In November of 2016 liberal America woke up covered in blood (metaphorically obviously). The time since then has been trying to frantically establish just what the hell happened. Fingers have been pointed in just about every direction, and towards every actor, imaginable. Some fingers even pointed back onto liberal America and proclaimed that they themselves were the culprit. Nobody actually knows how this happened, and the truth is that the cocktail of circumstances is likely immensely complicated. But How-Trump-Won-The-Election was certainly the ruling genre of 2017, and Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal is just another cobble stone in this seemingly unending road of blame.
With a volume so slim, a synopsis seems indistinguishable from a spoiler. Lilla’s personal scapegoat is that the identity politics that have come to fruition over the past decades are primarily to blame. His reasoning is that while the American right talked about prosperity for Americans as a whole, the American left balkanized into factions based on one’s identity and thus lost any kind of unifying banner with which to rally around. From there, it was easy for currently disenfranchised former members of the voting left to switch to the other side. But any argument reduced from an already slim book to a mere few sentences will of course sound deflated – the book argues better what I just paraphrased.
You cannot address a book like this without hitting on at least a bit of the controversy around it. I read this book after I had read an accusation that Lilla was a white supremacist. The accusation was ridiculous, and in turn received a rebuttal from John McWhorter, a colleague of Lilla’s. But I think there is something to say about the fact that such an egregious accusation is tossed around so liberally. It sure does lend itself to the idea of a fractured left, suffering from gross instances of infighting while the opposing team takes the field.
The question that many other reviewers address is whether this book is right. That this seems satisfactory as a question is odd, at least until you add some metrics into the mix. To what extent is it right? Or better yet, is identitiy politics really disenfranchising normally left leaning voters? These would be much better questions that no one seems to be asking. Unfortunately, Lilla himself doesn’t attack these question with any kind of rigor. That superficial, it looks like this could be the case isn’t good enough.
But the point of reading a book like this isn’t to have an answer know. It’s to have a stance on a discussion that is not going to go away any time soon, and to which your feet will be held to the fire whether you like it or not.