News & Politics

Will Liberals Ever Stop Blaming Identity Politics for Trump's Election Win?

In his newest book, Mark Lilla hopes to save the left from itself. He's doing it no favors.

Photo Credit: ceuhungary / Flickr

Last November, a New York Times essay by Columbia humanities professor Mark Lilla set off a yuuge controversy by blaming the outcome of the 2016 election—and even alt-right rage—on liberal Democrats’ peddling racial and sexual “identity politics.” Implicitly casting most whites, especially white men, as privileged, racist and sexist, liberal Democrats had only added insult to those people’s real economic injuries and given cover to Republicans who claimed to represent and defend the injured (and insulted) heartland, even as they implemented Reaganomic policies that were ravaging it. Or so Lilla insisted.

But Democrats themselves had caved to and compromised with Reaganomics at many turns, and Lilla’s emphasis on their cultural betrayal, now recycled in his instant book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, is itself a betrayal of the shared American citizenship and solidarity he blames liberals for disowning. I took him on for that on AlterNet last November (and briefly, in the New York Times). My worry is that the high ideals of shared citizenship and self-sacrifice for the greater good have been taking a beating not mainly from the "liberal" practitioners of racial and sexual identity politics whom Lilla is so hot to blame, but from accelerating, de-regulated “free marketeering” that’s turning thoughtful citizens into manic consumers.

Democracy journal has just posted my rather severe review of Lilla’s new book, noting his “unsubtle animus against ‘movement’ progressives” and college-campus leftists. (Another devastating assessment by the historian Beverly Gage is in the New York Times.)

But why has this supple if sometimes slippery interpreter of Western political thinkers grabbed a trade publisher’s offer to turn his fevered Times polemic of last November into a mass-market manifesto? Whence this itch to come down from the heights of intellectual historiography—from which he watched the electoral battle of 2016— to shoot the wounded, politically correct survivors who've already taken body blows from the conservative campaign and from Trump himself? Some of Lilla's past writing offers an answer.

In 2009, rebuking liberal academics for shunning conservative scholars and viewpoints, Lilla toldChronicle of Higher Education readers that he’s touchy about it because he had “experienced similar reactions throughout my academic career. In the early 1980s, I helped edit the neoconservative public-policy journal The Public Interest, and though I haven't considered myself a conservative for at least two decades, many academics I meet are astonished to learn this little fact. Some are rendered speechless. Others ask, ‘Are you still a neoconservative?,’ by which they mean, ‘Are you still beating your country?’”

Lilla isn’t beating his country, but he's letting it down. That he was once a neoconservative of sorts doesn't explain why he’s as eager now to correct what he considers a self-indulgent, myopic identity liberalism as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was eager in 1949 (in his book The Vital Center) to rescue liberalism “as an instrument of social change, not of private neurosis” by purging it of its world-saving romantics. The difference is that the romantics whom Schlesinger was assailing were communists who’d run Henry Wallace’s 1948 third-party presidential campaign, which almost threw the election from Harry Truman to Republican Thomas Dewey.

Although Lilla doesn’t say it in The Once and Future Liberal, the book will reinforce some readers’ belief that Bernie Sanders’ supporters did even more damage than Henry Wallace’s by facilitating Trump’s victory. But Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton, who won two million more votes than Trump.

In blaming identity zealots for liberalism’s setbacks, Lilla is indulging some of his own romantic, world-saving inclinations, which he detailed in 2005 in an insightful public self-examination in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, recounting how he’d undertaken many different crusades to save very different groups—secular, religious, left, right—from their illusions and sins.

He recounted that, raised as “Roman Catholic in a blue-collar Detroit suburb,” he was a fairly typical, Mad Magazine-reading, atheistic 13-year-old until he attended a Christian rock concert that inspired him to join an exhibitionist crusade for Christ. He then read the Bible so intently it became “my only portal into the realm of—ideas about morality, justice, cosmology, psychology, eschatology, mortality.”

“All teenagers are dogmatists; a teenager with a Bible is simply a more intense teenager,” he reflects. “I relished being a prophet without honor in my own homeroom. Not long after I was saved, I… asked a friend to make me a large leather cross, which I wore around my neck every day, just so people knew where I stood. I prowled the school halls with a leatherbound Scofield Reference Bible tucked under my arm, looking for victims. I even took on teachers, whose skepticism struck me as a sign of spiritual degeneracy… I was doing them a favor.”

“Conversion stories are slippery things,” Lilla reflects. “‘My new life as an evangelical Christian ended almost as abruptly as it had begun, and was followed by other rebirths that took me to college, to graduate school, to journalism, to stints living in Europe, and now to middle age as a professor.”

Each rebirth unleashed a passion to bring along others not yet reborn. Long after leaving Christianity, he went to a Billy Graham rally with a friend for whom it was “an anthropological expedition.” He fell into a discussion with a young true believer of Graham’s message that one must be born again.

“I felt a professorial lecture welling up in my throat about the history and psychology of religion,” Lilla recalls. “I wanted to expose him to the pastiche of the biblical text, the syncretic nature of Christian doctrine, the church's ambiguous role as incubator and stifler of human knowledge, the theological idiosyncrasy of American evangelicalism. I wanted to warn him against the anti-intellectualism of American religion today and the political abuses to which it is subject. I wanted...to help him see there are other ways to live, other ways to seek knowledge, love, perhaps even self-transformation...I wanted...to save him."

The urgency in this passage overwhelms the irony in it, and it hasn't left Lilla yet. “The curious thing about skepticism is that its adherents, ancient and modern, have so often been proselytizers,” he writes. Working on that neoconservative journal in the 1980s under Irving Kristol, whose Two Cheers for Capitalism is a sophisticated apologia for corporate America, Lilla in effect proselytized readers to share his skepticism about liberal Great Society programs.

But in 2004, he marched with liberals in midtown Manhattan to protest Republicans’ gesture to post-9/11 New York in holding their national convention there to re-nominate George W. Bush, the progenitor, with neoconservatives, of the Iraq war fiasco. Lilla had been reborn as their adversary. Now, in The Once and Future Liberal, he's been reborn to save liberals from themselves, not as a conservative or neoconservative, but as the liberal he thinks they really ought to be. He wants to do them a favor.

But this is psychodrama, not political engagement. Last year, the death of Robert Silvers, co-founder and editor of the New York Review of Books and another of Lilla’s mentors, prompted him to write a memorial tribute that concludes: “In reading the Review, you always learn something. In writing for Bob, you became something. It was a gift none of us really deserved.”

Perhaps Lilla really meant to say that in “becoming something,” he’d been reborn. And now, yet again?

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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