The Liberal Tantrums: A Book Review of "The Once and Future Liberal" by Mark Lilla

Published: 2022-05-02
The Liberal Tantrums: A Book Review of "The Once and Future Liberal" by Mark Lilla
Type of paper:  Book review
Categories:  Political science
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1801 words
16 min read

American liberals are throwing tantrums at the climax of identity politics. For more than two decades, American liberals have been, if not entirely pointless, very minimal on substance and influence. The development explains the context within which Mark Lilla's Book "The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics" is written. Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, enumerates how successful liberal politics of solidarity have boiled down to what the scholar refers to as "pseudo-politics of identity". In Black Feminist Statement, Lilla righty observes that "The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression." For Lilla, "feminism is now a radical movement. The movement, according to Lilla, is so electrifying to an extent is now considered a political undertaking. The statement, as Lilla observes, is derived from Marxist philosophical point of view to imply that everything that seems personal is in fact political.

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Mark Lilla, encourages liberals in the country to depart from divisive politics of identity and embrace ideologies that accommodate all citizens. In his work The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Lilla presents an impassioned view of the failure of the liberals, especially within the past two generations. Lilla, for instance, opines that American liberalism collapsed under the influence of identity politics. The consequences of the proliferation of identity politics have been disastrous.

Lilla acknowledges the liberal's original desire to protect the vulnerable citizens. However, these thinkers have unwittingly balkanized the Americans by encouraging what the author refers to as "self-absorption as opposed to solidarity". The debate surrounding identity politics and contemporary liberalism captures the attention of political scientists across the continuum. It is against this backdrop that the current review is written. In this review, the author reviews the book by Lilla and describes it as a text that presents pressing political choices.

It is important to define identity politics, the concept that has been blamed for the liberals' misfortunes. However, Lilla does not provide a conclusive conceptualization of this idea. Despite the fact of not providing sensible definition, a sense of identity politics is found in the writing of moderate liberal scholar, Jonathan Rauch. After reviewing Lilla's book, Rauch defines the term as "political mobilization organized around group characteristics, such as race, gender and sexuality, as opposed to party, ideology, or pecuniary interests". The definition is sensible enough considering that American politics have influenced the global political arena for a long time. In fact, it is something that many American citizens appreciate and are grateful about. Rauch is grateful as his gay marriage and sexual identity was made possible by this kind of politics. The definition that Rauch employs is also an attribute of his familiarity with various interest groups. On his part, Lilla's perception of identity consciousness reflects a way of thinking that barely envisages the real political activity. As such, among the many activities that Rauch sees as identity politics, Lilla focuses on those that seldom demands plausible chances of being framed and rooted in policy. Again, Lilla's perception is not defined in any interest group's dynamics. On the contrary, and as Rauch rightly observed, "it is a leftist move that is aimed at comprehending the authentic meaning of self".

The new left, as Lilla points out, is an "out of the box" thinking that presents more radical ideology bestowed upon universities as avenues for activism. For example, in the 1960s, as Lilla notes, the Port Huron statement criticized the Union as being quiescence and the civil rights groups as too feeble to execute a radical agenda. On the contrary, the author identified universities as "permanent positions of social influence." More fundamentally, Lilla sees universities as an alliance that must fight to control education and safeguard it from exploitation from administrative bureaucracy. In so doing, universities consciously establish a base for an assault against the loci of power. Through these institutions, the left-wing won the battles it waged against the establishment until the arena was turned into a "pseudo-political theater". Lilla's enumeration presents various nuances, but the end result is correct. Beyond Identity by the contribution by Gorski et al. argue that the liberals lost their vision long time ago.

Lilla's message appeals to most Americans in terms of common citizenship and cultural differences. This is what Franke Katherine refers to as Making White Supremacy Respectable Again. As a historian scholar, Lilla is right to call for renewed vigor in the civic education program. However, no one is ready to support such a venture. As Gorski et al, points out, secular progressives will perceive it as a threat to personal autonomy. The same is also true for the spiritual fanatics who will see it as an attack on religious freedom.

To this end, diversity is increasingly shaping American politics. The standard answer to liberal tantrums is that people are becoming increasingly aware and are ready to celebrate diversities. As Lilla points out, "this is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy". However, for the liberals, it is disastrous to what the they stand for. For example, the liberal ideologies have slipped into some sort of moral panic about identities, which has distorted their message that acts as a unifying factor capable of ruling.

Lilla explains the motivation behind the moral energy surrounding identity. According to the author, "the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives that is narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life."

Lilla picks another fight in a review of the recent presidential election and its repugnant outcome. The author wraps up with positive, "post-identity liberal vision". The writer elaborates on some aspects of the original arguments and provides more generalizations to trigger further fights with identity politicians. Lilla's work unfolds around contrasting issues. A case in point is A Roosevelt "dispensation" versus a Reagan "dispensation," in which the former emphasizes on solidarity and safeguards against risks and hardship. On its part, the latter implies individualism and self-reliance. Lilla presents another angle, the Political consciousness versus identity consciousness, in which the former stresses on the need for commonalities to come together and form a majority of different groups. The latter concept focuses on the rhetoric of diversity to make a claim based on underdog groups versus the dominant culture. Lilla continues to point out other contrasting concepts such as the Electoral politics versus social movements. The Electoral politics intends to use its influence to win elections and hold onto power by persuading the public through various political platforms from the town council to the highest office in the land. Finally, the social movement, according to Lilla, challenges the prevailing public attitudes by confronting institutions through protests, drama, and disruptions. Based on these contrasts, a number of questions arise in which Gorski et al. respond, that the contrasts are for the analysts. Gorski et al. demonstrate their views by identifying with Hillary Clinton's ideologies of liberalism. The ideology is based on Lyndon Johnson's efforts to envisage the moral demands put forward by Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights movement.

A reader of Lilla's texts should also read Prothero's work, Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections). In the text, Prothero captures Gorski's admiration by expressing his qualms against contemporary liberal reflexes. Prothero enumerates the past struggles associated with political and religious freedoms. However, the author captures the strength of the recent identity-and-movement-based politics. Clearly, based on Prothero's standpoint, it is apparent that the criticism against American liberalism is hardly new. The social conservatives, communitarians, and democratic socialists, which are three distinct but overlapping ideologies, have challenged the liberals for their dubious "procedural" assertions in support of a neutral and good life. Most liberals throw tantrums rather than turn to religion for reason when challenged with difficult questions. Their reaction is a major source of concern to thinkers.

It is clear from the perceptions and views that Lilla is writing from "within" the philosopher's perspective. The philosopher exhibits the attributes of a frustrated American liberal addressing their colleagues from "a tactical position rather than from a philosophical point of view". Lilla is not alone. Thomas Frank's work, Listen liberals, resembles Lilla's in many ways. For example, the writer is of the belief that liberalism is an expression articulated by the educated and professional class. However, identity politics does not surface in Frank's work except in reference to banks and other capitalistic ventures.

Lie other liberals, Lilla is of the opinion that "identity politics is not to be blamed entirely for the evils associated with the society's obsession with Wall Street and the Silicon Valley, including meritocracy innovation". Anything to do with resource distribution has caught the liberals by surprise. The two answers to liberalism's failure can be contrasted using Lilla's and Frank's remarks. For Lilla, "American citizenship is in need of a renewed liberal vision". However, the possibility of this intervention is shattered by the society's obsession with identity politics and diversification. For Frank, "America is in dire need of renewed liberalism". However, its success is hampered by the increased need for money. From the two contrasting but similar approached views, the two scholars, Frank and Lilla, may negotiate for an alliance. Strangely, Lilla praises what they refer to as the "progressives." For them, the progressives are distinct from liberals given their ability to advocate for solidarity. According to Lilla, "It may be up to progressives to save contemporary liberalism from itself." The statement is accompanied by a footnote reference citing Bernie Sanders. However, the author lashes out at the progressives causing "nostalgia" in what they refer to as the America's industrial union past. It is clear that Lilla is fixated on class as opposed to citizenship. According to him, this is an overarching segment that should function in place of diverse identities to achieve a new liberal vision. Lilla opines that solidarity should not be the basis for economic resentment. If that is the case, it will be shared by those who see themselves as disadvantaged. In addition, it will vanish after sometime when the people record some improvements. Lilla points out that the progressives have done nothing to persuade the well-off that they have the permanent duty and obligation to the worse-off. The author argues that the Bible used to achieve this objective but it is no longer doing so. According to Gorski et al., this is one of the areas where Lilla, like other liberals, criticizes and dismisses the American religion.

To this end, one is left with two fundamental questions that need answers and some critical reflection. The first question is whether American liberalism is in crisis or not. A general answer is yes,...

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The Liberal Tantrums: A Book Review of "The Once and Future Liberal" by Mark Lilla. (2022, May 02). Retrieved from

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