The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
by Mark Lilla.
HarperCollins, 2017.
Hardcover, 143 pages, $25.

The publishing logic behind The Once and Future Liberal is impeccable. Defeated and divided after the 2016 election, liberals urgently asked themselves what had gone wrong. Mark Lilla replied in a post-election New York Times op-ed, “The Death of Identity Liberalism,” with an answer many of them did not want to hear. But controversy is great for sales, and the moment was ripe for a book-length treatment of the left’s crisis and Lilla’s solution—a return to a broad civic-minded liberalism in place of the politics of identity.

Lilla and HarperCollins can hardly be blamed for rushing the book out. But the work has suffered for their haste. Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, is an unfailingly incisive intellectual historian and lapidary essayist. He is not, however, in his element as an analyst of hard politics or political economy. What’s more, he has an obvious cultural blind spot that he might have addressed in a work of longer gestation. Lilla is a critic of rampant individualism, yet much of this individualism is not the product of the Reaganite right or identity-driven left but of liberals just like Lilla. His political history is unfortunately missing the chapter that would make this clear.

What he presents instead is a tale of a simple swerve to the right in public life. This is a departure from an earlier, better era: in Lilla’s telling, there once was a “Roosevelt Dispensation” in our politics, when Americans trusted in government as the means by which they could achieve the common good. This dispensation “pictured an America where citizens were involved in a collective enterprise to guard one another against risk, hardship, and the denial of fundamental rights,” Lilla writes. “Its watchwords were solidarity, opportunity, and public duty.”

This era lasted from Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency until about 1980, by which time “all the slogans inherited from the New Deal and Great Society, all the old convictions, all the old approaches, bore a deathly pallor.” The hour had come for something new—the “Reagan Dispensation.” This “pictured a more individualistic America where families and small communities and businesses would flourish once freed from the shackles of the state. Its watchwords were self-reliance and minimal government.” An anti-political vision replaced a political one.

Lilla considers this a wrong turn: he favors a liberal and political America in which citizens employ government to fight for one another’s well-being. But throughout the era of the Reagan Dispensation, which is only now ending, liberals proved unable to regain their footing. First they were mired in a bygone time’s New Deal mentality. When new thinking did emerge on the left, it was inward-looking and just as anti-political as the right’s economic individualism. This is Lilla’s indictment of identity politics, which is not politics at all in his telling—it doesn’t win elections, for one thing—but rather a pseudo-politics.

In place of identity politics, Lilla counsels the left to reclaim the concepts of “citizenship” and “duty” and to appeal to all Americans once again. “This does not mean a return to the New Deal,” he cautions. “But it will require that the spell of identity politics that has held two generations in its thrall be broken so that we can focus on what we share as citizens.” Greater real political engagement at the state and local levels—electing officials rather than organizing marches and protests—is a practical component of this. Lilla notes that even the civil rights movement, the model that identity politics claims to emulate, needed Lyndon Johnson as much as Martin Luther King.

Lilla also recommends a renewed emphasis on old-fashioned civics education and the teaching of American history in lieu of presenting the country’s story as the relentless advance of social movements. The activists of the 1960s New Left were themselves the products of a more traditional education than what liberals advocate today, he points out, and while Lilla is not uncritical of the New Left, he lauds it for what he sees as its patriotism and concern with issues larger than personal identity, such as voting rights, war, nuclear proliferation, capitalism, and colonialism.

This all seems sensible enough on the surface. But what exactly is Lilla’s new liberalism, which is supposed to be neither a rehash of the New Deal nor a continuation of the identity-politics left? Lilla might say that he has not written a policy tract. Yet the relationship of policy, in broad terms, to a political “dispensation” is essential. The New Deal was not built on vague assertions of the common good. It was a series of concrete attempts to address clear problems: the Great Depression in particular and the longstanding tensions between labor and management in American industry in general. The Reagan Dispensation, likewise, as Lilla notes, was a response to large but never unnameable political problems: the economic “malaise” that had set in during the Ford and Carter administrations and the perception among Americans that their country had lost strategic ground to Communism and Third World radicalism in the 1970s.

New Deal liberalism and Reagan conservatism were specific remedies to specific problems, and their respective supporters could plausibly claim that each was successful. Lilla provides only half of the story when he refers to the many crises of the 1970s that undermined confidence in the Roosevelt Dispensation. The reason Roosevelt liberalism died was not only that it seemed to offer no answers to Vietnam or stagflation, but also that by the 1970s the problems that had provided the original raison d’etre for the New Deal had been solved: no one feared a return of the Great Depression, and labor-capital disputes were now effectively managed.

Lilla’s criticism of the identity-politics left is not political enough, which leads him to misunderstand the right as well. The right has practiced its own, more successful style of identity politics, which prevails for the simple democratic reason that right-wing identity politics appeals to ethnic and religious majority identities—white and Christian—rather than minority ones. The American right is not Reaganite in any meaningful way: it is anti-left. Richard Nixon, more than Ronald Reagan, has been the archetype for Republicans in the last 30 years. Lilla is correct that the economic consensus from Reagan’s time until the present has been vastly different from the one that still prevailed when Nixon said in 1971 “I am now a Keynesian in economics” (often misremembered as “We are all Keynesians now”). But economics is not the same thing as politics, and even an appealing economic vision is not necessarily the root of an ideology’s political success. The Republican Party since the late 1960s has most often won elections by running against the identity-politics left, not by running for free-market economic policies.

Consider the record. The Republican takeover of Congress after the 1994 midterm elections was made possible not by optimistic Reaganite rhetoric about economic freedom but by Bill Clinton’s extraordinary unpopularity in large parts of the country, especially the South. (“Clinton’s as popular as AIDS in South Carolina” was the verdict of Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings as late as January 1996.) Clinton had spent his first year in office pushing gun control, gays in the military, the FACE act that cracked down on pro-life protests outside abortion clinics, his wife’s health care task force, and a variety of other left-wing causes, both related to identity politics and not. Republicans gained power by opposing these then-radical measures. Lilla probably did not listen to much Rush Limbaugh in the early 1990s or watch Fox News later in the decade, but if he had, he would have found that Reagan and economic individualism played a much smaller role in those broadcasts than did opposition to Clinton and the identity-politics left. Limbaugh built his audience with talk about “feminazis,” not free markets.

The governing agenda that the Republican presidents after Reagan pursued also was not Reaganite. Yes, the second George Bush cut taxes. But he also enacted the largest expansion of entitlements since the Lyndon Johnson era with Medicare Part D. He increased federal involvement in education in collaboration with Ted Kennedy. Far from leaving individuals and society to make their own way without government, George W. Bush made government-supported faith-based initiatives the centerpiece of his “compassionate conservatism.” His father a decade earlier had signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act. That first Bush raised taxes and far from sounding themes of rugged individualism spoke of “a kinder, gentler nation.” He also ran some devastatingly effective attack ads in 1988 that painted Democrats as soft on crime for reasons of identity politics and political correctness.

Lilla glosses over the very problems that a tough-minded liberal must tackle. The civil-rights movement did indeed need both Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. But it was only a pre-civil-rights Democratic Party that could make a politically incorrect Texan like Johnson the Senate majority leader in the first place—and ultimately, by accident, president. Johnson tore the New Deal coalition apart and ushered in a new political dispensation decades before the advent of neoliberal economics. Yet Lilla has little to say about what happened between 1964 and 1972, the years that remade Americans politics to this very day.

Those years remade American culture as well, including its understanding of the place of the individual in—or against—society. The men and women of the New Left that Lilla cannot bring himself to condemn were the pioneers not only of lifestyle freedoms in the 1960s and 1970s but were also often the same people who became yuppies in the 1980s. Jerry Rubin is the classic example, but a more important one is Bill Clinton. As president, Clinton did more for the cause of selfish individualism than Reagan ever did, both by the example he set and in the policies he pursued.

Lilla is correct that the “Roosevelt Dispensation” in economics, which might be more accurately called the Keynesian Dispensation, was exhausted by the late 1970s. Yet Reagan and his policies were only part of a much larger bipartisan and international move toward freer markets and globalization. Deregulation got started under President Carter. Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterand, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Deng Xiaoping all liberalized their economies in parallel with Reagan (some earlier, some later), and globalization reached fever pitch with the old New Leftists Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in power in the U.S. and UK in the 1990s.

All of this might seem to Lilla to be consistent with his claim that the left never successfully adjusted to the end of the Roosevelt Dispensation—he might say that the left, bereft of its civic heritage, assimilated to the individualistic ideas of the right. The problem is that the timeline indicates otherwise: the Baby Boomer left of the 1960s and 1970s was not somehow corrupted by Milton Friedman or Ronald Reagan, it was always intrinsically selfish. One might even think that the remarkable prosperity and growth of the Kennedy-Johnson era had something to do with this. The Roosevelt Dispensation itself—which had its own roots in men formed by the very different ethos of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—gave birth to the new hedonism.

There are small-scale as well as large-scale ironies to Lilla’s politics. He describes himself as an abortion-rights absolutist, for example. It’s easy to see how such rights can be grounded in terms of individualism and freedom (a woman’s freedom not to become a mother) or in terms of the equality that matters for identity politics (a woman’s right to have as much control over her destiny as a man), but it is far less clear how abortion can be defended in the terms that Lilla seeks to reintroduce into politics, those of “duty.” Lilla longs for a language and style of politics that is only a phantom to him: he wants the “product” of the politics of solidarity without paying the price in individual freedom.

Lilla has the picture backwards. Conservatives, whether of the compassionate variety or the old-fashioned kind that Reagan represented, or even of the nationalist sort now on the rise with Trump, have supplied what little resistance there is in our politics to the reign of the absolute self. A revival of duty and solidarity is supremely unlikely to take a form that an abortion-rights absolutist would welcome—it will be either nationalist or religious or both. The old liberalism of duty and solidarity, that “Roosevelt Dispensation,” was after all only made possible by a citizenry far more religious and nationally conscious than any liberal is prepared to tolerate today.  

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age.