[OP-ED]: Historian infuriates liberal choir he preaches to
In writing “The Once and Future Liberal,” the historian Mark Lilla has produced a short tome that is devoid of the shrieking hysteria about partisan rivals that usually sells political books.
Indeed, Lilla has done worse -- he’s taken his own party to task in a scathing critique of liberalism’s failure to create a common vision for our nation. His ideas are sound and logical, and he yearns for politically awakened citizens who can create lasting legislative change. The book essentially argues that the collective spirit of “We the people” has been replaced by me-me-me-ism at a time when we most need to hold on to our shared values.
For vast swaths of America, this isn’t controversial but, predictably, these proclamations are infuriating the choir Lilla is attempting to preach to.
A pragmatic -- and self-identified as proud -- progressive, Lilla has ruffled liberal feathers. In prefacing a testy interview in which The New Yorker editor David Remnick seemed both pained and horrified at Lilla’s prescriptions, the author was ominously labeled a “distinctly more conservative brand of liberal and Trump opponent.”
Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, was similarly affronted. In the journal Inside Higher Ed, Roth argued that Lilla “condemns campus radicals for abdicating their responsibility to go beyond movement politics and build successful electoral coalitions ... [but] must be aware that the old solidarity came at the expense of all too many, and that thanks to the movement politics he derides, our politics now has the potential to be more inclusive.”
The strong reactions are due to Lilla’s blunt assessment of where liberalism stands in the Trump era, which appears to be a repudiation of all that progressives have fought for over the past few decades.
“Liberals bring many things to electoral contests: values, commitment, policy proposals. What they don’t bring is an image of what our shared way of life might be,” Lilla writes. “Ever since the election of Ronald Reagan the American right has offered one. And it is this image -- not money, not false advertising, not fearmongering, not racism -- that has been the ultimate source of its strength. In the contest for the American imagination, liberals have abdicated.”
Lilla’s critics have mocked him for supposed overuse of the term “abdication,” but he lists other liberal sins such as an overemphasis on identity politics, which he says was “at first about large classes of people -- African-Americans, women -- seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. But by the 1980s it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities. The main result has been to turn young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them outward toward the wider world. It has left them unprepared to think about the common good and what must be done practically to secure it -- especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.”
Again, any moderate, centrist or independent voter will find a lot of truth in that sentiment. But Lilla’s message is instead goading the very liberals he seeks to convince.
He argues quite convincingly that it is not individual identity, but a shared sense of citizenship, that can bring our nation’s diverse peoples together. “I am not a black male motorist and never will be,” he writes. “All the more reason, then, that I need some way to identify with one if I am going to be affected by his experience. And citizenship is the only thing I know we share. The more the differences between us are emphasized, the less likely I will be to feel outrage at his mistreatment.”
But Lilla makes a bitter pill of the medicine he proposes. He writes, “Children do not respond well to scolding and neither do nations. It just puts their backs up. They become better only when they are told that they are already good and therefore can improve.”
Despite Lilla’s great arguments and examples, the overall tone of this book is that of a harsh scolding. As a result, Lilla’s passionate call for the left’s unity with those in the middle and on the right is diminished. His book will likely only resonate with those progressives who already believe that we need fewer marchers and more mayors, governors and other legislators who can enact lasting change.