The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
I’d be less than honest, though, if I didn’t admit thoroughly enjoying this brief, well-reasoned skewering of current leftish pieties. Although it never quite reaches the level of Stalinist/Trotskyite rancor, Lilla’s book is sure to be experienced as a hatchet job on the American left, especially the academic branch.
Mark Lilla is a professor at Columbia University and, also, something else. A liberal. And not just an ordinary, Chardonnay-sipping, Democratic-voting, high-income-coastal elite either. In some ways he’s a throwback, almost militantly assuming the mantle of New Deal/Great Society champion. He says it best himself: “I write as a frustrated American liberal.” (p. 6)
What he’s here to talk about is what’s missing in current liberal politics and for him the answer is simple: the demos, that is, the people. Given the subject matter I might have chosen to speak of the polis, which is the people assembled under some form of governance, but it’s a small difference that has no impact on his argument.
Importantly, there’s a rhetorical utility in his approach which allows him to turn, with equal opportunity, to the missteps of both the left and the right. That ‘We the people…’ thing cuts both ways.
Lilla asks us to think about the politics of the last 80 years or so as reflecting two dispensations, the Rooseveltian and the Reaganite. Dispensation is his word and it strikes me as a peculiar, maybe even inapt, choice, although he may have intended the religious overtone.
In broad stroke terms demarcating two epochs works. Especially if we consider that not only was each kick-started by a charismatic leader at a vulnerable time for the nation, but that each shaped the way folks thought about the government and their relationship to it for decades afterwards.
One advantage of accepting Lilla’s dichotomous approach is that you can think of the moods in opposition to each other. Except they really aren’t until you get near the end of each. Lilla briskly sketches the expansion of the federal government from the New Deal through the Carter presidency, showing how administrations and Congresses of both parties enacted programs that are the bete noires of today’s GOP.
What happened? Again, in outline form, Lilla takes us through the Reagan disposition from the 1980 election through the Contract with America and all the way up to the Trump administration. Lilla doesn’t dwell on this, but if you are paying attention you might notice that the government hasn’t actually gotten smaller since 1980, despite the anti-government mood, GOP domination of the Presidency and, for much of the time, Congress.
That’s because no matter what ideologues think, the public generally supports programs that help people in a jam. There really isn’t a groundswell for eliminating, say, Social Security–even Ronald Reagan worked to strengthen, not dismantle, it. Such support might suggest there’s a liberal majority lurking somewhere. If that’s true, why isn’t there better evidence at the ballot box?
Here’s where Lilla gets to the heart of his argument. As he tells the tale, the successes of the Rooseveltian approach are a direct result of embracing and working within the structures of electoral politics. By contrast, he finds the modern Democratic party in thrall to a couple of ideas that have been, and continue to be, self-defeating.
The first of these Lilla calls movement politics. The model is the Civil Rights Movement and it’s served as a model for other groups that were marginalized. Lilla actually finds antecedents going all the way back to the Abolitionists in the first half of the 19th century.
What these movements share is that they have a moral center. Politics, though, is not a moral business. The embrace of movement politics has meant that political theatre–the marches, the imagery, the moral heroes and heroines–attracts the energy of liberals. Yet no less a liberal than Hillary Rodham Clinton noted Martin Luther King needed Lyndon Johnson to enact legislation addressing the worst barriers.
The marriage with morality makes things even worse. If yours is a holy cause, how can you compromise with an opponent at all? Better to turn your energies to where they can prevail. That has, as often as not, been through the courts rather than the legislature.
Courts, though, are not elected . When they pick winners and losers no one should be surprised that a favorable decision for their side energizes political opposition.
Like so many things these differences have roots in the 1960s. Lilla argues that liberals, having embraced the movement/court approach, abandoned the demos. Instead, they took up the politics of identity.
I’m on record as to why I think that’s been a disastrous approach, most especially for the self-identifiers. Lilla, a more cogent writer than I, shows just how the consequence is division instead of unity and a resulting inability to move voters to act.
Progressives don’t get off any easier, by the way. Lilla makes a strong case, without saying as much, that Americans have an almost inbred resistance to anything too socialistic. His most important exhortation for progressives, buried in a footnote, is to read less Karl Marx and more Teddy Roosevelt. (p. 126)
I used to think you had to be educated by red diaper babies (as I, and evidently Bernie Sanders, were) to see identity politics as a dead end. I’ve been saying many of the same things as Lilla for years, so it’s nice to know I’m not alone. I just don’t know if liberals are ready to hear this message.