‘The Once And Future Liberal’ is a blistering critique of identity politics and a fractured left

Mark Lilla’s new book begins with a statement that is brutal and bracing, all the more so because it happens to be true: “Donald J. Trump is president of the United States.” In the pages that follow, Lilla plumbs truths that are less obvious, but not less comforting. Most of those have to do with American liberalism, which today seems “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,” to borrow from Matthew Arnold’s great poem “Dover Beach.” Perhaps that sounds a tad dramatic. If so, perhaps you haven’t been watching the news.

“The Once and Future Liberal” is an expansion on an op-ed piece that Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, wrote for the New York Times 10 days after Trump’s unlikely victory in the November election. Titled “The End of Identity Liberalism,” the piece argued that “the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined group.”

Centrists seeking explanation for the inexplicable furiously emailed the article as if it were a lost book of the Bible, and not one of the apocryphal ones. At the same time, Lilla’s thesis was widely derided by the left, in particular by the over-eager hall monitors of political virtue who have turned Twitter into their own Solomonic court. In all but painting Lilla as a right-wing shill, they neatly proved his point about a left that has become, in temperament, reactionary.

This book expands on Lilla’s op-ed piece, though not by much: “The Once and Future Liberal” is only 160 pages long, buttressing the original argument with historical context. Lilla divides modern American politics into two “dispensations,” as he calls them: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s big government and Ronald Reagan’s little government. His canny central insight is that we have never recovered from the ruinous atomization of the Reagan Revolution, which depicted any government at all as “an alien spaceship descending on the happy residents of Middlesuburb, U.S.A., sucking up into itself all the resources, corrupting the children, and enslaving the population.” He notes, for example, that it was Bill Clinton who declared that “the era of big government is over” in 1996. Yes, I know he was “triangulating.” But he was abdicating too.

Near the opening of the book, Lilla pays a visit to the respective websites of both the Republican and Democratic parties. On the Republican site, he finds a manifesto called “Principles of American Renewal.” In the age of Trump, that renewal stands as much a chance as California becoming a satellite state of France. Still, it’s better than what he finds on the Democrats’ page: “seventeen separate messages” for 17 separate groups. There’s a word for this, and though Lilla won’t use it, I will: pandering.

Lilla’s book comes shortly after the publication of “The Big Lie” by right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza. “The Big Lie” argues, in effect, that modern-day liberalism is a not-so-distant relative of fascism, Nazism and the Confederacy. I had the professional misfortune of reading “The Big Lie.” It is a breathtakingly bad book, written by a man without decency for a movement without scruples. Yet that movement has power: D’Souza was a guest at the White House in August, meeting with since-departed advisers Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon.

Yes, Donald Trump is president. But if his disastrous presidency proves anything, it is that Republicanism is the biggest lie. Lilla plainly believes that the Reaganite vision of limited government is going the way of the CD player. Spend two minutes watching a waxen House Speaker Paul D. Ryan try to explain the benefit of tax cuts, and that point will be thoroughly confirmed. But what comes next, after Trump and his minions are embalmed in ignominy? Will the Democrats come up with a more compelling message, or will they squabble about whether a white candidate’s use of a Mary J. Blige song is cultural appropriation? The future is unwritten, but it can also be remarkably unkind.

Nazaryan is a senior writer at Newsweek covering national politics.

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics

Mark Lilla

Harper: 160 pp., $24.99

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