On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University and the author of a new book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. Lilla is known for his writing on history and political philosophy; in his latest book, he pins many of the troubles of the Democratic Party on the rise of identity politics. He argues that Americans have become hostile to the way the left speaks and writes and that “by the 1980s [identity politics] had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.” “The main result,” he writes, “has been to turn young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them outward toward the wider world.”
Below is an edited transcript of part of the show. In it, we debate whether Democrats are too focused on the presidency, whether identity politics is really affecting the way politicians operate, and whether racism explains why the South went red.
You can find links to every episode here, and the entire audio interview with Lilla is also below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: What exactly is your diagnosis of what has gone wrong with liberals since the 1960s in the United States, and what were the consequences of that politically?
Mark Lilla: I would really date the break around 1980. From the New Deal up until 1980, you can think of that as one era of American politics and American liberal politics. The sort of governing ideas were solidarity, equal protection under the law, public duty, and there was a sense of the country pulling together ever since the Depression and Second World War to take care of each other.
With the arrival of Reagan, there was what I call in the book a new dispensation so that certain assumptions about what matters in politics—what can be said, what is not said, what the terms of debate are—all changed.
We went from a political vision of what we are as a country based on equal citizenship to an anti-political vision of the government being the problem, of people being solitary individuals in the market, in their families, in their churches, but without any common purpose as a nation. And at that moment, beginning in 1980, that was the moment when it was up to liberals to meet this anti-political vision of the country with a new political one that was adapted to the times and took in account all the mistakes and failures that had taken place before. We didn’t do that.
You’re talking about a period between, let’s say, 1932 and 1980, 48 years, that you feel that there was more of a common purpose, and we were more united, so in your argument—
Even if we weren’t united, the idea was to be united. The idea was that we stick together and we stand up for each other’s rights and there’s a national purpose to doing this.
And you felt that that was the case during the 1960s?
Well, the people who were active in the 1960s were at first appealing to that—that here we’re supposed to be a country based on equality, and African Americans are not being treated equally. Women are not being treated equally. Poor people in the country couldn’t really exercise their citizenship and be part of the country because of their poverty. So that was the tail end of this great period in American history.
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