'The Once And Future Liberal' Looks At Shortfalls Of American Liberalism
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Last November, Columbia University historian Mark Lilla wrote a post mortem of the 2016 election for The New York Times. Writing as a liberal, professor Lilla criticized his fellow liberals and Democrats for leading their party into the self-defeating politics of identity liberalism. In place of a broad, national appeal, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, he said, had campaigned on a celebration of difference - difference in race, in gender, in orientation. Lilla wrote scoldingly, national politics in healthy periods is not about difference. It is about commonality.
Well, Mark Lilla was applauded by some readers and denounced by others for, in the words of one critic, making white supremacy respectable. Lilla has expanded upon his ideas in a provocative new book called "The Once And Future Liberal," and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.
MARK LILLA: Glad to be here.
SIEGEL: There's a phrase from the days of the New Left that you treat as a slogan of identity liberalism - the personal is political. What's wrong with that proposition?
LILLA: Well, as stated in that way, there's not a big problem with it. I mean, essentially it says that there are things in political life that impinge on us. And so it was a slogan that was picked up by women to say that equality in the workplace is a political issue, equality within the home, rights to abortion and on and on, that political issues affect us personally. That's true. But what happened as the '70s went into the '80s is that that slogan got reversed.
And rather than saying the personal is the political, it became the political is personal. That is, that my politics and my interest in politics and my commitment in politics does not extend beyond how I understand myself. And so politics becomes an expression of self rather than kind of getting out of one's personal self and connecting with other people for common purposes and common goals, which is what the feminist movement was doing back in the '60s and early '70s.
SIEGEL: But why shouldn't Democrats say, we do have a uniting vision, and it's of a country that guarantees dignity and opportunity to all, and, yeah, now we'll enumerate the various groups that are likely to experience indignities or lack of opportunities?
LILLA: Well, the first part of that is excellent. It rallies people around principles. And there are two basic principles that I think have been consistent for American liberalism ever since the New Deal. One is solidarity and the other is equal protection under the law. And most of the concerns of identity groups can be put under the latter category. And most of the issues that today's progressives worry about can be put under the rubric of solidarity.
But the moment you start not only listing groups but thinking in terms of groups, two things are going to happen. One is you're going to leave somebody out. And if you're going to mention groups in America, you'd better mention all of them. And if you pay attention - had you paid attention to what was going on on Fox News and right-wing radio during the 2016 campaign, they picked up on this. That - they picked up on the fact that Hillary Clinton would enumerate all these groups and none of those categories applied to them.
SIEGEL: You write at one point, (reading) elections are not prayer meetings, and no one is interested in your personal testimony. They're not about exposing degenerates and running them out of town. If you want to save America's soul, consider becoming a minister - I'm skipping ahead. (Reading) If you want to win the country back from the right and bring about lasting change for the people you care about, it's time to descend from the pulpit.
LILLA: Yes, and especially when it comes to race matters. Imagine that you're canvassing door to door somewhere in Missouri or Mississippi and you knock on someone's door and you say, I'm here from the Democratic Party, and I'd like to ask for your vote. But before I do, I have a series of tickets to give you. The first ticket is for your privilege. The second one is for being a racist. And the third one is for being homophobic. I hope to see you on Tuesday.
LILLA: Now, that is not going to attract to persuade anybody.
SIEGEL: You write in the book, electoral politics is a little like fishing. And you say, (reading) when you fish, you get up early in the morning. You go to where the fish are, not to where you might wish them to be. You drop bait into the water, bait being defined as something they want to eat, not as healthy choices. And once the fish realize they're hooked, they may resist. Let them. Loosen your line. Eventually they'll calm down. The identity liberals' approach to fishing is to remain on shore, yelling at the fish about the historical wrongs visited on them by the sea and the need for aquatic life to renounce its privilege, all in the hope that the fish will collectively confess their sins and swim to shore to be netted.
That's a rather scathing image of Democratic politics.
LILLA: And then I add, if that's your picture of politics, you'd better become a vegan.
SIEGEL: Become a vegan (laughter). You took a lot of criticism when your article in the Times first came out. And the general criticism seemed to be that by eliminating an emphasis on identity politics and on - the fancy word is the narratives - of the various people who have experienced either discrimination or indignity in their lives, it's a turn back to politics dominated by whites, by men. I suppose you say by straight men. Do you believe there's an inherent virtue in diversity? Is life better for the people surrounding you at work, in your neighborhood to be diverse?
LILLA: Absolutely. In order to understand America's history and America's current social problems, you need to understand identity. That's absolutely right. However, elections are not seminars. They are not about giving an account of how we got here. They are about persuading people in any way you can without falling into some sort of contradiction or making some moral mistake to convince them that the principles you stand for they should stand for and they will protect them.
So we need to distinguish what goes on in the academy, what goes on in social reform. You know, one of the forces that helped increase toleration in this country was "Sesame Street." There was a television show long ago called "Murphy Brown." It was the first time that a single mother was shown in a good light on television.
Hollywood has done a lot by being out ahead on these issues and changing the hearts and minds of Americans. All that's good. I'm for all of that. But when you go out and you're trying to persuade someone who hasn't been voting for you, who doesn't recognize themselves in the message that you're giving, you have to take a completely different approach.
SIEGEL: When you read about or saw or heard about events in Charlottesville over the past weekend, did you see any relation to what you've been writing about and what you've been critical about in our politics?
LILLA: Well, my question is, why is this happening now? Why did this fascist march happen now and not, for instance, when we had a black president? And the reason is that Donald Trump's president. And he has emboldened these people. Well, how did that happen? Well - and it's not just a question of the last election. It's why over two generations we have simply lost a large chunk of the country and liberalism has become a dirty word.
SIEGEL: Mark Lilla, author of "The Once And Future Liberal: After Identity Politics." Professor Lilla, thanks for talking with us.
LILLA: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF VHS COLLECTION SONG, "LATE NIGHT (IT'S OKAY)")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.