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O My America: Can the Left Repair Itself?

Lawrence Bush
December 14, 2017

by Lawrence Bush

Discussed in this essay:

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, by Mark Lilla, HarperCollins, 2017, 143 pages.

Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together, by Van Jones, Ballantine Books, 2017, 233 pages.

IS THE UNEXPECTED VICTORY of Doug Jones over Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate race in any way predictive of the future of politics in America? As often happens with the Democrats, it was African-American turnout that saved the day, as Jones garnered less than a third of the white vote, even against as unsavory an opponent as Moore. As often happens with the Democrats, too, Jones reportedly ran a campaign afraid of its own shadow and failed to articulate a unifying vision beyond “Don’t embarrass Alabama with Roy Moore.” It would be fair, then, to see this election as “identity politics” in play — blacks and educated white women versus white Christian fundamentalists, with the latter overcome only thanks to revulsion about Roy Moore.

Yet there were echoes of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement heard in the election — it was those movements, after all, that unleashed the voting power of the very “identity groups” that brought Doug Jones his victory. What turned those two movements, however, into the most effective and enduring social movements of the 20th century, was their capacity to mobilize the moral conscience of vast numbers of people beyond the aggrieved groups, and to inspire many, many Americans to recognize the benefit to themselves of seeing African Americans and women less hurt, less discriminated against, and more empowered.

Can this element of “moral conscience” — what Mark Lilla calls in The Once and Future Liberal “an ambitious vision of America and its future that would inspire citizens of every walk of life and in every region of the country” — be revived today? Lilla complains that liberals (and folks to the left of liberal) have lost “a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation,” and have shrunk our politics to “an increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.” This has left young people “unprepared to think about the common good and what must be done practically to secure it,” writes Lilla — “especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.”

His book is a rather abstract political essay, but for readers of a certain age who can remember the double-edged power of the civil rights and women’s movements — that is, the challenges they offered to personal identity AND the vision they offered of a greater, prouder, more generous America — Lilla’s account of the decline of liberalism resonates. Barack Obama’s “Yes, We Can!” and “not a blue state, not a red state, but the United States” rhetoric, thin as it was, was quite rousing to most of us simply because there has been, since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., such a paucity of visionary liberalism in the public sphere. (Bernie Sanders tried to follow up, but his vision was largely confined to economic justice — for which he was harshly criticized by identity-politics groups.)

Lilla’s key point is that “movements” have displaced electoral politics as the focus of leftwing energy. “[A]s the 1970s flowed into the 1980s,” he writes, “movement politics began to be seen by many liberals as an alternative rather than a supplement to institutional politics, and by some as being more legitimate. . . . Yet it is an iron law in democracies that anything achieved through movement politics can be undone through institutional politics.” This lesson is being learned the hard way under Donald Trump, and progressives and liberals are standing for office in vast numbers these days — but we have a long way to go.

He elaborates his critique of what he calls “pseudo-politics” with a curmudgeonly generational critique, rooted in his experience, one supposes, as a professor at Columbia University: “[T]he Facebook model [of political engagement] is all about the self,” he complains,

not about common histories or the common good or even ideas. Young people on the left . . . are less likely today to connect their engagements to a set of political ideas. They are much more likely to say that they are engaged in politics as an X, concerned about other X’s and those issues touching own X-ness. . . . What replaces argument, then, is taboo. . . . Only those with an approved identity status are ... allowed to speak on certain matters.... Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false.

(“Intersectionality” has become the word used among young identity leftists to overcome the narrowness of their identity consciousness by expressing how experiences of identity, and especially experiences of oppression based on identity, interweave. Apart from its hard-to-grasp meaning, however, “intersectionality” implies a stitching together of separateness, rather than a digging down to common ground. More than anything it is a code-word, a password, indicating membership in exclusive political circles. It’ll never get anyone elected.)

IN HIS FAR less pessimistic, far more anecdotal, and far more hodge-podgy book, Beyond the Messy Truth, activist and media personality Van Jones adds to the critique of contemporary leftism by criticizing our condescension to our conservative opponents. They vote against their self-interest, we cry in bewilderment — but don’t educated, middle-class liberals do exactly the same, Jones asks, when we vote for higher taxes and an expanded set of share-the-wealth programs? They deny science, we shout with scorn — but don’t many liberals ignore science when it comes to vaccinations, GMO foods, and other technologies that give us the heeby-jeebies?

Jones’s point here is that idealism and principles inform both sides of the cultural and political divide. People don’t vote their pocketbooks — they vote their ideals and their identifications. He tries to appeal to that idealism in his “An Open Letter to Liberals” and “An Open Letter to Conservatives” chapters, in the latter crediting conservatives with having “some important common values”:

. . . a belief in a smaller role for centralized government and a larger role for local or individualized choice, an emphasis on religious liberty and protection for constitutional rights, a commitment to the nuclear family as a critical institution for encouraging the stability of our society and the growth of our young citizens, a concern with fiscal responsibility and prudent budgeting, and a deep pride in our nation’s great political institutions and cultural traditions. . .

Jones then takes conservatives to task for all the ways they betray their own principles by mixing in racial, religious and gender prejudice, accepting unethical and power-hungry leadership (as long as they’re anti-abortion), dehumanizing liberals, and refusing bipartisan opportunities for problem-solving. But in “the end,” he writes, “the promise of America is liberty and justice for all. My fellow liberals are so focused on justice we too easily forget about liberty. Conservatives can be so committed to liberty that you become blind to cases where injustice curtails freedom. We need each other. We cannot improve this country alone.”

Jones may sound naive or pandering in such passages — but no, he’s a true believer in democracy and diversity, and he’s an idealist, one who appeals to our “better nature,” in the Southern-black-religious “love your enemy” tradition of Dr. King. And Jones walks the talk: He describes how he cultivated a collaborative political relationship with none other than Newt Gingrich, the bete-noire of liberals during the 1990s when Gingrich was Speaker of the House and contributed mightily to the polarization of the American body politic. Jones met Gingrich at CNN, read every book he’s ever written, and “found his patriotism infectious. . . .”

His pride in the founders’ achievement rubbed off on me in ways that surprised me. As a result, I found myself growing frustrated with some liberals’ reluctance to champion and celebrate the great things about our country. After all it is hard to lead a nation you don’t love.

At the same time, I began to zero in on a key difference between Newt’s brand of patriotism and my own. In Newt’s narrative, it sometimes seemed that the American republic was born nearly perfect but then fell from grace. But in my mind, our nation was born imperfect, and it has been climbing ever since. . . .

Gingrich and Jones have worked collaboratively on criminal justice reform. “In [Gingrich’s] mind,” writes Jones, “the prison system had become a giant failing government bureaucracy. Libertarians in his party were concerned about the government gobbling up too many rights and encroaching on individual freedoms. Christian conservatives lamented the fact that formerly incarcerated people were given almost no chance for redemption. . . . Republicans were leading the charge on prison reform, but liberals hadn’t noticed — or wouldn’t recognize — their work.” Given the horrendous and racist reality of the prison system, and the growth of prison privatization as a conservative “solution,” it is easy to argue with Jones’ open-mindedness — but he does muster some facts to prove his point:

U.S. senator Rand Paul (Republican of Kentucky) has introduced or cosponsored more than twenty-five bills on criminal justice [reform]. . . . Texas governor Rick Perry oversaw a transformation of Texas’s criminal-justice system by shifting funds into alternatives like drug courts, treatment programs, and jobs. From 2007 to 2015, the rate of incarceration in Texas dropped by 14 percent. . . the state closed three prisons.

NEITHER LILLA NOR JONES deal with U.S. foreign policy, i.e., war-making, at any length, which makes it difficult for them to plumb the depth of pain that many progressives feel about their country’s role in the world, especially since the horrors of the Vietnam War. Not even that pain excuses, however, the ways that progressives often express uniquely bitter sentiments about America’s (and Israel’s) role in the world or in history — or, at least, the self-defeating expression of such “belly-of-the-beast” bitterness when we’re trying to organize beyond our slim anti-imperialist ranks. This foreign policy blind spot in both books makes them less useful, however. I would have especially liked to have read Mark Lilla’s opinions about “anti-imperialism” as a political organizing platform. He would doubtless have torn it apart as a cart-before-the-horse strategy.

In the end these books leave me, as a leftist living in a time of reactionary ascendancy, filled with thoughtful questions about the failure of liberalism, let alone socialism, to win a broad and stable political base in the U.S. Yes, I can lay blame all around me — blame the Koch Brothers and their infinitely deep pockets; blame Pat Robertson for cultivating an evangelical Christian politics that has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus; blame Rush Limbaugh and other rightwing rabble-rousers for bringing ugliness into the American dialogue; blame racism, in all its blatant and coded forms, as poisoning the political perspectives of so many white Americans; blame NAFTA and automation, for wiping out jobs for uneducated Americans and thereby breeding a politics of resentment — the blame can go on and on. But books like Lilla’s and Jones’s serve to turn the examination inwards, and that’s to be welcome.

There are, indeed, levels of anger, condescension, certainty, anti-American rhetoric, and narrow-minded in-group orthodoxy informing the American left today, which have all-but driven me from the “club.” Yet the “liberal” Democratic Party’s withered arms and timid voice are hardly inviting, either. What does seem obvious is that before any truly fruitful dialogue can happen with so-called principled conservatives (at which point, perhaps, I could drop the “so-called”), progressives and liberals need to have fruitful dialogue and find common cause, not simply slug it out during electoral cycles.

To my mind, the most promising common cause might be the development of a minimum guaranteed income for all American citizens — as has been recently proposed by Andy Stern, among other liberal leaders. It is a proposal that speaks directly to economic justice (across all racial, religious, and ethnic lines) and relieves our country of the politics of unemployment/ addiction/resentment. It also celebrates the energy of the “marketplace,” which has made scarcity unnecessary, while applauding the role of democratic government in establishing large-scale programs that actualize justice and opportunity. A minimum guaranteed income might well be the ticket for liberal-progressive ascent in America — and might even win support from principled conservatives.

Mark Lilla is less ambitious, however. He simply calls for the liberal affirmation of “something that as Americans we all share but which has nothing to do with our identities, without denying the existence and importance of the latter. . . . citizenship. . . . it has great democratic — and Democratic — potential, especially today. . . because it brings home the fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise that We, the people have freely willed into being.”

Whereas conservatives use “citizenship” as “a tool of exclusion,” Lilla continues, “. . . liberals have traditionally seen it as a generous tool for inclusion.” And “it provides a political language for speaking about a solidarity that transcends identity attachments.”

A good beginning.

Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents and co-author of Jews, Money, and Social Responsibility, among other books.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.