The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
New York: Harper, 2017
I have been reading Mark Lilla since the 1990s, when he published his first and best book, G. B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern. Lilla has made a career of reading reactionary thinkers—Vico, Heidegger, Schmitt, Strauss, Voegelin, and Leftists that only reactionaries love, like Kojève—and explaining them to liberals in books with titles like The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals and Politics and The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.
Lilla is always careful to balance these thinkers of the Right with intellectuals of the far Left like Foucault, Derrida, and Benjamin. The lesson he draws is always pragmatic and centrist. Intellectuals of the Left and Right follow their ideas to conclusions that threaten liberal democracy—which is self-evidently a good thing—and there’s something scary about that, so for goodness sake think responsibly and don’t go to extremes. Leftists, of course, mock this sort of grandmotherly anti-intellectual philistinism when it comes from conservatives. But Lilla is a conservative of sorts.
Joe Sobran used to ask Leftists if there is any form of society they would like to conserve. Lilla has his answer. He wants to conserve the “Roosevelt Dispensation,” which in his view is a progressive American liberal democracy with a civic nationalist identity (making it inclusive and anti-racist). Basically, it is the system that a lot of Cold War liberals decided they wanted to conserve against the far Left in the 1940s to the 1960s, a change that earned them the name “neoconservatives.”
Lilla identifies himself as a liberal. But I’ve long suspected that he is a neocon who has dispensed with the charade of being a conservative to pursue other, more rewarding charades. Lilla was an editor at the neocon journal The Public Interest from 1980 to 1984. He received his Ph.D. in government from Harvard in 1990, where he worked with neocon pioneer Daniel Bell and the Straussian Harvey Mansfield, Jr. After a teaching stint in the Straussian stronghold of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Lilla moved to Columbia University, where he is Professor of Humanities. Because he is a clear and engaging writer, far above the academic norm, Lilla has found a much larger audience than most college professors in the pages of middlebrow periodicals like the New York Review of Books.
And now Lilla has taken all of the Left-wing and academic credibility he has so painstakingly accumulated over the years and gambled it on an essay attacking the central and defining obsession of the academic Left, namely “identity politics.”
Lilla critiques Leftist identity politics from the center-Left. Lilla is careful to attack Donald Trump and align himself with the “Resistance.” Indeed, he frames his whole book as a prescription for how liberals can actually regain political power and roll back Trumpism. Furthermore, Lilla argues that Left-wing identity politics is actually just a continuation of the anti-political individualism of the Reagan Dispensation, which is a preposterous slander on both Reaganism and Left.
But for all that, the advocates of identity politics must inevitably regard Lilla as a reactionary. And they are correct to do so, for two reasons.
First, Lilla is basically repudiating the entire legacy of the 1960s Left. He criticizes the ethos of Left-wing movement politics, which rewards self-marginalizing ideological purism rather than democratic consensus-building. He criticizes the authoritarianism and elitism of Left-wing institutional entryism and subversion, specifically naming the judiciary. He criticizes the navel-gazing, neurotic touchiness, preachiness, and totalitarianism of campus identity politics. He criticizes the Left’s hatred of the white working class who used to be the backbone of the progressive coalition. He even criticizes the atmosphere of Leftopian college towns in terms that bring to mind James O’Meara on Stars Hollow. Subtract all these elements from the Left, and what’s left? Basically, JFK, LBJ, and Cold War liberalism.
Second, the vision Lilla is defending—American civic nationalism—is paid lip-service by the Obamas and the Clintons, but only people on the center-Right really believe in it — people like the hated Donald Trump, who is the closest thing to the return of the Roosevelt Dispensation that Lilla will ever see.
Like most neocons, however, Lilla does not rejoice in the rise of Trump, because he spies a danger behind Trumpian civic nationalism, namely white identity politics. And for the neocons, nothing is more dangerous than white identity politics. A large part of the neocon agenda has been to promote civic nationalism, the idea that America is a proposition nation, unified not by common descent (race) or common culture (ethnicity), but by belief in the Jeffersonian creed that “All men are created equal.”
To this end, the neocons have promoted a false image of the American founding that over-emphasizes the influence of Lockean natural rights philosophy, which is universalist and secularist, and deemphasizes the far more prominent roles of classical republicanism and Protestant identity, which are exclusionary. The neocons grafted this narrative on the Left-wing revisionist trend in American thought epitomized in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which redefined the American government as a Jacobin state “devoted to the proposition” of universal human equality. (Since inequality makes the world go around, this ideology pretty much licenses the United States to destroy and remake any functioning institution anywhere in the world. Whether we do so or not, of course, depends on the interests of those who control the media and political process.)
The neocon agenda is easy to understand, for the founders of both tributaries to neoconservatism—the Zionist wing of the Trotskyite movement at City College, New York, and the Straussians—were Jewish. Thus, like Jewish intellectual movements as varied as Objectivism and the Frankfurt School, the neocons have deconstructed concepts of American identity that would impede the social inclusion and upward mobility of Jews and other outsiders, and replaced them with an egalitarian civic nationalist creed. The agenda of the neocon founding fathers persists today, even with non-Jewish writers like Lilla or Francis Fukuyama.
Thus to the extent that Lilla is a neocon, he is not opposing identity politics as such, for his form of civic nationalism is itself a form of identity politics. American civic nationalism is a form of identity politics calibrated to assure the social inclusion and upward mobility of diaspora Jews, non-whites, and whites who intermarry and identify with them. This is essentially the same agenda as the identity politics of the Left, although the neocon version wears the cloak of universalism, whereas the Left’s particularism is naked and running through the streets.
Lilla’s attack on Leftist identity politics is thus a kind of family quarrel. But what is the substance of the disagreement? The neocons have always functioned as the Freudian “ego” of the Left, moderating the idealism of its superego and the world-destroying passions of its id by reminding them of the objective constraints that stand in their way: the simple facts that no society can function without the family, law and order, private property, civic virtue, religion, a common culture, a realist foreign policy, etc. Or, to put it more pithily, they are liberals who got mugged by reality. Or just plain mugged. But in their hearts, they remain liberals.
One of the objective constraints to which neocons are highly sensitive is the possibility of a Right-wing identitarian backlash against the excesses of the Left. When it comes to foreign policy, neocons are permanently stuck in Munich, 1938. It is always the last chance to stop the new Hitler. When it comes to cultural policy, neocons remember that Munich 1938 could not have happened without Weimar 1919–1933. And just as Trump reminds them of Hitler, Tumblrite identity politics reminds them of Weimar. Of course they are being unjust to Trump, but not to Tumblr. Beyond that, a lot of people who like Trump really are white identitarians, and the neocons are right to fear us.
The neocons see that Left-wing identity politics is driving white Americans away from civic nationalism, libertarianism, and other universalist viewpoints toward Right-wing identity politics, specifically white identity politics. For if our enemies organize on the basis of their identities, and attack whites on the basis of our identity, whites need to fight back in terms of identity, too. Otherwise, we lose. As F. Roger Devlin put it so brilliantly:
Those traditional conservatives who continue to admonish us against the dangers of “biological determinism” are increasingly condemning themselves to irrelevance. The plea that “race isn’t everything” is valid per se, but not especially germane to the situation in which we find ourselves. For we are not the aggressors in the battle now being fought. And in any battle, it is the aggressors’ prerogative to choose the point of attack: if they come at you by land, you do not have the option of fighting them at sea.
Race is everything to our enemies, and it is the angle from which they have chosen to attack our entire civilization. It is also where they have achieved their greatest victories: you can see this from the way “conservative” groups feel they must parrot the language of the egalitarians just to get a hearing. . . . Such well-meaning but naive friends of our civilization are in effect consenting to occupy the status of a “kept” opposition.
The more we try to avoid confronting race directly, the more our enemies will press their advantage at precisely this point. Tactically, they are correct to do so. And they will continue until we abandon our defensive posture and turn to attack them on their own chosen ground.
To halt the rise of white identity politics, the neocons want the Left to put on the brakes. Hence Lilla’s book.
Is Lilla likely to succeed? No, for two reasons. First, the Left has no brakes, which becomes much clearer when we understand its ethnic origins and core. Second, the alternative he offers is not coherent or stable.
Lilla is absolutely right that the narcissistic identity politics rampant on the Left weakens the Democratic Party and strengthens the Right, especially the identitarian Right. But that is not enough to reign in the Left. Leftists are not going take one whit of responsibility for the rise of Trump.
Lilla’s attempt to derive Left-wing identity politics from the anti-political individualism of the Reagan Dispensation is obviously untrue and surely dishonest. Lilla does, however, remark that the template of Left-wing identity politics movements is the black civil rights movement. But as Kevin MacDonald points out in “Jews, Blacks, and Race,” the template for the black civil rights movement was provided by Jewish ethnic activism.
Lilla’s account of Left-wing identity politics takes on a new coherence when viewed through the lens of Jewish ethnic attitudes and activism. Even a superficial reading of Left-wing identity politics reveals the formative influence of Jewish intellectual movements like the Frankfurt School, not Reaganite individualism—although Reaganism bears some of the fingerprints of Jewish intellectual movements of the Right like Objectivism, libertarianism, and Austrian economics.
The Jewish connection throws a lot of light on the neuroticism and subjectivism Lilla laments. It also accounts for the preachy moralizing Lilla bemoans. Yes, a lot of political correctness seems to have New England Puritanism in its DNA, but who were the Puritans if not a “Judaizing” sect of Christianity? Jeremiads ultimately trace back to Jeremiah. The Jewish connection also makes sense of the self-defeating Leftist hatred of rural whites, who remind Jews of pogromist peasants, and of working-class whites, who are the kind of people who voted for Hitler.
If the ultimate intellectual and organizational template of Left-wing identity politics is Jewish, how likely are Leftists to put their foot on the brake to forestall the rise of white identity politics? Not likely at all. I just don’t think self-moderation is in the Jewish character. The neocons are the most sensible of the lot, and even they are given to self-defeating delusions and fanaticism.
Second, Lilla’s alternative to the disintegrating tendency of Left-wing identity politics is to emphasize something that Americans all have in common: citizenship. “Ours must become a civic liberalism” (p. 15). (Please clap.) Lilla breezily assures us that “We have no problem breeding ‘the American’ as a social type, and immigrants become Americans in this sense with astonishing speed and ease” (p. 135). Lilla also waxes corny about the civics tests that immigrants must take to become naturalized citizens. “If you know anyone who has taken the test, you know how much it meant to him or her to pass it, and how moved he or she was to pledge allegiance to the flag” (pp. 135–36). This is the straw that he clings to, this treacle about the wretched refuse of the globe magically transformed into Americans by taking a test and swearing an oath.
But citizenship is a pretty thin form of unity, especially these days. What does citizenship mean if it can extend to people from all over the globe, hailing from cultures where representative government and civic responsibility and keeping oaths to anyone outside one’s clan don’t exist? Especially when Lilla explicitly rejects assimilationism, asserting that some people will like America more because it does not require they speak our language and share our values or culture.
What does citizenship mean when Muslims can pass a test, swear an oath, and then commit acts of terrorism against Americans? What does citizenship mean when a Chinese can take a test, swear an oath, and then commit espionage against America for China? What does citizenship mean when tens of millions of illegal aliens circulate through our country, enjoying many of the benefits of citizenship and evading most of its costs? What does citizenship mean when it is conferred automatically upon a child whose mother was here illegally at the time of birth? How is that any different from a cuckoo laying its eggs in another bird’s nest?
Lilla envisions a new generation raised to “Care for this country and its citizens, all of them” (p. 141). But if those citizens belong to many distinct racial and cultural groups, it is inevitable that some groups are going to take more “care” and give less than others, and other groups will give more than they take. This is a recipe for ethnic resentment and hatred, and it can’t be papered over by saying, “But we’re all citizens.”
You can call a multicultural America unified by citizenship a nation, but what sort of community exists between people who have only citizenship in common?
The Once and Future Liberal is just one of a number of recent books indicating that some of the most intelligent people in the establishment sense that Left-wing multiculturalism is failing. The existing elites will, of course, do anything to retain power. The neoconservative recommendation is that we revert to a more conservative form of civic nationalism and try to curb the worst excesses of the Left, which are only wind in the sails of Right-wing populism. But it isn’t going to work.
Which means that the Identitarian Dispensation is upon us. Anti-white identity politics is going to drive the further rise of white identity politics. The universalist center will inevitably shrink as people join one identitarian camp or another. What remains of the center will be pulverized between clashing identitarian blocs. Then the great battle of our time will be decided.
 Mark Lilla, G. B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).
 Lilla, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals and Politics, expanded ed. (New York: New York Review Books, 2016); The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction (New York: New York Review Books, 2016).
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