• Local
  • El Paso, Texas
  • more weather >

BOOK REVIEW: Mark Lilla’s ‘The Once and Future Liberal’: Mesmerized by symbols

More Info
By Tuesday, Oct 31, 2017 Arts & Entertainment 3

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
By Mark Lilla
2017, Harper Collins, 160 pages $24.99

Mark Lilla, political scientist and professor of humanities at Columbia University, is a self-described liberal, though many in that category would likely not recognize him as one of their own. As for me, on election days a left-leaning independent but much of the time an I-Have-No-Idea-What-To-Call-Myself, I found his latest book, “The Once and Future Liberal,” a slim volume available in hardcover at The Bookloft, a persuasive denouncement of the self-defeating practices of the modern Democratic party and a good slap in the face.

Lilla’s overall premise is that American liberals have abdicated control of our political institutions at all levels of government thanks to a fixation on a politics of identity that is self-referential, self-righteous and exclusionary. Liberals in the past fought for and won big gains in civil rights, many of which are now under threat.

Liberals are not spurred to act to protect these things because their focus is elsewhere. Lilla says: “The paradox of identity liberalism is that it paralyzes the capacity to think and act in a way that would actually accomplish the things it professes to want. It is mesmerized by symbols: achieving superficial diversity in organizations, retelling history to focus on marginal and often miniscule groups, concocting inoffensive euphemisms to describe social reality…”

If that statement rings controversial, it has been. The book has garnered a fair bit of criticism from the left and has been held up in contrast to, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ race-focused take on how we ended up with a Trump presidency. I think Lilla is challenging behaviors and assumptions that may not be ready for challenging, but at least it’s the first step of what will likely be a long and winding road back to power. As David Remnick put it in his interview about the book with Lilla, perhaps the criticisms can be partly chalked up to a “certain tonal thing” about his approach to the subject of liberalism’s failings rather than to substantive disagreements about his arguments.

“The Once and Future Liberal” is only 141 double-spaced pages, so Lilla necessarily compresses a century and more of history and complex sociological shifts into paragraphs, leaving out large swaths of important context (slavery is given short shrift, and immigration is not even touched on). But even with those shortcomings, in three brief chapters, he delivers a useful – if necessarily partial – primer on how the Democratic party has managed to relinquish so much power, influence and respect in the past half century or so.

Let’s recall first who is making all the decisions right now.

Today, 34 state governorships and 32 state legislatures are under Republican control, 52 out of 100 senators are Republican, and Republicans outnumber Democrats in the House of Representatives 240 to 194. In the circumstance that scares me the most, the Supreme Court teeters on the brink of conservative dominance should Trump replace just one more of the justices. Ginsberg and Kennedy are both octogenarians, and Breyer will be soon (in another snippet of scary news, I just heard that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is fixated on judicial appointments).

Mark Lilla. Photo: Christophe Dellory

In the not-unlikely event that DT does not serve out his four-year term (if, for instance, he resigns when one of his family members is indicted, or Congress invokes the 25th amendment, or the pee-pee tape is leaked to TMZ, etc., etc.), we will get President Pence, the man who tried to pass a law forcing women to bury their own miscarried fetuses.

This is all to say that the liberal American is in a weak spot power-wise, and the Democratic party’s priorities and approach to voters, according to Lilla, are only further weakening it. Rather than working to broaden its appeal to set itself up to win future elections and rebuild bases of power, he says, it seems intent on burrowing into the various identity holes it’s dug for itself and trying to get comfortable.

More on the holes in a moment, but let’s hear from the father of modern liberalism. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1941, wrote that a “liberal” party is one that “insists that the Government has the definite duty to use all its power and resources to meet new social problems with new social controls — to ensure to the average person the right to his own economic and political life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The stock market crashes in 1929 and millions of people lose everything; the government gives us the New Deal. FDR won four terms in office by enacting liberal policies like that. Fast-forward 50 or so years to what Lilla calls in the introduction the “great liberal abdication” of the Reagan administration, when identity politics came to the fore. He points out how, between those two eras, the visuals shifted from common solidarity to individual empowerment: “An image of Roosevelt liberalism and the unions that supported it was that of two hands shaking. A recurring image of identity liberalism is that of a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colors, producing a rainbow. This says it all.”

At this point you may be tempted to ask, as I was, “What about all the hard work of solidarity in the ‘60s?” Lilla says of the civil rights movements in terms of solidarity, when “large classes of people — African-Americans, women — [were] seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights.” Note specifically that to achieve these goals, civil rights workers called upon the rallying power of our shared American values of citizenship, equality and fairness. They appealed, in other words, to what we all (theoretically should) have in common and not to what differentiates us, not to what makes us special.

But by 1980, identity politics had moved away from these public, civic-minded movements and given way to, as Lilla put it, a “pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition” that corralled citizens into groups and left out millions of others entirely. So we have, on the democrats.org website, under “People,” a list of 17 different categories according to race, creed, sexual orientation and identification, gender, ethnicity, etc, etc. There is a separate message for each of the 17 groups.

“The main result” of all this sub-division, Lilla says, “has been to turn young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them outward toward the wider world.” They have been enlisted into private clubs but not into a public citizenry. Young Americans increasingly want to “assert their difference, react testily to any hint that their particular experience or needs are being erased. But when they call for political action to assist their group X, they demand it from people they have defined at not-X….” You won’t get solidarity from people you’ve excluded.

The answer? Focus on citizenship. Though he acknowledges the “musty air” of that old word, Lilla insists that it is the only possible starting point. Liberals must appeal to Americans’ sense of responsibility toward one another. If our hard-won civil rights – voting rights, equal pay, laws against sexual harassment, equal representation in government – are to be honored, protected and fought for, we – especially young people, Lilla warns – had better take a page out of the young conservatives’ playbook and start working to exert real influence in the political realm.

Yes, nationally, “Resist” has become a big thing. But, Lilla clarifies, “resistance is by nature reactive; it is not forward-looking. And anti-Trumpism is not a politics.” He’s calling for liberals to seize the political day, but fears they will miss the true anti-Trump boat.

My worry is that liberals will get so caught up in countering his every move, essentially playing his game, that they will fail to seize – or even recognize – the opportunity he has given them. Now that he has destroyed conventional Republicanism and what was left of principled conservatism, the playing field is empty. For the first time in living memory, we liberals have no ideological adversary worthy of the name….the only adversary left is ourselves.

Liberals have not come up with, and do not seem to be working toward, a common vision that any and all American citizens would be welcome to get on board with. “We need no more marchers. We need more mayors. And governors, and state legislators, and members of Congress…” To get there, we need to broaden the coalition. Lilla points out that his own number one social issue is abortion. He is staunchly pro-choice. But he takes to task the organizers of last January’s women’s march for refusing to allow an enthusiastically anti-Trump and also anti-abortion women’s groups to participate. Do those women have no role, no place, no future in the modern Democratic party?


For perspective on local liberal political activity, I called my friend and former candidate for state Senate Andrea Harrington, and got a bit of good news. At the state level, she highlighted Emerge Massachusetts, whose mission is to increase the number of Democratic women leaders from diverse backgrounds in public office through recruitment, training and providing a powerful network. Emerge now works in 22 states and has trained over 2,500 women on how to run a political campaign.

Locally and immediately, there are the Pittsfield City Council members, ward councilors and at-large councilors, all up for re-election Tuesday, Nov. 7. Harrington said: “Every race is contested, which in and of itself is a big thing. There are new faces and new energy. There are women like Helen Moon, women new to politics.”

The Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus has, for first time, endorsed candidates in local races (they used to only endorse in larger electorates). And, Harrington says, Democrats here are taking a page out of the Republican playbook: “They are starting up PACs, talking to people with finance backgrounds, working toward a national PAC supporting women in local races. More people are running and getting involved.”

Where she is not entirely sanguine, though, is with voting numbers. “I’m concerned people won’t get out to support good candidates. In Springfield they just had abysmal turnout for city council elections. If you’re worried about what’s going on, get out and vote in your city!”

More by »

3 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Mickey Friedman says:

    Many thanks to Sheela Clary for her perspective and always interesting review. I admit to being disadvantaged here – I haven’t read the book but I have thought long and hard about these issues. One obvious issue: class. The leaders of the established, let’s say Clintonian, wing of the Democratic Party have opted to mirror the interests of their funders rather than traditional constituencies. There are real reasons many people didn’t trust Clinton and reasons they either didn’t vote or voted for Trump. For the many many Americans whose real income hasn’t kept up with surging profits – who have watched their children assume enormous debt to gain a college degree – and who can barely afford health care – and who marvel at their difficulties with the Affordable Care Act – why believe someone they regard as distant and unaware of their dilemma. Remarkable that to so many a serial liar seemed more convincing … So then I’m a bit puzzled why Bernie isn’t mentioned. He at least was on the right track with all this. His great failing – his inherited progressive arrogance that people of color would just trust that he knew and cared about their struggle. Had he spent enough time reaching out to those communities he might have pushed through the enormous resistance of the Democratic establishment. Maybe not but it was a terrible mistake on his part. Finally I think Sheela Clary is closer to the real solution with the notion of “fairness” rather than “citizenship.” Most Americans embrace fairness while many regard citizenship as something we learned about in school … If the Democrats unify around the notion of fairness and fight for A Fair America they might actually begin to win again … Thanks again for the smart review …

    1. Sheela Clary says:

      Thanks, Mickey. I don’t remember Bernie’s name coming up in the book. I could not agree with you more about putting class front and center. I would like to think you are right about Bernie’s error, and that he could have won with a message that resonated with people of color. As for fairness, yes, I agree with you there, too. I think a lot about our concept of that word, as it applies to people outside of our immediate families, has changed, not for the better. I think we think it’s fair for all kids to get presents at Christmas, but not necessarily good health care or a good education.

  2. Leonard Quart says:

    Smart review. Lilla likes to emphasize the most egregious aspects of identity politics, but there is no avoiding those issues. The problem is how to make an economic/class appeal without sacrificing one’s commitment to immigration, minorities, LGBT, and women. That balance can sometimes be achieved, but I wouldn’t be too sanguine about an economic appeal to the majority of Trump voters.

What's your opinion?

We welcome your comments and appreciate your respect for others. We kindly ask you to keep your comments as civil and focused as possible. If this is your first time leaving a comment on our website we will send you an email confirmation to validate your identity.