These highlights are from the Kindle version of “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics” by Mark Lilla. You can find more book highlights here.
American liberalism in the twenty-first century is in crisis: a crisis of imagination and ambition on our side, a crisis of attachment and trust on the side of the wider public.
Abraham Lincoln’s famous remark is timely once again: Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.
I write as a frustrated American liberal. My frustration is not directed at Trump’s voters, or those who explicitly supported the rise of this populist demagogue, or those in the press who greased the wheels of his campaign, or those craven Washingtonians who have fallen into line behind him.
Liberals bring many things to electoral contests: values, commitment, policy proposals. What they don’t bring is an image of what our shared way of life might be. Ever since the election of Ronald Reagan the American right has offered one. And it is this image—not money, not false advertising, not fearmongering, not racism—that has been the ultimate source of its strength. In the contest for the American imagination, liberals have abdicated. The Once and Future Liberal is the story of that abdication.
American political history over the past century can be usefully divided into two “dispensations,” to invoke the Christian theological term. The first, the Roosevelt Dispensation, stretched from the era of the New Deal to the era of the civil rights movement and the Great Society in the 1960s, and then exhausted itself in the 1970s. The second, the Reagan Dispensation, began in 1980 and is now being brought to a close by an opportunistic, unprincipled populist.
The Roosevelt Dispensation pictured an America where citizens were involved in a collective enterprise to guard one another against risk, hardship, and the denial of fundamental rights. Its watchwords were solidarity, opportunity, and public duty. The Reagan Dispensation pictured a more individualistic America where families and small communities and businesses would flourish once freed from the shackles of the state. Its watchwords were self-reliance and minimal government.
Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people—African-Americans, women—seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. But by the 1980s it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities. The main result has been to turn young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them outward toward the wider world.
There is a good reason that liberals focus extra attention on minorities, since they are the most likely to be disenfranchised. But in a democracy the only way to meaningfully defend them—and not just make empty gestures of recognition and “celebration”—is to win elections and exercise power in the long run, at every level of government. And the only way to accomplish that is to have a message that appeals to as many people as possible and pulls them together. Identity liberalism does just the opposite.
The paradox of identity liberalism is that it paralyzes the capacity to think and act in a way that would actually accomplish the things it professes to want. It is mesmerized by symbols: achieving superficial diversity in organizations, retelling history to focus on marginal and often minuscule groups, concocting inoffensive euphemisms to describe social reality, protecting young ears and eyes already accustomed to slasher films from any disturbing encounter with alternative viewpoints.
My ideal citizen is the self-employed, homeschooling, IRA-owning guy with a concealed-carry permit. Because that person doesn’t need the goddamn government for anything.Grover Norquist
A new outlook on life had been gaining ground in the United States, one in which the needs and desires of individuals were given near-absolute priority over those of society. This subliminal revolution has done more to shape American politics in the past half century than any particular historical event.
It is difficult to convey to anyone who wasn’t alive and politically aware at the time what a dreary place America seemed in the late 1970s, how lacking in direction and confidence.
In 1974 the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick published a bestselling book titled Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He shocked many by arguing that if we take the principle of individual rights seriously, then only a very minimal state could possibly be justified.
The Republican primaries of 2016 will no doubt prove as historically significant as the election that followed. We must never forget that Trump defeated both of America’s major political parties, starting with the one he nominally belonged to.
You might have thought that, faced with a novel anti-political picture of the nation, liberals would have countered with an imaginative, hopeful vision of what we share as Americans and what we might accomplish together. Instead, they lost themselves in the thickets of identity politics and developed a resentful, disuniting rhetoric of difference to match it.
You might have thought that, faced with the dogma of radical economic individualism that Reaganism normalized, liberals would have used their positions in our educational institutions to teach young people that they share a destiny with all their fellow citizens and have duties toward them. Instead, they trained students to be spelunkers of their personal identities and left them incurious about the world outside their heads.
Today’s activists and leaders are formed almost exclusively in our colleges and universities, as are members of the mainly liberal professions of law, journalism, and education. Liberal political education now takes place, if it takes place at all, on campuses that are largely detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country—and in particular from the sorts of people who once were the foundation of the Democratic Party. This is not likely to change. Which means that liberalism’s prospects will depend in no small measure on what happens in our institutions of higher education.
JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country?—which had inspired the early sixties generation—became unintelligible. The only meaningful question became a deeply personal one: what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?
Campus towns still do stand out from the rest of America and are very pleasant places to live, though they have lost much of their utopian allure. Most have become meccas of a new consumerist culture for the highly educated, surrounded by techie office parks and increasingly expensive homes. They are places where you can visit a bookshop, see a foreign movie, pick up vitamins and candles, have a decent meal followed by an espresso, and perhaps attend a workshop and have your conscience cleaned. A thoroughly bourgeois setting without a trace of the demos, apart from the homeless men and women who flock there and whose job is to keep it real for the residents.
With the rise of identity consciousness, engagement in issue-based movements began to diminish somewhat and the conviction got rooted that the movements most meaningful to the self are, unsurprisingly, about the self. As the feminist authors of the Combahee River Collective put it baldly in their influential 1977 manifesto, “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” This new attitude had a profound impact on American universities.
The more obsessed with personal identity campus liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate. Over the past decade a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: Speaking as an X . . . This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter. (One never says, Speaking as a gay Asian, I feel incompetent to judge this matter.) It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. So classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means that there is no impartial space for dialogue.
At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters. Particular groups—today the transgendered—are given temporary totemic significance. Scapegoats—today conservative political speakers—are duly designated and run off campus in a purging ritual. Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false. And not only propositions but simple words. Left identitarians who think of themselves as radical creatures, contesting this and transgressing that, have become like buttoned-up Protestant schoolmarms when it comes to the English language, parsing every conversation for immodest locutions and rapping the knuckles of those who inadvertently use them.
The only adversary left is ourselves. And we have mastered the art of self-sabotage. At a time when we liberals need to speak in a way that convinces people from very different walks of life, in every part of the country, that they share a common destiny and need to stand together, our rhetoric encourages self-righteous narcissism.
It is an iron law in democracies that anything achieved through movement politics can be undone through institutional politics. The reverse is not the case.
Martin Luther King Jr. was the greatest movement leader in American history. But, as Hillary Clinton once correctly pointed out, his efforts would have been futile without those of the machine politician Lyndon Johnson, a seasoned congressional deal maker willing to sign any pact with the devil to get the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed.
If the steady advance of a radicalized Republican Party, over many years and in every branch and at every level of government, should teach liberals anything, it is the absolute priority of winning elections today. Given the Republicans’ rage for destruction, it is the only way to guarantee that newly won protections for African-Americans, other minorities, women, and gay Americans remain in place. Workshops and university seminars will not do it. Online mobilizing and flash mobs will not do it. Protesting, acting up, and acting out will not do it.
Democratic politics is about persuasion, not self-expression. I’m here, I’m queer will never provoke more than a pat on the head or a roll of the eyes. Accept that you will never agree with people on everything—that’s to be expected in a democracy. One effect of engaging in social movements tied to identity is that you’ve been surrounded by the like-minded and like-faced and like-educated. Impose no purity tests on those you would convince.
The only way out of this conundrum is to appeal to something that as Americans we all share but which has nothing to do with our identities, without denying the existence and importance of the latter. And there is something, if only liberals would again begin to speak of it: citizenship.
To say that we are all citizens is not to say that we are all alike in every respect. It is a social fact that many Americans today think of themselves in terms of identity groups, but there is no reason why they cannot simultaneously think of themselves as political citizens like everyone else. Both ideas can be—indeed, are—true. What’s crucial at this juncture in our history is to concentrate on this shared political status, not on our other manifest differences.
And the concept of citizenship has one additional advantage. It provides a political language for speaking about a solidarity that transcends identity attachments. Democratic citizenship implies reciprocal rights and duties. We have duties because we have rights; we enjoy rights because we do our duty.
I am not a black male motorist and never will be. All the more reason, then, that I need some way to identify with one if I am going to be affected by his experience. And citizenship is the only thing I know we share. The more the differences between us are emphasized, the less likely I will be to feel outrage at his mistreatment.
Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity. There is no denying that by publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans the movement mobilized supporters and delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. But there is also no denying that the movement’s decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society, and its law enforcement institutions, and to use Mau-Mau tactics to put down dissent and demand a confession of sins and public penitence (most spectacularly in a public confrontation with Hillary Clinton, of all people), played into the hands of the Republican right.
As soon as you cast an issue exclusively in terms of identity you invite your adversary to do the same.
Whatever might be said about the legitimate concerns of Trump supporters, they have no excuse for voting for him. Given his manifest unfitness for higher office, a vote for Trump was a betrayal of citizenship, not an exercise of it.
In order to become naturalized citizens, immigrants must also pass a civics test. It is not easy. They are asked about the principles of democratic government and about very specific features of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. They are expected to know about the structure of our institutions at every level of government and the relative powers of each branch. They are asked about citizens’ rights, but also about their duties. The test even contains detailed questions about American history, beginning with the nation’s founding and moving forward to the present. If you know anyone who has taken the test, you know how much it meant to him or her to pass it, and how moved he or she was to pledge allegiance to the flag. The experience made them feel attached to the country that had accepted them.
Conservatives are right: our educational institutions, from bottom to top, are mainly run by liberals, and teaching has a liberal tilt. But they are wrong to infer that students are therefore being politicized.