Does Liberalism Still Have a Future?

By Jeffrey C. IsaacNovember 22, 2017

Does Liberalism Still Have a Future?
AMERICAN LIBERALISM is in crisis. It has long been in crisis — at least since the rise of Reaganism in the 1970s, but perhaps since the fracturing of the so-called liberal “vital center” in the 1960s. In a sense, American liberalism has always been in crisis; it has been shaped and reshaped by political battles since its birth. (And what is its birth date exactly? Is it 1776, 1787, 1865, 1920, 1932, 1945, or 1965? Or, as Louis Hartz long ago suggested, has the United States been “liberal” ever since the first colonial settlements? Or, as Rogers Smith wondered, has it perhaps been rather illiberal from the start?)

The acrimonious 2016 presidential primary and general election campaigns, leading to the November 2016 election of Donald Trump, surely brought this crisis of liberalism to a head, empowering a profoundly anti-liberal administration. But the acrimony persists, between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and indeed within the conservative and liberal camps themselves. Within days of the election, the Sunday New York Times published an opinion piece by Mark Lilla entitled “The End of Identity Liberalism.” Lilla’s point was directly stated, and obviously aimed at the failed Clinton campaign: appeals to diversity and recognition are politically and ethically “disastrous,” and have “produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.” The piece generated an immediate firestorm of controversy, with a wide range of writers and activists attacking Lilla for “whitewashing” the history of racism and misogyny that gave rise to struggles for inclusion and diversity, and for implicitly rationalizing the reactionary hostility to “political correctness” that fueled Trump’s political ascendancy.

Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics is an extended version of his Times piece, hastily written to defend it and to capitalize on the controversy it caused. The book does not engage carefully particular interlocutors. In some ways, it contains more nuanced and qualified arguments; in others, it is as disparaging as the essay on which it is based, and seems to signify its author’s disinclination to take his critics very seriously. Unsurprisingly, the book has stoked further controversy. And Lilla has been showing up everywhere — online and in print, on air and on screen, left and right — to amplify his thesis that “identity politics” is a blight on American liberalism, and that only by moving beyond it, and embracing a new communitarianism, can liberalism hope for a revival.

The book is easy to summarize. In the introduction (entitled “The Abdication”), Lilla argues that Trump’s victory signals the bankruptcy of an “identity liberalism” that “for decades has prevented liberals from developing an ambitious vision of America and its future that would inspire citizens of every walk of life and in every region of the country.” This liberalism is narcissistic, defensive, and “evangelical” rather than “political”; it places a premium on protest movements rather than electoral politics, and is angry and offensive to the broad mass of the citizenry. What is needed, instead, is a “civic liberalism” inspired by FDR’s New Deal. In the first chapter (“Anti-Politics”), Lilla sketches the rise of New Deal liberalism; the flourishing of its broad middle-class agenda in the post–World War II period; its contradictions, especially the creation of “a hyper-individualistic bourgeois society” that undermined “civic” values and promoted what Christopher Lasch decades ago called a “culture of narcissism”; and its defeat by the rise of Reaganism, an individualistic, but also optimistic and patriotic vision of “morning in America.” In the next chapter (“Pseudo-Politics”), Lilla argues that liberals, vanquished by Reagan, “lost themselves in the thickets of identity politics,” drawing on the worst tendencies of the ’60s New Left, retreating from the heartland of the United States to the universities, and promoting stifling forms of “political correctness.” Of these “identity liberals,” Lilla writes:

they became enthralled with social movements operating outside those institutions and developed disdain for the demos living between the coasts […] they trained students to be spelunkers of their personal identities and left them incurious about the world outside their heads.

Such a liberalism, Lilla insists, is intellectually vacuous, morally deficient, and politically counterproductive. And while it played some role in the political support for the Clinton and Obama presidencies, it cannot offer a powerful alternative to right-wing Republicanism. The apotheosis of this liberalism is thus the incoherent and losing campaign of Hillary Clinton, whose “Stronger Together” slogan offered a vague appeal to inclusion that proved much weaker than Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again.”

In the book’s conclusion (“Politics”), Lilla vaguely sketches his preferred version of liberal politics, appealing to an electoral rather than a movement politics; a Weberian ethic of compromise; a communitarian conception of citizenship; and a form of civic education that is “patriotic,” and that counters the supposed identity liberal inclination to “unmake” rather than to “make” citizens.

Lilla’s book has already been subjected to withering criticisms, many of which I share: that it whitewashes the history of American liberalism, and bleaches out the racial and gender limits of New Deal liberalism that gave rise to the “new social movements” of the ’60s; that it caricatures these movements, ignoring their efforts to reach beyond essentialized conceptions of identity, and to practice a kind of insurgent coalition politics; and that its critiques are needlessly hostile, in ways that seem intended to “diss” those characterized as “identity liberals” and not to engage their efforts or to persuade them.

The most egregious example of “dissing” is Lilla’s assertion that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” because

the movement’s decision to use this [police] 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 […] played into the hands of the Republican right.

BLM is of course not above criticism. But it is also a young movement, and indeed more of a “brand” covering a wide range of local protests and public policy initiatives than an organized force. Instead of developing a careful account of the possibilities and limits of trans-racial alliances, and the role that BLM has played relative to a range of other civil rights organizations and movements, Lilla reduces it to its worst excesses, employs overblown and frightening rhetoric, and treats the participants in this dynamic movement as overwrought children in need of instruction rather than as fellow citizens. This is ironic, given Lilla’s frequent appeals to moderation and “the common good.”

Lilla is similarly tone-deaf in treating the abortion issue, accusing “identity liberals” of stridently “looking down” on ordinary Americans. He is worth quoting at length here:

I am an absolutist on abortion. It is the social issue I care most about, and I believe it should be safe and legal virtually without condition on every square inch of American soil. But not all my fellow citizens agree […] So what should my strategy be? Drive pro-life voters out of the harden and into the waiting arms of the radical right? Or should I find a civil way to agree to disagree and make a few compromises in order to keep the liberal ones in my own party and voting with me on other issues?

Lilla’s answer, of course, is the “civil way.” He thus takes “identity liberals” to task for opposing the effort of Robert P. Casey, then the Catholic governor of Pennsylvania and an opponent of reproductive freedom, to present what Lilla calls “a pro-life plank to the platform [of the 1992 Democratic party convention].” This is a genuinely challenging political dilemma facing liberals today, as shown by the ongoing controversy over whether the Democratic National Committee should support anti-choice candidates. But Lilla does not treat this challenge with the seriousness it deserves, instead choosing to reduce it to the terms of his broader critique of identity liberalism.

There is a particular irony here. Lilla’s attack on identity liberalism centers on its “narcissism.” And yet he opens his discussion of the challenges of coalition politics in the face of the abortion issue, by telling us that he is personally a zealous supporter of reproductive choice, and yet when he is tasked to come up with a “strategy,” he is moved politically to seek compromise with those who would limit or deny abortion rights. It doesn’t occur to him that while he is surely entitled to reason for himself about this issue, the question of how the feminist and reproductive freedom movements ought to act politically is not a question about him: it is about the women and organizations who have long struggled for a woman’s right to choose, and do not regard this right as negotiable.

I can imagine Lilla responding that “Our Bodies, Our Selves” is a “narrow” feminist slogan. What about men’s bodies, he might say? I can also imagine feminists — and I count myself as one — responding that the right of 50 percent of the population to have control over their bodies is a hard-won principle of modern-day liberalism that ought to be regarded as no less important than civil freedom or the right to vote. What this means politically might well remain complicated, a matter of political judgment, about which serious people might honestly disagree without being labeled “fanatics.” But if liberalism involves principles, then not everything should be treated as a matter of compromise. The commitment to reproductive freedom is just such a principle. And the ethical reflex that might advise a man to think twice before claiming that he cares about abortion as much as the women whose bodies are at stake is not a baneful form of “PC.” Such “thinking twice” should not end the conversation, nor should it necessarily privilege the arguments of those who claim to speak in the name of the “subaltern.” But it represents a valuable learning process undergone by post-’60s American liberalism, toward which Lilla is far too dismissive.

Lilla repeatedly emphasizes his own appreciation of civil rights, struggles against police brutality, and women’s rights, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. There are moments in the book when he seems to imply that his problem is less with the “politics of recognition” than with its excesses. At the same time, the overall tone of the book is unremittingly disparaging; indeed, given Lilla’s claim that most liberals today are “anti-political,” his critique of “identity politics” is moralistic, and rendered from on high. It fails to register the genuine challenges that have confronted activists seeking to engage such “identity” issues as domestic violence, homophobia, or the vulnerability of young Black lives to violence, police brutality, and incarceration. And it misses the agonistic dimensions of these contests, which represent the unleashing of political energies and passions long denied.

There is little that is new about Lilla’s general argument that American liberalism needs to develop a broad-based appeal if it is to counter right-wing populism and produce a lasting “middle-class” policy regime. This argument was first made over 20 years ago in Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven (1991), E. J. Dionne Jr.’s Why Americans Hate Politics (1991), Todd Gitlin’s The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why American is Wracked by Culture Wars (1995), and Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America (1999). What has vexed so many writers is the question of how. Unfortunately, Lilla has little to offer beyond moralistic denunciation of “divisiveness” and appeals to “common good.”

Lilla comes by this moralism honestly, for his liberalism is very much of the center-right variety. He was for years (1980–’87) an editor at The Public Interest, where he worked under Irving Kristol, the most important neoconservative intellectual, who once famously declared, with reference to the cultural and racial politics of the ’60s, that “a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” Lilla’s account of the 1970s crisis of liberalism reiterates almost verbatim the themes of neoconservative culture criticism: that a fear of “blaming the victim” led liberals to valorize a “new culture of dependency,” to ignore “the tremendous rise in violent crime,” and to “lose credibility with white lower-middle-class voters”; that “well-meant regulations imposed without coordination” by liberals “engulfed” small businesses and “stifled” economic growth; that “liberals stood unquestionably behind unions” and “grew increasingly reliant on the courts,” thus alienating ordinary Americans. Lilla’s account of the state of campus life at universities across the country echoes the hostile indictment offered by neoconservative Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind.

It is unsurprising, then, that Lilla waxes with nostalgia for the rise of conservative icon Ronald Reagan. He writes that Reagan’s 1980 victory

felt […] as if something more significant than an election had just taken place. Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. 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 later 1970s, how lacking in direction and confidence.

A year younger than Lilla, I was very much “alive and politically aware” in the later 1970s. Try as I might, I cannot recall experiencing any enthusiasm when Reagan came to power. But my liberalism is surely of a different brand from Lilla’s. To be fair, while Lilla perhaps accurately recalls the enthusiasm of his 24-year-old self, today’s 61-year-old Lilla is no apologist for Reaganism: he argues that Reagan’s rhetoric extolled the “hyperindividualism” of the ’60s, and gave rise to free-market fundamentalism and political Know Nothingism, laying the foundation for the current Republican Party’s takeover by Trump.

If Kristol was a “liberal who had been mugged by reality,” Lilla might be thought of as a former young “Reagan enthusiast who had been mugged by reality,” and thus became reenchanted with FDR-style “civic liberalism.” His sincerity is not in question. But it is worth underscoring Lilla’s harsh criticism of virtually every important constituency of post–World War II American liberalism, from the labor movement to the Civil Rights movement to the environmental movement. Lilla is not a “reactionary,” and is surely no “white supremacist.” He gives these movements their due — but only in passing, and within a narrative in which each has been essentially corrupted, and in which the current triumph of Trump represents an almost logical outcome of this corruption.

Lilla’s critique is also marked by a striking form of American exceptionalism. He makes no mention of any other liberal democracy facing similar challenges, nor does he consider sources of these challenges than run deeper than a uniquely American brand of cultural antinomianism. These are precisely the themes of Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism. For Luce, the crisis of liberalism plagues the entire “West,” and is indeed global in its conditions and consequences. He centers his discussion on two dynamics: (1) transformations of capitalism (the rise of “flexible accumulation” and the “gig economy”; the rise of digital technologies that reduce the demand for labor; growing income inequality; the ascendancy of a neoliberal trade regime, and the declining ability of national governments to supplement the wage economy to support middle-class standards of living), and (2) changes in the geopolitical situation (the fact that “the center of gravity of the global economy has shifted from mid-Atlantic to somewhere between China and India,” leading to a massive global redistribution of wealth; the changed importance of China and Russia, creating a new “tripolar” geopolitical space, and the growing appeal of their non-liberal models of political authority; the declining hegemony of the West; and the acceleration of global political crises that test the capacity, and legitimacy, of liberal democratic regimes).

Luce treats the crisis of liberal democracy and the rise of right-wing populism as consequences of, and reactions to, these structural developments. While Lilla occasionally genuflects toward a “materialist” or “Marxist” account (mainly as a way of scoring rhetorical points against “identity” types), Luce prioritizes political economy, arguing that while right-wing populists have successfully tapped racial and national resentment, it is the decline of widespread economic growth, and the pressure placed on established welfare systems by secular demographic conditions (immigration, an aging population) that is “the root cause of the rise of Western populism.” Lilla, channeling Francis Fukuyama, waxes optimistic about the long-term danger presented by right-wing extremism; “for the first time in living memory,” he writes, “we liberals have no ideological adversary worthy of the name. So it is crucial that we look beyond Trump. The only adversary left is ourselves.” For Luce, instead, the bloom has long since fallen from that rose: “We are on a menacing trajectory brought about by ignorance of our history, indifference towards society’s losers and complacency about the strength of our democracy.”

While Luce shares Lilla’s aversion to the “arrogance” of many “Western cosmopolitan elites,” and endorses his call to end “identity liberalism,” his account of the structural weaknesses of liberal democracy prevents him from regarding attitude adjustment as a remedy. He advocates “a new social compact” with strong social democratic dimensions. Yet Luce’s comments here are vague, and there is a glaring disjuncture between the magnitude of the political-economic crisis he outlines and the political agency he invokes, which centers less on policies, institutions, or social movements than on enlightened leadership: “But whatever your remedies to the crisis of liberal democracy, nothing much is likely to happen unless the West’s elites understand the enormity of what they face.”

In the end, Luce’s brief for a “new social contract” seems no more compelling than Lilla’s call for a new civic virtue. For neither reckons with the magnitude of the crisis of institutional capacity and political legitimacy that confronts contemporary liberal democracy. Whether we speak of “globalization,” “neoliberalism,” or “post-Fordism,” the working-class base of the post–World War II Democratic Party, like the social democratic parties of post–World War II Europe, has been eroded by deeply rooted structural tendencies in global economics and politics. Accompanying this has been a weakening of political parties in general, a “hollowing out” of electoral politics, and a decline of political trust, generating new dynamics of political polarization and hyper-partisanship.

At the same time, the new technologies, and the new social movements, that have arisen since the 1960s have engendered new “post-materialist” demands for recognition, and communicative and organizational forms, many of which sustain precisely those varieties of fractious “identity politics” that both Lilla and Luce seem to wish would just go away. But they neither can nor should be wished away. For they represent the liberation of new energies and possibilities.

The environment in which liberals operate has thus been fundamentally transformed. And this has engendered nothing less than a fracturing of the very meaning of liberalism, especially in the American context. We thus have “civic liberals” arguing with “identity liberals” arguing with “left liberals” and social democratic-leaning liberals, all too often seeking to claim the mantle of liberalism for themselves by sharply defining their own brand, and disparaging others whose “liberalism” differs from their own. No good can come of this, especially in a context in which many on the left are increasingly distancing themselves from liberalism altogether, either through the regularized disparagement of “neoliberalism” or through the use of the term “liberalism” itself as an epithet of mockery or abuse. This combination of liberal sectarianism and anti-liberal animus farther to the left helps to reproduce the destructive anti-liberalism of the radical right.

“Liberalism” has long been an essentially contested concept. There is no reason to imagine this changing. But there is also no reason to promote sectarian arguments that serve to antagonize core liberal constituencies and to obscure core liberal value commitments worth defending. Lilla is not wrong to believe that liberals need to articulate better a compelling and wide-reaching vision of citizenship; many liberals have been saying this for a long time. But he is wrong to denounce the plural and agonistic forms that contemporary liberalism has taken, and to propose in their place a vague and bland communitarianism. Liberal democracy is currently under siege. Instead of moralistic appeals to civic virtue and moderation, what we need is to name, vigorously defend, and also give new meaning to its core values: equal citizenship, human rights, freedom to speak, dissent, associate, and protest, vigorous political contestation, and a democratic state that is responsive to the claims of social justice and ecological sustainability. This involves reasoned debates and heated arguments, passionate identifications and the arduous work of coalition building. Most importantly, it involves an honest reckoning with the illiberal tendencies of our post-modern society, including the genuine power of the political right; the emergence of disturbing new forms of anti-liberalism on the left; and the profound structural obstacles confronting a liberal political revival.

The challenge for liberals is not only to create new narratives and new coalitions and to forge a new language of commonality. It is to empower new organizations and political candidates, revitalize social movements and political parties, and generate a deep base of support for a politics of autonomy, solidarity, and liberal democratic deepening. This is a tall order. Luce is rather bracing in his diagnosis, but he is right:

the forces working against stability are too overwhelming to imagine we can reverse the clock. Rising disorder, the growing randomness of events and the exponential rate of technological change are making erratic particles of us all. We are moving into a Brownian world […] This also describes our digital age. The surge of bytes in a networked world favours cyber-chaos. In short, we are entering a period where instability is growing and the centre will struggle to hold.

Holding the center, and expanding its commitment to social, economic, and political equality, are the herculean tasks before us.

Writing in 1935, and at an earlier moment of genuine liberal crisis, John Dewey observed that:

It is hardly possible to refrain from asking what liberalism really is; what elements, if any, of permanent value it contains, and how these values shall be maintained and developed in the conditions the world now faces […] Liberalism has to gather itself together to formulate the ends to which it is devoted in terms of means that are relevant to the contemporary situation.

For him, at the height of the New Deal, this meant “liberation from material insecurity and from the coercions and repressions that prevent multitudes from participation in the vast cultural resources that are at hand.” That liberation achieved much. But it has run its course. Today we confront a recurrence of similar material insecurities and coercions and repressions. But we also confront a much more complex, fissiparous, and fractious social and economic situation, with a multitude of demands for remedy, recognition, and justice and a multitude of social actors and organizations insistently pressing these demands. It remains to be seen whether liberalism can rise to the challenge.


Author’s note: I would like to thank Mihaela Miroiu, Rafael Khachaturian, Maria Bucur, and Oana Baluta for their comments on this piece.


Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, where he has taught for the past 30 years.

LARB Contributor

Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, where he has taught for the past 36 years. In 2017, he received the American Political Science Association’s Frank Goodnow Award for public service for his long tenure as editor in chief of Perspectives on Politics: A Political Science Public Sphere. He has published five books, edited or co-edited two anthologies, and published over 100 articles and essays. His political writing often appears at Common Dreams and on his personal blog, Democracy in Dark Times.


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