooms, “micro-aggressions,” and the “cultural appropriation” exemplified by the serving of sushi in college dining halls, while violently denying free speech to anyone who dares challenge them. Lilla is a bit too quick, however, to accept a version of the story as true, rather than seeing the story itself as in large part a caricature produced by the media outlets relaying it. The campus left is certainly prey to excess and folly, as has been the case since the days when some of its members joyfully hailed the paradises on earth being built by Stalin, Mao, Castro, and Ho Chi Minh (in comparison, complaints about sushi seem pretty mild). But nearly all the reporting, and nearly all the anguished commentary on the issue from centrist liberals, tends to come back to the same handful of cases: the response to a Yale lecturer’s email about Halloween costumes; the violent protests against Charles Murray at Middlebury; the Oberlin College feud over insensitive cafeteria food, etc. These stories—as well as Lilla’s own description of campus politics—do not tally with my own experience of university teaching. Yes, there are free speech issues on campus, but I have seen little evidence that the most publicized cases are typical of the general tenor of campus life today. And many of these cases in fact began because of deliberate attempts to provoke the “social justice warriors” into excessive reactions.


Lilla is certainly right in his broader point that campus politics turn to a great extent around marginalized and oppressed groups: racial minorities, sexual minorities, illegal immigrants. The same goes, although to a lesser degree than Lilla argues, for liberal politics as a whole. And particularly on campus, assertions made on the basis of group identity and subjective experience are often held to trump arguments made on the basis of political principle (this is why Lilla calls it a “pseudo-politics”). But I don’t think Lilla draws the right conclusions from these observations. To start with, The Once and Future Liberal implicitly draws a contrast between the dire present, where “taboo” replaces “argument,” and a lost golden age in which argument and “politics” ruled. Did this golden age ever exist? In my experience as a historian, the assertion “you can’t understand because you’re not an X” (proletarian, German, native-born American, etc.) has a pretty long lineage in world history. It’s an argument which is, on its own terms, impossible to refute, so of course it has always been attractive to polemicists. The so-called “social justice warriors” of today can’t claim a patent on it.


More importantly, Lilla claims that the focus on identity implies a narcissistic obsession with the self. Speaking of “young people on the left,” he writes: “They are … likely to say that they are engaged in politics as an X, concerned about other X’s, and those issues touching on X-ness. They may have some sympathy for and recognize the strategic need to build alliances with Ys and Zs. But … alliances will never be more than marriages of convenience.”


These statements strike me as simply wrong. Take, for instance, the issue of transgender rights. How many people protesting for the transgendered identify as transgender themselves? How many of the millions of people who campaigned for marriage equality and celebrated its full legalization themselves identified as homosexual? Was gay marriage just a “marriage of convenience” for non-gays? Or did many heterosexuals on the left care just as fervently about this cause as Lilla, a man, does about abortion rights? They may not have cared about it because of notions of citizenship, of membership in a common American nation. But they cared about it because of basic notions of universal human dignity. They didn’t support gay marriage “as an X.” They supported it as humans. Lilla interprets the recent history of American liberalism as a rejection of a politics of citizenship and national ideals in favor of identity politics. But couldn’t the shift be interpreted differently, as a rejection of a politics of citizenship and national ideals in favor of a particular sort of human rights politics?


And human rights can make for a very powerful campaign issue. Lilla is undoubtedly right that every time a Democratic candidate makes a passionate statement in favor of the rights of the transgendered, he or she loses the votes of many Americans, particularly those who get the story from Fox News. But that same candidate also gains votes—not just among the transgendered themselves, but among young people who care about the issue because it strikes them as one involving simple human rights and dignity.


In short, I am not so sure that what Lilla calls “identity politics” is as destructive for American liberalism as he claims. This is all the more so because in the hugely polarized America of our day, elections are won far more by turning out one’s own supporters than by persuading a huge bloc of “undecided” voters to come over to one’s own side. Are there really as many “centrist working-class voters” to “win back” as Lilla thinks? I’m not so sure. It is more important to turn out the Democratic base, including especially minority groups and young people. Hillary Clinton tried to turn out this base—including many on the left who looked on her with suspicion—principally by appealing to their fear of Trump. It wasn’t enough. Again, she needed a broader program, tied to a range of concrete issues.


Of course, it matters enormously how the issues are framed. If support for the rights of minority groups comes off as deference to special pleading by the hyper-sensitive, it will not have much electoral success (and Fox News will always frame the stories in this way). But it’s also possible to frame the issues as ones of simple human dignity, and to win votes by doing so. Gay marriage offers an excellent example. When the issue first became politically visible in the 1980s and 1990s, it elicited very little support from the population at large, and many conservative commentators framed it as a classic case of identity politics and political correctness gone wild. But by the time of the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision in 2013, gay marriage enjoyed support from across much of the American political spectrum. In fact, the irony is that had the Court not decided as it did, and as quickly, or had the Republican party chosen to continue vociferous opposition, the issue probably would have provided a significant electoral boost for Democrats. The Republicans knew what they were doing in effectively capitulating on the issue (or, at best, trying to reframe it as one of religious liberty, as in the case of cakes for gay weddings).


It is true, as Lilla argues, that some on the left, especially in universities, frame identity issues and minority rights within a “black legend” version of history that reduces the American story to little more than genocide, slavery, racism, and imperialism. Besides being an absurd caricature, this is rather obviously an electoral non-starter. But again, despite what The Once and Future Liberal sometimes seems to imply, what Lilla calls “identity liberalism” is not a monolithic force that always operates in the same, predictable manner. It is not necessarily tied to the “black legend,” and the sentiments that animate it can be mobilized in ways that resonate with a much more nuanced and positive version of the American story, and that can have a broad appeal. Campaigns that defend the rights of marginalized and oppressed groups in the name of human dignity, tied to a hopeful vision of America, can win elections for liberals. And liberals should in no way shy away from these issues, not only because of their very real, pragmatic electoral value, but because they resonate in the deepest possible way with liberal values.


But liberals do not have to limit themselves to these issues, nor should they. There are also the social and economic issues that lie much closer to what Lilla calls the “Roosevelt dispensation.” Concrete social and economic issues like health care, the minimum wage, education costs, public transportation, inequality of wealth, and corruption are ones on which liberals can and should campaign and win. Indeed, these issues probably offer liberals the best chance of not only turning out their own base, but, despite the political polarization, chipping into the Republican one.


Here again I was disappointed by Lilla’s failure to propose concrete issues which once and future liberals can use to take back power. He criticizes Barack Obama for the somewhat “hollow” campaign rhetoric of 2008: “Hope …  in what? Yes we can! …  do what?” But for all Lilla’s eloquent discussion of “citizenship,” I did not see, in his concluding chapters, much more of a sense of what Americans should specifically hope for and do. Mostly, his prescriptions to liberals are about what they should not do: namely, “identity politics.”


By taking this essentially negative, critical stance, Lilla puts himself in a place not dissimilar from the one in which many of the most thoughtful moderate members of the British Labour Party found themselves in the early 1980s. Like the American Democrats today, Labour had just lost a national election to an insurgent conservative who defined herself against everything the party stood for, and what it had accomplished since the mid-twentieth century. But the moderates (led by Roy Jenkins, David Owen, and Shirley Williams) seemed more appalled by the left wing of their own party, particularly the “Militant Tendency” that had gained significant influence among the rank and file. In 1981 they split from Labour and founded a new, moderate party, the Social Democrats. But the model is not one that moderate American liberals should think of following. The new party had exceedingly poor electoral results. Just seven years later it formally merged with the Liberals, but the new party, now called the Liberal Democrats, has rarely done much better, and apart from having served as the junior partner in David Cameron’s governing coalition from 2010 to 2015, for the most part remains a marginal force in British politics today. This center did not hold.


Lilla of course does not want to split off and start a new party. He wants American liberals to come to their senses and change their ways: “Progressives should… start appealing… to our shared citizenship. Identity liberals should follow suit.” But as long as he positions himself principally as the harsh critic of the “identity liberals” (“I have been hard on them in these pages, and with just cause”), he can hardly expect them to greet his message very warmly. And of course, they have not, to judge from the sharply negative reception his book has received on the left. But given the stubborn refusal of these groups to listen to Lilla, there remain only two possible paths forward for “Lillaites,” if I may use the term. One would be effectively to expel the liberals they criticize from the Democratic Party, in the hope of winning back Reagan and Trump voters. The exiles would presumably troop off to join Jill Stein’s Greens. The second would be for the Lillaites to leave the party themselves, presumably to merge with Bloombergians and “Never Trump” Republicans in a new centrist party: call it the Citizens’ Party. Would either solution bring about the electoral result that Lilla, the pragmatic liberal, calls “job number one”? I have my doubts. I think that both a Lillaite Democratic Party stripped of its left wing, and a Lillaite Citizens’ Party would suffer from some of the same problems as The Once and Future Liberal. Despite some very attractive rhetoric about citizenship and a common national destiny, such parties would be unable to articulate enough of a concrete program, articulated around electorally salient issues, to defeat the Trumpite Republicans and “the shameless and massively influential right-wing media complex.”


Rather than rejecting the groups that Lilla is criticizing, moderate liberals today would do better to work with them, to develop a political program around concrete issues of justice and human dignity, couched in terms of optimism and hope, that can appeal to as broad an electorate as possible while also energizing and mobilizing the key groups that the Democratic Party absolutely must get to the polls in order to win elections. This is by no means an impossible task. The task now is to find the right candidates. I obviously don’t think these candidates should follow Mark Lilla’s advice, and spend their time and energy attempting to overcome “identity liberalism.” And while they absolutely should put forth a vision of citizenship, and a common American destiny, they should do so in a way that incorporates the sentiments and ideals of the liberals Lilla is scolding, harnesses them to a common electoral purpose, rather than criticizing them as narcissistic. These candidates should, however, absolutely read Lilla’s book. Because in America today, whether are not you agree with Mark Lilla, there are few serious thinkers more worth arguing with.


Photo Credit: Megan Janetsky, via Cronkite News, CC BY-SA 3.0.


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