"The Once and Future Liberal"

Mark Lilla, political scientist and Professor of Humanities at Columbia University delivers a convincing critique of the self-defeating practices of today’s liberals. Lilla assesses how, during “the great liberal abdication” which occurred during the Reagan administration, liberals gave up political control at all levels and replaced it with a politics of identity.

Identity politics is based on identifying the interests of social groups determined by age, religion, disability, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, race, etc. The aim of identity politics is for those feeling oppressed to convey their sense of subjugation and raise the consciousness of others about their plight.

Lilla states, “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…”

In the 60s and 70s, liberals endorsed broad social issues such as civil rights, opposition to undeclared war and other wide ranging civic-minded movements. But then identity politics divided the liberals into small exclusionary social groups. Unifying liberal priorities were supplanted by self-interest groups’ pet issues, and a collapse of liberalism as a single entity ensued. The liberal vision shifted from shared aims for the common citizenry to naval gazing to determine and emphasize only self-interest objectives. As a result, conservatives gained control of statehouses and most branches of the federal government.

For Lilla, the road to recovery for liberals is to focus on “citizenship.” This broad model entails Americans supporting shared rights and obligations, and defending the opportunity for all citizens to be listened to and respected. He asserts if hard-won civil rights, voting rights , equal pay, laws against sexual harassment, and equal representation in government are to be protected, liberals must begin working together again in order to exert strong influence in the political sphere.

“Resist” has become a ubiquitous stance for liberals, but Lilla warns, “Resistance is by nature, reactive; it is not forward-looking.” Instead of just resisting the current political milieu, liberals must work toward a common vision that any American citizen would be proud of sharing. “We need no more marchers. We need more mayors. And governors, and state legislators, and members of Congress…”

“The Once and Future Liberal” is only 141 pages long. It is a condensed history of 100 years of sociological changes. But, in its three succinct chapters, Lilla provides a clear and useful study of how liberals relinquished power in the past 50 years and a clarion call for liberals to come together “emphasizing what we all share and owe one another as citizens, not what differentiates us.”

Lilla’s commentary is sure to get pushback from other political scientists and from far left liberals. Though I did not agree with everything he purported, I appreciated his bold assessment of what liberals need to do to recover influence. This brief book may encourage them to examine their past and create a vision of a new way forward. Harper is the publisher.