Published in The Moderate Voice here on 30 August 2017.
The identity liberals’ approach to fishing is to remain on shore, yelling at the fish about the historical wrongs visited on them by the sea, and the need for aquatic life to renounce its privilege. All in the hope that the fish will collectively confess their sins and swim to shore to be netted. If that is your approach to fishing, you had better become a vegan.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Mark Lilla published an essay on ‘The End of Identity Liberalism’. That piece proved popular, though it was more criticized than celebrated, at least among fellow liberals. The Once and Future Liberal extends his critique, if only ever-so-slightly. The work is telling and timely. But its diagnosis is hardly new and, in the end, Lilla’s prognosis is as thin as the book itself.
Lilla asks why those who’d ‘claim to speak for the great American demos [are] so indifferent to stirring its feelings and gaining its trust?’ His answer is an identity politics that ‘engages with the world and particularly politics with the limited aim of understanding and affirming what one already is.’ The resulting, inward focus on the personal and unique – race, gender, sexual orientation, etc – allows for group affiliation with those similarly situated. But this depth comes at the expense of breadth. In this sense, identity politics arguably undermines a broader rhetoric and politics of shared experiences and common goods.
If this obsession with identity is especially evident on college campuses like Lilla’s own, he notes its impact far beyond, not least in the hysterical weeping and gnashing of teeth that it inspires on the Right. Indeed, the liberal flight to identity and difference accelerated a parallel development among conservative nationalists (assisted, no doubt, by the election of the country’s first black president). The result is that many White Americans now see themselves as our nation’s real victims.
The first part of The Once and Future Liberal provides Lilla’s genealogy of our present predicament. He suggests that
American political history over the past century can usefully be 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.
Each of these ‘brought with it an inspiring image of America’s destiny and a distinctive catechism of doctrines that set the terms of political debate.’ Each was broad-based and joined together large sections of the country to effect political change. And each was rooted in specific circumstances that made them possible.
The current dispensations, if any, are unclear. But Lilla rightly notes just how dire the present political situation is for Democrats. Among other influences, the fixation on presidential politics – its ‘daddy issue’ – distracts from local and state races that govern much of our lives and that function as nurseries for national leaders. Republicans dominate across much of the nation, a legacy of President Obama rather than candidate Clinton. And Lilla expresses his frustration with ‘noble defeats’, urging a more practical electoral politics. Compromise in real contexts, he notes, is essential to sustainable political successes. Sadly, liberals have ‘lost the habit of taking the temperature of public opinion, building consensus, and taking small steps.’
While religion is rarely mentioned explicitly in the book, its imagery is everywhere. If, for example, progressives prefer to preach rather than to persuade:
Elections are not prayer meetings, and no one is interested in your personal testimony. They are not therapy sessions or occasions to obtain recognition. They are not seminars or “teaching moments.” They are not about exposing degenerates and running them out of town. If you want to save America’s soul, consider becoming a minister. If you want to force people to confess their sins and convert, don a white robe and head to the River Jordan. If you are determined to bring the Last Judgment down on the United States of America, become a god. But if you want to win the country back from the right, and bring about lasting change for the people you care about, it’s time to descend from the pulpit.
Both evangelism and movement politics, Lilla writes, are ‘about speaking truth to power.’ But ‘[p]olitics is about seizing power to defend the truth.’ For better or worse, real political change in the American context requires focussing on the specific needs and norms of actual communities and, if necessary, grinding out political victories.
Much of what Lilla suggests echoes communitarian critics of the last generation. Largely identifying with the Left, they challenged what they saw as the hyper-individualistic rhetoric and ontology of both economic and social liberalism. They insisted then, as Lilla does now, on the importance of the common good. They criticized the Left’s failure to emphasize social responsibilities as well as individual rights. They saw a dependence on American courts to right wrongs, rather than its legislatures, to be dangerously short-sighted.
There are some important differences, too. Rawlsian liberalism could be attacked as trading on a naive view of individuals as “unencumbered selves”. The contemporary identity liberalism that Lilla assails suggests a self so encumbered by uniqueness as to inhibit its empathy with others, not least those with whom you disagree politically. These liberals have little interest or faith in stirring the feelings or gaining the trust of the great unwashed of the American demos.
The Once and Future Liberal is a valuable critique of what is, and perhaps what once was. But Lilla’s liberalism is too lean for the future. His sense of citizenship, his liberal virtues of solidarity and equality before the law, are almost entirely empty of content. In the end, Lilla offers too little with which liberals might escape their present identity crisis.