The Once and Future Liberal (Mark Lilla)

Mark Lilla has been a bad, bad boy.  He has dared to point out the feet of clay upon which stand King Liberal, and he, like Cassandra, will not be thanked.  Still, this short book is an excellent political analysis, and it points the way, if only loosely, to a wholly new order of things, thus starting to answer my perennial question, “What is next?

Lilla’s project is to rescue modern liberalism from the dead-end sewer of identity politics.  His purpose in doing so is, in part, simple intellectual coherency, but mostly it is an exercise in demanding that liberals focus on regaining actual power.  The book’s main flaw is that it is half a loaf—it shows what is wrong with the Left’s current program, but other than vague, aspirational calls for focusing on an undefined “citizenship,” it does not explain what the new liberal program leading to real power should be, only what it shouldn’t be.  This is not nothing, but the argument needs its other half.

Lilla begins by arguing that liberalism has lost America.  He doesn’t sugarcoat this conclusion.  In fact, it’s more like he shoves it down the throat of his readers, yelling “Take your medicine!”  His analysis of where liberalism is today revolves around Lincoln’s well-known mantra, “Public sentiment is everything.”  American public sentiment has moved rightward for decades, and thus “[L]iberals have become America’s ideological third party, lagging behind self-declared independents and conservatives, even among young voters and certain minority groups.  We have been repudiated in no uncertain terms.”  Why this is, why the response of liberals so far has been exactly wrong, and what that response should instead be, are the subjects of The Once and Future Liberal.

Nowhere does Lilla explain the derivation of his title.  This would have been an informative exercise, because very few members of his target audience probably realize where it comes from.  The title deliberately echoes T.H. White’s 1958 novel, once famous, and now forgotten except by superannuated liberals, The Once and Future King, which reimagined the King Arthur legend as political didacticism.  To liberals of a certain age, I think (not being of that age, or liberal, I cannot be sure), White’s book is wrapped up with the mendacious Camelot legend spun around John Kennedy after his assassination.  It conjures up, for them, a golden time when the future was brilliant, they were young, and liberals were in control—as it happens, also the time when their political redoubt, the “Roosevelt Dispensation” identified by Lilla, began crumbling.  The end point of the Arthurian legend, of course, is that Arthur sleeps, in Avalon, whence he shall return.  Lilla presumably means to evoke that liberalism will, or can, similarly return, having reclaimed Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake.  (Given that Arthur’s purpose in returning is to save Britain from the ravages of foreign conquerors, we can hope that across the water the actual Arthur will return any day now to kick the savages out of Londinium, and Rotherham.)

Lilla’s historical frame is that of two past dispensations, the liberal Roosevelt Dispensation (from the 1930s to the 1970s), and the conservative Reagan Dispensation, from 1980 until today, which is “being brought to a close by an opportunistic, unprincipled populist” (i.e., Trump).  “Each dispensation brought with it an inspiring image of America’s destiny and a distinctive catechism of doctrines that set the terms of political debate.”  The Roosevelt Dispensation was focused on collective action with a positive gloss on government; the Reagan Dispensation on individualism, with a negative gloss on government.  Each reflected the public sentiment of the time.  And at the dawning of the Reagan Dispensation, instead of regrouping “to develop a fresh political vision of the country’s shared destiny,” liberals lost themselves in the swamp of “the politics of identity, losing a sense of what we share a citizens and what binds us a nation.”

Why, on an intellectual level, is focusing on individual identities a “swamp”?  Because it feeds atomistic individualism, which is corrosive of community, which undercuts political power.  Although Lilla seems to think that conservatives are all, and are all necessarily, cut-rate versions of Robert Nozick’s pristine libertarianism, this is not true, and in many ways Lilla’s core intellectual points are identical to those made in recent years by many conservatives.  While he doesn’t use precisely the same concepts or vocabulary, in this analysis Lilla sounds much the same notes as Robert Nisbet did in 1953’s The Quest for Community, or Ryszard Legutko did in last year’s The Demon in DemocracyThose books attack excessive individualism and its necessary result, the substitution of the state for community (and consequent state coercion to suppress any private denial of those rights).  Lilla, very similarly, complains that liberals focus far too much on individual rights.  “Almost all the ideas or beliefs or feelings that once muted the perennial American demand for individual autonomy have evaporated.  Personal choice.  Individual rights.  Self-definition.  We speak these words as if a wedding vow.”  In part, Lilla blames Reagan, but mostly he blames society and liberals for a turning away from communitarianism.  But philosophically, this is a much deeper strand in Western thought than Lilla thinks.  It did not begin in 1980; it is plausible that the spiral into atomistic individuality is the necessary, inevitable consequence of the Enlightenment itself.  However, Lilla is not wrong about where liberalism is today.

Whatever the intellectual origins of excessive individualism, which he also attributes to romanticism and New Left community organizers, Lilla is unsparing in his acidic treatment of modern Democrat idols and their focus.  “Hope . . . in what?  Yes we can! . . . do what?”  “[Liberals] began to speak instead [of citizenship] of their personal identities in terms of the inner homunculus, a unique little thing composed of parts tinted by race, sex, and gender.”  Lilla attacks elevation of supposedly oppressed groups as treating them “like shamans . . . . Particular groups—today the transgendered—are given temporary totemic significance.”  Excoriating argumentation that begins “Speaking as an X . . .”, Lilla notes, “One never says, ‘Speaking as a gay Asian, I feel incompetent to judge this matter.’”  He viciously attacks Black Lives Matters as a group that only know how to “use Mau Mau tactics to put down dissent” (again, referring to the Mau Mau dates him, but more importantly, in most circles this metaphor would be viewed as overtly racist, since the Mau Mau were black Kenyan terrorists who killed mostly other black Kenyans).  This is fun stuff for a conservative to read while imagining the reaction among liberals reading all this (pass the popcorn!).  The reader (with pleasure, in my case) pictures Lilla grinding his teeth in rage and frustration, knowing that most of his audience is going to recoil, point an accusing finger at him, and shriek “Unclean!  Unclean!,” just before the stones start to fly through the air—but he still grimly forges on with his exposition, a secular Man of Sorrows.

The author is spot on in his analysis of specifically how liberals got to the political box canyon they now find themselves in.  Beginning in the 1970s, as the country turned away from the Roosevelt Dispensation, liberalism started to rely on a form of social individualism (different from Reaganite economic individualism), in part because it seemed politically powerful, and in part because of ideology—because it was a form of religion, or what Lilla calls “evangelicalism.”  This religious impulse, not practicality, is what Lilla defines as a key American characteristic.  When they lacked the political power to accomplish these goals of liberation, instead of building that power, liberals instead turned to the courts to “circumvent the legislative process.”  Consensus was ignored in favor of judicial fiat, which reinforced (or more accurately, proved) “the right’s claim that the judiciary was an imperial preserve of [liberal] educated elites.”  As a result, “Even the slogans changed, from ‘We shall overcome’ – a call to action – to ‘I’m here, I’m queer’ – a call to nothing in particular.”  Liberals captured the universities—but Lilla claims that avenue has been a dead end for liberals, since universities have become a massive navel-gazing enterprise alienated from public sentiment—“a pseudo-political theater for the staging of operas and melodramas.”

Of course, a necessary part of this basket of premises is that liberals don’t have power, that they lost it in their descent to idiotarian identity politics.  But that’s at least partially false.  Lilla says that the electorate has moved rightward, which is true, but he never acknowledges that during the Reagan Dispensation, on social and cultural matters, liberals have had an unbroken record of success in achieving their goals (except for gun control).  Mostly, this has been done by controlling the courts (which Lilla bizarrely implies are controlled by conservatives), and which he elsewhere criticizes as inadequate to build real power.  Maybe it is inadequate, but there certainly appears to be no chance of a rollback of liberal cultural victories, so democratic politics or not, nothing succeeds like success.  Yes, electorally liberalism has “been repudiated in no uncertain terms.”  Yes, public sentiment has moved rightward.  But in terms of power, at least social and cultural power, liberalism has seized total control, imposing its will upon the electorate and an opposed public, and continues to hold its citadel against all comers.

None of this undercuts Lilla’s intellectual point—that identity politics is a “me too” political philosophy, “mesmerized by symbols,” with both nothing to offer and a shattering effect on creating the political coalitions mostly necessary to actually gain power and achieve political ends.  The result is a mass of individuals who are too hung up on the momentous importance of their own (mostly stupid and false) identitarian thoughts to even consider lasting coalitions with others to achieve broader political goals.  Such a person “can hardly be expected to have an enduring political attachment to others, and certainly cannot be expected to hear the call of duty toward them.”  At some point, whether that point has arrived or not, this must erode liberal political power.

One problem for Lilla’s recommendations, though, with their pivot around recapturing “public sentiment” for liberalism, is that in Lincoln’s time public sentiment was educated.  Men and women stood all day in the blazing sun to wait for, and then to listen for hours to, the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  Their “sentiment” was well-informed and closely reasoned; anyone purporting to advocate public policy based on his feelings or his identity, or without being able to defend his position would have been laughed at and ignored.  Yes, identity politics is irrational and the antithesis of reasoning, but it’s only one example of the wholesale degradation of political thought in the modern world, and the our inability to demand coherent, precise thought from our leaders.  And, as well, to recognize that there are leaders, and there are followers, and distinguishing the two is important.  No doubt Lilla would be an excellent leader, and his thought is closely reasoned and coherent.  But on the Left, he is very close to a minority of one, and the Right is not exactly outstripping the Left by much on this score.  Thus, while “recapturing public sentiment” sounds noble and fine, the simple phrase elides that recapturing it requires the remaking of our entire system of political thought, a much less easy task.

Some “factual” portions of the book are just delusional.  For example, Lilla claims the right dominates the approval of judicial nominations.  That may be true during Republican presidencies; the opposite was true under Obama.  And no matter who dominates judicial nominations, it’s only Democrats who get the results they want from the judges they appoint—as Lilla himself notes, in the context of pointing out liberal over-reliance on this as a method of achieving political goals.  (Lilla also bizarrely implies that Republicans are to blame for making judicial nominations a partisan process; the name “Bork” appears nowhere.)  Other claims are less central but equally delusional.  For example, Lilla relies heavily as an object lesson on the legend that Republicans, starting in the 1980s, developed a massive infrastructure to train conservative young people, “a vast library of popular books and academic policy studies.  They set up summer camps where college students could read Alexander Hamilton and Friedrich von Hayek, and learn to connect them.”  And so on, positing a massively funded enormous campaign with its tentacles everywhere.  This is nearly totally mythical.  I was myself heavily involved in this world in the mid- to late-1980s, and it was tiny (especially compared to the unbelievable resources and programs the Left had (and has), supported and buttressed by the universities, the press, and innumerable “public interest” groups).  Such conservative activities (i.e., those not focused on retail politics) involved maybe a few hundred young people, nationwide, at a time, most of whom I knew personally.  Yes, the Heritage Foundation was a useful source for conservative policy ideas, before it became a hack group, and yes, the Federalist Society has been extremely successful.  But beyond those, I hate to break it to Lilla, this conservative ecosystem of the Reagan Dispensation that he holds up to liberals as an ideal is a chimera.

In the end, though, the biggest flaw in the book is that the reader is never told what, exactly, is the political program of the “future liberal”?  We are told that America needs to work to elect more liberals, with a new (liberal) political vision—but then that we cannot “shop for” one, because, “Political vision emerges of its own accord out of the timely encounter of a new social reality, ideas that capture this reality, and leaders capable of linking idea and reality in the public mind so that people feel the connection. . . . The advent of leaders blessed with that gift, like Roosevelt and JFK and Reagan, is as impossible to predict as the return of the Messiah.  All we can do is prepare.”  Leaving aside the poker game tell of the aging liberal, the ludicrous yet reflexive assertion that Kennedy was a visionary leader in the mold of Roosevelt or Reagan, I agree with this, and I have been pushing the need to prepare until the Man of Destiny arrives for some time now—although the program I hope he leads is pretty much the direct opposite of what Lilla hopes for.  But regardless, this vague, aspirational, waiting-focused prescription isn’t likely to tear away today’s American liberals, caught in the pleasurable virtual reality of their own supreme self-importance, from their golden opium dream of Emancipatory Xanadu, into the cold light of compromise and building political bridges and power.

This is a short book, so maybe Lilla is merely trying to stay focused, but the reader suspects the lack of specifics is because Lilla, like Wile E. Coyote, has taken his idea, sped off with it, and when he looked down, realized that he had nowhere to go, or nowhere good to go.  My guess is that Lilla suffers from much the same problem as Joan Williams in White Working Class—he doesn’t actually believe in political compromise, but rather in projecting the appearance of it in order to gain power from rubes.  Thus, the sole example he gives of actual political compromise, or says he gives, is abortion.  He admits, apparently without shame, “I am an absolutist on abortion.  It is the social issue I most care about, and I believe it should be safe and legal virtually without condition on every square inch of American soil.”  But he recognizes that “I should find a civil way to agree to disagree and make a few compromises in order to keep the liberal [voters] in my own party and voting with me on other issues.”  What compromises does he identify?  Perhaps making partial-birth abortion illegal?  Limiting abortions in the second trimester?  Parental notification?  Waiting periods?  No.  Rather, merely that Robert Casey should have been allowed to speak at the 1992 Democratic National Convention (a quarter century ago), to “present a pro-life plank to the platform, even though he knew it would be defeated.”  The plank’s certain defeat is something not to be challenged, of course—rather, Lilla’s only wish is that the lapdog should be allowed to jump up and down a few times, or even whimper a little, before being stuck in the corner.  And pro-life women who were excluded from the 2017 anti-Trump march in Washington should have been allowed to march—not, of course, to push being pro-life, but to be anti-Trump.  These are not real compromises.  It is obvious that Lilla would deny both Casey and pro-life women any platform if there was any chance their views would actually be listened to and implemented.

What is more, Lilla never identifies any area, any area at all, where the radical individualism that stokes identity politics should be cut back—either by government mandate, or by the choice of individuals to be more communitarian.  Elsewhere, Lilla has said “Politics . . . is not about getting recognition for certain groups who have problems; it is about acquiring power to help them.”  But help them how?  Modern liberals, as is the core of Lilla’s complaint, universally describe that help as emancipating them from all limits, which implies that recognition of those groups as groups is the necessary precondition, and power’s end is to remove any limits that exist for that group.  Nowhere in any of this program is any reduction in individualism.  Similarly, “Democratic citizenship implies reciprocal rights and duties.  We have duties because we have rights; we enjoy rights because we do our duty.”  (This, of course, is a core belief of conservatives from Aristotle to Reagan, totally rejected for decades by the Left, so hearing it here is a bit jarring.)  But what are those rights and duties?  Again, Lilla never says.  His only talk of duty conflates “doing something for your country” with “doing something for your government,” thus making the basic error of conflating country and government.  For all Lilla’s fine words about the need for creating a new political coalition, this is all politically worthless.  Such a program of lying co-option and refusal to actually place limits on any person’s actions will never produce a new Dispensation.

He take a few more stabs at it.  He wants “an ambitious vision of America and its future that would inspire citizens of every walk of life and in every region of the country.”  “This does not mean a return to the New Deal.”  But what does it mean?  It apparently means mostly more abortion, the only specific political issue repeatedly mentioned.  He says “Nostalgia is suicidal” (meaning he has much in common with Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic.)  “We [liberals] have to work hard.”  “We must never forget that moving hearts and minds for more than one election cycle is not easy.”  Roosevelt’s vision of four universal freedoms “filled three generations of liberals with confidence, hope, price, and a spirit of self-sacrifice.”  Probably all true.  But what does it mean for today?  Sonorous words do not create new political movements by parthogenesis.

I am very sure that Lilla, for all his strenuous efforts, will be treated by modern liberals as, at best, an anachronism, and at worst, as a Jeremiah, fit only to be cast into the cesspit.  If I wanted to despair of the stupidity of humanity while chuckling at the frenzied rage of righteous liberals, I would wait until the New York Times reviews this book, and then, having put a piece of wood between my teeth, read the comments.  In fact, I think I will do exactly that.  What I will not do is worry that liberals will actually do anything Lilla recommends.


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