Can Liberalism Change?

In a paradoxical new book, Columbia University professor Mark Lilla correctly identifies the defects in contemporary liberalism and identity politics but cannot free himself from them.

Can contemporary American liberalism change? Even to raise this question is to remind ourselves of the political upheaval of the last year. Not so long ago, the more obvious question would have been whether this liberalism had any need to change, whether it would not go from victory to victory unchecked, at least at the national level.

Then Donald Trump came along.

To be sure, Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election invites, but does not necessarily compel, the question whether American liberalism needs to change. After all, liberals can console themselves with the possibility that Trump’s election was a fluke. He did not win the popular vote. A switch of a few tens of thousands of votes in a handful of key states would have delivered a different outcome. The liberal candidate, Hillary Clinton, was kneecapped at the very end of the campaign by FBI Director James Comey’s public announcement that he was reopening the investigation into Clinton’s emails as Secretary of State.

On this assessment of the situation, contemporary liberalism is not out of step with American public opinion. Liberalism was defeated politically in 2016 only because it encountered—to borrow Machiavelli’s words—an “extreme malignity of fortune.” Thus liberals need not face any painful reassessment of their movement, its tactics, and its aims.

This view of things will be understandably attractive to many liberals. Human beings are creatures of habit and tend to be loyal to the conceptions and aspirations that have guided their political activity over a long period of time. Nobody, liberal or conservative, wants to face such a reassessment.

Today’s liberals would be wise, however, to refuse such easy consolations and seriously consider the possibility that liberalism does need to change. It is true that Trump did not win the popular vote. Nevertheless, his victory depended on, and demonstrated, a significant shift in public opinion in a set of electorally decisive states—big states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan—that had been reliably Democratic for decades. Besides, Trump got kneecapped, too—not on a single day by the FBI director, but every day for fifteen months by the entire national media establishment. It is very possible that Trump’s positions—on trade, immigration, and foreign policy—are far more popular than he is personally.

The Toxin of Identity Politics

Enter Mark Lilla, Professor of Humanities at Columbia University and well-known public essayist. Lilla is as astute, erudite, and reflective a liberal as America today can boast. In his new book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, he offers a sympathetic critique of what American liberalism has become in recent decades. According to Lilla, the disastrous (for liberals) 2016 election was not simply a fluke but instead at least partly the result of certain defects in contemporary liberalism that must be corrected if it is to hope to govern the country again.

The key problem, according to Lilla, is modern liberalism’s embrace of identity politics, which involves serious political disadvantages both tactical and strategic, or of both style and substance. At the level of tactics or style, identity politics fosters a spirit that is insular and irritable, preachy and off-putting. Its character is exemplified in the “social justice warrior” who loves moral purity and disdains compromise. This approach either ignores (at best) or insults (at worst) those who do not hold one of the preferred identities that contemporary liberalism thinks are its job to protect and exalt, with the result that many voters are driven away who would be necessary to any workable liberal governing coalition.

Turning to the bigger picture, to the question of strategy or ends, Lilla complains that identity politics offers no positive vision of the country that can appeal to a large majority of Americans. Identity politics tends by its nature to be divisive. It directs the mind to what makes a person different from his or her fellow citizens. Thus Lilla contends that liberalism needs to find a vision that appeals to citizens as citizens. This, he notes, was the secret of the success of the older liberal politics of figures such as Franklin Roosevelt, who emphasized the spirit of solidarity that ought to unite all Americans.

American Liberalism Is Not Ready to Change

Mark Lilla is a humane and thoughtful man. His book contains much that is sensible and helpful. Particularly welcome is his call for a less self-righteous and purist approach to politics—an approach that instead recognizes that we have interests and principles in common even with those at the opposite end of the political spectrum. If both liberals and conservatives would bear this in mind, our politics would be less rancorous and our country would be stronger and happier.

Regrettably, however, Lilla’s book itself provides ample evidence that American liberalism is not ready to change—at least not yet. Lilla rightly contends that liberalism, if it aspires to govern, must put forward a new, positive vision, one in keeping with the tenor of the times and capable of uniting the country. Nevertheless, Lilla does not himself offer such a new vision, or even the hint of one.

Sometimes Lilla writes as if liberalism should commit itself to extending the welfare state. Americans, he says, “must stand together at home to make sure that none of us faces the risk of being left behind.” Lilla is surely correct to hold that any decent political vision will include some ethic of concern for the well-being of one’s fellow citizens. Nevertheless, here he seems to be taking things too far. Many Americans—including even some of those on whom liberalism would have to rely to put together a workable political majority—would regard a society devoid of the risk of downward social mobility, and therefore devoid of personal responsibility for oneself and one’s family, not as positive and inspiring but as dreary and depressing.

At any rate, this kind of liberalism seems to have been tried recently and found wanting. The idea that government must do more and more to protect citizens from risk informed President Barack Obama’s major legislative initiative, the Affordable Care Act. That law, however, proved to be unpopular and did serious electoral harm to the Democratic Party.

At other times, Lilla seems unable to disentangle himself from the identity politics of which he is so critical. He warns that the insularity and intolerance of identity liberalism drives away potential voters and therefore leaves liberalism unable to win elections in many parts of the country and bereft of political power it otherwise would have held. He thus finds that “perhaps the most damning charge that can be brought against identity liberalism is that it leaves those groups it professes to care about more vulnerable than they otherwise would be.” Lilla admonishes liberals that they should offer a more inclusive vision so that they can win elections and thus do the crucial work of protecting easy access to abortion, tending to the needs of ethnic minorities, and safeguarding the status of gays and lesbians. To talk this way, however, is to concede the ends or goals of the identity politics that Lilla elsewhere says has been so destructive to the left.

Lilla feels the need not only to pay court to the ends of identity liberalism, but also to adopt its style. Thus he cannot speak about the various social inequalities with which identity liberalism is concerned without using its stridently moralistic vocabulary: “obscene,” “undemocratic,” “wrong,” “shameful.” This is, of course, the polarizing language of moral purity and superiority that Lilla criticizes elsewhere in the book.

Indeed, Lilla goes so far as to apply this self-righteous rhetoric to his fellow citizens. He succumbs to the temptation of the enraged or cynical partisan and takes the low road of demonization. Republicans, he suggests, are animated by a “rage for destruction.” The conservative presence in popular media, he holds, is “loathsome and corrupting.” Every Trump campaign rally, he declares, was a “mob orgy” and “not an assembly of citizens.” All of those who supported Trump could “have no excuse for voting for him,” which was an act of “betrayal of citizenship, not an exercise of it.” Lilla makes Hillary Clinton seem tempered and restrained by comparison. After all, she wrote off only half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorable” and “irredeemable.”

Mark Lilla is a careful and serious student of the history of political thought, but as an analysis of contemporary American politics, this is rather simplistic. If pronouncing such anathemas on one’s fellow citizens were an effective approach to politics, liberalism would be dominating the scene right now and would not require the rethinking that Lilla, in his more reflective moments, demands.

A Paradoxical Book

The Once and Future Liberal is a paradoxical book. Its author can perceive the defects in contemporary liberalism, but he cannot free himself from them. There are two possible explanations of this phenomenon. One is that politics by its nature stirs up angry passions and that Lilla, despite his scholarly attainments, is as subject to them as anybody else when he writes about the live issues about which he cares deeply. The other is that Lilla really is free from these passions, but he thinks that he needs to incorporate them into his rhetoric in order to win credibility with the liberal audience he seeks to reach. If the latter is the correct explanation, Lilla would not be the first writer to adopt such an expedient. As Alexander Hamilton once observed, “In addressing enthusiasts it is commonly requisite to adopt a little of their nonsense.”

In any case, either explanation points to the same practically relevant fact: contemporary American liberalism is not yet ready to change. This makes us wonder what could make it open to change, or under what circumstances it might be willing to change. A likely answer can be found in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement address of 1978. There he observed that human beings are capable of “a self-deluding interpretation” of their political situation, an interpretation that “works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds.” Such armor can only be broken, such minds can only be opened, Solzhenitsyn said, “by the pitiless crowbar of events.” It will probably take more such events like that of November 8, 2016 for liberalism to decide that it has to change.

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