The Retro Style in Liberal Politics: A Review of Mark Lilla’s ,The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics'

You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye And I got that red lip, classic thing that you like And when we go crashing down, we come back every time 'Cause we never go out of style, we never go out of style…

Taylor Swift, “Style” (2014)


Columbia University’s Mark Lilla is an erudite and engaging historian of ideas, concentrating on political thought from the 18th century to the 20th. I share with him a scholarly interest in the ever-controversial Leo Strauss; and I eagerly devour Lilla’s elegant witty essays in the New York Review of Books.

In the Once and Future Liberal, Lilla turns his mind to a very different kind of project, articulating a vision for the future of liberalism in America. His intended audience is the Democratic Party. But Lilla, to my knowledge, has never been a political organizer, and he is certainly not a policy wonk. Entering into such matters as racial inequality, social cleavages in contemporary America and the challenges of the welfare state, Lilla’s 144-page essay doesn’t cite a single study or statistic. Plato and Hegel were more empirical.

At the same time, this book falls short of a philosophical attack on the principles of identity politics (despite how it has been advertised and indeed already attacked in some quarters). Lilla easily concedes that those principles are an indispensable part of our liberalism: formal equality doesn’t deliver equal dignity to minorities who have been historically disadvantaged and oppressed. Lilla offers nothing but praise for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s: “The civil rights movement offered a constructive way of serving both the African-American community and the country as a whole; by working to force America to live up to its principles. Not just to secure formal rights, but to secure equal dignity in society as well.” (p ...

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