The Once and Future Liberal reviews: identity and the American body politic


Columbia professor Mark Lilla thinks an obsession with identity politics has wrecked American liberalism. Two writers respond to his provocative new book

Charles Kaiser

Charles Kaiser. Photograph: Joe Stouter

Charles Kaiser, formerly a reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, is the author of 1968 in America, The Gay Metropolis and most recently The Cost of Courage.

Mark Lilla is a professor of humanities at Colombia University. Like so many other straight white male academics of a certain age, he is preoccupied with the excesses of political correctness on American campuses today.

Unfortunately, he also resembles his colleagues in his inability to peer over ivy-covered walls to give us an accurate vision of the world beyond his classroom. What he offers instead is a reaction to what he has experienced with his students, rather than a description of the real effects of “identity politics”, which are his obsession.

Lilla gave the pithiest summary of his concerns last November in the New York Times: “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

In his book, he does acknowledge the benefits of the civil rights movement, which “offered a constructive way of serving both the African American community and the country as a whole by working to force America to live up to its principles”. He is also correct that the left needs to focus a lot more attention on winning elections, especially at state and local levels, and he properly criticizes progressives for their eagerness to condemn their own, particularly in attacking Barack Obama.

But then the tunnel-vision of his campus experiences kicks in, leading him to say things which are half-true, untrue, false or just completely meaningless.

Not only does he think identity politics has prevented liberals from governing; he also believes is has made it impossible for them to accomplish anything important. Liberal activists used to work with parties and through institutions to achieve their ends, he writes, but in the 70s and 80s, “movement politics began to be seen by many liberals as an alternative rather than a supplement to institutional politics”.

He also thinks liberals are “incapable of achieving concrete political ends” because they are not willing to “engage in the slow, patient work of campaigning for office, drawing up legislation, [and] making trades to get it passed”.

In Mark Lilla’s view, Reaganism shares more than a kernel in common with the ‘anti-politics, and self-reverence of identity liberalism, according to Lloyd Green Photograph: PR

This is false. Applied to the gay rights movement of the last 50 years, it is also completely ahistorical.

LGBT activists have worked almost entirely through the Democratic party, beginning with their support of Bill Clinton and continuing through the election of Obama. The movement has campaigned for local office and made compromises to enact laws in 20 states that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; it secured congressional majorities to overturn the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” discrimination policy; and 37 states adopted marriage equality before the supreme court made it the law of the land with Obergefell v Hodges in June 2015.

Lilla also sees Facebook as a dangerous manifestation of the narcissism of young people on the left. “The Facebook model is all about the self,” he writes, “my very self, not about common histories or the common good or even ideas.”

This is typical of the kind of broad statement he makes without offering any evidence, and it completely ignores that Facebook transformed liberal presidential politics in 2008, when it probably made the Obama presidency possible by creating a whole new system of presidential fundraising, attracting millions of small contributions instead of relying entirely on fat cats.

Lilla does mention the main cause for our current predicament – the investment of billions of dollars in thinktanks, radio talkshows and TV networks to move the center of political thinking sharply to the right. But for some reason he thinks all of this has been much less important in alienating voters from liberalism than a noble effort to extend the basic protections of the constitution to women, African Americans and gay, lesbian and transgender people.

He is right when he says Trump voters seemed to possess nothing but “a paranoid, conspiratorial picture of power that our popular culture and rightwing media continually refresh”. But then he follows that with a piece of perfect nonsense: “Mr Smith Goes to Washington has as much to answer for as Fox News.”

No, it does not. Rupert Murdoch and John Olin, Richard Mellon Scaife and Charles and David Koch and their billions are what got us here. Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra are innocent.

Lloyd Green

Lloyd Green. Photograph: Lloyd Green

An attorney in New York, Lloyd Green was opposition research counsel to George HW Bush’s 1988 campaign and served in the Department of Justice from 1990 to 1992.

The dream of a narrow upstairs-downstairs coalition propelling the Democrats back to power is looking shaky. Since 2010, the party has lost control of the White House and Congress. On election day, white working-class voters went Republican by a staggering 37-point margin. Hillary Clinton drew almost half of her support from minority communities. The capacity of liberal identity politics to close the deal is doubtful, at best.

Over the past half-century, the Democratic party has morphed into the de facto home of graduate degree America, Black Lives Matter and Lena Dunham of Girls. If November teaches us anything, it is that economic anxiety, crime and cultural resentment beat self-actualization. As Mark Lilla frames things, the Pilgrims “did not speak in terms of personal identities; they had souls back then”.

Just weeks after Donald Trump’s electoral college win, Lilla, a Columbia University professor of humanities, fired off his initial salvo in the New York Times. “Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan,” he wrote, adding: “Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”

Now, Lilla picks up where he left off. At the outset,The Once and Future Liberal traces a path from Franklin D Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. In author’s view, Reaganism shares more than a kernel in common with the “anti-politics” and self-reverence of identity liberalism. Here, Lilla overstates.

Gordon Gecko was not the only face of the Republicans’ ascendance. Even as Reagan and the Republicans were attacking government, they were saluting our flag, troops and police. The GOP may have sought to roll back the Great Society, but they simultaneously embraced America’s core symbols and institutions. The map and the military tell us that – with the exceptions of Maine and Vermont – the armed forces are the province of Red America.

Lilla rightly blames academia for converting universities into snowflaked sanctuaries, where deviation from political correctness constitutes sin punishable by banishment. He also takes issue with higher education’s “obsessive fascination with the margins of society”.

Donald Trump walks onto the stage at a rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania in November. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

For Lilla, the Democrats’ road to recovery means re-embracing the concept of “citizenship”, the idea that that being an American entails reciprocal rights and obligations, and that our fellow countrymen deserve to be listened to and respected even when we disagree with them.

“It is a sign of how polluted our political discourse has become,” he writes, “that any mention of the term citizen” is labeled as “racist demagoguery”.

Not surprisingly, Lilla has met with intramural opposition. Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown professor, minister and activist, branded Lilla’s views as those of an amnesiac with a “fang, an exposed snarl, and inconvenient messiness of real history”.

Ultimately, Lilla’s prescriptions are not a surefire remedy for a Democratic restoration. The party’s woes with white voters without a college degree go beyond just identity liberalism. Hillary Clinton’s rumination on “deplorables” at a Wall Street fundraiser, like Barack Obama’s take on God and guns, laid bare the challenges Democrats face as they head toward the 2018 midterm elections.

Even amidst the turmoil surrounding the president, polls reflect that blue-collar Americans in swing districts are committed to the Republican party. The numbers show the GOP with an overall 10-point lead on the generic ballot among such voters, and up 35% when the question turns to the economy.

The Once and Future Liberal is a dead-on diagnosis of what ails the Democrats. The open question, however, is who will ultimately be listening to Lilla.

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