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 the new identitarians. Developing an argument 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.

In Lilla’s telling, the identitarian approach has failed because it has eroded the left’s understanding of shared citizenship. The incessant focus on racial, sexual, and gender identities has crippled liberals’ ability to speak the collective language of politics and experience the reality of what Thomas Hobbes—the first political liberal, as Rawls surmised in a 1993 letter to Sharon Lloyd—called the “commonwealth.” As a professor, Lilla is dismayed at his students, for whom “issues that don’t touch on their identities or affect people like themselves are hardly perceived” and “classic liberal ideas like citizenship, solidarity, and the common good have little meaning.” To “recapture America’s imagination and become a dominant force across the country,” Lilla argues, the liberal left “must offer a vision of our common destiny based on one thing that all Americans, of every background, share. And that is citizenship.” 

Yet far from offering a way forward, Lilla’s case for moving beyond identity politics toward the higher and more rooted principle of citizenship reveals the depth of the liberal predicament. It suggests that the political fragmentation he decries is a result not of a divergence of views but of an irreconcilable collision—a logjam—between liberalism’s core principles: cultural humanism (or the Western heritage of arts and sciences that includes both secular and religious traditions) and a political devotion to the most oppressed, disadvantaged, and marginalized. Rather than supporting the former principle, the latter has in fact abetted the cultural revolution against liberal humanism, which first seized control on the left in the late 1960s and 1970s under the influence of radicals such as Frantz Fanon, Shulamith Firestone, and Michel Foucault. These thinkers and their descendants argued that humanism was just a cover for institutionalized structures of discrimination and that liberalism itself was corrupt. As it became harder to treat the justice claims of these revolutionaries with skepticism, liberal humanists abdicated their own precious cultural authority and retreated to politics and economics, where they believed a big-business, big-government compromise could provide the basis for harmony between themselves and the revolutionaries—hopes exemplified by 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s simultaneous courting of Wall Street and Black Lives Matter and diminished by acrimony between second- and third-wave feminists over whether Clinton’s strain of feminism was adequately enlightened.

Pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators clash in Berkeley, April 2017.
Jim Urquart / Reuters


The liberal logjam is painfully evident in Lilla’s explication of the supposed power of the politics of citizenship. To advance his brief against the left, Lilla recasts the problem of a white American confronted with the interlocking injustices experienced by black Americans. "I am not a black male motorist,” he says, “and will never know what it is like to be one." Here Lilla revealingly capitulates to the strategic essentialism at the tip of the identitarian spear. By this logic, all an identity group must do to assert unchallengeable claims is announce that because no one outside the group can truly understand its experience, no outsiders can legitimately adjudicate the group’s claims. But Lilla wants to believe that the radicals have missed a step. "If I am going to be affected by his experience,” Lilla says of the black motorist, “I need some way to identify with him." In other words, even if an outsider cannot understand the essence of a group’s identity, members of aggrieved groups still need to find some common ground with their audience in order to get their due. Liberal humanism used to maintain that this common ground is our shared humanity, as evidenced by centuries of art, history, literature, and religion. But for Lilla, that ship has sailed. "Citizenship,” he claims, “is the only thing I know that we share.” In his disenchantment, he sees shared citizenship not as the best ground for a politics of solidarity among people with different identities but, now, as the only possible ground. 

Indeed, in accepting the idea of an unbridgeable gulf between his own experiences and those of an “other,” Lilla concedes the very point that liberals must contest most bitterly against the identitarian radicals of the left, for whom religion is bunk, friendship is tribal, and even secular humanism is terminally poisoned by a toxic confluence of oppressive race, class, and gender structures. Against the identitarians’ attack on the liberal concept of culture, which holds that shared humanity itself is a morally sound foundation for solidarity, it is vain to wave the talisman of citizenship. It is wrong, moreover, to assert in an ideological vacuum that politics is the only possible ground of relation to one’s fellow human beings.

Such a conception of citizenship accepts the anti-humanist claims weaponized by the identitarians in order to try to disarm them with a democratic sort of Hobbesianism. For Hobbes, the peace and solidarity of a commonwealth required a sovereign of utterly supreme power who fused secular and spiritual authority. Shift authority to the people, he reasoned, and the whole enterprise would collapse. Without a Leviathan so overawing as to make our pride in our differences trivial, consensus would crumble beneath an endless assault of irreconcilable moral and political interpretations, culminating in civil unrest or outright war. For Lilla and liberals of his ilk, Hobbes is right that politics is the only possible ground for a commonwealth, but Hobbes is wrong that the state must supply one master interpretation of our human identity in order to hold that political ground together. Not only can we the people—the nation—play the unifying role of the sovereign through the practice of citizenship; so too can national citizenship tame the pride in our different group and individual identities.  

The attempt to democratize the Leviathan is precisely the source of American liberalism’s crisis.

Yet the attempt to democratize the Leviathan is precisely the source of American liberalism’s crisis. Since the 1960s, the practice of U.S. citizenship has been refined down to voting for progressively more comprehensive and intimate degrees of equal health and safety—expanding both the welfare state and the security state. But the liberal reduction of political agency to participation in the state’s expansion created an opening for the identitarians to reintroduce the fury of pride that Hobbes would have recognized as an intrinsic danger of democratic politics. Equal health and safety fail to address the claim that, to escape injustice, the least must come first in line—not merely for material goods and services such as money or aid but for social and psychological ones such as attention, prestige, and power. If citizens must forever orient their vision of justice around the question of who is the least well-off, a group’s political worth is inversely related to its real or imagined social status. So the endless war of pridefully clashing interpretations begins in earnest, the very concepts of victimhood and priority having become matters of rhetorical and material power, nothing more. Overlapping factions multiply faster than their grievances can ever be addressed. And just as Hobbes warned, as the recognition of our shared humanity erodes, we are ripped loose from any foundation for spiritual authority, natural philosophy, or true friendship. Shared membership in a commonwealth is not enough to preserve it. 


Modern liberals might therefore try to look beyond Hobbes to justify the type of citizenship they seek to revive. For instance, in The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt presents the practice of citizenship as a form of heroism, with politics the last available site for the kind of courage that makes friendship, and therefore solidarity, possible. Yet Arendt’s republican theory of heroic politics, which stresses a sharp division between private and public interests, is alien to U.S. political culture. As Alexis de Tocqueville explained in Democracy in America, from its beginnings in the small towns of New England, American politics has involved ordinary people recognizing that it was in their own self-interest to physically come together to manage the shared challenges of the day.  And civic nationalism alone deprives liberals who abandon humanist culture, like Lilla, of any way to challenge the left’s identitarian radicals. 

It is therefore a mournful and tragic moment in the West, regardless of where one sits on the spectrum of Western liberalism. As the liberal columnist Damon Linker recently argued, “Politics rightly understood is about defining who we are as a political community.” That means defining “what it means to be an American, what we owe to one another as citizens, as members of a collective body, as parts of a whole, engaged in a common enterprise.” But Linker defines the liberal political community that citizenship makes possible as emerging from “a solidarity that justifies not only individual rights and the self-assertion of sub-political identities but also policies rooted in our duties and obligations to one another.” In fact, this supposedly liberal vision of solidarity is perilously similar to the utopian regime proffered by today’s intersectional socialists, who believe the identitarian revolution is compatible with civic nationalism. They insist the state can and must successfully adjudicate and harmonize the claims of all poorly off groups, whether they are asserted in terms of race, class, gender, or more. For the intersectional socialists, it’s simple: the identitarian revolutionaries are always right about what society owes them, and citizenship always rightly means doing what they say. The rest is details, to be entrusted to officially sanctioned experts in and out of government.

The sobering conclusion is that liberals who think they can safely abandon humanist culture for the high ground of citizen politics will be overrun by the left’s identitarians and their intersectional allies. Politics will not save us from identity politics because politics can never save us, however inescapable and indispensable it may be. To pursue a truly shared vision of justice, humans require a deeper common ground. Yet even for hostile critics of liberalism—especially Christian or secular humanists on the right—now is not the time to give in to schadenfreude. Today’s deep crisis may have been inevitable. It may augur some healthy or inspiring changes. But if liberalism does collapse or shrivel up, history strongly suggests that the restoration of Western social order on a different foundation will require another great cycle of war. 

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