This “once and future liberal,” Mark Lilla, is actually a progressive in disguise. To be sure, he is also a progressive who doesn’t like some of what progressivism has wrought and some of what progressivism has become; hence, his hope that he has sufficiently camouflaged himself as a liberal…
The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla (141 pages, HarperCollins, 2017)
Mark Lilla is at once an honest and hopeful liberal. Or at least this “once and future liberal” hopes he is. He is also right about some things and wrong about a good deal more. Dr. Lilla begins by honestly conceding that modern liberalism has been “repudiated in no uncertain terms.” He is right that “American liberalism in the twenty-first century is in crisis.” He correctly judges that Donald Trump is “not the greatest of our worries.” He wisely borrows from—and even more wisely agrees with—Abraham Lincoln: “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against, nothing can succeed.”
And if all of that is not enough, Dr. Lilla tales dead aim against what he hopes will be the dead-end that is identity politics. That includes both the narcissistic preoccupation with the self among the young and the group identity politics associated with the unholy trinity of race, class, and gender. Finally, Dr. Lilla upholds the virtues of citizenship and a citizen’s pursuit of the common good. Who could possibly argue with that?
But there is more than one argument to be had here. This “once and future liberal” is actually a progressive in disguise. To be sure, he is also a progressive who doesn’t like some of what progressivism has wrought and some of what progressivism has become; hence, his hope that he has sufficiently camouflaged himself as a liberal.
Like most progressives, but unlike most pre-Roe v Wade liberals, Dr. Lilla is an “absolutist on abortion.” Here, his honesty is on full display: “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.”
His absolutism aside, Dr. Lilla then tries to make a case for compromise, as well as finding civil ways to agree to disagree with his opponents on this issue. Otherwise, pro-life voters will be driven into the “waiting arms of the radical right.” So just how does an abortion absolutist propose to compromise? Dr. Lilla’s solution is to let the Governor Robert Caseys of the Democratic party speak at national conventions, as well as permit pro-life women to march with women against Trump. But as far as abortion itself is concerned Dr. Lilla offers nothing that would alter its “safe and legal” status on “every square inch of American soil.”
Interestingly, Dr. Lilla is at his most absolute—and resolute—on the subject of abortion. It may not be a single issue for him, but it is the issue of singular importance to him.
Not that the good professor is without his passions on a number of fronts. And not all of those passions are misplaced. He is at his best when attacking what he dubs the “Facebook model of the self,” which of course is all about everyone’s “very self,” however each and every individual chooses to define it.
To Dr. Lilla, all of this is a terrible distraction from real political issues, not to mention destructive of liberal political ends. In some respects, it is also not all that different from what he chooses to despise even more, namely the “radical individualism” that he thinks dominates the American right.
Dr. Lilla, the historian, surmises that the country is at the end of the second of two “dispensations.” The first was the “Roosevelt dispensation” of the 1930s, which ushered in an era of federal government concern for and action on behalf of the common good. What he labels the “Reagan dispensation” was a reaction against FDR and a return to the elevation of the lonely individual as the American ideal. That would be the same Reagan administration that left the New Deal and the Great Society essentially intact. In other words, this would be the same “Reagan dispensation” that did not dispense with the “Roosevelt dispensation.”
With the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency, Dr. Lilla has hopes that what he contends is our currently vision-less country will seize the opportunity for a third dispensation. Lest there should be any doubt, this new dispensation will be grounded in a reaction against Reagan and Trump, while marking a return to the collective politics of the common good.
Curiously, Barack Obama figures very sparingly in these pages. He is praised, mistakenly so, for his emphasis on “we,” rather than “I,” as in “yes, we can” or “that’s not who we are.” At the same time, and in almost the same sentence, Dr. Lilla criticizes Obama for never quite getting around to “saying who we are or who we might become.”
No doubt a good part of the reason for Dr. Lilla’s downplaying of Obama is related to his criticism of their party’s misplaced emphasis on group identity politics. While this emphasis did not originate with Obama, it certainly intensified during his presidency and, more to the point, shows no signs of lessening its hold on their party, much less going away. Dr. Lilla notwithstanding, the modern Democratic party has been ever more progressively tying its fate to the group politics of identity politics.
Dr. Lilla actually opens the book with a lengthy quotation from a once and bygone liberal, circa 1985. That would be another progressive, Senator Edward Kennedy, who sought a Democratic party that cared about labor, women, and minorities without becoming the party of labor, women, and minorities. After all, Kennedy concluded, “we are citizens first.” Well, not exactly, as things have progressed.
In the first place, progressivism has progressively eroded citizenship. At the heart of progressivism is the administrative state, or government by experts, rather than government of, by, and for citizens. This notion—and reality—has been embedded in progressivism at least since the ascension of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency. And Dr. Lilla shows no signs of being aware of, much less objecting to, this kind of erosion.
Secondly, progressivism is an open-ended proposition. What progressive of the early twentieth century could ever have imagined that their political descendants would support unrestricted abortion and same-sex marriage? But today’s progressives, including Dr. Lilla, favor both. The same goes for group identity politics. Theodore Roosevelt and his fellow progressives railed against “hyphenated Americans” and sought to eliminate this version of multiculturalism well before the invention of the term. Modern progressives, minus Dr. Lilla, celebrate the hyphen in the name of promoting multiculturalism and the interests of the Democratic party.
Dr. Lilla, it seems, wants to have his cake without eating it, too. He seeks to claim the mantle of liberal without so much as sampling either the substance or the frosting of progressivism. He hopes to promote the twentieth-century version of big government liberalism while spurning its nineteenth-century roots. (Barry Goldwater thought of himself as a nineteenth-century liberal. As such, he was a once and future liberal.) Dr. Lilla wants to revive twentieth-century liberalism without coming to terms with its progressive origins and implications. Finally, he wants to believe that neither modern liberalism nor modern progressivism have any negative implications for America’s citizens or the ideal and practice of citizenship.
The words “citizen” and “citizenship” appear frequently in this book. And they are noble words indeed. What is much less noble is Dr. Lilla’s understanding of them. He seems to think that the federal government is the best, perhaps even the only, agent of the common good. Apparently, Dr. Lilla’s common good is actually a collective, even collectivized, good. And he thinks he knows that the American right is so preoccupied with individual success that its adherents scorn both citizenship and the pursuit of any definition of the common good.
His take on the American right amounts to a caricature of his opponents. It apparently hasn’t occurred to Dr. Lilla that those who are working and raising their families, improving their neighborhoods, attending their churches, and serving in Burke’s “little platoons” are also quite capable of being citizens who promote and benefit the common good. But Dr. Lilla disqualifies them from citizenship, because they believe in the virtues and efficacy of limited government, especially a limited federal government.
Something else seems has failed to draw the attention of Dr. Lilla, namely that such folks are not likely to become clients of the state. Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, the word “client” never appears in these pages. Somehow or other, a return to some version of the Roosevelt dispensation will build citizens without multiplying the already vast number of clients of the modern American state.
Dr. Lilla, however, has no worries on this score. Somehow or other, such clients are automatically citizens. That’s amazing enough. What’s even more amazing is his presumption that American conservatives neither behave as citizens nor believe in citizenship. Dr. Lilla, however, is not without his worries, worries that lead one to wonder what country he thinks he is a citizen of. He worries that, once in power, conservatives will abuse power, as occurred with the impeachment of Bill Clinton over a “peccadillo.” (Is that how obstruction of justice has come to be defined by liberals and progressives?)
Dr. Lilla also worries about the spread of right-wing reading groups, think tanks, and summer camps for college students. He worries about the perverse impact of the Federalist Society. He worries about conservative “shock radio” and Fox News. And he worries about what he describes as a rightist “long march” through American institutions? Really? What institutions might those be? American colleges and universities? Has something like this happened at his Columbia University? Or anywhere else in America, for that matter?
Dr. Lilla must be credited with performing an act of citizenship in writing this book. He is nothing if not an active citizen, even if he is also a disguised and frustrated progressive. Let that stand as a dispensation of sorts. But does the good professor really know either his conservative opponents or his liberal (or should that be his progressive?) allies very well at all? For that matter, one wonders just how well he knows his country, its history, and its institutions, starting with which side of the political divide has been conducting a long march through them. It’s sometimes hard to tell in this “liberal’s” search to resolve the “crisis” that continues to grip the “repudiated” version of modern liberalism that led him to write this book in the first place.
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