A Take on the Once and Future Liberal: Modern Liberal Thought

I recently finished a 2017 book by Mark Lilla. The Once and Future Liberal asks several tough questions and takes an interesting perspective of electoral and otherwise politics over the last two hundred years.

 

The impetus for such a broad and irreverent analysis of modern liberal thought is, of course, the result of the 2016 general election. Irreverent because Lilla gives no respect to the current state of liberal thought — comparing it to modern conservative thought and strategy and finding it lacking in most respects.

 

As an example, look at the GOP homepage and look at the Democrat’s homepage. What do you find? On the GOP homepage you find Principles for American Renewal writ large. Eleven major issues and the GOP’s response to each. On the Democrat’s page you find no equivalent and unified vision. You find on the one hand a long, outline-form, of the Democrat’s current party platform, a far-cry from a vision. And on the other hand you find links tailored to various identity groups.

 

And this is the crux of Lilla’s argument: modern liberals have allowed identity politics to dominate their thinking and to undermine their electoral effectiveness. While it is certainly valuable to recognize and respect each other’s identities, it is not valuable to allow identity to undermine appeals to commonalities. Winning in US politics requires a broad base of support, not support from minority voting blocs, which means playing identity politics is a losing game.

 

Consider the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Did Black Americans lecture the rest of America about how they could never understand their struggle, as true as that would have been? No, you don’t change people’s minds by criticizing their values and their belief systems. Rather, as Lilla argues, you remind people of the true implications of their beliefs. If you believe in the United States Constitution, you must support age-of-the-majority, universal suffrage and civil rights. If you believe citizenship extends across race, then you must accept that citizens of any race must have the full rights of citizens of all other races.

 

To summarize — no! We will not collectively put on the Jimmy Carter sweater. Even though we might improve, we could always change and do better, we don’t want to hear that. And if liberals want to return to power in our political system, they will have to move away from the primacy of identity politics and great awakening style proselytizing (e.g. woke) . All political ideology must find its expression in power. And we cannot hope to gain power without reaching people where they are, and not where we wish they would be.

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