Mark Lilla’s new book begins with a statement that is brutal and bracing, all the more so because it happens to be true: “Donald J. Trump is president of the United States.” In the pages that follow, Lilla plumbs truths that are less obvious, but not less comforting. Most of those have to do with American liberalism, which today seems “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,” to borrow from Matthew Arnold’s great poem “Dover Beach.” Perhaps that sounds a tad dramatic. If so, perhaps you haven’t been watching the news.
“The Once and Future Liberal” is an expansion on an op-ed piece that Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, wrote for the New York Times 10 days after Trump’s unlikely victory in the November election. Titled “The End of Identity Liberalism,” the piece argued that “the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined group.”
Centrists seeking explanation for the inexplicable furiously emailed the article as if it were a lost book of the Bible, and not one of the apocryphal ones. At the same time, Lilla’s thesis was widely derided by the left, in particular by the over-eager hall monitors of political virtue who have turned Twitter into their own Solomonic court. In all but painting Lilla as a right-wing shill, they neatly proved his point about a left that has become, in temperament, reactionary.
This book expands on Lilla’s op-ed piece, though not by much: “The Once and Future Liberal” is only 160 pages long, buttressing the original argument with historical context. Lilla divides modern American politics into two “dispensations,” as he calls them: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s big government and Ronald Reagan’s little government. His canny central insight is that we have never recovered from the ruinous atomization of the Reagan Revolution, which depicted any government at all as “an alien spaceship descending on the happy residents of Middlesuburb, U.S.A., sucking up into itself all the resources, corrupting the children, and enslaving the population.” He notes, for example, that it was Bill Clinton who declared that “the era of big government is over” in 1996. Yes, I know he was “triangulating.” But he was abdicating too.
But if Democratic politicians have largely abandoned New Deal policies, it is because their liberal base had by the 1980s lost interest in the kind of economic populism that had once been the party’s central creed. In the hands of the post-Vietnam left, Lilla argues, the individualism of the right became identity politics, an obsession with race, ethnicity and gender that blinded Democrats to unifying realities: “Reaganism for lefties.”
Some of what follows seems to borrow from conservative critiques of liberalism, which I suspect is why Lilla’s New York Times op-ed piece attracted so much ire.
The noble convictions of the civil rights movement, Stonewall and feminism, Lilla says, have devolved into an obsession with selfhood, in the ways we are different, not the same. He singles out Black Lives Matter as “a textbook example of how not to build solidarity”: The movement highlights the wrongs suffered by African Americans by a society that has never transcended Jim Crow. At the same time, it insists that whites could never fully understand that plight and could thus be only partial allies in the struggle for equality.
I am confident in this rightness of this uneasy truth. I remember traveling to Ferguson, Mo., after the killing of Michael Brown and feeling the incredible moral energy on the streets of that smoldering town, a place so starkly divided by race that you might have thought it had remained stuck in 1963. Several months later, I watched as some of those same activists heckled Bernie Sanders for not talking enough about race. They condemned Hillary Clinton for having used the term “superpredators” as her husband enacted tougher crime laws in the mid-1990s. I feared that principle had curdled into hermetic, pointless outrage moving like a tornado across the landscape. After the storm ended, we had President Trump.
At one point, Lilla uses the phrase “tenured radicals,” a wink at the 1990 book of the same name by Roger Kimball, editor of the conservative journal the New Criterion. Lilla, however, is too smart to blame the decline of the left on draft dodgers in college classrooms who taught Saul Alinsky instead of Immanuel Kant. As a professor of high culture at one of America’s finest universities (and one of the few that actively celebrates high culture with its rigorous humanities curriculum), Lilla clearly isn’t a fan of anyone who devotes a semester to studying “Game of Thrones” for its pre-modern theories of nationhood.
But the real problem, Lilla argues, is what American universities neglect to teach: a notion of citizenship, the common aims we share as a society, the ideals to which we should all subscribe and strive. Our universities failed “to teach young people that they share a destiny with all their fellow citizens and have duties toward them. Instead, they trained students to be spelunkers of their personal identities and left them incurious about the world outside their heads.” Who you were — a black woman, a gay Jewish man — became all you were. And someone who didn’t share your material reality couldn’t possibly share your politics. You might be allies for a quick minute, but not longer.
Some of Lilla’s detractors have made him out to be a more articulate Rush Limbaugh. Anyone making this charge has either failed to read his work or to engage it with the intellectual dignity it demands. Lilla is a true-blue liberal, but a classical one who continues to see Roosevelt as the beacon not only of Democrats but of all the nation’s citizens. It is a vision of America “where citizens were involved in a collective enterprise to guard one another against risk, hardship, and the denial of fundamental rights. Its watchwords were solidarity, opportunity, and public duty.”
Implicit in all this is the belief that Hillary Clinton should have made a more forceful case to the white working class that, according to many accounts, handed Trump the presidency. Not because laid-off factory workers in rural Wisconsin matter more than young black activists in Oakland, but because the economic concerns of the former represent the baseline vision of the Democratic Party. In the America that Lilla envisions, economic security is the balm for all people, from all backgrounds. Trump has occasionally hinted at a similar conviction, only he has as always obscured that point with needless bluster.
Near the opening of the book, Lilla pays a visit to the respective websites of both the Republican and Democratic parties. On the Republican site, he finds a manifesto called “Principles of American Renewal.” In the age of Trump, that renewal stands as much a chance as California becoming a satellite state of France. Still, it’s better than what he finds on the Democrats’ page: “seventeen separate messages” for 17 separate groups. There’s a word for this, and though Lilla won’t use it, I will: pandering.
Lilla’s book comes shortly after the publication of “The Big Lie” by right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza. “The Big Lie” argues, in effect, that modern-day liberalism is a not-so-distant relative of fascism, Nazism and the Confederacy. I had the professional misfortune of reading “The Big Lie.” It is a breathtakingly bad book, written by a man without decency for a movement without scruples. Yet that movement has power: D’Souza was a guest at the White House in August, meeting with since-departed advisers Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon.
Yes, Donald Trump is president. But if his disastrous presidency proves anything, it is that Republicanism is the biggest lie. Lilla plainly believes that the Reaganite vision of limited government is going the way of the CD player. Spend two minutes watching a waxen House Speaker Paul D. Ryan try to explain the benefit of tax cuts, and that point will be thoroughly confirmed. But what comes next, after Trump and his minions are embalmed in ignominy? Will the Democrats come up with a more compelling message, or will they squabble about whether a white candidate’s use of a Mary J. Blige song is cultural appropriation? The future is unwritten, but it can also be remarkably unkind.
Nazaryan is a senior writer at Newsweek covering national politics.
Harper: 160 pp., $24.99