Review of The Once and Future Liberal

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  • Applicable
  • Eye Opening
  • Visionary


Columbia University professor Mark Lilla provides an acute, historically informed diagnosis of the crisis in liberalism and in the Democratic Party, and posits a way forward. He notes that Donald Trump’s 2016 upset gave liberals a shot of energy and a renewed sense of purpose. They organized a form of “resistance” and imagined they could gain Congressional majorities in the 2018 elections. Lilla argues that this optimistic point of view ignores the dark trajectory of Republican and Democratic politics from the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan’s and beyond.

He asserts that by the time Barack Obama gained office on a wave of hope and optimism, both parties had gone awry. Republicans appealed to a swath of the white working class and demonized politics as right-wing media treated liberals with withering contempt. Meanwhile, Democrats seemed to lose their feel for “public sentiment.” Instead, they focused on human rights issues that apply to specific groups, like women, immigrants, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community. In the process, Lilla says, liberals alienated core American demographics. He asserts that liberals can return to power and relevance only if they project a broad, shared, inclusive idea of American life. Identity issues won’t rescue Democrats; they must offer a vision of citizenship that embraces universally shared principles.

The one notable weakness in Lilla’s elegant essay is that he doesn’t adequately explain the root appeal of right-wing populism. He grants too much power to – and spends too much time on – the prevalence and divisiveness of identity politics. While always politically neutral, getAbstract recommends Lilla’s eloquent argument to students, professors, pundits, political professionals, and anyone concerned about the future and reputation of US democracy, at home and worldwide.

About the Author

Humanities professor at Columbia University Mark Lilla also wrote The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction and The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics.


Lilla offers the following lessons and insights:

1. American liberals are in crisis.

For liberals, Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election was a rude awakening and a call to action. Hardly a day passed before they organized “resistance” to everything Trump and his followers represent. But US politics are complex; nothing is ever simple and straightforward. The public elected Bill Clinton and Obama on the strength of grand, transformative visions. Republican federal and state lawmakers aggressively thwarted those aspirations, and right-wing media sought to undermine their reputations. When Democratic presidents were in office, Lilla finds, the public perception of liberal doctrine declined. With rightist websites disseminating outright lies and implausible conspiracy theories, and liberals suffering “a crisis of imagination and ambition,” the situation has only gotten worse. Lilla argues that liberals are failing to put forward a doctrine or vision that appeals to most people – even those who vote for liberal candidates.

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