On Aug. 20, Fareed Zakaria, host of “Global Public Square” on CNN, recommended his pick for the book of the week as “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.” Since I wanted an up-to-date definition of liberalism, I bought a copy of the book by Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University.
In a nutshell, liberalism has not become a majority opinion of our voters.
Lilla begins by pointing out that liberals have become America’s ideological third party behind independents and conservatives. More seriously, “American liberalism in the twenty-first century is in crisis: a crisis of imagination and ambition on our side, a crisis of attachment and trust on the side of the wider public.”
It is sad to read how low American liberalism is when Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.”
Liberals are completely lacking in public sentiment.
Lilla suggests that, “American political history over the past century can be usefully divided into two ‘dispensations,’ to invoke the Christian theological term. The first, the Roosevelt Dispensation, stretched from the era of the New Deal to the era of the civil rights movement and the Great Society in the 1960s, and then exhausted itself in the 1970s. The second, the Reagan Dispensation, began in 1980 and is now being brought to a close by an opportunistic, unprincipled populist.”
The unsavory character just mentioned is Donald Trump, who apparently doesn’t fit into any political class listed.
When we take a look at a formal definition of the word liberalism and find “pertaining to a political party advocating measures of progressive political reform or pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism, especially the freedom of the individual and governmental guarantees of individual rights and liberties,” it is strange to see these words written by the author: “So it should come as little surprise that the term liberalism leaves so many Americans indifferent if not hostile today. It is considered, with some justice, as a creed professed mainly by educated urban elites cut off from the rest of the country.”
This was a surprise and seemed more than harsh to one who had been friendly to that point of view for many years. The author showed no remembrance of haughtiness or thirst for power displayed by liberalism.
Lilla saw the importance of what he called political citizenship. He writes, “The American right uses the term citizenship today as a tool of exclusion, but liberals have traditionally seen it as a generous tool for inclusion.” And, “Democratic citizenship implies reciprocal rights and duties. We have duties because we have rights; we enjoy rights because we do our duty.” Those who are also of religious persuasion might call this fellowship. When political parties meet to plan goals and values in an atmosphere of good will, it is much more productive and harmonious.
The author makes negative comments about Donald Trump, throughout the book, but they are brief and only require small spaces. The liberal left and progressives have been energized by the noisy populists. Analysts have noticed the early burst of scandals; with the largest scandal being the fact that he is our president.
It is encouraging that liberal resistance is steadily developing. He considers that “Anyone who watched a televised Donald Trump rally in the 2016 campaign was witness to a mob orgy, not an assembly of citizens.” This is followed by, “Given his manifest unfitness for higher office, a vote for Trump was a betrayal of citizenship, not an exercise of it.”
It is difficult to predict how popular liberalism will become as a stable political force. Nonetheless, it is a very important element in the search for new ideas and a balance to ever-present pressure to keep things as they are.
The author is a very qualified writer, but he is also very strong about political opinions that are sensitive. Still, there are political insights introduced that are worthy of study.
Allan Powell is a professoremeritus of philosophy atHagerstown Community College.