That Refractory Rainbow

Mark Lilla is always worth reading, even if he is not always convincing. His latest book makes a straightforward argument that can be reproduced in a syllogism: The Democratic Party is the only hope for America; identity politics is tearing the Democratic Party apart; therefore the country is imperiled by identity politics.

Lilla’s fellow liberals will agree with the first premise while conservatives will agree (with no small amount of schadenfreude) with the second. His real challenge is getting liberals to agree with the conclusion, one that, for better or for worse—probably Lilla would think worse—has become more or less identified as conservative.

The book’s title is a paraphrase of T.H. White’s Arthurian novel from 1958, The Once and Future King, and one of White’s adages is especially germane here: “We cannot build the future by avenging the past.” The Republican Party now controls two-thirds of governorships and the same of all state legislative bodies in the country. At the federal level, all three branches are in Republican control. This is a hard time to be a liberal. (It may also be a hard time to be a conservative, but that is another matter.)

To his credit, Lilla can count. With numbers like those just cited, there is little way right now to advance the liberal agenda. He wants to break the logjam, and believes the way to do it is to confront the identity politics of the Left.

So the author, Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, is laboring here to get his fellow left-wingers to change course before they become a permanent rump party. The main problem he faces is that what it means to be Left nowadays is almost entirely bound up with the very identity politics he wants his side to abandon. Even he has a hard time listing the recent achievements of the Left without falling into its terms: gay rights, women’s rights, minority rights. If identity politics is what the Left does, how do you abandon them and still be “the Left”?

What Lilla contends is that divvying up the American population into smaller and smaller fragments, each one with a unique grievance against society, is no way to win elections. He attributes the GOP’s electoral success to Republicans’ forbearing to “declare war on the way most Americans were living and thinking about themselves.” He wishes the bien pensant liberals would forbear, but instead they have their ubiquitous image of a single beam of light being refracted into a rainbow. Inherently the image is divisive; and not only that, it’s unscientific (theirs is missing an entire band of color).

In his critique of what happened to the Left in the United States, Lilla brings in the famous “Ask not” passage from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural, which turned into something far less inspiring. He writes that “the only meaningful question became a deeply personal one: what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?” That and the book’s Camelot-inflected title are not the only references to the Kennedy years. That magical moment was the last time liberals of Lilla’s bent both held power and felt confident about doing so. Overconfident, in fact. At one point he confuses the accomplishments of the Greatest Generation with his own, the Baby Boomers.

Lilla also makes use of a passage from Democracy in America that reads in part: “I see an immense crowd of similar and equal men who spin restlessly around themselves, seeking vulgar little pleasures to fill their souls.” While this thought of Tocqueville’s overlaps, in a way, with the standard left-wing criticism of the bourgeoisie from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Bernie Sanders, Lilla’s innovation is to link this description of radical individualism to Americans under the sway of Ronald Reagan, and then to relate that to the identity politics that took hold at that time in the Democratic Party.

As political analysis this could be fruitful; but as a call to his fellow liberals to abandon identity politics after all these decades, I do not see how it is going to work.

A proper analysis would involve a critique of liberalism itself, which was Tocqueville’s point.  The love of equality in democratic ages leads to individualism, he argued. The very loadstar of leftist politics, in other words, was Tocqueville’s target. He further argued that illiberal, undemocratic, even aristocratic forces would be necessary to save liberal democracy from itself. That is not what Lilla is trying to say. Instead, he claims that Reagan introduced a strange new idea to the American people, one that perverted the course of history.

So the major move here—and it is too cute by half—is to trace identity politics to the Gipper. Lilla seems to think that this might be enough to scare his fellow liberals out of their tiresome reliance on it. He writes, “Identity is Reaganism for lefties.” By which he means that the Left interpretation of Reaganesque hyper-individualism is identity politics.

This is a difficult argument to pull off. His caricature of President Reagan and Reaganism will frustrate those who would like a little more veracity, but since he is writing for those members of the Left for whom there can be no calumny too strong for the Great Communicator, he presumably won’t lose much of his intended readership by being inaccurate.

Allegedly Reagan espoused the notion that the true American needs no one else—not the government, not the community, no one. It’s the Lilla interpretation of a line from the first Reagan inaugural, that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

So much for Edmund Burke’s little platoons. On the other hand there is something to the idea that, as the distinctions between groups become ever more fine-grained, one eventually ends up with the individual. There is no group I can so fully identify with as with myself.

Where the author really runs into trouble, and this he does repeatedly, is in trying to make an argument that will persuade those who put identity above argumentation. As he admits, the winner of any political argument “will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned.” This means that “What replaces argument, then, is taboo.”

Lilla finds himself up against a most frustrating form of circular reasoning. If only a member of group X is allowed to comment on anything related to members of X, how do groups interact? The group is thus impervious to questions from outside, “which by definition come from a non-X perspective.”

Or, as he pithily expresses it, “Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters.” George Orwell saw this irrationalist temptation on the Left more than half a century ago: “In Newspeak there is no word for ‘Science’.”  In the world of identity politics, science—especially biology—can be heretical. (But look again at that rainbow.)

Over all, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics is a clear-eyed critique of liberal thinking. It is marred, though, by its overwrought attempts to avoid anything that might be taken as an offense against the identity groups that are standing in the way of what Lilla imagines would be a guaranteed return to Democratic Party dominance of the American electorate.

This shying away is most obvious in his proposed solution: that liberals return to the idea of citizenship as a unifying ideal. As soon as he mentions citizenship, he is quick to assure his readers that he has nothing exclusionary in mind, as conservatives do. What he is recommending, rather, is rescuing the liberal idea of citizenship as “a generous tool of inclusion.”

Sounds nice, and it might even allay some of the suspicions of his hypersensitive liberal readers. But it entirely avoids the fundamental question of citizenship that Aristotle addressed in the third book of the Politics: What makes a person a citizen of a particular regime?

There is one other book Lilla avoids mentioning that, given his subject, seems to be haunting him. In 2004, Samuel P. Huntington wrote, “The cults of multiculturalism and diversity took the place of left-wing, socialist, and working-class ideologies and sympathies.” This comes from Huntington’s Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity but it could as easily have come from Lilla’s book, too much of which is taken up with demonstrating the author’s liberal bona fides.

Margaret Thatcher famously said that the facts of life are conservative. In The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla valiantly tries to acknowledge those facts while also remaining a man of the Left. There is room for doubt that many of his cohorts will be convinced by his efforts; they may be most valuable for what they reveal about the crisis at the heart of contemporary liberalism. The only future for liberalism is to adopt large parts of conservatism.