My Totally Correct Views on Everything

4 September 2018

First, let me express my gratitude to Tocqueville 21 and The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville for hosting this symposium and for the sharp and constructive remarks of the respondents. My thanks are not pro forma.


Since the publication of the New York Times article that inspired The Once and Future Liberal I have had almost no chance in this country to engage with rational, thoughtful criticism of my argument. (Europe and Latin America are a different matter.) It was the most read political opinion piece of 2016 in the Times, lagging only behind “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” and “Why Men Want to Marry Melanias and Raise Ivankas” in the overall rankings. Rather than a bronze medal, though, I received my first Twitter bath in acid, and became a meme. Crazy charges, veiled threats—the usual, apparently. When I described this to journalist friends who must work in this sewer, they gave me the knowing smile that Gene Wilder gave the adults in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: “You must be new here.”


I have not responded to all this noise in print, preferring to let the book speak for itself and for the experience of Trumpism—which has exceeded even my pessimistic imagination—to sink in. The paperback, which has just been published, comes into a world very different from the ones in which the article or the hardcover appeared. As I write, Trump’s approval ratings are unimaginably high among self-declared Republicans, despite everything he has done or threatened to do. Part of the country got exactly what it wanted, it seems, the other part worse than it feared. And midterm elections are approaching. So maybe now we can start talking seriously about what lessons can be learned from this experience and how we liberals should more forward.


The remarks of Sheri Berman, David Bell, and Stephen Sawyer get to the heart of many of the most important issues. Rather than respond to them individually, though, I’ll group my thoughts under two rubrics: the past and the future.


The past


1. Institutions and culture. One of the most serious misunderstandings of my book has to do with my attitude toward campaigns to achieve equal legal rights for African-Americans, women, and gay people. I thought I made it very clear that I consider these to be extraordinary achievements, and can cite chapter and verse. But if readers don’t come away with the impression the author wants to leave, it is the fault of the latter, not the former. The problem is that I tried to make a distinction between early (1950-1970) identity politics focused on group demands for legal equality, and the more recent kind (1970-now) focused on the subjective identities of individuals—conflating temporal change and difference in kind. I now see that the appropriate distinction to be made is between institutional politics and cultural politics, which can coexist in time.


By institutional I mean political action aimed at changing laws, the distribution of resources, and the explicit powers of official bodies, such as courts, bureaucracies, and schools. By cultural I mean political activity aimed at changing social attitudes and customs. For example, ending racial discrimination in hiring was an institutional aim, promoting diversity in the workplace is a cultural one. The same distinction can be made between the decriminalization of homosexual activity and the social acceptance of gay people. Now I understand that in practice one can affect the other, and I recognize (as I did not make clear in the book) that social movements can contribute to both, as Sheri Berman correctly points out. Gay marriage, which David Bell mentions, involved both but in a certain order: once homosexuality became more tolerated in society, the easier it was to make the case for the legal equality of same-sex couples. The relation can be reversed: equal legal opportunity for women in the workplace is what led to cultural changes there, too. But in general achieving these different aims at requires different sorts of strategies.


Looking back over the past half century, one sees that there was a enormous transfer of energy on the Western left from institutional to cultural politics, as Todd Gitlin and Richard Rorty pointed out back in the 1990s. That happened for a number of reasons. One was failure: disappointments with Marxism and radical politics, and the discovery of the limits of social policy, encouraged a withdrawal from institutional and especially electoral politics. The other was success: as progress was made in achieving legal equality, cultural change appeared to many to be the next frontier. Finally, there was the cultural divide that was beginning to open up in our societies between the highly educated, cosmopolitan classes who have adapted to economic, technological, and informational globalization, and the less-educated, more rooted classes who have not. This divide is, I think, has become one of the main barriers to the left achieving institutional power.


Now virtually all Western countries find themselves undergoing two revolutions simultaneously: a cultural revolution driven by left elites, and a bottom-up democratic revolution focused on institutional power driven by the right. They are positively related, as the rise of Donald Trump and other demagogues shows: the more successful the cultural revolution is, the more reaction against it fuels the populist political one. Most liberals don’t want to recognize this. Thomas Frank and many others have argued that economic injustice is at the bottom of populism, but that the right-wing media have been successful in convincing the less fortunate that they are being dominated by a cultural class, not an economic one. It’s a simple case of false consciousness. But even if that were true, it wouldn’t matter. They have been successful, so we must deal with that fact, not deny it or just bemoan it. And we also need to recognize that this is not the whole story. We must also take a look in the mirror and recognize the degree to which the charge of cultural domination is warranted.


Whenever I speak before conservative audiences they are astonished to hear me claim that the American right has dominated our nation’s politics for four decades now. How can you say that, they ask, when the left dominates Hollywood, the media, the universities, and the schools? And they have a point.


Take an example. One out of every five Americans self-identifies as an evangelical Christian. According to the best estimates, about one-half of one percent of us self-identifies as transgender. Yet which group today receives more attention from Hollywood scriptwriters, television producers, newspaper and magazine editors, and professors at our elite universities? How many movies or television series have you seen that make an evangelical family the center of the drama, or even just has evangelicals as ordinary background characters? Almost none. So try to imagine yourself as an evangelical parent, watching television and going to movies with your family, and coming away every time with the feeling that we are invisible to these people. Cultural elites who have read James Baldwin’s searing essays understand how African Americans could feel that way, but they have a hard time extending their sympathy to white religious people. Which makes the latter very angry, with predictable results. As Baldwin understood, the humiliation of erasure can be a power political motivator.


David Bell is not the first critic to suggest that in the book I paid too much attention to the cultural revolution on campuses, or exaggerated what goes on there. If anything, I feel I didn’t plumb this theme deeply enough (and that perhaps he needs to do a little more research into how widespread the problems are outside the Ivy League). Some comparative investigations into what exactly was taught in the past, what kinds of university offices existed, what sorts of officially recognized clubs, what types of sponsored events were organized by, say, the Offices of Student Affairs, and so on, would be very enlightening. (As would data on what kinds of institutions college-educated Trump voters attended, and where.) In the university culture that I and my interlocutors work in we now take for granted that there will be deans for diversity, departments of women studies, required completion of online sexual harassment training, courses on ever more marginal gender groups (where it is bad form to question whether gender is entirely a social construct), workshops on movement organizing, and disciplinary proceedings against students or faculty deemed to have spoken improperly about race or gender. All this has been normalized. Does this take up much of our time? No. Is our ordinary teaching and research impeded? Usually not (unless we run afoul of the Title IX police). Don’t most of our students just study, graduate, and move on to jobs in corporate America? Yes. But even those who just rush off to their fur-lined cubicles and packed airport lounges will have spent four years being socialized in an environment that presumes the norms of today’s left cultural politics. And many of those who go on to work in journalism, publishing, media, foundations, the arts, and teaching leave determined to bring society at large into line with those norms. They have had much success. So much that more than a few of our young people assume that one out of every five Americans is transgender, and one out of twenty is evangelical.


Most of the cultural values that this cultural elite promotes today are my own. But I recognize—and I wrote to convince my fellow liberals to recognize—that there is a trade off between promoting them in the heavy-handed, fanatical way identity politics activists do now, and gaining electoral power to effect all the larger changes we need in our political and economic institutions. How we make that trade-off should be a matter of debate among liberals. But we cannot pretend that we don’t face it, or that once we make our choice we won’t lose something precious.


2. The liberal legacy. Sheri Berman helps bring into focus a number of scattered objections that I keep encountering as I travel and discuss my book. They essentially boil down to the charge that all I’m saying is, in the words of one of my critics she quotes, “come on guys, the founding fathers created a great country! Get with the program.” They will refer to the New Deal, as she does, and remind me that it excluded African Americans in the South from many its benefits. And from this fact many of them conclude that American liberalism had racial inequality “baked into it” and therefore is “fatally flawed.” I think the significance of the New Deal inequalities for subsequent developments has been somewhat exaggerated since the publication of Ira Katznelson’s now classic When Affirmative Action was White (the experience of black veterans returning to Jim Crow America was surely more important), but Berman is certainly right that a few words simply recognizing the terrible injustice done would have anticipated the objection that I was offering an idealized, sanitized picture of the Roosevelt dispensation. There is still much history to be reckoned with and I should have underlined that.


Still, if we are to have a reckoning, we need to avoid two errors that can plague any investigation into the relation between past and present. The first is anachronism. From Vico down to Herder and Foucault, critical historians have pointed out that when approaching the past we often apply concepts and categories—religion, race, the individual—that were not available to those living then, and so we fail to understand them as they understood themselves. We can also do that with moral concepts and categories, especially in the U.S., where the moral urgency of denouncing the dead is today unquestioned. For example, the concept of “racism” is today applied to everything from theories of racial inferiority and calls for genocide to unintended “microaggressions” against particular individuals. A small forest of useful concepts that used to grow between “racism” and “woke-ness”—blindness, stereotyping, prejudice, bigotry—has been cleared. Consequently, we are losing the ability to understand how people in the past thought about their attitudes and actions, and therefore are losing the ability to make proportionate moral judgments.


Take the charge that the New Deal, and by extension promoters of it like Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt as well, were racist. For anyone living at the time, from radical right to radical left, this charge would have been incomprehensible. Yes, the New Deal could only have been passed by making a filthy compromise with Southern congressman who wanted to exclude African-Americans for racial, economic, and electoral reasons. Could the northern Democrats have resisted the pressure from Dixiecrats and still have passed the legislation they wanted? Had they been more racially sensitive might they have found ways to quietly reform the programs once passed? These are good, standard historical questions to be asking. But our answers will only be as valuable as our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived then and made decisions based on what they knew and felt, in the context of what most people knew and felt at the time. There is no question that, had he been given a free hand, Roosevelt would have given equal coverage to all.


The second error is failing to distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. Was early-20th century liberalism sufficient to remove all social injustices, including racial ones? Obviously not. But it does not follow from that fact that liberalism was “predicated” on the exclusion of African-Americans, or that racism was “baked into it.” On the contrary, the election of liberal public officials was the necessary but insufficient condition of whatever racial progress was made over the last century. There are very few sufficient conditions for change in democratic political life. Instead we usually face a great number of necessary and insufficient ones, so that failing to secure any one of them means failure. To take an example I give in the book, the Reagan revolution was predicated on three things happening simultaneously: the birth of a new, coherent conservative ideology, a candidate who could authentically inspire people with it, and adequate Republican preparations to win congressional and state elections. (Sawyer makes a related and very helpful distinction between philosophical and electoral-institutional liberalism, though he seems to think that there was a shift from one to the other historically, while I think of the first as a necessary condition of the latter. Perhaps I’d understand his argument better if I understood John Dewey, next to whose writings the collected works of Hegel, Schelling, and Heidegger are models of clarity and concision.) Failing any of those, our history would have turned out differently. (Sigh.) To reject liberalism and look for “alternatives”—the last refuge of the political naïf—would be to shake the foundation of all we’ve achieved and hope to achieve in the future. If we want to have a serious and fruitful reckoning with the our past, we first have to get off our high horses.


The future


David Bell’s response links past and future, and ends with a question I ask myself every day: what’s a Lillaite to do? (Actually, the preferred term is Lillafarian.) I now have the opportunity to flesh out what I merely sketched out—as I warned the reader—at the end of the book about citizenship and elections.


Let me begin, though, by confessing that this chapter was written somewhat under duress. When setting out to write the book I had in mind the model of the French essai, which ends leaving the reader in a state of suspension. The point of an essai is to understand something, not fix something. But as my editor rightly said, this is a book about America primarily for Americans, who worship at the altar of the Five Point Plan for Setting the World Aright and will expect a few “constructive” thoughts. (As if understanding is not the most constructive thing we can ever do.) This American custom is unfortunate, since our authors then tend to tailor their observations to fit their pet plans, rather than the reverse. And readers adapt by reading in the same fashion, from back to front. Which is what happened with my book, so that a lot of criticism focused on the things I’m most tentative about and least committed to. Mais c’est ainsi.


1. Citizenship. So let’s begin with the idea of citizenship, which has attracted the most attention (negative in the U.S., positive in Europe and Latin America). In the analytical chapters, I paint a picture, admittedly in chiaroscuro, of modern Western societies that have been atomized by economic, cultural, and technological changes that have left us more private, more self-absorbed, and less capable of thinking about and engaging in common enterprises than people a century or more ago. As a result, ideologies of collective political action that brought social democracy to Europe and New Deal liberalism to the U.S. have been replaced by two competing libertarian ideologies: the anti-politics of neoliberalism, and the pseudo-politics of personal-identity social movements. The first fails to recognize the legitimacy of collective democratic action for the public good; the second fails to recognize the necessity of putting forward a vision of that good that all might affirm, and then persuading fellow citizens of it and gaining their votes. And so the questions I asked myself when writing the third chapter were two: what principled basis might there be, given the way we live now, for legitimizing collective action for the common good, and motivating people to engage in it? And how might those principles be articulated in order to gain institutional power?


What followed was a thought experiment. It made no sense to begin by ignoring the process of individualization that is well underway, or imagine that we might easily reverse it. Unions, for example, will never again be the mobilizing force and communities they once were, and won’t even survive unless they adapt to the new, grim realities of the workplace. Nor will families or churches suddenly become again our main schools of moral duty and commitment to the common good. Parents and children are finding it hard even to have dinner together, and churches have largely abandoned the language of obligation for that of personal fulfillment. One can deplore all this (I do) and hope that things will one day change (I really do) but one must accept it as given.


Yet despite the way we live now, and the way we think about it, the common good does exist. And our task in a democracy is to discern what it is and then try to promote it. Rousseau was absolutely right about this. In fact, the more interdependent our lives become due to economic and technological forces, the more the common good must be attended to. And decisions will be made, whether consciously and collectively or by default. If we want to preserve the planet, we need to address climate change. If we want to remain prosperous, we need trained and healthy workers who feel they are getting their fare share. To maintain our technological advantage we also need highly educated people in the sciences, which means good schools and well paid teachers. Our collective economic fortunes also depend increasingly on political developments around the world, which means we need a political class that understands that world, and a politically informed population that can choose good leaders from that class. Etc., etc.


Yes, the common good exists. What we lack today is a vocabulary for articulating what it is and inspiring people to promote it. A vocabulary rooted in what we actually share, not what we once shared and wished we did again. And the one thing that all American citizens share despite our real and imagined diversity is exactly that: citizenship. No matter where you come from, what your private beliefs are, where you work, or who your parents are, you and I are in fact citizens. At the very least, this is what we concretely have in common. (That and having to go to the DMV. Seriously: the DMV is probably the most democratic institution in America—far more democratic than our schools and neighborhoods, and even more democratic than our jury pools, which the educated and well-off can fairly easily escape. You cannot escape having to get plates a title for your new car. So it’s by gazing at those long lines of frustrated motorists that you get the most accurate picture of America. Where is our Whitman of the DMV?)


This fact flies in the face of the two dominant ideologies of our time. It contradicts the anti-political right’s assumption that our individual and familial destinies are independent of the destinies of others. And it contradicts the identitarian left’s assumption that there is no characteristic that all Americans share, whatever other differences exist. Let’s face it: we are a republic within the borders of a nation-state, sharing a common destiny. Yes, different individuals and groups have different life chances and face different problems. But we can only address those through the system of government we share as citizens.


Some readers (like my dyslexic Yale friend Samuel Moyn) insist that The Once and Future Liberal is an appeal for a revived nationalism, a word that nowhere appears in the book. Hardly. My thought experiment simply led me to wonder whether by focusing on the fact of shared citizenship we liberals could start to evoke a feeling of commonality and civic duty towards each other, if only out of enlightened self-interest. Classic nationalism appeals to blood, soil, religion, historical myth, and the like. Civic republicanism (can we not find a better term for this?) appeals to solidarity and the adventure of autonomous self-government in a particular place. Nationalism inclines peoples to be suspicious of others. Republicanism encourages them to look kindly on the aspirations for self-government everywhere, as we saw in the 19th century when hurrahs! for free Greece, free Italy, and free Poland ricocheted around Europe and across the Atlantic.


And the civic bond is certainly a thicker rope than the fragile ficelle of human rights that David Bell mentions, which can inspire occasional campaigns for particular individuals or people but not much more. Rousseau understood how little and how rarely love for humanity motivates action; as he wrote in Émile, cosmopolitans love the Tatars in order to be excused from loving their neighbors. And as Moyn has often pointed out, human rights cannot serve as the foundation for an ambitious progressive politics that addresses, among other things, structural problems in the economy. What Moyn won’t recognize is the priority of psychology over politics: you can’t have a progressive politics unless the word “solidarity” means something to people, and is rooted in citizens’ pre-existing feelings of attachment to one another and to their common project. They must first give a damn about each other. That, and not nationalism, is what I’m talking about. (Though, of course, if there are strong pre-existing national or religious or ethnic bonds, I see no reason not to exploit them as social capital for progressive purposes.)


But can it be accomplished? I’m pessimistic, frankly. An atomized society, an economy that keeps widening the class divide, a belligerent and uneducated citizenry, craven politicians, not-so-craven ones who must ceaselessly run for office and stare into the 24/7 television camera, journalists who must fill that 24/7 void…. let me count the ways in which our republic is ill. Stentorian invocations of citizenship certainly won’t magically bring us together. Nor will a third party, no matter how carefully its members have read and annotated The Once and Future Liberal. But given that I don’t see any alternative to citizenship as a foundation for mutual obligation and civic duty, I think we have to try pedagogically and rhetorically to place it at the center of our political consciousness today.


2.  Elections. I’m especially grateful for David Bell’s remarks about electoral strategy because they capture what to my mind is exactly wrong with the Democrats’ thinking about how to win back power. It rests on three illusions that Bell mentions: that we need to emphasize issues, not large themes; that we need to find the “right candidates”; and that increasing turnout is more important than expanding the base.


These illusions rest on a serious misreading of our historical moment. As I argued in my book, the past century of American history can be roughly divided into two “dispensations,” one stretching from the progressive era to the 1970s (the Roosevelt dispensation), the other stretching from 1980 until the election of Donald Trump (the Reagan dispensation). Each of those periods was inaugurated by a leader who managed to convey a fresh, compelling vision of our national destiny, which then set the terms for debate and defined the boundaries of our political imaginations. To use Thomas Kuhn’s by now hoary distinction, moments of “revolutionary” politics were followed by long periods of “normal” politics. It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to determine whether you are living in a revolutionary moment or a normal period before engaging in political strategy.


In normal times, the conventional Democratic reasoning would make sense. We already have our vision; now it just needs to be translated into particular policies that appeal to different factions of the Democratic base, and promoted by candidates who can check all the right boxes. But in 2018 we are clearly not living in normal times, we are smack in the middle of a revolution (actually two, as I mentioned earlier). Donald Trump has brought an end to the Reagan dispensation and is now remaking the Republican Party in his image. But it is a personal image, uninformed (despite the efforts of Steve Bannon) by any larger vision of the nation’s future. He appears to be what political scientists call a “disjunctive president,” a leader who brings one era to an end but does not define a new one. Worse, as a polarizing figure, he feeds the negative partisanship that characterizes our time and make it hard for either party to achieve much in our institutions. And so, we find ourselves in an interregnum. Which means that the task for both political parties if they aim to acquire long-term institutional power is to develop a new vision (or national narrative, call it what you will) that can capture the imagination and inspire the hopes of as many Americans as possible.


One thing the 2016 campaign should have taught us is that, right now, the issues are not the issue. Rather, they are being read by the public as symbols indicating the general aspirations of the candidates. The Trump team came up with few policy proposals, and the ones they did, Trump promptly forgot. No one cared. His supporters did not cram themselves into his rallies because they wanted to hear what the annual rate of growth of Medicare spending would be or whether a particular aircraft carrier would be built. They wanted to hear him invoke symbols that point toward “making America great again.” The border wall is a symbol, not a policy. It most likely will not get built, though there might be a fig leaf version of one a couple miles long somewhere. But it won’t matter to his voters, any more than it would matter if he shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. What does matter to them is that he dared to say “build the wall.” No one else was willing to do that. By daring to call for greater economic justice, Bernie Sanders acquired a similarly devoted following among progressives, even if his particular policy goals—single-payer health insurance, free college tuition—are probably unattainable. Both of them were signaling, not proposing.


It is urgent for Democrats to recognize the moment they are living in as they go into midterms and soon a presidential election. They need somehow to convey the basic principles and values behind their long lists of policy proposals, and translate them into a coherent vision of the country they hope to shape. A focus on identity politics gets in the way of that. So does getting trapped by the demands of various social movements (though, as Sheri Berman now convinces me, those movements can be training schools for civic engagement, so long as they don’t get in the way of the Party’s broader interests). Powerful symbols are needed, not the lame invocations of “our American family” that Hillary Clinton made. America is neither a village nor a family, it is a mighty republic. We should be able to assert that proudly and convince our citizens that our greatness lies before us, not behind us. But to achieve it we need to start taking care of each other.


My only practical suggestion for Democrats in upcoming elections is simple: to place the issues and policies they care about in the context of a larger civic vision of the common good. To explain the basic reasons why we fight for economic justice, against discrimination, for environmental protection and good schools, and so on. Just doing this will set them apart from today’s Republicans, who are ideologically committed to the proposition that there is no such thing as the common good (not even in foreign policy any more). Centrist voters have long thought of the Democrats as a clientelist party run by cultural snobs, which is one reason why so many vote Republican. We need to convince them that we have large ambitions for the country and that we invite them, just as they are, to join in the building project.


And we need to do this everywhere. David Bell, like many Democrats, wants to believe that high turnout in traditional strongholds will do the trick, because that will save us the bother of reaching out to people unlike ourselves. But even though such a strategy might help the party win a close presidential election, it will have no bearing on state and local races in places that are overwhelmingly Republican. And recapturing states is crucial for everything we care about because they have enormous discretionary power that allows them to circumvent or blunt federal initiatives. As we know, many Republican states have imposed onerous conditions on women’s exercise of their constitutional right to abortion. Winning national elections won’t change that. We need to go to restrictive states like Mississippi and start winning elections. And the only way to do that is to convince white evangelical Mississippians that our vision includes them, too.


Tone will be crucial. But how can you say that, asks Sheri Berman and other critics, when your own tone in the book is so sharp and occasionally mocking? (And, she forgot to add, so funny.) She is certainly right about the tone, which I chose consciously for reasons I should explain. I am a liberal trying to convince other liberals of what they need to do and need not to do in order to reach the ends that we share. That includes those deeply into identity politics as well. I want to at least try to persuade them that they cannot protect African American drivers or gay couples who are being harassed unless they have the power to appoint police chiefs and prosecutors who want to protect them too; they cannot protect women needing abortions if they don’t have governors and state legislators; etc.. As Stephen Sawyer put it, the book was meant to be a wake up call.


But frankly I had very little hope of reaching the committed identitarians, who in my experience are hostile to being questioned and won’t engage in strategizing. Instead my target audience was mainstream liberals who have been frustrated by the Democratic Party’s self-destructive tendencies, but who also genuinely care about minority rights and don’t want to appear as if they don’t. I wanted to convince them that by resisting the tactics and rhetoric of today’s identity fanatics they can do more for minority rights by gaining durable institutional power across the country, and not just on the two coasts. I also wanted to put into those readers’ hands a narrative explaining how we reached the impasse we find ourselves in, and thereby embolden them to violate the taboo on criticizing the identitarians, who stand in the way of our reaching other important goals. Some progressive thinkers to my left—Walter Benn Michaels, Adolph Reed, and now Asad Haider—have already done this, but unfortunately have had little impact outside their circles. I wanted The Once and Future Liberal to crack like a thunderbolt that would be difficult for liberals to ignore. If Twitter is any measure, I’ve achieved at least that. Whether mainstream Democratic activists, opinion makers, and candidates will set out in a new direction is anybody’s guess. But at least there is now one little book out there that calls for l’audace, toujours l’audace!


Photo Credit: Book cover from Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal (New York: Harper Collins, 2018)

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1 Comment

  • george smith says:

    Great essay, but unnecessarily obsequious to Sheri Berman, or David Bell for that matter. Their criticisms aren’t trenchant enough to waste so much space responding to them.

    Looking forward to a ‘clean copy’ of this essay with all references to them eliminated.

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