Book Review: The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla

I include this book and commentary here on the blog because it is an important contribution to the American political debate, not that anyone will be listening. There are few philosophical implications not brought out in the book itself. My purpose in this commentary is to note other of my reviewed books that address this issue, and to describe, briefly, my own experience with identity politics.

First Slavoj Zizek who in his recent book “The Courage of Hopelessness” (linked) and several other recent books, gets into this subject at some length making, in Zizek’s inimical style, exactly the same points. Another is Cathrine Mayer’s “Attack of the 50 Foot Women” (linked), and also Mickel Adzema’s “Culture War, Class War” (reviewed, but not on the blog. Link is to book on Amazon) which touch broadly on the same issues. All four of these books make the same point: Identity Politics has had a corrosive impact on the ability of liberal voters to come together with a coherent program offering any hope of countering the rise of intolerant Right-Wing politics. Adzema blames all of this on the political Right, but the other three note correctly that the Left is complicit in the process.

My own experience with identity politics comes from social media, the 21st century editorial arena. I was some years on Google+ (now defunct) and so now with an outfit called MeWe (MeWe.com) which is structurally similar. I am also on Twitter. As for Face Book, I have no account, but my girl friend has and she shows me plenty! All of these forums both illustrate and facilitate the corrosive impact of identity politics. This has become especially noticeable as we enter the 2020 election cycle. Identity politics narrows dialog between groups. Social media reinforces that constriction (the “silo” or “bubble” effect well noted by many authors) by allowing users to choose those and only those whose views they will see and to which they respond.

The various identity factions simply do not (or very rarely) talk to one another. I have been hammered (and blocked) by those identifying with the LGBTQ+ community, sub-segments of the black community, American natives, or sex workers, merely for suggesting that their political interests might be better served if they aligned, politically, with a wider community. None of them seem to get it. Hyper-narrow political self interest cannot foster the kind of broad consensus needed to take and hold political power in the United States.

The present Democratic field illustrates the problem. Half the candidates in the race are perceived (rightly or wrongly) as supporters, primarily, of one identity or another. Back on social media I cannot tell you how disappointed I am to note how many of their various supporters say they won’t vote if their favorite candidate is not the nominee, exactly the attitude (on the part of Bernie Sanders supporters) that got Trump elected in 2016. If I try to point this out to people, if I try to say in one way or another that electing a broadly liberal democrat, whomever it might be, is more important than any emphasis on a particular identity I am summarily rejected from the community of that particular silo.

You might think that climate change would be the sort of issue that could unite everyone. It is, like world war, a matter that impacts everyone. But climate change, while it will become far more disastrous than any world war to date (not to mention possibly spawning the next one), grows more impact-full over generational time scales, far longer than an election cycle. Compared to the immediacy of perceived identity discrimination, no one today has the patience to work for a solution to the already-upon-us effects that will continue to grow more severe for the next three or four generations even if we acted, as a world, both decisively and immediately.

In his conclusion, Lilla extols liberals to find a vision that will transcend narrow identity issues and gather the flock. Roosevelt did it in the 1930s, but his vision promised, and mostly delivered, change-for-the-better that could be felt over a single generation. I do not know what can be offered now that will fill that requirement!

The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla (2017)

This is the story of what ails the American Left, really the center-left, the vanishing species called “the American liberal”. Lilla begins with what he takes to be the furthest left America has ever been, roughly that period from 1934 to 1970 (the “Roosevelt Era”), quickly fading and dead with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The American Left wasn’t socialist, and certainly not communist. It did represent the redistribution of tax wealth into projects that uplifted the broad swath of the American people producing infrastructure, regulation, and services that made possible all the subsequent wealth coupled with a clean environment generated from 1980 to the present. It also kicked off the social movements that resulted in a more inclusive American society. Not only was it inclusive, it was a vision of shared moral responsibility, citizenship. A vision that motivated even the hippy movement of the 1960s.

In a sense the left did too well. The social fabric of the country and its booming economy made it possible for individuals to abandon the moral demands of a citizenship and focus instead on their individual aims, goals having no moral obligation to the nation. By 1980, the Roosevelt vision of a shared America where people and their government worked together to uplift all had lost its luster. In his re-election campaign, Jimmy Carter told the American people that recovery from the excesses of “Great Society” spending and the Vietnam war would take work, conservation, a shared vision of doing the hard work now so things would be better again in the future. In short, Carter advocated austerity (ironically, had America taken that path we would be now much farther along in the process of curtailing greenhouse gas — this an aside, not Lilla’s subject).

Reagan guessed correctly at the new national mood. He resurrected the myth of American hyper-individualism in a later 20th century form (ironically beginning the debt-fueled-growth America remains locked in today). Moral obligation to “the nation” disappeared from the American dialog, all the way down to the elimination of civics lessons in public schools. This, the “Reagan Era” has continued on down to today. The election of Donald Trump marks the logical conclusion of this doctrine, the idea that if everyone just does the best he or she can to get what he or she wants, the country will do fine. But when a national people are shorn of any obligation to think in national terms they gradually lose the ability to do so. The result is a loss of shared identity, a reason to compromise with others with whom you may have political disagreement.

Meanwhile back in the late 70s, on to Reagan’s election and beyond to today, the Left, the liberals, having accepted that things had changed, made a strategic blunder, really two of them. First, they put their energy into higher education figuring that a technologically savvy America would require large numbers of people with advanced educations. Surely their choice proved correct from an economic viewpoint, but not the political. The universities became separated from the broad middle of the country, their graduates perceived as effete snobs “out of touch” with the average person.

The second blunder was worse. Liberals abandoned the “all in it together” vision that had given liberalism its power in the post WWII period. Instead, liberals began emphasizing more narrow definitions of identity, dissipating what had been previously unified. This proved highly popular with students because it reinforced their natural tendency to identify with people more like themselves instead of making broader and more difficult connections demanding compromise. The result emphasized the Reagan vision of hyper individualism and helped corrode away any pull that a broader concept of “belonging as citizen” might have had.

This then is the problem we face today and for the next (2020) election cycle. The Right’s hyper-individualism has wiped out much of the middle class creating a nation of the hyper-rich few and the mass of the rest whose economic prospects have steadily dimmed over the past 50 years. But the modern left (the liberals and progressives) have offered no unifying vision. Instead they are trapped in the monster they created, the intolerance-of-difference of modern identity politics. Lilla ends here, extolling the liberal-left to articulate a new “all in it together” vision. Alas, I see no evidence of this happening.

All of this is the subject of Lilla’s book. I have tried to summarize it here, but there is more in the details he gives us.

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