The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
Mark Lilla
Harper, $24.99 (cloth)

For a long time, a faction of U.S. liberals shouldered the burdens of a fully inclusive social compact. They rightly indicted welfare-state compromises that served some and not others, and that served even the most privileged beneficiaries—white working-class men—only to some extent. Recognizing that the New Deal was a raw one for the neglected poor as well as African Americans and women, some liberals in the early and mid-1960s gave sustained critique to the structural limitations of New Deal liberalism and the Cold War geopolitics that framed the enterprise.

After 1968, disaster set in. Faced with the sins of Vietnam, the Democrats flirted with ending Cold War militarism only to double down on it. The critique of the welfare state, not the demand for its extension, prevailed. A toxic brew of white identity politics, a rhetoric of “family values” and “personal responsibility,” and, above all, anti-statist economics wafted across party lines. Fifty years later, Donald Trump is in the White House, embattled but victorious.

Did Lilla come to bury identity politics—or simply to praise it at the level of the country?

How did we get here? Much depends on how one narrates the path from 1968 to Trump’s election.

Mark Lilla’s book of last year, The Once and Future Liberal—a follow-up to his hugely influential New York Times op-ed “The End of Identity Liberalism,” published days after Trump’s win—has gone far toward defining the terms of that story. But instead of looking carefully at how liberal self-reinvention failed in facing down its scurrilous enemies, Lilla cuts off his enterprise in a dodge. Lilla thinks that U.S. welfare-state liberalism was doomed in the 1970s, when its neoconservative enemies rightly sounded its death knell. He goes on to report that the heirs of the raucous sixties, failing to reinvent liberalism beyond its prior statist limits, embraced the anti- and pseudo-politics of “identity.” For much of the book, indulging his Francophile proclivities, Lilla channels the moralist Alexis de Tocqueville, blaming our contemporary degeneration on a culture of narcissism, adding a whiff of the novelist Michel Houellebecq in unmasking the “real” legacy of the sixties as a journey into the interior. A cult of the self prospered as politics died.

Even though Lilla has told much of this story before, there is actually something new and promising in this book. It is not his ill-conceived and unpersuasive indictment of identity politics, but his case that U.S. liberalism must take a turn to face structural realities if it is to save itself. His own version of what that requires—building a new nationalism—fails badly, but the insight is dead on. Yet in the barrage of attention The Once and Future Liberal has received, the premise that points far beyond Lilla’s own analysis has not even been noticed.

For an author known for much of his career as a scourge of the left, Lilla’s reliance on Karl Marx to drive his argument is curious. Over the course of the short text, he makes not one but two section-length shout-outs to Marx—and they are utterly pivotal. Lilla appeals to “material conditions” to explain what politics are plausible in any particular time period and—above all—how it was that progressives drifted into an unholy alliance with the right they were supposed to be fighting. Too bad Lilla does not follow through on that insight. If he did so, we would have more of the explanation we need, and the story of what happened between 1968 and Trump would be about economics and politics, and not solely about culture.

“If an ideology endures,” Lilla explains, “this means it is capturing something important in social reality.” And in Lilla’s story, it was no accident that the left embraced an individualism—embarking on searches for meaning and obsessed with their personal identities—that atomized the country at the same time that the right championed a parallel economic libertarianism. Identity politics is “Reaganism for lefties,” Lilla says, just with self-absorption rather than self-interest as the rationale. Beaten in their initial demands for a collective justice beyond the limits of the old welfare state, refugees from the 1960s took over the English departments and taught their students not communitarian politics but wounded narcissism.

No successful social movement has ever worked by figuring out in advance how much rectification of injustice society will tolerate—and then demanding only exactly that much.

Lilla is right that material conditions strongly affect the imaginations of reformers, even if they do not determine it. Marx made that point most famously, but it is the common coin of all who believe that no one makes history under circumstances of their own choosing. And we are living in times that force a new acceptance of this truth, even if we conclude that the imagination counts alongside interests (indeed, helps define interests) in the making of social reality. Our economically neoliberal age has shaped many of the most exciting causes progressives have embraced in recent decades, helping to tilt them in an individualist and meritocratic direction. These range from an affirmative action that has tended to help the best-off African Americans (along with recent immigrants and their children who fit the terms of the programs); to a feminism that honors the shattering of glass ceilings for elites but not the stagnation of the lives of middle-class and poor women; to an LGBTQ politics that lifted centuries of opprobrium by appealing to the libertarian instincts of constitutional judges.

Indeed, Lilla’s feints toward a politics of economic interests distinguish The Once and Future Liberal from other once-famous analyses and indictments of atomistic fracture and the “disuniting of America,” of identity politics and liberal racism, ranging from Tocqueville himself to Daniel Rodgers or Richard Rorty or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. But Lilla’s overall story of the United States and the Democratic Party is still far too much about the superstructure (in the relevant terminology). It needs more attention to the base. More importantly, it is too much about the wrong reformers, focusing on the New Left in humanities departments and omitting the actual governmental and party policies that have mattered most. Lilla intuits the limits of his culturalist analysis of narcissism, but he discards his newfound acknowledgment that structural forces matter.

Start away from campus, to avoid assigning it more than a bit part. Is not the sad drama Democrats have found themselves playing primarily one of their own scripting, most of all on the economic front? Taking neocon lessons about the bloated welfare state, Democrats in platforms and power since the late 1970s have joined Republicans not in the identity politics that Lilla sees as an indirect form of neoliberalism, but in neoliberalism itself. Is the most convincing explanation for the defeat of Hillary Clinton that the Democrats have failed in national politics, or that, in recent history, they have won fully as many times as their supposed rivals, and instituted policies not far from them, thanks to politicians in orbit around the richest monied interests? How strange: Lilla turns to material realities to explain how identity politics are neoliberal, instead of why the Democratic Party has been neoliberal, now and for a long time.

For an author long known as a scourge of the left, Lilla’s reliance on Karl Marx is curious.

If universities matter, it is when they are put within that larger framework, rather than cast as a secret throne room of the party. Lilla’s story is that professors went into beaten hibernation in their campus caves after the 1960s. But if that is true, then it does not make sense to say that they simultaneously exerted enormous influence from there. If students have in fact dropped civic engagement to tag each other on Instagram and gave up changing the world for the task of burnishing their resumes (as Lilla says), is it because their teachers misled them or because consumerism accelerated, student debt mounted, and the rat race intensified? For that matter, if the intellectual life of universities needs to be put in receivership for the sake of the country’s future, isn’t that far more true of economics than of English departments? Who is more at fault for the failure of the Democratic Party to anticipate—let alone manage—the stagnation of the white male working class over the last four decades? Is it Homi Bhabha and Judith Butler—or Lawrence Summers?

It is not even clear, taking universities on their own momentarily (since Lilla gives them the bulk of his attention), that they consist largely of tenured radicals teaching students to nurse identity wounds. To portray universities as having changed from acmes of free thinking into dens of stifling conformity—with humanities faculty modeling the role of thought police for woke students—concedes far too much to a toxic contemporary meme. Even were Lilla’s depiction of campus to ring true, he would have to establish how it is a significant player in the fate of the Democratic Party today. No real evidence for this proposition is presented. Lilla tells liberals to get out of their silos, but his prime mover is only the university he knows—and its honestly not clear even how much he knows it, as opposed to what Fox News says about it.

As a result of his obsession with campus, Lilla’s long-run 1968-to-narcissism narrative homogenizes too many phenomena that do not fit together well enough. In part, I think this is because Lilla does not really work out how, from individualist self-concern, the common identification with subordinated groups that he calls “identity politics” flows. The fracture of “we” into “me” that he portrays is difficult to see arresting in a series of subgroups, especially when the ones Lilla indicts are communities of sentiment focused on the fate of a set of stigmatized victims—including affiliates and supporters not actually part of those groups. Even if he does have an abstract solution to the individualist foundations of the politics of the subordinated, “finding oneself” as a form of inward-turned political Romanticism is hardly a serious read of many of the group identifications that Lilla wants to include under his heading. It describes a few causes—but not many, let alone most.

Take Lilla’s notorious attack on Black Lives Matter. Mainly, Lilla critiques the movement for providing fodder to Fox News and thus devastating the movement’s own cause. It is a debatable critique even as a strategic matter. “In democratic politics,” Lilla counsels, “it is suicidal to set the bar for agreement higher than necessary for winning adherents and elections.” But no successful social movement has ever worked by figuring out in advance how much rectification of injustice society at large will tolerate—and then demanding only exactly that much. A figure such as Martin Luther King, Jr., by no means conceived of himself as the leader of a group defined in advance with claims tailored to what a white majority would accept. Instead, he bet on the creation of a new constituency across racial lines to be brought about in an unpredictable concatenation of imagination and interest.

Who is more at fault for the failure of the Democratic Party? Is it Homi Bhabha and Judith Butler—or Lawrence Summers?

But more tellingly, Black Lives Matter does not fit in the least with Lilla’s larger theory of U.S. narcissism in the first place. Did Black Lives Matter originate when ageing hippies impressed on students an indulgent pseudo-politics of personal authenticity? Hardly. It was a response to the impunity of police, and the liberal choice to collude with conservatives in building a carceral state for the urban black poor rather than reinventing what Lilla praises as Franklin Roosevelt’s dispensation to serve them. In short, not neo-Romanticism, but neoconservatism and neoliberalism, were the catalysts for movements such as Black Lives Matter.

The fact is that there has always been a politics of groups in the United States; not much in this regard has changed recently, and you simply do not get very far by linking recently prominent groups to the culture of narcissism, real as it certainly is in our time. Now, it is plausible to say that group campaigns have always articulated some causes rather than others, and articulated them in ways adapted to and shaped by powerful forces in their time. But you might get much further by claiming that, rather than the rise and fall of groups being determined by existential neediness, the victory of economic libertarianism made movements such as trade unions collapse while others were forced into compatibility with the explosion of inequality in our times: racial justice on condition it is class-free, “lean in” neoliberal feminism, and so forth. And to that extent, it is again not a critique of identity politics in the universities that U.S. liberalism needs, but a critique of libertarian economics in society.

All told, the problem in the United States may well have been what Lilla calls “ambient libertarianism,” but the flower children are far less to blame for its consequences than the free market ideology of the whole spectrum of American politics for most of modern times—the real force that laid Roosevelt’s liberalism low, foiling its extension, no thanks to an assist from early neoconservatives.

But if Lilla’s appeal to structural realities in The Once and Future Liberal plays far too little a role in his diagnosis, it goes unaccountably missing in his cure, which is a form of civic nationalism. It is the height of ironies: Lilla cuts off his most promising argument after introducing it, using it to explain the identity politics of professors and students before calling for an empty version of nationalism—an identity politics of his own.

Lilla is right to insist that Democrats need a program but wrong to fall silent when it comes to structural justice. Lilla’s most persuasive claims come to grief for this reason. He insists that politics is not just about criticizing power, but about exercising it, and therefore winning it. He demands that progressives seek to reconnect with all Americans in every place when they seek not only to mobilize but also to win (though there is no reason to portray a false choice or zero-sum game, as Lilla sometimes does, between mobilizing and winning). And he plausibly contends that, even today, the primary threat Trump presents to his progressive enemies is not “tyranny,” but rather that he will tempt them into repeating the mistake of abdicating from offering a major alternative. Resistance, however noble, is not enough, and a new vision for the Democratic Party—or, if it is irredeemable, some new progressive party—is required.

But what new vision? Lilla ends with a kind of void; by his own admission, the civic nationalism with which he concludes is empty. And if he doesn’t provide it content, Lilla commits the very same error of failing to empathize with the real interests of white male voters that he indicts in others.

The crossroads of neoconservatism and neoliberalism is a good starting point in our search for a social justice, and therefore a liberalism.

Lilla tells a parable of a fisherman who goes to the water only to scold the fish about their historical sins, as if you do not need bait to hook them—a story he wants to illustrate to spokespeople for oppressed groups that they should soft-pedal their indictments of white supremacy for strategic purposes, so long as white males are needed for Democrats to win elections. Lilla’s parable suggests he thinks that the sole alternative to losing red voters is to trick them into voting for blue. But wouldn’t it be better to come up with a message that actually registered and reimagined common interests across existing lines?

Without a program, Lilla’s summoning of civics in his book is thus merely a communitarian appeal for an identity party or an identity society—as if he actually agrees with his chosen foes that what people want most (or will work best) is a politics of meaning. Did Lilla come to bury identity politics—or simply to praise it at the level of the country? He indicts a politics of symbolism, then finishes by offering one of his own. He castigates a kind of political existentialism, but what else is civic nationalism by itself, if it does not take shape around a new set of policies?

Still in shock after Trump’s election, U.S. liberals are only beginning to devise a real program for structural justice in the country. The disturbing fact is that, to date, the Democratic Party has mainly avoided the task. To confront it directly would be an unprecedented chance not merely to do good for the country, but to do well for the party’s long-term electoral prospects. The true significance of Lilla’s intervention, for all the brouhaha it has caused, is as a sign of the discombobulation of liberals who intuit the need to change their ways before they actually move to do so.

For sure, the neo-Rooseveltian dispensation that Lilla calls for is a nonstarter without a contemporary New Deal. It would have to attend to the sort of class justice the original New Deal initiated, including the furtherance of now-longstanding liberal impulses for race and gender justice, while making sure neither looks like a concession to optics in an age of the victory of the rich.

Roosevelt’s genius was not to transcend specific identities in the name of U.S. identity, but to insist that markets serve more than the rich. The fact that this original liberalism did not serve all groups, as Lilla too occasionally concedes, has been an excellent reason for rectifying omissions, which is what many Democrats were trying to do until they were stopped in their tracks after 1968 and the country went another way. Not the New Deal, but that later crossroads, when neoconservatism and neoliberalism arrived, is a good starting point today in our search for a social justice, and therefore a liberalism, the likes of which the United States has yet to see.

This essay appears in print in Fifty Years Since MLK.