Donald Trump’s election as president ten months ago plunged liberal America into disarray. In addition to being at war with the White House, the Democrats are at war with each other. The right of the party blames the left for Hillary Clinton’s defeat in November, and the left levels the same charge against the right. Some liberals are convinced that Trump stole the presidency, because he failed to win the popular vote. Some have even bought into the daft conspiracy theory that Trump is a Russian plant, whose meteoric political rise over the past two years has been carefully stage-managed by the Kremlin.
Out of this confusion, not a lot of useful analysis has emerged. Despite the chaos that seems to permeate every layer of the Trump administration, progressive Americans remain divided and adrift. Trump’s healthcare bill – which, if implemented, would have stripped 24 million people of their medical insurance – failed this summer as a result of Republican, not Democratic, opposition. (The Democrats are in a minority in both Houses of Congress.) Meanwhile, Democratic commentators have been reduced to poring over every minor piece of Washington gossip for evidence of Trump’s looming resignation, impeachment, or arrest.
In The Once And Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Columbia University professor and New York Review of Books essayist Mark Lilla charts the source of America’s liberal discontent. He finds that it significantly predates Donald Trump. For Lilla, the left’s problem lies in its embrace, during the 1980s and ‘90s, of what he calls “identity consciousness”: a narrow focus on certain ‘minority’ issues, such as feminism and transgender rights, at the expense of a much broader and more ambitious vision of America’s future. The main consequence of this trend, he argues, is that “citizenship dropped out of the picture. And people began to speak instead of their personal identities in terms of their inner homunculus, a unique little thing composed of parts tinted by race, sex, and gender.”
From here, Lilla launches an attack on key aspects of contemporary progressive belief. He denounces the spread of political correctness on college campuses; he claims that Black Lives Matter has “played into the hands of the Republican right” by extending its campaign against police brutality into a “general indictment of American society”; he criticises the left’s fixation with “superficial diversity”; and he is profoundly sentimental about his own generation of sixties’ radicals whom, he insists, framed their radicalism in the language of civic duty.
Readers in the UK will find his critique strikingly familiar. Lilla is the American academic equivalent of a disgruntled Labour MP who has remained stubbornly loyal to Blairism, and who spends more time quarrelling with Jeremy Corbyn’s activists than campaigning to dislodge the Tories. Indeed, from Lilla’s perspective, nothing has done more damage to the electoral prospects of the American left than the left itself. “The age of movement politics is over, at least for now. We need no more marchers,” he concludes.
But it’s difficult to take any of this seriously, because Lilla’s thinking is so incoherent. On one hand, he presents the success of Trumpism as an indictment of America’s youth, which he characterises as insular, self-involved, and unpatriotic. On the other, he disapproves of young people taking to the streets in opposition to the Trump government. Any other writer would interpret mass participation in the political process as a sign of patriotism. Somehow Lilla diagnoses it as a symptom of apathy.
It might be possible to overlook these solecisms if Lilla’s advice for the left was actually useful, but it’s not. His suggestion that social democrats adopt conservative themes in order to reconnect with “resentful Southerners and Midwestern blue-collar ethnics”, for instance, is about two decades out of date. Likewise, the image of juice-cleansing, virtue-signalling millennials that he appears to have rattling around in his head is a stock rightwing caricature, and adds nothing to the overall force of his pitch. (“The Republicans have successfully persuaded much of the public that they are the party of Joe Sixpack and Democrats are the party of Jessica Yogamat,” he unironically remarks at one stage.)
The strangest thing about Lilla’s reasoning is the way it seeks to burden the left with the failures of the centre, and the young with the failures of the old. Lilla wants to convince us that responsibility for Trump’s success doesn’t lie with the lavishly-paid Democratic strategists who coordinated Hillary Clinton’s doomed campaign last year; it lies instead with 20 year old university students studying gender dynamics and radical feminist thought. But it was the strategists, not the students, who ran the executive branch of government for eight years prior to Trump’s election. If anyone should carry the fault for his victory, it should be them.
Ultimately, when you strip back the intellectual gloss from Lilla’s argument, what remains is a deeply simplistic and reactionary world view. “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I’ve got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” That’s a quote from Steve Bannon, the far-right media executive who until very recently was a senior adviser in the Trump administration. But it could just as easily work as a summary of Lilla’s concerns. In fact, Lilla is on record as having endorsed Bannon’s assessment.
It’s not clear how closely Lilla’s ideas reflect mainstream progressive opinion in America. He first aired them in a lengthy and controversial New York Times article a week or so after the November general election. However, it wouldn’t be surprising if they found a receptive audience at the top of the Democratic party, as well as with sizeable sections of the liberal press. Lumped together, they provide a convenient – if completely unpersuasive – catalogue of excuses for Clinton’s inability to beat the worst presidential candidate in living memory, and offer centrist Democrats an opportunity to ignore the glaring flaws in their own increasingly beleaguered ideology.
The title of the book exposes the author’s misguided nostalgia. Lilla thinks the future of the American left lies in its past. He pines for a lost era of liberal belief in the power of institutional government, long before “JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country? became unintelligible.” But that challenge became unintelligible because, for tens of millions of Americans subject to systemic discrimination in the workplace, or constant harassment by law enforcement officials, or the lethal inadequacy of free-market healthcare, it was unintelligible. The model of citizenship that Lilla champions is brutally exclusive, which is why it has been rejected by a generation much more finely tuned than Lilla’s to the fault-lines of race, class, and sexual inequality in modern America. Democrats can listen to Lilla if they want to. But if they do, the post-November fog will never lift, and Donald Trump will be president until the end of time – or at least until 2020, which at this rate feels like the same thing.
This article is a review of The Once And Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla.