Monday, May 21, 2018

Books: Lilla On "The Once And Future Liberal"

The Once And Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
By Mark Lilla
Harper, 160 pages, $24.99

Columbia University professor and public intellectual Mark Lilla, in  The Once And Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, offers an impassioned, tough-minded, and stinging look at the failure of American liberalism over the past two generations.

Lilla expands on the ideas he first outlined in a November 18, 2016 op-ed for The New York Times, which ignited a firestorm in the days after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency over Hillary Clinton.

The ideas Lilla put forth were lauded by some, including Senator Bernie Sanders, who had an electrifying run for president that year, and excoriated by others. With more than 1.5 million voters, the piece was the top-ranked political opinion essay of 2016 in The Times.

Lilla argues that ever since the Democratic Party fell under the spell of identity politics it has abandoned the contest for the American imagination to the radical right.

Driven originally by a sincere desire to protect the most vulnerable Americans, the left has now unwittingly balkanized the electorate, encouraged self-absorption rather than solidarity, and invested its energies in narrow social movement rather than in developing a vision of our shared national identity.

Lilla writes, "American liberalism in the twenty-first century is in crisis: a crisis of imagination and ambition on our side, a crisis of attachment and trust on the side of the wider public. The majority of Americans have made it abundantly clear that they no longer respond to whatever larger message we have been conveying over the past decades. And even when they vote for our candidates, they are increasingly hostile to the way we speak and write (especially about them), the way we argue, the way we campaign, the way we govern. Abraham Lincoln's famous remark is timely once again:

"Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.

"The American right understands in its bones this basic law of democratic politics, which is why it has effectively controlled the political agenda of this country for two generations. Liberals have for just as long refused to accept it. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, they 'prefer not to.' The question is, Why? Why would those who claim to speak for the great American demos be so indifferent  to stirring its feelings and gaining its trust? This is the question I would like to explore.

"I write as a frustrated American liberal. My frustration is not directed at Trump's voters, or those who explicitly supported the rise of this populist demagogue, or those in the press who greased the wheels of his campaign, or those craven Washingtonians who have fallen into line behind him. Others will take them on. My frustration has its source in an ideology that for decades has prevented liberals from developing an ambitious vision of America and its future that would inspire citizens of every walk of like and in every region of the country. A vision that would orient the Democratic Party and help it win elections and occupy our political institutions  over the long term, so we might effect the changes we want and America needs. 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. Ever since the election of Ronald Reagan the American right has offered one. And it is this image - not money, not false advertising, not fear-mongering, not racism - that has been the ultimate source of its strength. In the contest for the American imagination, liberals have abdicated."

The Democratic party has an opportunity to reset. The left is motivated, and Republicans, led by the unpopular President Trump, is in ideological disarray. To seize this opportunity, Lilla insists, liberals must concentrate their efforts on recapturing our institutions by winning elections.

The time for symbolic politics and hectoring is over. It is time to reach out and start convincing people from every walk of life and in every region of the country that liberals will stand up for them.

The Once And Future Liberal envisions a new kind of Democratic politics, one that embraces the solidarity, institution building, an sense of duty from a prior era while also being relentlessly forward looking.

This work is a must-read for people interested in where we stand as a country as we get closer to the 2018 midterm elections.

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