The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics with Mark Lilla

September 18, 2017

CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni

JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome you to our first breakfast of the new program year.

Our speaker is Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University as well as a prize-winning essayist for The New York Review of Books and other publications worldwide. Today he will be discussing The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.

This book is based on an op-ed article that appeared in The New York Times shortly after the 2016 election. This piece argued that "the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined group." As to be expected, Professor Lilla was applauded by some readers for being so vocal, while denounced by others. His essay ignited a firestorm of controversy. With more than 1.5 million views, the piece was the number one ranked political opinion essay of 2016 that appeared in The New York Times.

We begin this new season at a tumultuous political moment. With the election behind us and a new president in the White House, the United States finds itself increasingly divided along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual identity. Countless demagogues stand ready to exploit those differences. Their purpose: to disunite and disrupt us. While there are many ways to view the world—ways to agree, ways to disagree—one of the many lessons of the 2016 presidential election is that using identity as an appeal for other people to vote for your side has left many Americans fighting one another rather than working together to build a better society, a better country.

While Professor Lilla focuses attention on the failure of American liberalism, one could argue that the criticism levied against the Democratic Party could be directed against political parties in general—that is, self-absorption and investing in narrow social movements, rather than focusing on the basic values and principles that we all share where the idea of ethics is central to thought and action. While divisions in our society are real, there is always an opportunity to achieve the common good. Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French diplomat who identified strengths in the American experiment, wrote in the first volume of Democracy in America that "the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."

The big question is how to proceed from here. How should we think about the future, about what we owe each other, our country, and the world?

To begin a new conversation, please join me in welcoming our guest, the very thoughtful Mark Lilla.

MARK LILLA: Thank you.

Well, you did such a good job of summarizing the book I think I'll just take questions. [Laughter]

Actually, I have been interviewed a lot about this book and about the original article. This is the first time I am presenting. This is my first time, so be gentle with me, if you would.

The book really has two booklets in it. It's a great book bargain. There is one book in there that is very partisan, and I write as a centrist liberal speaking to other liberals and progressives, and I don't presume that that includes you, and I want to make clear that I am not assuming that as all good-thinking people we share the same politics. But I want you to know that it is meant for a certain audience, meant to move a certain audience, though there are things that I think are of interest for everyone.

But that partisan argument, or that partisan booklet, rests upon a more detached and historical account of how we came to this pass in this country. By taking a little distance and speaking about the history, I think there are implications for what is going on in democracy around the world. Maybe in the question period we will be able to talk more about that.

There is, I think, a crisis of democratic citizenship in all advanced democracies right now and you see a degradation of the sense of what it is to be a citizen, and not only what one's rights are, but especially what one's duties are. Looking at the American case I think provides a window into this larger phenomenon.

Let me go over the partisan argument, which I first laid out in rough form in an article, which Joanne just mentioned, which I wrote in two afternoons and created this enormous stir—a little bit like Louisa May Alcott when visiting Abraham Lincoln, who said, "So you're the little woman who started this great war." [Editor's note: This quote actually refers to Harriet Beecher Stowe.]

The response was extraordinary, not only here in the States but also abroad. It got me to think that often you think that something you have written as an article would be a great book and it turns out to be a great article and not a great book. But I thought it was important to expand on this and especially respond to the outrage that the article caused, which has continued in the response to this book.

I wrote in response to the Trump election, but I wanted to argue that its significance was not just limited to the election itself and that the causes of not only the loss but the phenomenon of Trump himself needed to be searched much further back, that the election was about more than Hillary Clinton and about more than Mr. Comey, it was about more than the Russians, that the defeat of the Democratic Party and the retreat of liberalism in this country has been going on for 30 years, 30 to 40 years.

Just to throw some numbers at you, during the Obama years the Democratic Party lost between 900 and 1,000 seats in state legislatures in this country. At this moment Republicans control two-thirds of all state legislatures, they control two-thirds of all governorships, and they control 24 states outright. Democrats control seven. If Republicans win one or two more state legislatures, they could if they wanted to call a constitutional convention. That is important, and that message needs to be heard, that there are parts of the country where it is simply a no-go zone for Democrats and for liberalism.

No demographic changes are going to change that picture. It is a fantasy to think that, because we may soon become a majority-minority country, that somehow that means that this is going to be a liberal or Democratic country. The data shows that as people become better off they tend to become more conservative, as they get older as well, and especially as they do better economically. As you probably know, Donald Trump won about 30 percent of the Latino vote and Romney had won more. So there is no demographic fix for this.

Democrats/liberals need to understand how we lost our grip on the American imagination. Why is it that we are unable to project an image of the kind of country that we want to build together, a vision that would draw people together, where they would see themselves in the message, and fill them with hope about building something together? Well, there are several proximate reasons, I think, why the Democratic Party at this moment is unable to offer such a vision.

The first is that ever since 1972 and the nomination of George McGovern, we have been in a different universe in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party used to have its roots in the white working class and black voters, and the party itself, sort of the muscle of the party, were union officials and state and local officials who had automatic seats to Democratic conventions. With the reforms of 1972 that was changed. Two things became more important than building up that base and that connective tissue. One was movement politics and the other was presidential campaigns. So the Democratic Party now is driven mainly by people in the campaigns and people who are committed especially to particular movements.

Now, social movements have done a lot in this country. There was a period in our history, from the mid-1950s I would say up until about 1980, where the real action in American politics was in social movements—not only social movements with things like the environment and human rights, but also social movements for various identity groups. But ever since 1980 the ground has shifted and the rules of the game I think have shifted, and I will talk about that in a second.

But during that period movements tied to group identity became increasingly important. And in the past 20 years there has been a shift from group identity as a focus for building a democratic coalition in the way that Jesse Jackson talked about a rainbow coalition: the idea was that you would have people in different groups but they would come together for some sort of common purpose, with an understanding that the idea was to incorporate citizens of every group into the great Democratic "we."

But over the past 20 years or so the shift has even been intellectually—we have seen it in universities, but even out there in the social movements—a shift from group thinking about the group to thinking about personal identity, identity understood now not as some result of a history—for example, there is no such thing as race; rather, there is a history that has produced a distinction of races, and then around that things have grown. But something happened in our society more generally, where we became fascinated and fixated on our personal identities, an identity now understood as a little homunculus, a little person that lives inside of us, the ghost in the machine. So people will talk about their identities as if it is this little thing locked within—"My identity is not doing too well today; it has a cold" or "I am discovering other parts of my identity." That was a shift.

What is important about that—and many things were important—is that there was a shift from groups that are involved in politics to the care of the self and one's own identity and one's feeling about who one is that shows up not only in our politics but in our culture everywhere. I don't have to elaborate on that. You know that so well.

The third thing that happened is that as there was a shift from group to personal identity there also was a shift from focus on politics and winning elections to evangelism, that the rhetoric of identity in this country has become that of the great evangelical movements of the past few centuries. The fact that the word "woke" is being employed all the time is a dead giveaway. That comes from the Great Awakening. How do you get woke? You get woke by recognizing your sins, falling on your knees, confessing your sins, being taken to the River Jordan and being dipped into it, and finding a new life. That is a very American way of conceiving one's spiritual life, one's psychological life, this idea that you need a conversion and the kind of moral fanaticism that comes naturally to us.

One day a historian is going to have uncover how it happened that Europeans, for example, ever since the 18th century, have thought of Americans as pragmatic people, the people who just care about what works, when in fact we are the most fanatical, least practical people on Earth. We love nothing better than to join a moral cause, to denounce people, put scarlet letters on them, and pat ourselves on the back for our moral purity. We think of politics in moral terms, but we have become moralistic, and there is a difference between being moralistic and moral, just as there is a difference between having an obsession with washing your hands all the time and actually being clean.

This evangelical sort of fanaticism about identity that has been with us over the past decade for some reason since 2014 has just taken over our media and taken over much of our politics. Among the problems with that is that when you are on an evangelical crusade with a social movement the first thing that matters is purity, not victory, that keeping your apron clean, getting your position right, making sure everyone is speaking the same way and not using any words that ought not be used becomes more important than actually seizing power. The result has been that liberals and the Democratic Party have become incapable of protecting the very people they say they want to help in these groups.

At the moment women have a constitutional right to have an abortion, yet there are large parts of the country where the right to abortion is being curtailed, and there are places where you simply cannot get them and doctors take their lives into their own hands if they try to provide them. In state after state voting rights for African Americans are being chipped away, subtly and not so subtly, by gerrymandering and even jiggling around the hours that polls are allowed to be open, which makes it hard for people who work late to go and to vote. And then, there are cities that have passed legislation for gay rights and for dealing with transgender people and transgender children. But in red states, where the state government is Republican, those laws have been overturned.

So politics and the need to exercise power needs to be paramount in the minds of American liberals. At the moment it is not. It has become more important to speak truth to power than to seize power to defend the truth. It is that situation that frustrated me and got me to write the article and then the book.

At the end of the book I talk about some things we might do, or begin to do, lay out what it would mean to reorient ourselves. I suggest that we need to turn back and get back in touch with our basic principles as liberal Democrats, which I think are solidarity and equal protection under the law; appeal to citizens as citizens; and to help people in different groups see that the principles that we stand for address their problems. The problem of, for example, small towns, formerly manufacturing towns, that no longer have jobs. And families have their problems, we know. The cities are shuttered. Windows are broken. Out of Democratic solidarity we need to help our fellow citizens there, citizens helping citizens. Similarly, if a black motorist is being stopped all the time by the cops and sees those lights flashing in the rearview mirror, we need to protect that person, and we do it on the same principle, on the basis of solidarity.

So if we can convince people of the principles, then people who have different identities, have different problems, can see themselves reflected in that and in the Party, and hopefully we can build a Party and a base that is more cemented by this attachment to principle than to particular identities. And the Party needs to reach out to every state. You cannot have a two-coast strategy and expect to protect the people that you say you want to protect.

That is sort of a précis of the polemical argument. But it rests on a historical argument, and I will just lay that out very briefly.

I argue in the book that you can divide up the past century of American political history, going back to the 1930s, into two dispensations. I call them dispensations, which is a theological term. I call one the "Roosevelt dispensation" and the other the "Reagan dispensation."

The Roosevelt dispensation lasted from the New Deal in the 1930s until 1980. In this dispensation, for the first time in our history I think, there developed a modern ideology that was Democratic ideology. It was based on the notion that government can and should be active at the national level and at the local levels for the public good, that we were not a minimal state, and that the failure of Republicans to face the two major challenges of the time—fighting fascism abroad and fighting the Depression at home—opened up a new era when there was a new language for politics and a vision of what the American promise was.

The watchwords of this era were solidarity, opportunity, and public duty. The thinking was that there were people in this country who were not fully enfranchised as citizens because of their poverty, because of other disadvantages, and that people needed to be incorporated as citizens. What is interesting about political dispensations is when they happen they set the terms of political debate so that even the opposite party has to work within it.

So you recall that it was Richard Nixon who was the first to propose a guaranteed minimal income in this country and national health insurance. Why? Because the expectations of the public were such that these were things we cared about. Nixon wanted to steal the Democratic thunder and provide a Republican version of it. Similarly, during the Reagan dispensation that followed it was Bill Clinton who said "we are going to end welfare as we know it" and Barack Obama said that "government can't solve all our problems." So there is a dispensation that sets the terms of debate.

After the failures of the Roosevelt dispensation and all the things we know about—Vietnam, Watergate, and so on—Reagan is elected and to my mind a new dispensation began, and a different picture of what the country was: not a nation of citizens engaged in a common project to help each other through government, but rather a picture of the country as essentially an agglomeration of individuals, individuals who live in their families, engage in business, are members of churches. But there was no room in this picture for active citizenship as a way of people helping each other through government action.

So there was an image of a new "city on a hill" that Reagan spoke about. But it was not a political city. The argument was that American society flourishes best when people are left to their own devices and when the economy is allowed to grow and government no longer is the problem. You will recall that Reagan said over and over again that "government is not the solution; government is the problem"—not bad government, not tyrannical government, not particular programs, but government itself. This radical anti-political message became the basis of the Republican Party and it became increasingly radical over the years in ways that Reagan, I think, would not have recognized.

You can see the essence of it—you know, every Jesus has his own Saint Paul. Reagan's Saint Paul, I think, someone who radicalizes the doctrine, is Grover Norquist, who said about 10 years ago, "My ideal citizen is the self-employed, home-schooling, IRA-owning guy with a concealed-carry permit because that person doesn't need the goddamned government for anything." That's some picture of what it is to be an American, and it couldn't be more different from the picture that was aspirationally put forward in the Roosevelt dispensation.

What happened to liberalism during the Reagan dispensation? You might have thought that in the face of a challenge to political action as such as legitimate, that liberals might have provided a political vision of the country to contrast with the anti-political one in the Reagan years, that there would have been an effort to learn from past mistakes, adapt the message to the kind of country we are, and reassert the importance of common political action and filling people with hope and ambition to create something together. Instead, the Democratic Party and American liberals fell into the rhetoric—and the divisive rhetoric—of identity politics: first, as I said, focusing on groups and later on the idea of this unique self. So politics in the Reagan dispensation increasingly, and especially in recent years, has become about self-expression, politics as self-expression rather than persuasion or building something together.

This identity ideology governs much of our educational system. If anyone becomes a liberal citizen, that person becomes it increasingly in college, because we are a party of educated elites along with certain minorities and public employees.

So there was an abdication on the liberal side, an abdication from the struggle for the American political imagination. As a society, as we have become more obsessed with our personal identities, the notion of identity has even changed. I talk about it in the book as the "Facebook model of identity." It is not that history has determined that I am considered black or white or Asian or a woman or gay, but rather the self is this very precious mix of all these things. I get to decide what my identity is. So I can Like and Unlike things on my Facebook page and say "Well, today I see myself as bisexual and I am focusing on my ethnic background." But then I might get more interested in other sorts of identities.

I was interviewed by a very interesting and intelligent woman who does an LGBT podcast in San Francisco. Just before she interviewed me, she had a little segment at the beginning. She said, "You know, there's so much going on now"—this was after Charlottesville and all the rest—"I am learning that I have more and more facets to my identity, and that is what is getting me involved in all these issues"—as if this identity is this protean thing and that the only way you get engaged with politics is through your identity.

So the conception of politics is that it is an extension of the self, rather than an overcoming of the self in order to join in a common enterprise. Students are encouraged to be increasingly self-absorbed, petulant, and this has produced the campus follies that are too familiar to you. As this has happened, as people across the country who are not part of our blessed elite look at us, they see us as a detached elite contemptuous of the rest of the country, self-absorbed, and not sharing any values with them.

So where are we now? Well, where we are, I think, after these two periods, after this past 30 years, is that we have just seen the death of two ideologies that were about the unmaking of citizens: On the right, an ideology that denied the existence of a common good, that pictured the country as a campsite where you just pull in your RV and you plug into the electric and the water and get the Wi-Fi password, and then you head off on the road. That is the kind of country we are. So you have a denial of citizenship there. And then you have an ideology that tells young people that you are not equal citizens trying to do something together, but rather essentially you are individuals with unique identities, and to the extent that you get involved in politics it has to be an expression of that.

In 2016 we saw that both of these ideologies are exhausted and have been rejected. I do see the election of Donald Trump as the end of the Reagan dispensation. Trump is not to the right of Reagan, he is not to the left of Reagan; he didn't come from right or left, he came from below. [Laughter] I mean this in many senses. But he came from below, and also in the populist sense of coming up. The opportunity was there because neither party and neither ideological camp was able to offer a vision of what we can do together as a country. We are officially now a visionless society.

Now for the really bad news. We are not alone. There is now, I think, a crisis of democratic citizenship in all advanced democracies. Different reasons for that in different places, but there are causes there that are shared and conditions that can be found in democratic countries around the world.

These two individualistic ideologies of the right here (Reaganism) and the left (identity individualism) actually reflect something about our social reality. In fact, we are more independent than we were back in the 1930s or the 1940s or 1950s. We are more independent because of technology; because of economics; because of changes in society; changes in the families, the decline of the authority of parents; technology that allows us to choose what our sexuality is going to be, even our sexual organs; and more individualistic ideologically.

On top of that, we live in a period which a sociologist once called "liquid modernity," that conditions in society are changing more rapidly than social structures that help us make sense of the changes, economic change and technological change in particular. So people feel lost, they don't know how they connect to each other, and we are finding in country after country that we are democracies with fewer and fewer democratic citizens. That I think is at the bottom of a lot of instability in liberal democracies today, and certainly at the bottom of this rise of populism which is in certain respects, I think, a kind of understandable surge of a desire to belong and to be something as a nation.

So what is to be done? That is a very American question. It is very hard to write a book in this country because you have to finish with a five-point plan that is going to make everything right, you tie it with a bow, and you put it under the Christmas tree. If you don't do that, it's like with our movies: both the moviegoer and the reader are very unhappy. I would have liked to end the book without the last chapter, but I'm not allowed to do that. Nonetheless, there are things that we can start to think about.

One is that, no matter how atomized we become as a society, the fact is there is always a common good; there are problems that are common to us—the environment, international relations obviously, health, education, the economy. So we do have common problems. What we lack is a way of articulating that and articulating a way in which we can meet them together in a way that is consistent with the fact that we live in a more atomized society, without denying that and having a romantic notion of going back to the New Deal. That is the challenge, to articulate this vision, because the problem with politics is that you go into it with the country you have, not the country you might wish for.

Thank you.

Questions

QUESTION: Allen Young.

Isn't part of the problem the fact that the politicians, the people who run the government, do not have the kind of vision that you are talking about? They are focusing on themselves and how they can raise money. So when you ask people to think about our common needs that can be dealt with through the government, I am suggesting we tie ourselves into the politicians who do not have that kind of common vision that you are talking about.

MARK LILLA: Yes. Well, I'm not sure there was ever much of a golden age in which politicians were not self-interested. That seems to be a constant in human affairs. Just read any book of Roman history. And certainly throughout our history politicians have been self-interested, right?

However, when you have an ideology that people find attractive, or a vision that you can offer the country that will get people to vote for you, then politicians will glom onto it because it will help them get elected. So the thing to be explained is not why we have politicians who are self-interested—they always are—but why there isn't being articulated on either side of the ideological divide a vision of what we can do together, that pictures us not just as an agglomeration of elementary particles zipping around in space, but as a country?

The question is not that we should be disappointed with our political leaders for that on top of everything else, but rather to ask ourselves what is missing, and that requires intellectual labor and it requires certainly education.

QUESTION: Peter Russell. Thank you.

As I listened to you, I wonder if there are other mediating institutions other than political parties that we should look to where we could expect to find this kind of common purpose. I will just throw out two as part of the question. One is community colleges, distinct from some parts of higher education. The second is the military, and should we have a universal draft?

MARK LILLA: I guess we use the words "mediating institutions" differently. I was thinking more of churches, community groups, and so on. You will recall that George Bush was elected on the basis of what he called the "compassionate conservative," which is kind of a civic version of Republicanism in which he was saying there are certain things that we need to provide, but we need to do it in a Republican way, and we can do that by engaging all these mediating institutions, these local things that exist in civil society; and not only use them to give us information but also to deliver services.

That rather progressive picture of what the Republican Party was and could do died on 9/11. There are Republicans now who want to focus right on this, the so-called Reformicons in Washington. Very interesting, smart, and committed people who want to develop that. They are also interested in things like community colleges and doing things at the local level, because half of our students go to community colleges. It's not just the elite institutions.

The military, on the other hand, is an institution that is a political institution and a national institution, and not I would say a mediating institution in the way I usually use the term. What is fascinating is that it is not the children of educated liberal Democrats who go serve in the military. It is the children of Reaganite Republicans who go do it. So go figure that out.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Russell]: That's why i suggested universal draft, "mediating" in the sense of bringing people together.

MARK LILLA: In principle, I have always been for not only military service but national service of some sort. The problem is we are no longer that society, and we are simply too individualistic. Our expectations are that we are to be left alone, that we need to develop our careers and that you have to start early. You have to deal with that. So one needs to take small steps to engage people in a civic way because I don't think trying to hit a home run like that, so to speak, would happen. So one has to find small ways to appeal to young people in particular.

For example, Teach for America. What liberal parents do is they don't send their kids to the military; they send them to things like Teach for America, which is a kind of civic service. Even to talk about different ways in which you can serve, that you are not just asking what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country, there are small ways to start doing that.

But you have to begin by talking about us as a country of citizens and not just people with very special selves. That begins in our educational institutions. That's why it is crucial and that's why I focus so much on them in the book.

QUESTION: Helena Finn.

Let's leave the climate debate aside. But don't you think that the devastation wrought by these ferocious hurricanes and the forest fires in the Northwest would lead people to understand that we are a country in which all of us are responsible for what happens? That is a counterpoint to this extreme individualism which you describe so accurately.

MARK LILLA: You would think, right? I mean I was half tempted after the Houston hurricane to write a piece for The Onion, which is the one sane publication in our country, and the most realistic, the least farcical, simply saying that it is time to get the government off the back of the people in Houston, that now is the time to do it. You don't want any government interference in there getting in the way of all the floodwaters and things like that, right? You would think. The human capacity for cognitive dissonance is extraordinary, right? But at a certain point it has to give, you would think, right?

For example, no one seemed to notice that in fact Donald Trump was talking a lot on the campaign trail about what government needed to do for people. "Government needs to protect you in your job as a worker; we need to stand behind our workers." But when he said that at the Republican debates, everyone else was just looking at their shoes, because there was no way of talking about that in the Reagan dispensation, right? He even said that "We need to get rid of Obamacare, but we still need to provide something in these little ways." People know this, right?

That is why the one thing that makes me a little hopeful is that there is a vacuum there right now and there are crises that we face that are common. It seems to me that whichever party, whichever ideological formation, manages to develop an articulation of how we can do that together as citizens, that the near future will belong to them.

QUESTION: Hi. I'm Krishen Mehta.

Mr. Trump is going to address the United Nations tomorrow, and for the first time in recent history I am not looking forward to it. It is not because I have Democratic sympathies, but because I am an immigrant American and I feel that the vision of the American promise has been violated not just in this country but abroad.

If we assume that this is not a passing phase, what can people of our ideological sympathies do constructively to ensure that that vision is restored to the kind that we all cherish and have appreciated of what Americanism is all about?

MARK LILLA: Yes. Well, as I said, I think it has to begin in the schools, and especially in the universities. That is why, as I say, I focus on that in the book, and I am about to go on a college tour and go into the belly of the beast.

What happened is that the ideological climate in our universities is actually a product of a particular moment in our history that has passed. From the late 1950s up through the 1970s movement politics is where it was at, and then the Republicans ended up seizing control of our political institutions by focusing on electoral politics and not on movement politics. But this idea of movement politics and people being separated into groups and individuals has been preserved as if in amber in our colleges and universities. Children, young people, are socialized in this, even though the reality they are trying to reshape is being determined by electoral politics and not by these things.

So you have essentially a very conservative faculty class in our universities and colleges, conservative in the sense that they are still doing the same thing they were doing in 1968. As you know, one definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing and expect different results. So there is something geriatric about the ideology in our colleges and universities, and that is why it is important to confront that and to confront the educators who are there and try to convince them that they are unmaking citizens, they are not preparing their students for actually changing things politically, and to try to reach the students themselves. I see nowhere else to begin.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

Let's go back to electoral politics. I'm glad you mentioned that in your last comment because it is a good opening for this question.

If you talk about the dispensation years, the New Deal and Reagan and so on, arguably—maybe not even arguably—a great many more congressional districts were competitive, so that in a sense the country was up for grabs from time to time in terms of differing kinds of appeal. That is not really the case today. I think about 90 percent of the constituencies are where the worst fear a Republican or a Democrat can have is to be challenged by someone with more extreme views.

Second, the disproportionality of the Electoral College, where I think every member has probably failed his or her SAT scores—but anyway, that's another issue.

The point being that we have had two of the last four elections, or something like that, where the winner of the popular vote has not won the presidency. You go back to the 1880s, the post-Reconstruction years in the United States, and you get a similar situation. Perhaps there is an answer there.

But the bottom line is I am not sure that it makes that much difference when we have this debate because each particular representative and each constituent has their own fish to fry and they are not involved in these kinds of discussions.

MARK LILLA: No, no, no. A very good point.

Look, it took us 35 years to get where we are right now, and it will take just as long to get back. The only thing you can do is to try to change hearts and minds and try to get out there and argue and convince people. You do not do that by hectoring them. You reach out to people by trying to find common ground.

People who are engaged in identity politics, their idea of what it is to do electoral politics is to knock on the door and say, "We have an election coming up. I'm from the Democratic Party. I'd love to talk to you. But first I need to give you a ticket for your racism, I need to give you a ticket for your privilege, and I need to give you a ticket for your homophobia. Hope to see you on Tuesday." [Laughter]

Given what has been called "the big sort"—that is, that people are more and more separated into ideological camps—gerrymandering has also made for single-party districts. But the biggest thing is that people are moving to parts of the country where there are just people who share their views. In fact, there is a website somebody just sent me a link to. There is a conservative real estate company in Texas that will help you relocate from a liberal part of the country and move to Texas so you can bring up your family properly. People are making money off of the big sort.

But that requires a very, very big change. There is no easy fix for that. It is not just political; it's ideological, it's intellectual. It means starting at the bottom and re-explaining to people what we are as a country.

That was a depressing question. But you are absolutely right.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

You mentioned that there are other countries in the world. Would you like to briefly compare what is going on in England and France and Germany and so forth? Do you see similar trends?

MARK LILLA: Yes, I do. And I would say Eastern Europe is even a better laboratory for this, and let me start with Eastern Europe.

What happened after 1989 is that the countries of Eastern Europe got democratic institutions but without democratic citizens. You produce citizens over generations. Citizens are made, they are not born. Without a deep sense of what it requires to be a citizen, when the winds of problems flow in, people tend to hit the reset button and go back to the kind of political thinking they had earlier. It is not so long ago—1989—and so the rise of populism there has a lot to do with the fact that citizens were never made. Add to that the fact that with the Internet, with a consumer society, that people in Eastern Europe as well are living daily lives much like our own and in situations that do not bring them together into common purposes in the way that societies used to before this new individualism that came along with our new economic and technological world.

In France, Germany, and England, I think the issue there is that there is a mismatch between the party structures and the cleavages in society. You have a healthy party system normally when it is clear what one party stands for and it represents one part of society and the other one not. But the parties that exist in the countries you just mentioned are the legacy of a century and a half, or from 1945, of parties the distinctions between which no longer represent the distinctions or cleavages in the society.

So you have these legacy parties that are full of elites who talk to each other but they do not have a basis in the rest of society, and at the same time you have a more individualistic society. You don't have unions that bring people together; you don't have a labor movement. Therefore, for instance, in the northeast of France people went from voting for the Communist Party to voting for the National Front because what they think they are experiencing is no longer represented in these parties. The same is true in Britain. That's how you get Brexit.

Germany is an interesting case because you have the problem with the legacy parties in the Western part and in the Eastern part you have the problem that you have in Eastern Europe, which is that you never made citizens.

So there is a crisis of citizenship, an ideological crisis, where it is very hard to articulate what we share and what makes us a nation in ways that address the real cleavages that are there in society.

QUESTION: Thank you. Andrew Medvedev.

Professor, thanks for the comment on the national service. It did make me appreciate how much of a home run this would be.

In absence of that, do you think engagement with organized religion and leveraging their culture of service is something that the secular liberal would have to do? If you can't hit a home run, hit a single, but at least there are guys on base.

MARK LILLA: Right. Well, that in fact was the original Reagan version. The enlightened part of the Republican intellectual establishment's notion was: "Look, we are not going to just get rid of everything in the welfare state, but rather we are going to engage all of these groups, and moral education and civic education will take place in the home and in our churches. That is where the moral fiber of a country is developed, not through federal dictates."

What they did not count on was the change in American religion, that in fact American religion has been affected by the same individualism and self-centeredness that is affecting every other aspect of our society. The success gospel that is being preached in the Protestant churches is all about how God's grace to you is manifested in your success out in the world. Suddenly the Bible is not about charity. People tithe to their churches, but they don't want to pay taxes, which is just a democratic tithe.

People no longer can go to the same churches. Fewer and fewer go to old institutionalized churches. They go to newer ones that come and go. And they engage in what is called grazing: One Sunday they feel like they want to hear the message at one church and the next weekend they feel like maybe they would like to go to another one. People go to multiple churches where they are hearing that kind of paper-thin, psychological boosterism and success gospel.

After you watch Fareed Zakaria on CNN on Sunday, stick around for an hour and watch Joel Osteen. If you do not know who Joel Osteen is, that is our problem. He is the most important TV evangelist in America. If you have not watched him, just as if you are not watching Fox News at least once a week, you cannot talk about this country. You need to see these things and be in touch with them.

So the Bible has changed. Charity, like tipping, is now being left to the discretion of the consumer. That's why we can't rely on them either.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you for really beginning this conversation. It was wonderful.

MARK LILLA: Thank you for having me.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less