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“The Once And Future Liberal”-How Does the Left Move Forward?

Mark Lilla provides the left with a way forward, but will they take it?

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Craig Axford | United States

The upcoming 2018 midterms may be about to prove that Donald Trump has been good for the left and the Democratic Party, at least in the short-term. However, he’s still a far cry from a cure for what ails it. His abusive style and bull in a china shop approach to governance have merely provided a shot of adrenaline to an institution that’s been increasingly showing signs of exhaustion for decades.

Trump has consistently given the appearance of an easy foil that, like the ancient Sirens, has the perpetual potential to lure America’s left onto the rocks. Adrenaline wears off quickly once we’re convinced the crisis has passed. Between the danger of Trump fatigue and the very real chance that the Democratic Party will once again decide to take a collective nap as soon as the current administration has been dealt with, midterm victories and success in 2020 could prove short-lived. While the left sleeps off the bad trip of the Trump era, we can be sure that other far more savvy demagogues will be busy working to seize upon America’s discontent to launch their own attempts to take power.

The essayist and Columbia University professor of Humanities, Mark Lilla, picked up his pen and wrote a short but powerful antidote to the American left’s malaise. Unfortunately, his obvious understanding of the problem and how we got here leaves Lilla at best only a very mildly reassuring read.

While the efforts at organizing by those that commonly refer to themselves as “the resistance” have potential, Lilla warns us that these efforts need to lead us somewhere other than simply removing Trump from office and winning the elections of 2018 and 2020. “So it’s encouraging to see how quickly liberals have organized to resist Trump,” Lilla writes. “But resistance is by nature reactive, it is not forward-looking.”

Lilla does not dismiss or treat lightly the post-1960s habit by the left to ignore down-ballot races. Its increasingly presidential focus all but ceded school boards, city councils, state legislatures, and even governorships to the Republican Party. By 2016 Democrats were in worse shape than at any time since the 1920s. Indeed, the Obama years were particularly bad ones for the Democratic Party, with losses far exceeding those experienced under any previous Democratic president.

Lilla isn’t the first to chastise Democrats for putting most of their eggs in the presidential basket and, unfortunately, he probably won’t be the last. We still occasionally hear commentators feel the need to remind Democrats to pay attention more often than just once every four years, but oddly the party that supposedly believes most in government continues to generally find local and state races pretty unimportant.

With regard to the vision question, there’s some movement around issues like universal health care. Senator Sanders has demonstrated that ideas like Medicare for all and a tuition-free education can generate a high enough turnout in at least some districts to win elections and enough energy to fill large arenas virtually anywhere.

But there’s still an elephant in the room by the name of identity politics and the left simply doesn’t know how to navigate around it without upsetting its fragile ego. Indeed, the left has spent decades nurturing that ego by fostering an environment in which debates are increasingly seen as synonymous with confrontation and more attention is paid to policing speech than to regulating corporations or reporting campaign donations.

Identity politics, according to Lilla, represents the brand of individualism the left adopted to counter the Reagan revolution’s own distinct identification with rugged ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ libertarian individualism. America doesn’t have citizens so much as it has individuals, interests, and groups that identify themselves this way or that.

“The most important lesson is this,” Lilla tells us on the opening page of the third and final chapter of his short treatise, “that for two generations America has been without a political vision of its destiny. There is no conservative one, there is no liberal one. There are just two tired individualistic ideologies intrinsically incapable of discerning the common good and drawing the country together to secure it under present circumstances.”

Lilla isn’t wrong. The problem, as I see it, is that this describes America throughout most of its history. It has never shown much interest in abandoning this character flaw. It has always been a nation that preferred to see its people’s isolated dreams as a substitute for an overarching philosophy that saw the whole as greater than the sum of its parts.

The periods when it has enjoyed a “vision of its destiny” have been the exception rather than the rule. The only reason to think that America might be ready to enter one of these exceptional periods now is that it again finds itself in a crisis. It’s always been an emergency of fairly significant proportions that’s precipitated the emergence of such a shared vision in the past. This vision lingers for a while after the crisis has passed but it inevitably fades within a generation or so.

On the opening page of his book’s first chapter, Lilla himself recognizes this very American tendency by providing two quotes from two very different men separated by nearly two centuries:

I see an immense crowd of similar and equal men who spin restlessly around themselves, seeking vulgar little pleasures to fill their souls. Living apart, each is like a foreigner to the fate of others. His children and friends are for him the entire human race. As for his fellow citizens, his is next to them but does not see them, he touches them but does not feel them. He exists only in and for himself, alone. And though he may still have a family, he no longer has a country. ~ Alexis de Tocqueville

My ideal citizen is the self-employed, homeschooling, IRA-owning guy with a concealed-carry permit. Because that person doesn’t need the goddamn government for anything. ~ Grover Norquist

While Bill Clinton’s rhetoric is certainly imbued with greater empathy than Grover Norquist’s, his 1992 campaign was nonetheless intended to prove de Tocqueville’s point regarding America’s true character. Lincoln’s emancipatory vision or FDR’s commitment to fairness and economic justice were the sorts of things the country would only swallow after two years of civil war or 20 plus percent unemployment. Even then, Bill Clinton and his centrist fellow travelers warned Democrats that articulating grand ideas was risky at best in the post-Reagan era and they would be wise to steer clear of them if they wanted to win elections.

Clinton won in 1992, but in 1994 the GOP took the House for the first time in four decades and the rest, as they say, is history. Democrats have been out of power in the House and Senate more often than not ever since. In spite of these mounting losses, however, they’ve generally just kept doubling down on Bill Clinton’s insistence on moderation. In lieu of a grand vision for the country, the “first black president” together with his fellow baby boomers ardently embraced identity politics and small initiatives that could be fairly quickly undone by the next Republican president.

Lilla’s suggestion for revitalizing the left is a radical departure from identity politics, though it is by no means a new or radical idea: bring back the concept of citizenship. Citizens are part of a community, whereas individuals are merely unbonded social atoms that keep bumping into one another, sometimes with great force.

The only adversary left is ourselves. And we have mastered the art of self-sabotage. At a time when we liberals need to speak in a way that convinces people from very different walks of life, in every part of the country, that they share a common destiny and need to stand together, our rhetoric encourages self-righteous narcissism. At a moment when political consciousness and strategizing need to be developed, we are expending our energies on symbolic dramas over identity. ~ Mark Lilla

Lilla doesn’t argue that the left should abandon the minorities that have struggled or are still struggling to gain access to everything from voting rights to the use of the bathroom but he does believe the left needs to reframe the way we discuss these problems. Equal treatment under the law is a human rights issue first and foremost. The word human is all-inclusive. Identity politics, on the other hand, demands equality by drawing attention to what we are that others are not, inviting potential allies to make some other concern their top priority on the grounds that they cannot possibly understand our own. No wonder Steve Bannon openly hopes the left will be stupid enough to continue meandering drunkenly down this divisive road.

Lilla is part of a small but (hopefully) growing group of liberal thinkers arguing that all anyone ultimately needs to understand is that the dignity and worth we all possess entitle each of us to equality under the law. This is not a difficult concept to grasp. It does not require a degree in gender studies or regular staff meetings to address our unconscious biases.

Neither the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. nor the abolitionists 100 years before him described the problem in the narrow language of minority rights or the angry hopelessness of those who claim that people outside their cherished tribe simply can’t get it. King, as well as the suffragettes and abolitionists before him, were simply demanding everyone be given an equal opportunity to sit at humanity’s table.

Lilla calls upon liberalism to return to a larger more inclusive rhetoric that excludes no one; a liberalism that embraces diversity not because it has a list of interests and identity groups that need to be checked off but because it recognizes everyone’s humanity. True liberalism doesn’t care about the color of your skin, your gender, or your sexual orientation. Humanity and character are the only things that matter. Liberalism embraces Martin Luther King’s dream. Identity politics rejects it.

It remains to be seen whether Lilla and others like him will be heard. A small but vocal segment of the Democratic Party seems to enjoy spending their time getting mad at professors who don’t share their particular worldview or typing angry tweets about Google employees who wrote a memo most of them never bothered to read. None of this fosters dialogue and compassion let alone brings America any closer to providing health care to all its citizens, eliminating the growing burden of student debt, reforming the justice system, or providing an income to a working class facing increasing pressures from automation. Such debates are as divisive in their own way as Trumpism is.

Mark Lilla’s book is worthy of the few hours it takes to read. His argument needs thoughtful consideration and debate within liberal circles everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s hard for this Democrat to ignore his personal experience of the past four decades. The signs that America’s left — a movement that is already centrist by contemporary Western democratic standards — will respond to the need to abandon identity politics in favor of the more inclusive and shared commitment that citizenship demands are tentative at best.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on Medium.com

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