His short new book The Once and Future Liberal, an extension of his op-ed, is generating similarly negative press from the mainstream left, with reactions ranging from David Remnick’s tedious exercise in missing the point to Beverly Gage’s dismissal of the book as “trolling disguised as erudition.” On Twitter, denunciations have been outright scatological.
What exactly has Lilla written to provoke such vitriol? A treatise for social Darwinism? Tips for sewing homemade Klan hoods?
Of course not. He has merely voiced publicly what many other Democrats have been saying in private: that the party’s focus on identity politics has come at the expense of winning elections, which means the very groups it purports to care most about are being underserved. Lilla proposes that the left abandon this self-defeating discourse and reinvest in reasoned appeals to the common good.
“We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens,” Lilla writes near the end of his opening salvo, “and to frame our appeals — including ones to benefit particular groups — in terms of principles that everyone can affirm. Ours must become a civic liberalism.”
While there is much to commend in this book — Lilla’s wide-ranging expertise, his good humor and sharp wit, his moral seriousness — it is not without its faults, the greatest of which is Lilla’s failure to press his critique to its logical limits.
A consummate intellectual historian, Lilla is at his strongest while explaining the genealogies of Reaganism and left identitarianism.
The first chapter, “Anti-Politics,” is equal parts nostalgia for the “Roosevelt Dispensation” — which “filled three generations of liberals with confidence, hope, pride, and a spirit of self-sacrifice” — and analysis of how its dogmatic calcification opened the way for the hyper-individualism of the Reaganite right. The new dispensation constituted an “anti-politics,” a rejection of larger-scale social responsibility in favor of an almost Emersonian self-reliance.
Lilla rightly judges Reaganism as a revolutionary over-correction, one inimical to traditional conservatism. “It treats as axiomatic the primacy of self-determination over traditional ties of dependence and obligation. It has next to nothing to say about the natural needs of collectivities — from families to nations — or our obligation to meet them.” He sees in the election of Donald Trump a repudiation of the vision that has united the Republican Party for nearly four decades. But Trump’s presidency is “disjunctive” — the old paradigm has been shattered, but nothing new has emerged to replace it.
This presents Democrats with a rare opportunity (for Lilla, a duty) to seize the country’s political imagination. However, liberals have “abdicated” by losing themselves in the “thickets of identity politics.”
While Lilla is sympathetic to early liberal identitarianism, emerging as it did to carve out a haven for the marginalized and facilitate their mobilization, he distinguishes the ideology’s just motivations from its fruits and reserves nothing but acid for the long-term consequences of the reduction of political action to mere self-expression. Instead of citizenship
people began to speak […] of their personal identities in terms of the inner homunculus, a unique little thing composed of parts tinted by race, sex, and gender. JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country? — which had inspired the early sixties generation — became unintelligible. The only meaningful question became a deeply personal one: what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?
Lilla detects an ironic mimeticism in the post–Roosevelt Dispensation turn inward. Duty to one’s neighbor has fallen out of the frame. What replaced broad coalitions “was a pseudo-political and distinctly American rhetoric of the feeling self and its struggle for recognition. Which turned out to be not all that different from Reagan’s anti-political rhetoric of the producing self and its struggle for profit.” Duty to country became a foreign concept. Thus the wretched impasse of today.
Such was the logic latent in the New Left’s slogan: The personal is political. Reagan’s wry, disingenuous contempt for government, and thus for civic duty, found its perfect mirror on the radical left: “As the feminist authors of the Combahee River Collective put it baldly in their influential 1977 manifesto, ‘The most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.’”
These developments had a profound impact on our universities, which feverishly embraced post-modern theories of self-construction and provided “an intellectual patina to the radical individualism that virtually everything else in our society encourages.”
A long teaching career has provided Lilla opportunity to observe the damage this has wrought on students: “Young people on the left — in contrast with those on the right — are less likely today to connect their engagements to a set of political ideas.” Instead, they engage politics from the vantage of identity, which guarantees that their alliances (with other identity groups) “will never be more than marriages of convenience.”
Even more significant is how the discourse handicaps persuasion in the public square.
Speaking as an X […] This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter […] It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned.
Identitarian epistemology thus forecloses the possibility of normative communication. Argument is replaced by taboo. “At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters.”
It is clear why the left intelligentsia's response to Lilla has been so vicious. For an identitarian — for whom the personal is so deeply constituted by the political — embracing Lilla’s vision requires a radical transformation of self. Despite his fondness for ridiculing the religious intensity of the “social justice warrior,” Lilla fails to recognize that a rejection of one’s political expressivism could be experienced as a religious deconversion. For some, the remedy may well be worse than the disease. Of this reality Lilla is oddly oblivious. And this is tragic. As much as one may enjoy Lilla’s scorching wit, a stronger seasoning of empathy might have occasioned some advice for those navigating such a discomfiting transition.
As could be expected of so sweeping a narrative executed in so few pages, Lilla is correct in broad-brush while fumbling many of the particulars. A less charitable reader might bristle at Lilla’s thinly veiled sentiment that the American project didn’t begin in earnest until the New Deal; or his tendency to collapse the distinction between members of the Reagan Coalition; or his odd belief that the right has dominated judicial appointments for the past generation (belied by his later observation that law is a “mainly liberal profession”); or the preposterous assertion that the movement for small government was something new, a reaction against the Roosevelt Dispensation, rather than a reaffirmation of Madisonian federalism. In a longer work, surely, such errata would be resolved or at least mitigated by qualifications.
There are more serious problems with Lilla’s argument, however, for which no rhetorical palliatives exist. These are problems inherent in the Enlightenment project of liberal individualism, to which Lilla, no matter how he might protest, is just as committed as everyone else.
Lilla’s recognition of the deep affinity between Reaganite economics and left identitarianism is the most profound aspect of The Once and Future Liberal. It is also the element around which his entire project unravels. In all his denunciations of both movements he is curiously shy of naming the irreducible heart of their similarity: nihilism.
Whether the will to power finds expression in economic self-determination or in the assertion of one’s identity over-against an other, it remains a groundless nothing, a sheer, arbitrary exuberance. The will to power sits beneath Lilla’s critique just as it resides within the objects of his scorn. This is made clear by his unwillingness to apply his critique of individualism to his own political commitments.
Take, for example, his self-designation as an “absolutist on abortion,” proffered, it seems, as a bona fide of his liberalism. One can hardly imagine Lilla rejecting Anthony Kennedy’s reaffirmation of Roe v. Wade in 1992’s Casey v. Planned Parenthood. In his majority opinion, Kennedy grounds the defense of abortion rights in what can only be called a nihilistic understanding of human freedom: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This vision of freedom is the secret heart of liberal individualism. It is astonishing that a thinker of Lilla’s stature is capable of embracing this heart (and helping it pump) while also bemoaning that “the more individualistic our society has become and the more assertive Americans have become about their rights, the more narrowly political discussion and legal discourse have revolved around the self.” But, I suppose, the American political tradition — in both its partisan guises — has long made peace with bad faith and cognitive dissonance.
Lilla’s failure to weigh the implications of his critique renders his closing prescriptions rather hollow. He is surely right to encourage fellow-travelers to return to institution building and the prioritizing of “citizenship over group or personal identity.” But placing such hope in our institutions seems more than a little Panglossian. Trust in American institutions is at a historic low. And this is likely to continue due to their fluidity. The institutions of “liquid modernity,” to borrow Zygmunt Bauman’s term, with their premiums placed on flexibility (structural and moral), hybridity, and mobility, are not the solid institutions of Lilla’s nostalgia. It is exceedingly difficult to fix one’s trust on a moving target.
Even if our institutions were more dependable, or if trust could be ensorcelled, the project of reorienting our political discourse to the promotion of the common good is doomed from the start. What do we hold in common? What is the good? Lilla seems to have learned nothing from the criticisms leveled against his highly selective 2007 study of political theology, The Stillborn God. The common good is emphatically not a product of consensus. To posit a common good is, necessarily, to embrace metaphysical realism, and thus to wade into the deep waters of natural law theory. Without the firm ground of first principles, the “common good” is merely the whim of the majority.
And this is perhaps what most irks Lilla’s critics on the left, even if they’re wary of articulating it: any serious — that is, internally coherent — movement away from identity politics and toward a robust discourse of the common good requires that we reintroduce metaphysics into our politics. This entails granting theology a privileged place in the public square at a time when most of the left and the far right are loath to grant it any place at all.
A different Mark Lilla, the one who wrote The Stillborn God, celebrates the banishing of faith to the private sphere. For that Lilla, theology is a contamination best kept hermetically sealed from politics, lest some dark “messianism” raise its head. But the Lilla of The Once and Future Liberal looks back wistfully on the role faith once played in energizing civic virtue, his reflections colored, perhaps, by his own youthful dalliance with Evangelicalism. One suspects that Lilla doubts his ideal of citizenship is really capable of instilling a sense of civic duty “[i]n the absence of a motivating charitable faith.” If the failures of French universalism are any indication, such doubts are justified.
The Once and Future Liberal ends with a welcome plea for the renewal of civic education. Intent on combating the illusory sense instilled in students that “a historical process is unfolding,” that social progress is inevitable, Lilla champions a return to “the supposedly bland” schooling of the 1950s and 1960s that, ironically, “incubated what was perhaps the most radical generation of American citizens since the country's founding.” And here he reveals his ambivalence, forgetting one of his earliest admonitions: once a political paradigm shifts “there is no going back. If you are unhappy with the terms of debate during one dispensation, you have no choice but to prepare a new one.”
Rather than preparing something new, Lilla dreams of a return to an idealized liberalism, valiantly forgetting that, as far as electoral politics are concerned, “[n]ostalgia is suicidal.”