THE ONCE AND FUTURE LIBERAL: After Identity Politics (Harper, 2017) is by Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, and is much more explicitly about politics than most books I read. (Because my concerns extend far outside the relatively narrow realm that divides the political parties in the US.) But it links to the previous books reviewed in its reaction to the current president.

And it’s a critique about the side I’m on, and I need to know where or if my side needs to improve. It’s a theme that’s become common; Francis Fukuyama has a recent book on this subject called IDENTITY, and the theme is a recurrent refrain in David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times, where he expresses regret at the loss of common American values of community. (Which I don’t think ever existed, in the MAGA formulation, precisely because the population of the US has become more multicultural and inclusive of anyone other than heterosexual Protestant white families.)


The author’s thesis is that liberals have ‘abdicated’ their traditional role of leading the country, despite notes of ‘resistance’ to Trump and his right-wing media complex. The basic reason is that liberals have become the party of identity, wherein recognizing differences is more important than finding a unified set of values. [I’ll give him that point – it’s hard to win elections without having some kind of unifying set of values for the electorate to rally around.]

He considers the past century or so as having been formed by two ‘dispensations’ – the first was Roosevelt’s, which set a tone and set of expectations that lasted until the ‘60s disrupted them; and then Reagan’s. Despite changes in presidencies, these two eras are distinct. One was about shaking hands; the other about a rainbow. Neither side now has any common goals; they live in caves. Compare the homepages of the Republicans – a list of values – and Democrats – a list of constituencies.

It *should* be about shared citizenship. The liberals need a new orientation.

P21. Recalls how it felt when Reagan was elected, denying the malaise detected by Carter. And then in ’89, when the Berlin Wall came down. Reagan’s themes were about self-reliance, building wealth, the free market, and that government *was the problem* — i.e. the individual, the entrepreneur, was the most important element of society. This trend got worse under Clinton; Republicans became hysterical, shutting down the government, impeaching Clinton for trivia, and became even worse under Obama, reacting to the recession, and giving the likes of Glenn Beck audiences for conspiracy theories.

P59. Liberals responded largely by retreating to the universities. The original American identity was to both country and church. With the civil rights movements, personal identity became more important. Images from the 1950s—suburbs, traditional families—led to early ‘60s ‘identity crisis’. It was a political romanticism, 71b, the search for meaning, that everything connects.

And so in universities, both students and curricula focused on personal issues – not wider ones, not engagement with the world. Personal brands became important, the Facebook model.

And the locution “Speaking as an X…” as if one’s identity as an X made one immune from criticism or argument. There was no objective basis for discussion. [ The latest book by Jonathan Haidt, with Greg Lukianoff, which I haven’t read yet, The Coddling of the American Mind, seems to be precisely on this topic. ] At least Marx looked at the big picture, the historical forces, p92.

P99. Now neither side has a political vision of American destiny. Liberals have an opportunity under Trump, but are sabotaging themselves by the continued focus on identity. It could be a ‘reset moment.’

Author offers four lessons: about institutional vs. movement politics (i.e. it’s about winning elections); the priority of democratic persuasion over self-expression; the priority of citizenship over personal identity. And the need for civic education in an increasingly individualistic nation.

Thus: Black Lives Matter is not the way. Most voters are clueless—Trump’s followers are mobs, not citizens who could pass a citizenship test. Both sides now actively undermine the idea of citizens.

And so: passion and commitment, knowledge and argument, curiosity about the world outside your head and about people unlike yourself. Willingness to sacrifice for fellow citizens; ambition to imagine a common future.

Now if only he dared image what that common future might be – what would make both sides happy? Harari’s humility might be a step…

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