I have finally gotten around to reading Mark Lilla's short little book diagnosing the contemporary malaise of liberal democratic politics and proposing perhaps the most classical. of solutions. That book is The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (Harper Collins, 2017).
Writing in the wake of the 2016 election, Lilla looks at what has been happening to American society and politics for several decades. Widely perceived as tactical advice for Democrats serious about escaping their electoral desert, Lilla's book is much more than that. In fact, it addresses the underlying failure of political philosophy that has brought not just the Democratic party but our entire society to this point of political and moral catastrophe.
Lilla writes as an unabashed Liberal, angry about "the great liberal abdication" that began during the Reagan years. Borrowing from a certain strain of American religious language, Lilla speaks of two "Dispensations" - first, a political Roosevelt Dispensation, "where citizens were involved in a collective enterprise to guard one another against risk, hardship, and the denial of fundamental rights" and whose "watchwords were solidarity, opportunity, and public duty," and, then, an anti-political, individualistic Reagan Dispensation, whose "watchwords were self-reliance and minimal government."
For those who don't remember, Lilla provides a history lesson about where things went wrong in the 1970s, resulting in the end of the Roosevelt dispensation and the rise of the Reagan Dispensation. (He adopts the widespread view the Carter's was a "disjunctive" presidency, marking the end of an older era without inaugurating a new one.) Of course, one of the dilemmas that has historically bedeviled American society is that a kind of obsessive libertarianism has always existed as a kind of undercurrent polluting American politics. In the past, however, such tendencies were usually counter-balanced by other "ideas or beliefs or feelings that once muted the perennial American demand for individual autonomy " In the Reagan Dispensation, however, such "ideas or beliefs or feelings" have largely "evaporated." He notes, for example, how in Reagan Dispensation American religion "faith was adopted to the ambient libertarianism rather than softening it." Lilla reminds readers how "remarkably amoral" Reagans's vision of a good life was. While Reagan didn't "explicitly preach or encourage hedonism" or "extol the culture of impunity that developed during his presidency," neither did he criticize any of that. "He understood our libertarian society too well to make that mistake."
Lilla's alternative to Reagan Dispensation anti-politics is a return to authentic politics. this is where he runs up against what he sees as contemporary liberal Democrats' great failures.For one thing, they have been too obsessed with the presidency, neglecting "the daily task of winning over people at the local level." Worse still, the old liberal politics of solidarity have been replaced by "a failed pseudo-politics of identity," with its "resentful, diuniting rhetoric of difference."
This prompts yet another history lesson. Lilla recalls how in the U.S. (unlike elsewhere) the state guaranteed religious groups' right to identify with their churches simultaneously with the state. "The citizenship bond took precedence because without it the Christian bond could not be protected." Something similar happened with the unique way in which America incompletely but sufficiently assimilated its immigrants. "New immigrants identified strongly with the country and were proud to become citizens because it did not demand full cultural assimilation. A more capacious concept of citizenship absorbed ethnic attachment rather thane excluded it."
Lilla also takes aim at of "movement" politics, the baneful legacy of the New Left. He recalls how political parties are centripetal by design: "they encourage factions and interests to come together to work out common goals and strategies" and "oblige everyone to think, or at least speak, about the common good." Movements, however, are centrifugally oriented. They encourage "splits into smaller and smaller factions obsessed with single issues and practicing rituals of ideological one-upmanship."
Lilla he takes special aim at the most destructive incarnation of this on contemporary college campuses, where identity politics has increasingly poisoned even the possibility of reasoned political debate. "So classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument; now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B." In what might pass as the book's most paradoxical put-down, he calls Identity "Reaganism for lefties."
The book's final chapter, labelled "Politics," begins with Max Weber's famous statement, "Politics is the slow, steady drilling through hard boards." I'd say that remains as true and relevant today as it was when Weber famously said it in "Politics as a Vocation" in 1919 - further evidence that what Lilla is recommending - and what our country requires- is less something new than a retrieval of some very old, classical conceptions. The pre-eminent such conception is, of course, citizenship.
For the past two generations, Lilla argues, "America has been without a political vision of its destiny. ... There are just two tired individualistic ideologies intrinsically incapable of discerning the common good and drawing the country together to secure it under present circumstances." As an alternative, he proposes four lessons as an alternative:to this deteriorating state of affairs. they are "the priority of institutional over movement politics; the poser of democratic persuasion over aimless self-expression; and the priority of citizenship over personal or group identity" - and, fourth, "the urgent need for civic education in an increasingly individualistic and atomized nation."
This is where he goes back to being both a political tactician as well as a political theorist. he revisits the sad history of how the democratic party eviscerated its own institutions in its post-1968 reforms. Regarding, his second priority, he recalls how liberals learned the wrong lesson from the civil rights movement. (For obvious historical reasons rooted in the anti-politics of the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movements had to rely on the federal courts.as the only branch of the government it had realistic access to.) He argues that distrust of the legislative process (which requires persuading different people and may call for compromise) and a consequent reliance on courts has "detached liberal Democratic elites from a wider base." This has created "the habit of treating every issue as one of inviolable right, leaving no room for negotiation. and inevitably cast opponents as immoral monsters, rather than simply as fellow citizens with different views."
Lilla illustrates identity liberals' allergy to democratic persuasion with a humorous analogy to fishermen who "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."
In conclusion, it is democratic citizenship as once widely understood and classically conceived that emerges as the ultimate solution. Citizenship both "is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home the fact that we are part pf a legitimate common enterprise" and also "provides a political language for speaking about a solidarity that transcends identity attachments."
Citizenship alone can unite people across class and other categories. It may be the only language left that can educate Americans about duty to one another. In theory religion should be able to do so too. In fact, I would argue that early Christianity succeeded in part because it provided a newer and more inclusive kind of community at a time when the older models of civic citizenship were breaking down under the Roman Empire. While Lilla considers the U.S. "still a churchgoing nation," he correctly diagnoses religion's contemporary weakness: "the gospel now being preached, particularly in evangelical circles, has been infected with the same individualism, selfishness, and superficiality that have infected other sectors of American life." I especially like Lilla's appropriation of religious language in the service of citizenship - for example, image of taxes as "a kind of democratic tithe that goes to help fellow citizens."
Ultimately, I think,, part of in the early 21st century is that no one of us is ever fully free either from either contemporary American obsession - individualism or identity. Lilla himself, for example, admits to being an abortion-rights absolutist - although he takes his own advice seriously enough to acknowledge that others disagree with him and so to regret the bridge-burning attitude represented, for example, by the exclusion of Governor Casey from the 1992 Convention and more recently by the January 2017 Women's March.
For a political operative looking for a new strategy to revive liberal electoral fortune, this book is a must read - although what it has to say challenges almost everything that is now normative in contemporary politics. More importantly, this book is a must read for anyone worried about the direction our country has been heading and is open to re-imagining a politics not hopelessly trapped in individualism and identity.