The first in a new series of book reviews from NTK Network, we’re reviewing Columbia University professor Mark Lilla’s latest, “The Once and Future Liberal.”
Republicans better hope that when Columbia University professor Mark Lilla speaks at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, there aren’t too many Democrats in the audience. That’s because his new book, The Once And Future Liberal, diagnoses perfectly why the party of FDR and LBJ has fallen so far out of power. Lilla’s answer is as simple as it is correct: the Democratic Party has become consumed with identity politics and lost the ability to promote a unifying, broad political message. While The Once And Future Liberal is a slim volume, it covers a great span of history, tracing how the Democratic Party fell from the universalist party it became under FDR to the warring tribes model it employs today.
Given the stir caused by Lilla’s New York Times’ November op-ed, which served as the basis for his new book, you’d have thought smart Democrats would have taken his words to heart. Yet if anything, the Democratic Party has sunken deeper into its obsession with playing identity politics since Hillary Clinton’s loss.
Nowhere has this become more apparent than on abortion, where groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood have aggressively pushed a strict abortion litmus test for 2018 and 2020 Democratic candidates in recent months. In today’s Democratic Party, pro-life Democrats need not apply. For Lilla that means that Democrats are closing themselves off to voters who might agree with them on many other issues, just not on abortion.
If Lilla’s engaging book could be boiled down to a central lesson for how Democrats can get back on track, it’s that they need more mayors and less marchers. Lilla shows how the Democratic Party’s obsession with playing identity politics has left them way too full of the latter. The danger of the Democratic Party’s current model is simple. While it might be cathartic to get out on a nice Saturday with like-minded activists to protest your issue, policy is changed by those in government. This is a lesson the Republican Party has never forgotten.
Writing about the various identity movements that have sprung up, Lilla pulls no punches. In a section on Black Lives Matter, he calls their movement “a textbook example of how not to build solidarity.” Nor does he spare the larger #resist movement, saying that “resistance is by nature reactive; it is not forward-looking. And anti-Trumpism is not a politics.”
This is not a message that many on the left will be receptive to, though. Today, Democratic Party activists are so consumed with a need to tell the world how right they are that they’ve forgotten that the point of politics is to “have a message that appeals to as many people as possible.”
Lilla also deserves credit for the fact that even though he’s a Democrat and a university professor, he’s still able to demolish the campus left, the major source of identity politics, in a single sentence. In Lilla’s telling, universities are a major driver of the Democratic Party’s identity politics obsession, and given that, campus activists have perilously lost the ability to see what they’ve become:
“Left identitarians who think of themselves as radical creatures, contesting this and transgressing that, have become like buttoned-up Protestant schoolmarms when it comes to the English language, parsing every conversation for immodest locutions and rapping the knuckles of those who inadvertently use them.”
This is not an insignificant matter. Universities are the training grounds for the future leaders of the Democratic Party, and as more campuses morph into safe space zones, the concrete is being set on the failed, current direction of the Democratic Party. In that way, Lilla’s book does not have a happy ending for readers hoping the Democratic Party gets back on track.
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