Western liberals are in trouble. Perhaps too late, they have woken up to the severity of the challenge posed to their ideology by a new wave of radicals to their left and reactionaries to their right. More provocatively, they are in double trouble—well aware that they are losing control of the West’s political imagination, but not why.
Many American liberals fear that progressive radicalism, especially on questions of identity, has provoked a right-wing backlash that hurt Democrats in the 2016 election. These liberals criticize the radicals for abandoning liberalism’s ecumenical faith in diversity and harmony and focusing instead on a conflict-driven agenda of retributive justice. Yet the attempt to shift all the blame onto the radicals reflects an incuriosity about the extent to which liberalism itself is responsible for the current crisis. For instance, John Rawls, the canonical philosopher of modern liberalism, insisted that justice requires us to put the concerns of the least well-off first. This insistence exposes liberalism to a war of all against all, as people compete to be seen as the least well-off and therefore most worthy of attention—leading directly to the identity-based radicalism that liberals reject. Rejecting this theory of justice, however, would challenge the idea that liberalism has an abstract philosophical foundation instead of depending on deeper foundations in American customs, habits, and mores—as conservatives have long insisted. Unwilling to reconsider their Rawlsian first principle, some liberals are now scrambling to reclaim it from radicals by arguing that it is most compatible not with special pleading but with the one political practice that can ostensibly belong to all: citizenship.
One of the most influential new attempts to demonstrate a political cure for liberalism’s malaise has come from the Columbia University intellectual historian Mark Lilla. In his new book, The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla sets out to describe what he refers to as “the liberal crackup” in the United States—the fracture on the left between liberals and first laid out shortly after Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, Lilla attributes the current crisis of Western liberalism to a fragmentation of moral allegiance provoked by the rise of identity politics, characterized by a belief that justice means redistributing power and prestige to oppressed groups until they deem adequate penance paid.
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