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

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

Charles Kaiser

Charles Kaiser. Photo: 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 dedicated the pithiest summary of his concerns last November in the New York Times:” American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral anxiety 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 right motion, which” offered a constructive way of serving both the African American community and the country as a whole by working to force-out 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 assaulting 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 altogether 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 objectives, he writes, but in the 70 s and 80 s,” motion 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 run of campaigning for office, describing up legislation,[ and] stimulating 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 totally ahistorical.

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

Lilla also assures Facebook as a dangerous show of the narcissism of young person on the left.” The Facebook model is all about the ego ,” he writes,” my very self , not about common histories or the common good or even notions .”

This is typical of the kind of broad statement he makes without offering any evidence, and it altogether ignores that Facebook transformed liberal presidential politics in 2008, when it probably attained 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 present predicament- the investment of billions of dollars in thinktanks, radio talkshows and Tv networks to move the center of political reasoning sharply to the right. But for some reason he supposes 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 constantly 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 opponent 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 alliance propelling the Democrat 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 ran Republican by a staggering 37 -point margin. Hillary Clinton depicted 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 nervousnes, crime and cultural rancor beat self-actualization. As Mark Lilla frames things, the Pilgrims” did not speak in terms of personal identities; they had spirits 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 route from Franklin D Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. In author’s opinion, 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, the latter are 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 army 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 Democrat’ 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 astonishingly, Lilla has met with intramural opposition. Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown professor, pastor and activist, branded Lilla’s opinions 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 handguns, laid bare the challenges Democrats face as they head towards the 2018 midterm elections.

Even amidst the turmoil surrounding the president, polls reflect that blue-collar Americans in swaying districts are committed to the Republican party. The numbers depict the GOP with an overall 10 -point lead on the generic vote 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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