L’affaire Lilla

Stephen Sawyer
4 September 2018

Lilla swings hard. On almost every page of this essay we learn that as far as American politics goes, someone has done or is doing something they shouldn’t; someone is or should be doing something else; and many of us, especially in the academic world, aren’t doing much of anything useful at all. This book is therefore not so much a call to action as a call to change course. In his own words, it is about “getting real.”


And why not? After all, these are desperate times and this short work is designed to hit where it hurts. We know that the point of this kind of work is not so much to take into consideration decades of historiography and social science literature that have tried to handle some of these same questions in more nuanced ways, nor is it to be able to back up every claim or even check one’s swing when a simple talking-down might do. Critiques along those lines would seem to be working at cross-purposes to this “wake-up call” (that, like most early wake-up calls, seemed like a good idea at the time). If we follow Lilla’s approach, what we need as the “Reagan dispensation” collapses and we await the emergence of its replacement, is a diagnosis. To do that, we—“we” plays an important role in this book—need to reconsider our approach to politics.


The overwhelming majority of commentary on Lilla’s book has thus focused on the polemic surrounding his critique of identity politics. This is more than justified considering that this is precisely where the essay and Lilla’s comments have largely sent the debate. I must confess at the outset of this discussion that I am not convinced that this is where the book’s most important contribution lies. To my mind, the polemic against identity politics served a relatively specific purpose of clearing out space for discussion. To be read, to be considered, to find an audience, a good op-ed or essay takes a strong stand and few prisoners. In so doing it places itself at the center of the debate. But I think it would be a mistake to stop there. As is often the case, the most controversial aspects sell the book and get people talking, but they have unfortunately almost entirely overshadowed some of the book’s more substantive contributions. We may reasonably wonder if it is possible to isolate the question of identity from some of the more provocative arguments. But as the dust settles I think it is worth trying. To do so, I would like to tie this question to two other key themes in Lilla’s essay, in particular the conceptions of liberalism and democracy, and their relationship to the game of politics and institutions.


Simply stated, the essay is about politics: anti-politics, pseudo-politics, politics… It opens with a painful reminder of who currently occupies the White House and an epigraph by none other than “Teddy” Kennedy—a somewhat surprising authority in a book about the future of liberalism—who explains to us what party politics is actually about. As we move forward, we learn that Reagan was able to win the hearts and minds of American citizens thanks to his masterful politicking, the mobilization of think tanks, and an effective party message that spoke about the country as a whole. It was the potent mix of his playing the political game and his message, one that provided a “vision” for America as a whole that inaugurated what Lilla refers to as the “Reagan dispensation.”


All of this came, of course, at the expense of a “Roosevelt dispensation” which from the 1970s forward suffered a detachment from the political game, a refusal to propose a vision for the country as a whole and to win not just Federal, but also local, state, coroner and sheriff elections. For Lilla, we, the liberals, have not placed sufficient emphasis on winning these elections. Moreover, inattention to elections means real politics have suffered. What replaced them? The diagnosis is as damning as it is clear: identity politics. These are mere pseudo-politics in Lilla’s book.


But, beyond this condemnation, what is perhaps of greater interest is his larger argument about the way that politics on the left during the “Reagan dispensation” have had a very troubled relationship to institutions and elections more broadly. Since, as he claims, “Protesting, acting up, and acting out will not do it. The age of movement politics is over, at least for now.”


For Lilla it is precisely the fault of these identity pseudo-politics and their overemphasis on combating institutions instead of investing in them that “the term liberalism leaves so many Americans indifferent if not hostile today.” And thus only a revitalization of electioneering, vote-trading in local and state battles, will be able to save “liberalism.” As we turn away from a solipsistic concern about who we are and focus on how to govern, liberalism will find a new place in US politics that will effectively overthrow the Reagan dispensation. What we need, he suggests, is to revitalize and reinvest in what liberals have taken to be the base and corruptive game of politics and then take back our institutions. In other words, I take Lilla to be arguing for a new institutionalized liberalism, which, he suggests, cannot be grounded in the fissiparous tendencies toward identity.


To understand why this argument is potent requires a consideration of Lilla’s previous work. No doubt, it may seem odd to compare this work to Lilla’s previous studies. He has effectively walked on both sides of the academic and public intellectual line for decades. But considering the nature of his argument, and the centrality of a re-institutionalized liberalism based on collective political efforts in this book, initiating a conversation about the relationship between this essay and his previous work on liberalism provides some perspective.


Those who have followed Lilla’s work in the past know him as an intellectual historian of liberalism. They may therefore find his institutional liberalism an interesting plot twister. They may even be taken off guard by Lilla’s use of the term liberalism in this book. Indeed, liberalism has been a leitmotif of Lilla’s academic work for decades, sitting at the heart of his “new French thought” (a series he edited with the ambition of bringing French, and largely liberal, thinkers to the Anglophone world) and his later studies of figures like Isaiah Berlin and many others. In the opening salvo of his new French thought series in the 1990s, Lilla suggested that “it is a historical commonplace that modern British and American political thought remains within the narrow orbit of liberalism…. Over the past two centuries liberal ideas and liberal government have survived the age of revolution, the age of industrialization, and the age of total war.” He concludes that “even our most radical and conservative thinkers have seldom strayed far from the fundamental principles of liberal politics.” So in spite of the fact that American liberal politics has survived revolution, the industrial revolution and total war, are we to understand that little more than two decades later, he thinks this commitment to liberalism is unravelling? Have we come to the end of a cycle—in much the same way that he argued French anti-liberalism was coming to an end in the 1990s? Has the American commitment to liberal politics paradoxically collapsed at just the moment when French liberalism seems to have finally triumphed?


Obviously, the “liberalism” he is talking about in this book is not exactly the same as those of his previous more academic studies. There is that typical—and sometimes very frustrating—polysemy in this term “liberalism” that anyone who regularly interacts with Europeans, and especially the French, is familiar with. Liberalism in the French case refers to a doctrine of rights and pluralism that is broadly associated with the right. It is seen to be anti-socialist, comforting to craven capitalism, and in tension with the Republic, while American liberalism is a broad expression for talking about the left. But it is striking that Lilla seems to have invested this polysemy so deeply. Indeed, there are moments when he seems to slip into a less obvious distinction between these two types of liberalism. For example, when he writes that “during the Roosevelt Dispensation the two grand themes of American liberalism were justice and solidarity.” This liberalism is at once synonymous with the left (American usage), but it is also a broader claim about the transformation of the liberal tradition in the mid-century (European usage). Moreover, Lilla’s liberalism here seems to maintain a certain commitment to centrism as he himself admits that most of those people he engages with on these questions “remain well to the left of me but we enjoy disagreeing.”


But if (productive) disagreements with the left remain, the nature of politics in this liberalism seems to have changed. It is striking how meager the role of mere politics was in the “philosophical” liberalism that occupied Lilla in the 1990s. The reconsiderations of “Constant” by Philippe Raynaud, the discussion of “Primitive Religion and the Origins of the State” by Marcel Gauchet, or the treatment of “Rights and Natural Law” by Blandine Kriegel all specifically denied that the rather base world of electoral politics was a site where liberalism could find any meaning and consistency. Indeed, the term elections hardly even makes an appearance in this rediscovery of post-cold war liberalism. And yet in this most recent salvo, the future of liberalism almost entirely depends on electoral politics as the means of its future institutionalization.


So it would seem that we have gone from the discovery of one liberalism (let’s call it philosophical) to the need for another (let’s call it electoral-institutional). We have shifted from philosophizing to politicking; from the high towers of intellectualism to the accessible essay. What is responsible for these shifts? What has brought on this interest in politics, institutionalism, and concern for the crisis of American liberalism?


The short answer might be found in the renewed urgency of confronting the question of democracy. “Why would those who claim to speak for the great American demos,” Lilla writes in this essay, “be so indifferent to stirring its feelings and gaining its trust? This is the question I would like to explore.” Lilla’s interest in current crisis of liberalism is driven by an equally grave concern about the future of the American demos. In other words, it would seem that Lilla’s liberalism has a history and that democracy has played a role in its change over time.


If we investigate the place of democracy in this essay, there does seem to be a missing element, however. Of course, we know that the history of American liberalism or democracy did not begin with FDR. From this perspective it is surprising that Lilla’s account of the crisis of American liberalism begins with the Rooseveltian dispensation because it ignores almost the entire first half of the century. It was during this period stretching from the Spanish American War to the New Deal, that the word liberalism took on its peculiar American meaning, connoting the left more generally. It was also the period, by some accounts, when a modern democratic state was established in this US. And finally, it was also the period when another essay on liberalism and democracy appeared, John Dewey’s Liberalism and Social Action.


As unlikely as the comparison may appear at first glance, there are some broad parallels. Dewey moves from the history, to the crisis and then the renaissance of liberalism, a process which Lilla echoes in his call for a “once and future liberal.” There is also a historical attempt to come to terms with what is described as a crisis of liberalism. The moment in which both of the essays were written sat at the transition between larger political cycles (or dispensations, as Lilla calls them). They also both take aim at a dangerous brand of right-wing populism that was gaining ground as they penned their essays. And they were both ultimately concerned with saving democracy and what this meant for a transformation of liberalism.


But there is one profound difference between Dewey’s and Lilla’s arguments for a renascent liberalism. Dewey’s liberalism emerges organically from its history instead of against it. Dewey traces a transformation out of an anti-institutional liberalism in the late eighteenth century, what he referred to as a “fighting liberalism.” This early liberalism was anti-institutional to the extent that it depended on individual fights for expression against the state, but, and this is the important point, it was also essential to its development. The nineteenth century, Dewey argues, witnessed the transformation of this earlier fighting liberalism as it became insufficient and developed into a more robust social liberalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What was needed, he argued, was to overcome “the old habit of defending liberty of thought and expression as something inhering in individuals apart from and even in opposition to social claims.” In other words, Dewey traced the evolution of liberalism from a combative, highly individualist liberalism to a collective engagement rooted in the social individual and social action. And it is this liberalism that he argued needed saving in the 1930s.


From this perspective, Lilla’s condemnation of identity politics is problematic. As other commentators have highlighted, the Roosevelt dispensation may have had a vision for America, but it was profoundly exclusionary for a great many Americans. One might reasonably conjecture that the liberalism of the 1960s and 70s which gave birth to identity politics marked yet a new moment in the checkered past of liberalism, the return of a fighting anti-institutional liberalism that needed to break with the exclusionary yet powerful post-war American state. From this perspective, where Lilla is off the mark is not so much in arguing that we need to become a “we” again, or that we need to institutionalize and politicize our liberalism—this seems right. It is rather in the fact that he does not seem to think that this new liberalism might grow organically out of the previous “fighting liberalism” as Dewey suggested it did in the past.


What is missing then is Dewey’s fundamental observation that “the idea that liberalism cannot maintain its ends and at the same time reverse its conception of the means by which they are to be attained is folly.” So Lilla is no doubt right: for our contemporary liberalism to rescue the American demos, it needs to be more focused on electoral politics, collective engagements and institutions. But it is not at all clear that this will come at the expense of the gains of the “fighting liberalism” nurtured by identity politics of the last thirty years. Rather, a robust democracy will be grounded in the battles of the past decades and a new recognition that identity is not an individual project, but also “a social asset.”


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