L. Benjamin Rolsky
In the lead up to November 8th, 2016, many predicted that the electoral ascension of CEO and reality television star Donald Trump would come at the expense of American Conservatism itself. Conservative periodicals such as The National Review and Commentary systematically rejected the type of politics Trump stood for and perpetuated relative to the longer history of the GOP dating back to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower. The eight previous years were marked by both great optimism and profound disappointment as former President Barack Obama gradually made his way out of the oval office. He had achieved a great deal as President, regardless of one’s tool of historical measurement, yet the conditions of his presidency leave something to be desired, or in this case, mined for analytical insight. Looking back, one could argue that Obama’s election had a similarly significant impact on the Democratic party as Trump’s relative to American conservatism and the GOP- just in an entirely different register. To be clear, this statement is not intended to imply a mutual sense of equivalency; I am simply making a claim about the comparative significance of two seemingly unrelated events and their impact on the two-party system.
In the Democrats’ case, Obama’s election was unprecedented. It united a party around a charismatic leader who regularly spoke to both the most and least of these with noticeable ease and prophetic clarity. At the same time, his election also signified an accomplishment long thought to be nothing short of a herculean impossibility. When it happened, almost unbelievably, a political party achieved something quite rare in American political history– its own culmination. Obama’s election fulfilled a then only dreamed about task tacitly agreed upon by those who took to the streets as part of the Long Freedom Struggle. Secretary Clinton may have done her best to redirect this optimism into her own campaign, but by then it was almost too late. The party had already reached its cultural zenith; it had achieved “representation” from within the highest office in the land, but what was left? Another individual connected to Wall Street and its bloated bank accounts? For comedian Chris Rock, the legacy of the Obama presidency has far less to do with him being “the first black president,” and far more to do with whites coming together to identify the first “qualified” black person to be president. “That’s not black progress,” Rock remarked, “That’s white progress.”
While we could interpret the transition from Obama to Trump primarily as an instance of white “backlash,” a commonly used notion when discussing the history of American Conservatism in the twentieth century, we could more productively see the events as occupying the same moment of political exhaustion in American public life. In other words, while Obama’s election signified the culminating “progress” made on behalf of racial equality and by default Democratic notions of inclusion, Trump’s revealed the extent to which such observations and descriptions functioned purely as a facade masking the otherwise horrific history of white supremacism in the United States. This too, however, marked its own moment of culmination, one initiated long ago by those associated with the New Right and the administration of President Richard Nixon. In many ways, Trump was not only their ideal candidate based on various New Right publications, but he was also their worst nightmare. Long gone was the lone, conservative televangelist speaking out against national sin and degradation on behalf of the GOP. In fact, many within the party are currently turning on such figures in their attempts to assuage President Trump and his policy decisions. In this sense, it seems as if the days of the party-line-touting pastor have more than likely come to an end in favor of, “telling it like it is.”
Instead of the televangelist representing the GOP, there stood Trump, a businessman not unlike many who had given their hard-earned dollars from behind the proverbial curtain to turn Conservatism into the culturally dominant ideology that it is today. Trump was ideal due to his polarizing tactics and Law-and-Order demeanor, yet he was also indicative of something deeply feared by conservatives from Goldwater to Buckley to Will- galvanized extremism in the public square. Broadly considered, conservatism had always seemed to dance with this particular devil and gotten away unscathed. Until this point, such forces had been largely kept at bay; no one dared to actually support such activism publicly–until Charlottesville that is. In many ways, multiple chickens had come home to roost at the expense of civil deliberation itself as countless bystanders attempted to evade a car driven at them at high-speed. As a result of this event and countless others since Trump assumed the Presidency, we currently occupy a tumultuous moment in what Columbia University professor Mark Lilla calls “post-vision” America as each party desperately tries to re-tether itself back to an extremely polarized populace in the midst of Culture War, and on the brink of Civil War. This will not be an easy task for either party.
As historians, we typically refer to this period of the recent past (1960s to the present) as the Culture Wars, a prolonged moment in time characterized by its particular modes of political engagement and their respective means of dissemination and communication. In today’s parlance, such modes reflect their socially mediated contexts replete with their own languages and idiomatic expressions. More importantly, such means of communication also cultivate moods and sentiments not entirely conducive to a healthy public life–including Snark. Lilla’s recently published text, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, is no different. It, too, falls victim to our time’s most ubiquitous source of Snark: Twitter. While this may not be entirely surprising, I fear that such carelessness has already spoiled what could otherwise have been a productive conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary liberalism and its future prospects.
There is no question that Lilla does himself no favors by writing in this manner–especially when it comes to more sensitive subjects. In fact, the very people Lilla’s attempting to address, namely “identity liberals” who teach at Ivy League institutions, will likely be the most put off by such pretentiousness– a mode of scholarly engagement they themselves are not entirely unfamiliar with. Case in point: Yale professor Beverly Gage decided to end her review of Lilla’s text in the Sunday Review of Books in kind, characterizing Lilla’s text as “trolling disguised as erudition.” In many ways, I suspect this type of response proves his point–namely, that certain academic liberals have grown complacent and thus resistant to change or exercises of self-reflexion that fall outside of their intellectual or political purview. The fact that Clinton’s defeat on November 8th came as such a surprise to many of the same individuals speaks to the validity of his larger points about what he identifies as “the liberal abdication of political power” in the public square by its most dedicated stewards and public servants. Unfortunately, these individuals continue to argue that cultural victories have a much greater social (and thus moral) significance than electoral ones, often times followed by a reference to the Civil Rights Movement. Such self-righteousness has arguably played no small role in further confining academics to their respective desks and classrooms within the ivory tower.
As such, this public spat could be read as another instance of one “out of touch” Ivy League academic disagreeing with another about how best to remain culturally and politically irrelevant in the age of Trump. I chose not to read such exchanges in this way, instead preferring to read the debate as a microcosm of contemporary liberal progressive politics-making, or lack thereof, in the 21st century. As such, it would behoove us as academics to treat Lilla’s text responsibly, regardless of what one already thinks of it, instead of discounting it out of hand based on statements and arguments stricken from their respective contexts. To do otherwise is to forfeit the very expertise and knowledge base that give us a voice in such debates to begin with, a point I’ve made elsewhere in regards to the troubling circumstances surrounding Colin Kaepernick and his lack of employment. The fact that this text actually exists makes its analysis somewhat challenging since it is neither a monograph nor a speech. If anything, like Gage suggests, Lilla’s work is more of a diatribe or exhortation of sorts, which means that we cannot adjudicate its claims based on it being an academically executed book. As such, identifying the literatures that the text fails to reference as a weakness of the writing, as Gage argues, is illogical. There are neither footnotes nor endnotes in the publication; there is also no bibliography at the end of the text, either. As such, this text is less a work of academic erudition, and more of an extended argument with some narrative devices thrown in for the purposes of publication. This does not mean, however, that it has nothing to contribute to our otherwise convoluted discussions about the future of liberalism and American democracy.
Lilla begins his analysis by describing the nature of what he calls “a crisis of imagination and ambition on our side, [and] a crisis of attachment and trust…of the wider public” (5). For generations, liberal progressive actors have been at the forefront (either in memory or in deed) of countless social movements and protests. Such movements have brought attention to equally countless social causes including abolition, women’s rights, and civil rights. In light of this robust history, Lilla wonders why such individuals have largely recused (or abdicated) themselves from engaging the public about the very same issues in today’s public square. In other words, there is a noticeable disconnect for Lilla between the validity of a given movement or cause, and its justification when it comes to addressing public sentiment and/or the public at large. Do such movements and marches have the same impact as they once did? Or, does legislation ultimately trump what unfolds before the public eye? Assuming one can get past his largely unnecessary snarky asides and value judgements, Lilla gives contemporary liberalism much to consider. “The question is, Why?” Lilla asks, “Why would those who claim to speak for the great American demos be so indifferent to stirring its feelings and gaining its trust?” (6). Why, indeed. Perhaps, as we saw with Hillary Clinton’s use of the word “deplorable,” or Barack Obama’s mentioning of folk “clinging to guns or religion,” it is best to remember that if someone doesn’t have anything nice to say, then one probably shouldn’t say anything at all. For Lilla, Democrats can no longer prefer, or embody, this latter option if they are to have any future in forthcoming American elections.
Lilla locates his criticisms of what he calls “identity liberalism” within a broader historical view that divides 20th century US political history into two “dispensations.” While Lilla’s choice of explicitly Christian terminology is never explained, it nevertheless reflects a growing pattern in the larger literature to periodize a New Deal period followed by its antithesis–an anti-New Deal regime, however named and identified. In this case, Lilla argues for a Roosevelt Dispensation, followed by a Reagan Dispensation beginning in the early 1980s. “Each dispensation brought with it an inspiring image of America’s destiny,” argues Lilla, “and a distinctive catechism of doctrines that set the terms of political debate” (8). During Roosevelt’s time, the image was a collective one where individuals worked for one another on behalf of a larger ideal. Words and images such as “solidarity, opportunity, and public duty” defined the content of this particular dispensation. Comparatively, the Reagan Dispensation projected an image of small town America untethered from any and all instances of federal oversight, even those that were beneficial as we’re seeing unfold before us today. Its watchwords were “self-reliance and minimal government.” While the differences between these two periods may be slightly exaggerated for the sake of argument, they nevertheless indicate a shift in public sentiment away from more collective forms of organizing in favor of a more dispersed landscape of individual actors. As a result, Lilla’s true target in this work is not necessarily “identity liberals,” a term I’ll return to shortly, but rather a form of rampant individualism that seems to have infected both political parties to the detriment of both. This tone may remind many of sociologist Robert Bellah’s criticisms of “Sheilaism” made in the mid-1980s, and they would not be too far off. For Lilla, “identity liberals” function as the latest example of such behavior gone awry not only in the public square, but also in our institutions of higher learning.
“The paradox of identity liberalism,” Lilla argues, “is that it paralyzes the capacity to think and act in a way that would actually accomplish the thing it professes to want” (14). Most telling for Lilla is the fact that this type of liberalism is “memorized by symbols,” and as such finds more value in regulating the diversity of a given company or institution than it does fighting for change on the legislative or electoral levels. Due to this style of justice-making, which typically foregrounds marches and protests as its most persuasive tools of resistance, Lilla argues that identity liberalism has fallen victim to its own evangelistic message of renewal and rebirth. As such, identity liberalism has ceased to be a political project, and instead has become more concerned with achieving symbolic victories in the public square. As a result, many on the left have become quite pleased with making arguments that privilege “cultural” victories instead of electoral ones. In fact, one such text makes this very point, even reading such accomplishments back into American history in order to establish a more stable line of liberal progress and enlightenment since the colonial period.
This type of narrative has done a great deal of work for those on the “right side” of history when it comes to Civil Rights relative to the ascension of Trump, but it continues to identify “good guys” and “bad guys” of that very history largely based on the presumptions of identity liberals. The extent to which most Americans still accept this story is certainly debatable. What is not is what happens when such stories fall flat, when they are completely rejected out of hand for inexplicable reasons, or when the response uses labels such as “elitist.” When this happens, and all too often, those who write the histories come to see less value in engaging their audiences, which in this case comes across as part of a “cosmopolitan” sensibility. In this sense, the reason why those responsible for the demos have become untethered from its maintenance is that they no longer feel heard or welcomed by the very people they seek to reach (or evangelize). As a result, identity liberals mirror their ’60s counterparts by using the courts as the only sure-fire way of accomplishing “change” in public life. Historically, this approach may indeed have been a largely successful one, yet it generates much if not all of its social power by obliterating the need to persuade a given populace of a given measure’s social efficacy. This is why conservative strategists worth their salt label or identify legislative bodies as part and parcel of identity liberalism and its imperial tendencies. For Lilla, the choice is a rather simple one, “Evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend truth” (14).
In no small way, identity liberalism (and perhaps religious liberalism as well) has been and continues to be guilty of a form of conceptual conflation, a confusion of purposes when it comes to why Americans engage the public square to begin with and for what reasons. When and if a given populace becomes increasingly resistant to such legislative or social messaging, the message itself becomes amplified through various communicative means (i.e. social media, and/or various periodicals or cable news stations) in order to meet the requisite form of resistance. If the resistance weathers these attempts, one of two things will take place: the scope of the messaging will broaden (based on a logic of inclusivity as broad-casting), or liberal resistance itself will begin to emerge–most recently through words such as “deplorables.” As such, the current lack of communication between the highest and lowest strata of US society regardless of political persuasion suggests that what used to hold the public square together, namely civility, deliberation, and even citizenship, may be as tenuous as it has ever been.
For Lilla, explaining these conditions requires both sets of political visions: Conservative and Liberal. Academic treatments of conservatism typically identify “the rise of the Christian Right” as the moment in which much of America’s public life became polarized beyond recognition. Using the image “rise” suggests something unprecedented or unforeseen, especially by those supposedly trained to anticipate such socio-economic shifts at the polls or in the public square. The fact that this topic continues to be referred to and written about as “the rise of” conveys a level of cultural disengagement that Lilla helpfully begins to describe and articulate in The Once and Future Liberal. It also suggests a different historical source of the rancor and divisiveness that currently characterizes much of our daily lives. For Lilla, a different approach to activism and justice-making is called for if identity liberals are to remain relevant in American political life for the foreseeable future.
As far as forms of civic engagement go, we tend to look back most fondly upon the actions of those who were a part of “the Movement” as compared to those who populated “the electronic church” or “the Christian Right.” Much of this has to do with how we remember the past and who writes its histories, but it also has to do with a particular constellation of ideas about how best to enact one’s politics in a public setting and on what terms. Lilla rightly points out that those who marched with King and others possessed a unique understanding of how best to confront one’s fellow human beings based on the seemingly simple principle that the personal is the political. Despite the fact that Lilla interprets this idea according to its contemporary importance, thereby de-contextualizing its initial application and usage, he is not wrong in drawing our attention to this as-of-yet, little-considered idea. In many ways, this notion was more than simply a political slogan or excuse for self-indulgent behavior as Lilla suggests. To define the personal as the political was an attempt to re-classify a domestic, female space in explicitly political and thus male terms. For historian Andrew Hartman, this type of feminist declaration arguably reflected the larger liberatory ethos that pervaded the ’60s, along with other similarly articulated statements based largely on a given community’s identity. Unfortunately, Lilla does not consider this application of the idea, preferring instead to focus on its less-than-desirable manifestations.
In many ways, declaring that the personal was the political was more significant than even Lilla realizes. Not only did it reveal the fact that nothing in social life emerges from the struggle for power unscathed, but more importantly it re-calibrated politics itself according to an explicitly cultural calculus. In other words, the stuff of the personal became the stuff of politics, thereby introducing a new level of incommensurability and polarity into public debate. It also further removed identity liberals from the demos and its increasingly conservative tendencies. “Paradoxically,” argues historian Jennifer Burns, “when they turned to culture, liberals lost the ability to understand how conservatives connected with a larger audience, for they stopped taking conservative arguments seriously.” Political debate took on an additional level of complexity as Americans began to engage one another over their varied ways life as compared to their respective thoughts about foreign policy or the economy as politics. The potential for compromise between increasingly polarized communities became that much more difficult because the terms of discussion had changed. No longer could compromise, or lack thereof, remain aloof from the zero-sum encounter between identities.
For the sake of argument, seemingly more rational discussions about economic policy began to give way to heated debates over the legality of particular forms of marriage and the rights a woman has over her own body. In no uncertain terms, one could argue that “the personal is the political” established the epistemic foundations for what we today call the Culture Wars. It accomplished this feat by cultivating a process of “politicization” whereby more and more of social life fell within the purview of religious liberal activism/evangelism as an expression of a largely romantic understanding of politics that easily conflates the personal and the political. “Oppression was polymorphous,” Lilla rightly observes (echoing King), “and so resistance had to be, too…it was politics of the highest and most urgent sort. What were midterm congressional elections by comparison?” (74). As such, Lilla is not critiquing the actions of identity liberals necessarily, but rather their conception of politics itself and its impact on public life (politics-making) in the recent American past.
For Lilla, those who were at the forefront of the sixties generation (including “New Breed” pastors and academics writing about The Secular City) grounded their interpretation of politics within a particular understanding of social life. Based largely around calls to “be relevant,” liberal activists engaged the public square based on the assumption that 1) “political activity must have some authentic meaning for the self, that one must avoid at all cost becoming just a cog in a larger machine” and 2) “movement politics was the only mode of engagement that actually changes things” (82). As a result of this type of socialization, political mobility itself was redirected away from legislative and congressional concerns in favor of “searching for a movement.” While there is no reason to think that an individual cannot do both, Lilla’s observation is nevertheless an important one because it identifies the less-than-interrogated rational of liberal progressive organizing in the public square.
Due to the conflation that such politics-making is based on, “the line between self-analysis and political action [becomes] fully blurred,” thereby producing a particular conception of the political that catalyzes itself as it subsumes more and more of social life within it. This type of knowledge-making helps orient individuals to the world and its wares by educating them on what various cultural objects mean according to their respective political valences. One of the many logical if not contemporary outcomes of this form of activism has been smart phone apps like Buy Partisan that help politically conscientious consumers “shop according to your values,” whatever they may be. In addition, due to the publicly of such activism, it often falls victim to overexposure through social media, something that Lilla refers to as the “Facebook model of identity: the self as a homepage I construct like a personal brand, linked to others through associations I can ‘like’ and ‘unlike ‘ at will” (87). While “movement politics” is a valuable tool in today’s marketplace of resistance, it cannot be the sole means by which communities achieve political power. “The age of movement politics is over, at least for now,” Lilla contends, “We need no more marchers. We need more mayors. And governors, and state legislators, and members of Congress” (111). In many ways, then, Lilla’s call to identity liberals is a simple one: what exactly do you want to achieve in the public square on behalf of truth and justice, and by what set of means? Is it power that you seek, or perhaps the persuasion of hearts and minds? Do you seek truth, or do you seek the power to defend the truth?
While much of the confusion that currently characterizes contemporary liberalism is self-induced, it can also be understood as a bi-product of a political philosophy of civic activism that sees potential in those who do not. It also expects greater and more equitable living conditions from those public institutions designed to produce and sustain a higher quality of life without infringing on the First Amendment rights of its citizens. For Lilla, the time has come to reevaluate (or reset) liberal notions of politics in light of a collective purpose– to evangelize, or to seize power. If it is power that identity liberalism seeks, then it must be ready to not only march on behalf of a given cause, but also to act in ways that move past publicity in favor of institutionally grounded prophetic power. In this sense, “They need system politicians and public officials sympathetic to movement aims but willing to engage in the slow, patient work of campaigning for office, drawing up legislation, making traders to get it passed, and then overseeing bureaucracies to see that it is enforced” (110). It also calls for a renewed appreciation for how dangerous conservative means of organizing can become in light of their “anti-political” political approach to holding public office. In short, Lilla calls for a more pragmatic approach to politics that takes its cues less from the activists of the 1960s, and more from those who mobilized against them in the 1970s- namely, the New Right and its successful re-tuning of politics according to the late capitalist gospel of Reagan and the entrepreneur.
Perhaps even more important than these questions is the extent to which liberalism in general, and identity liberalism in particular, is willing to re-engage a public that has drifted further and further to the right since the 1970s. This process has unfolded gradually beginning with the likes of the aforementioned Reagan, but also with the likes of Richard Nixon and his administration’s successful attempts at detaching key working-class constituencies from the New Deal coalition left over from the Roosevelt dispensation. One of the more comical manifestations of this political migration to the right was the emergence of “the Bunker” vote in the early 1970s. Not only did this vote represent the one that All in the Family character Archie Bunker would have made, but more importantly it represented various constituencies of working-class individuals who were experiencing a collective form of economic stagnation. Creator and writer Norman Lear knew exactly what he was doing in creating a figure like Bunker for primetime, namely to address America’s less admirable tendencies when it came to race. What he didn’t realize was that he was giving a name and face to the frustration and angst of countless assembly line workers who hadn’t seen anything close to a raise in nearly a decade. In this sense, Lear helped those he most vehemently disagreed with achieve political consciousness in the name of didactic programming in primetime.
Much of the disconnect that Lilla describes between liberalism and the demos can be traced back to this object of popular culture, along with the collective reaction against “the rise” of conservative Protestantism following the 1960s and its unapologetic allegiance to explicitly conservative political causes. Taking a cue from the ’60s generation’s tendency to polarize whatever it touched in the public square, New Right strategists like Howard Phillips turned this logic of single-issue activism on its head by reducing politics down to particular conservative binaries according to the newly constructed “social issue.” As a result, social justice was replaced by abortion and senators started receiving grades based on their voting records according to “Bible Scorecards” and their respective forms of American Christianity.
This type of zero-sum politics has seemingly infected all levels of contemporary political discourse including professional sports. Boundaries between “sport” and “politics” have begun to weaken under the weight of silent protest and the subsequent corporate resistance. These boundaries have also been affected by the infiltration of “entertainment” into nearly all facets of human life through various avenues of mass media. The individualism of which Lilla speaks, perhaps the true target of his criticisms, can be located directly within ways of knowing that care little for the difference between “fake” and “real.” There is no questioning the fact that The Once and Future Liberal leaves much to be desired as far as execution of argument and tone are concerned, yet it also offers us a much-needed moment of pause as each political party seeks a newly constituted coalition of constituencies. The extent to which identity liberals in particular, and liberalism in general, are willing to converse with those who seemingly “vote against their self-interest” will ultimately determine how much trust can be restored between the demos and its most committed and passionate defenders. The conversation continues.
L. Benjamin Rolsky received his PhD from Drew University in American Religious Studies. His research and teaching interests include religion and politics, the study of popular culture, and critical theory. Rolsky is currently completing a manuscript entitled ,”Norman Lear and the Spiritual Politics of Religious Liberalism,” which is under contract with Columbia University Press. Once complete, he plans to begin research on a second book project that examines the history of the Christian Right across the 20th century. You can learn more about Benji by visiting his website at benjirolsky.com“