Identity Crisis

Liberalism needs a broader collective vision to break free of its captivity to the political interests of narrow groups.

In the days after last fall’s presidential election, as Democrats and journalists grappled with Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, the political theorist and public intellectual Mark Lilla dropped a bomb of an essay in the New York Times. Lilla argued that much of the blame for Trump’s election should be assigned to the takeover of American liberalism by the strain known as “identity politics,” and to the ways in which that paradigm celebrates cultural and ethnic differences at the expense of a shared American identity.

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
by Mark Lilla
HarperCollins, 160 pp.

“National politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference,’ ” Lilla wrote, “it is about commonality.” Hillary Clinton and her party had failed to offer Americans a compelling vision of their shared destiny. Her campaign speech was a series of call-outs to the country’s often marginalized constituency groups—African Americans, Latinos, gays, or women—leaving other Americans wondering whether they were included in Clinton’s vision. “If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them,” Lilla argued. “If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data showed, was exactly what happened.”

Like so many others on the left, Lilla was trying urgently to make sense of what he called “the repugnant outcome” of Trump’s election. Who was to blame? Where had we gone wrong? Had we lefties and liberals in fact gone wrong? Or had we simply underestimated the racism and resentment of so many Americans, while overestimating their capacity to make intelligent and humane decisions?

These questions were mostly implicit in Lilla’s recent collection The Shipwrecked Mind, which came out two months before the election. But in his new book, The Once and Future Liberal, an expanded version of his Times essay, the answers are in bold—and painted with a very broad brush.

Lilla argues that for much of the twentieth century, Rooseveltian liberalism was a unifying and positive force in American politics and culture. Roosevelt built an expansive coalition that assimilated demands for first-class citizenship from the margins while also speaking to the aspirations and expectations of the more comfortable and whiter middle. Through the vigor of its ideas, the charisma of its leaders, the strength of its institutions, and the scale of its accomplishments, Rooseveltian liberalism also gave a depth and specific character to what it meant to hold the identity “American.” It meant that one had obligations as a citizen, both to the nation as a whole and to one’s fellow citizens. It was an identity that held us together and enabled us to make the kind of progress that only a nation with a deep confidence in its identity and purpose can make. It was e pluribus unum in action.

Then a convergence of forces brought an end to the “Roosevelt dispensation.” Memories of the Great Depression and World War II waned. The claims these crises had once made on us, as brothers and sisters in arms, diminished in force. Prosperity and peace brought with them both new challenges and an easing of old ones. Our liberal institutions were slow to adapt, while the American right, which had been laid low by the Roosevelt dispensation, was quick to recognize the new constellation of forces and feelings. Conservatives refined their individualistic politics to speak more resonantly to postwar Americans, particularly white Americans who were doing relatively well and didn’t see, from the vantage point of their increasingly suburban lives, that the state and collective purpose were particularly necessary to the good life.

Meanwhile, the New Left began to rebel against the idea that “citizen” was the highest or most efficacious of political identities. It was too much of a piece with their “organization man” fathers, and with the consensus politics they had produced, which were too bureaucratic, too slow on integration, too quick to go to war in Asia, and no fun at all. Their experience taught the progenitors of the New Left that “if you want to be a political person you should begin, not by joining a party, but by searching for a movement that has some deep personal meaning for you.”

The Roosevelt dispensation was replaced by the “Reagan dispensation,” in which both the left and the right were proposing visions of political engagement that made the individual or the narrowly boundaried group the locus around which political life should orbit. For the right, the proper attachment and loyalty was to the self, the family, the community, the church, and a nationalistic version of the country. For the left, it was to groups, primarily organized by race, ethnicity, gender, faith, or sexual orientation. Neither side believed that it owed fealty to an expansive, inclusive sense of the nation.

As these two visions matured, in the 1980s and ’90s, they ended up reinforcing each other in profound ways. They produced individuals of the left, right, and center who didn’t see themselves or carry themselves foremost as citizens. From e pluribus unum to ex uno plures: Out of one, many.

“What’s extraordinary—and appalling—about the past four decades of our history is that our politics have been dominated by two ideologies that encourage and even celebrate the unmaking of citizens,” Lilla writes. “On the right, an ideology that questions the existence of a common good and denies our obligation to help fellow citizens, through government action if necessary. On the left, an ideology institutionalized in colleges and universities that fetishizes our individual and group attachments, applauds self-absorption, and casts a shadow of suspicion over any invocation of a universal democratic we.”

The Reagan dispensation, like the Roosevelt dispensation before it, eventually ran out of gas. We’ve been choking on its fumes for the past seventeen years or so, under both a Republican president who sold stale Reaganism with catastrophic results, and a Democratic president who was able to pass some important liberal legislation but did so within the ideological boundaries defined by Reaganism.

And now we have Donald Trump. He is the true herald of the death of the Reagan dispensation. He confronts us, starkly, with the reality of the void. There is no compelling conservative vision of America, only a toxic, aggressive assertion of Americanist parochialism.

This is the bad news, but also the good news. The field is open. If liberalism hasn’t yet manifested a new vision with the clarity and force sufficient to rally the nation, it is nonetheless better positioned than conservatism to do so. We already know what the propositional content of the new liberal paradigm should be. It’s that old Rooseveltian liberalism. Articulated newly for the times, certainly, but at its root basically the same.

The main obstacle standing in the way of liberals articulating such a vision isn’t the right, Lilla argues, but how we’ve been taught to understand and practice politics on the left by a few decades of identity politics.

At a time when we liberals need to speak in a way that convinces people from very different walks of life, in every part of the country, that they share a common destiny and need to stand together, our rhetoric encourages self-righteous narcissism. At a moment when political consciousness and strategizing need to be developed, we are expending our energies on symbolic dramas over identity. The frustrating truth is that we have no political vision to offer the nation, and we are thinking and speaking and acting in ways guaranteed to prevent one from emerging. 

As with so much else in The Once and Future Liberal, which is an infuriatingly self-defeating book, Lilla has a good point that is betrayed by its articulation, and is therefore unlikely to be heard or engaged by precisely those who most need to hear it. Who, after all, needs to be persuaded to think, speak, and act differently if the liberal zeitgeist is truly to shift? Who is it that creates and shifts new zeitgeists on the left? Activists, students, teachers, artists, intellectuals, visionaries. Yet the book, depending on the page and chapter, is too abstract for activists, too crusty for students and artists and visionaries, too intellectual for teachers, and too reductionist in its history and theory for intellectuals.

Really engaging any of those audiences, for an old liberal intellectual like Lilla, was going to be hard under the best of circumstances. It would have required that he be as strict with himself, in practicing empathy toward the left, as he wants the left to be in practicing empathy toward the center and right. The Once and Future Liberal doesn’t bear evidence of such an ethic. It seems written too much in haste, and with too much unprocessed emotion. It is too angry at times, too visibly calculating in its empathy at others.

There is an audience for a book like this, but it’s composed of people who already agree with the author—mostly, that is, middle-aged and older liberals. If the hope is to retake liberal terrain from the identity left, these kinds of people need to be emboldened, particularly within institutions. They have power, if they choose to use it. They are editors, deans, chairs of faculty committees, principals, nonprofit executives, bureaucrats, and other stalwarts of the liberal establishment.

Lilla’s book may play some role in emboldening them, and in giving them some language and concepts with which to wage their battles for the institutions. In this respect, Lilla is part of a laudatory wave of similar efforts from other liberals like Jonathan Haidt, Laura Kipnis, Glenn Loury, and Jonathan Chait. It’s yeoman’s work, reminding us of who we once were, and it’s valuable. But it’s not visionary. It can’t tell us what’s next, or bring it into being.

We await the visionaries of the new liberal dispensation. I hope they arrive soon, because Lilla is right. We need them.

Daniel Oppenheimer

Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer based in Austin, Texas. His first book, Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, is recently out in paperback from Simon & Schuster.