The Once and Future Mark Lilla

However, liberals have “abdicated” by losing themselves in the “thickets of identity politics.”
While Lilla is sympathetic to early liberal identitarianism, emerging as it did to carve out a haven for the marginalized and facilitate their mobilization, he distinguishes the ideology’s just motivations from its fruits and reserves nothing but acid for the long-term consequences of the reduction of political action to mere self-expression. Without the firm ground of first principles, the “common good” is merely the whim of the majority. It is exceedingly difficult to fix one’s trust on a moving target. In all his denunciations of both movements he is curiously shy of naming the irreducible heart of their similarity: nihilism. This entails granting theology a privileged place in the public square at a time when most of the left and the far right are loath to grant it any place at all. What is the good? For that Lilla, theology is a contamination best kept hermetically sealed from politics, lest some dark “messianism” raise its head. It is astonishing that a thinker of Lilla’s stature is capable of embracing this heart (and helping it pump) while also bemoaning that “the more individualistic our society has become and the more assertive Americans have become about their rights, the more narrowly political discussion and legal discourse have revolved around the self.” But, I suppose, the American political tradition — in both its partisan guises — has long made peace with bad faith and cognitive dissonance. ¤
A consummate intellectual historian, Lilla is at his strongest while explaining the genealogies of Reaganism and left identitarianism. Duty to one’s neighbor has fallen out of the frame. Tips for sewing homemade Klan hoods? This is made clear by his unwillingness to apply his critique of individualism to his own political commitments. The will to power sits beneath Lilla’s critique just as it resides within the objects of his scorn. To posit a common good is, necessarily, to embrace metaphysical realism, and thus to wade into the deep waters of natural law theory. Identitarian epistemology thus forecloses the possibility of normative communication. This presents Democrats with a rare opportunity (for Lilla, a duty) to seize the country’s political imagination. Whether the will to power finds expression in economic self-determination or in the assertion of one’s identity over-against an other, it remains a groundless nothing, a sheer, arbitrary exuberance. It has next to nothing to say about the natural needs of collectivities — from families to nations — or our obligation to meet them.” He sees in the election of Donald Trump a repudiation of the vision that has united the Republican Party for nearly four decades. One can hardly imagine Lilla rejecting Anthony Kennedy’s reaffirmation of Roe v. Even if our institutions were more dependable, or if trust could be ensorcelled, the project of reorienting our political discourse to the promotion of the common good is doomed from the start. His short new book The Once and Future Liberal, an extension of his op-ed, is generating similarly negative press from the mainstream left, with reactions ranging from David Remnick’s tedious exercise in missing the point to Beverly Gage’s dismissal of the book as “trolling disguised as erudition.” On Twitter, denunciations have been outright scatological. A less charitable reader might bristle at Lilla’s thinly veiled sentiment that the American project didn’t begin in earnest until the New Deal; or his tendency to collapse the distinction between members of the Reagan Coalition; or his odd belief that the right has dominated judicial appointments for the past generation (belied by his later observation that law is a “mainly liberal profession”); or the preposterous assertion that the movement for small government was something new, a reaction against the Roosevelt Dispensation, rather than a reaffirmation of Madisonian federalism. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. Argument is replaced by taboo. The only meaningful question became a deeply personal one: what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity? The institutions of “liquid modernity,” to borrow Zygmunt Bauman’s term, with their premiums placed on flexibility (structural and moral), hybridity, and mobility, are not the solid institutions of Lilla’s nostalgia. What exactly has Lilla written to provoke such vitriol? Speaking as an X […] This is not an anodyne phrase. Intent on combating the illusory sense instilled in students that “a historical process is unfolding,” that social progress is inevitable, Lilla champions a return to “the supposedly bland” schooling of the 1950s and 1960s that, ironically, “incubated what was perhaps the most radical generation of American citizens since the country’s founding.” And here he reveals his ambivalence, forgetting one of his earliest admonitions: once a political paradigm shifts “there is no going back. “At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. What replaced broad coalitions “was a pseudo-political and distinctly American rhetoric of the feeling self and its struggle for recognition. Reagan’s wry, disingenuous contempt for government, and thus for civic duty, found its perfect mirror on the radical left: “As the feminist authors of the Combahee River Collective put it baldly in their influential 1977 manifesto, ‘The most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.’”
These developments had a profound impact on our universities, which feverishly embraced post-modern theories of self-construction and provided “an intellectual patina to the radical individualism that virtually everything else in our society encourages.”
A long teaching career has provided Lilla opportunity to observe the damage this has wrought on students: “Young people on the left — in contrast with those on the right — are less likely today to connect their engagements to a set of political ideas.” Instead, they engage politics from the vantage of identity, which guarantees that their alliances (with other identity groups) “will never be more than marriages of convenience.”
Even more significant is how the discourse handicaps persuasion in the public square. Of course not. The first chapter, “Anti-Politics,” is equal parts nostalgia for the “Roosevelt Dispensation” — which “filled three generations of liberals with confidence, hope, pride, and a spirit of self-sacrifice” — and analysis of how its dogmatic calcification opened the way for the hyper-individualism of the Reaganite right. A different Mark Lilla, the one who wrote The Stillborn God, celebrates the banishing of faith to the private sphere. There are more serious problems with Lilla’s argument, however, for which no rhetorical palliatives exist. As much as one may enjoy Lilla’s scorching wit, a stronger seasoning of empathy might have occasioned some advice for those navigating such a discomfiting transition. Lilla detects an ironic mimeticism in the post–Roosevelt Dispensation turn inward. But the Lilla of The Once and Future Liberal looks back wistfully on the role faith once played in energizing civic virtue, his reflections colored, perhaps, by his own youthful dalliance with Evangelicalism. Lilla rightly judges Reaganism as a revolutionary over-correction, one inimical to traditional conservatism. If you are unhappy with the terms of debate during one dispensation, you have no choice but to prepare a new one.”
Rather than preparing something new, Lilla dreams of a return to an idealized liberalism, valiantly forgetting that, as far as electoral politics are concerned, “[n]ostalgia is suicidal.”
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Justin Dean Lee teaches at UC Irvine, where he earned an MFA in Creative Writing in 2014. The common good is emphatically not a product of consensus. Lilla   proposes that the left abandon this self-defeating discourse and reinvest in reasoned appeals to the common good. For an identitarian — for whom the personal is so deeply constituted by the political — embracing Lilla’s vision requires a radical transformation of self. And this is likely to continue due to their fluidity. Of this reality Lilla is oddly oblivious. In a longer work, surely, such errata would be resolved or at least mitigated by qualifications. Despite his fondness for ridiculing the religious intensity of the “social justice warrior,” Lilla fails to recognize that a rejection of one’s political expressivism could be experienced as a religious deconversion. What do we hold in common? And this is tragic. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter […] It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. He has merely voiced publicly what many other Democrats have been saying in private: that the party’s focus on identity politics has come at the expense of winning elections, which means the very groups it purports to care most about are being underserved. Take, for example, his self-designation as an “absolutist on abortion,” proffered, it seems, as a bona fide of his liberalism. He is surely right to encourage fellow-travelers to return to institution building and the prioritizing of “citizenship over group or personal identity.” But placing such hope in our institutions seems more than a little Panglossian. ¤
As could be expected of so sweeping a narrative executed in so few pages, Lilla is correct in broad-brush while fumbling many of the particulars. For some, the remedy may well be worse than the disease. A treatise for social Darwinism? But Trump’s presidency is “disjunctive” — the old paradigm has been shattered, but nothing new has emerged to replace it. Instead of citizenship
people began to speak […] of their personal identities in terms of the inner homunculus, a unique little thing composed of parts tinted by race, sex, and gender. Planned Parenthood. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters.”
It is clear why the left intelligentsia’s response to Lilla has been so vicious. Such was the logic latent in the New Left’s slogan: The personal is political. In his majority opinion, Kennedy grounds the defense of abortion rights in what can only be called a nihilistic understanding of human freedom: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This vision of freedom is the secret heart of liberal individualism. And this is perhaps what most irks Lilla’s critics on the left, even if they’re wary of articulating it: any serious — that is, internally coherent — movement away from identity politics and toward a robust discourse of the common good requires that we reintroduce metaphysics into our politics. Lilla’s recognition of the deep affinity between Reaganite economics and left identitarianism is the most profound aspect of The Once and Future Liberal. — which had inspired the early sixties generation — became unintelligible. Or so one might conclude from the rancor he has absorbed since publishing his controversial New York Times op-ed “The End of Identity Liberalism” in November 2016. “It treats as axiomatic the primacy of self-determination over traditional ties of dependence and obligation. Trust in American institutions is at a historic low. One suspects that Lilla doubts his ideal of citizenship is really capable of instilling a sense of civic duty “[i]n the absence of a motivating charitable faith.” If the failures of French universalism are any indication, such doubts are justified. “We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens,” Lilla writes near the end of his opening salvo, “and to frame our appeals — including ones to benefit particular groups — in terms of principles that everyone can affirm. The Once and Future Liberal ends with a welcome plea for the renewal of civic education. Lilla seems to have learned nothing from the criticisms leveled against his highly selective 2007 study of political theology, The Stillborn God. JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country? A colleague has even accused him of attempting to make “white supremacy respectable” again. It is also the element around which his entire project unravels. Ours must become a civic liberalism.”
While there is much to commend in this book — Lilla’s wide-ranging expertise, his good humor and sharp wit, his moral seriousness — it is not without its faults, the greatest of which is Lilla’s failure to press his critique to its logical limits. OCTOBER 9, 2017
MARK LILLA IS a hated man. The new dispensation constituted an “anti-politics,” a rejection of larger-scale social responsibility in favor of an almost Emersonian self-reliance. These are problems inherent in the Enlightenment project of liberal individualism, to which Lilla, no matter how he might protest, is just as committed as everyone else. Lilla’s failure to weigh the implications of his critique renders his closing prescriptions rather hollow. Wade in 1992’s Casey v. Which turned out to be not all that different from Reagan’s anti-political rhetoric of the producing self and its struggle for profit.” Duty to country became a foreign concept. Thus the wretched impasse of today.