The Once and Future Liberal | Mark Lilla

Summary of: The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
By: Mark Lilla


In ‘The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics’, author Mark Lilla examines American political history from the Depression to Trump’s election, the shift from the ‘Roosevelt Dispensation’ of the New Deal to the more recent ‘Reagan Dispensation’. This introduction offers a comprehensive analysis of how liberals have lost touch with the needs and wants of ordinary people, resulting in a lack of vision that has crippled their ability to connect with a diverse voter base. Lilla paints a picture of a fragmented political landscape in which neither conservatives nor liberals offer a unifying political vision, leading to the rise of identity politics and a ‘post-vision America’.

The Elusive Liberal Doctrine

In “The Once and Future Liberal,” Mark Lilla explores the ongoing crisis of liberalism in American politics. Despite their efforts to resist Donald Trump’s presidency, liberals have struggled to present a clear vision and doctrine that resonates with the majority of the American public. Republican opposition and the spread of false information by right-wing media outlets have only worsened the situation. Lilla argues that the decline of the public’s perception of liberal doctrine during Democratic presidencies is due to liberals’ lack of imagination and ambition. Without a transformative vision, liberals risk losing even their own voter base.

American Political History: Two Dispensations

In his book, Mark Lilla divides American political history from the Depression to Trump’s election into two distinct dispensations. The first, the “Roosevelt Dispensation,” extended from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to the civil rights movements and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. During this period, citizens across a broad spectrum engaged and shared a set of values that proposed universal values. However, by the 1970s, these values no longer reflected the needs and wants of ordinary people. Mark Lilla argues that the “Reagan Dispensation” began with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, representing a departure from these universal values. Conservative politicians and intellectuals who supported Reagan sought to reform, not eliminate, the government. Lilla’s two dispensations have a heuristic value, but feel too crude. Liberal and conservative politics traverse a range from a moderate center to the far left or right. Reagan even attracted many ambivalent Democrats.

Identity Politics and the Disintegration of the Reagan Dispensation

The Reagan Dispensation crumbled due to the media’s right-wing support for populism, while liberals failed to offer a popular alternative and instead turned toward identity politics. This focus on small, defined groups led to a disconnection from the mainstream electorate. The Roosevelt Dispensation’s civil rights movement, in contrast, focused on the oppression of large groups like African-Americans, promoting equality and a public “common good.” As time went on, however, liberals became more concerned with individual identities and encouraged people to look inward. This shift in focus didn’t offer a powerful counterargument to Reagan’s conservative political path and ultimately led to the Reagan Dispensation’s decline.

Identity and Politics

The shift from collective identity to personal identity has created tensions between identifying with the US as a whole and with specific social or cultural groups. This shift has led to a lack of emphasis on the concept of citizenship. Despite the author’s nostalgic perspective, younger voters are unlikely to return to a collective identity and embrace this vision.

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