Educated men of a certain age often seem to look at college kids with more resentment than is necessary. They criticize the young for not being more like we were (“perfect in every way,” as the song goes). Decades ago, philosopher Allan Bloom complained about young people gyrating to music that appealed only to their bodies without elevating their souls. Just a few years back, former Yale University professor William Deresiewicz turned op-eds into a book marketing his disdain for the conformity of undergrads under the label “excellent sheep.”
And now Columbia University professor Mark Lilla has followed suit, expanding into a new book his much shared op-ed blaming boutique liberals for the election of Donald Trump. In that expanded version, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (HarperCollins), campus politics are ridiculed as “Reaganism for lefties.” Most college towns, he writes, “have become meccas of a new consumerist culture for the highly educated, surrounded by techie office parks and increasingly expensive homes.” Lilla wants readers to be by turns annoyed and amused by the irony of leftist campuses breeding bourgeois consumerism, and he probably has a couple of colleges and universities in mind. He doesn’t name any.
The book stirs the pot among self-styled progressives who believe that the celebration of difference is the key to creating a more just society. Lilla argues that the scandalous ascent of Trump was only made possible by the “abdication” (a word he likes a lot) of liberals, particularly those who emphasize identity at the expense of solidarity. Unfortunately, Lilla says very little about the white identity politics activated by Trump’s campaign. I found no analysis of those voters who had supported Obama but switched their allegiance to a man who promised to restore their superior status as white Americans. I also didn’t find anything of substance on how white citizens who felt threatened by a loss of status and economic potential were energized by Trump’s brand of identity politics. Claiming that we are in a postvision America, Lilla devotes little to no effort to examining the vision that led to the Trump victory ― nor does he say much about the vision that inspired Obama’s two successful presidential campaigns. Instead, Lilla asserts (echoing Walt Kelly’s Pogo character) that “the only adversary left is ourselves” and condemns campus radicals for abdicating their responsibility to go beyond movement politics and build successful electoral coalitions.
Can it be that Lilla chooses to focus on college campuses because he has spent most of life working at them? No, he explains, they are so important politically because they educate the professional classes from which future liberals will be drawn. “Liberalism’s prospects,” he writes, “will depend in no small measure on what happens in our institutions of higher education.” The most important things Lilla has to say concern the kind of political education we are giving our students today and the kind we should be developing ― if there is to be a healthier American democracy.
Lilla convincingly shows that under the guise of increased attention to identity, there has been a noxious depoliticization among people who consider themselves progressives. Argument through testimony and confession proceeds by making “the winner... whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. Academic trends encouraging students to get in touch with their identities, Lilla writes, “give an intellectual patina to the radical individualism that virtually everything else in our society encourages.” Skepticism about the capacity of government to provide authentic social justice leads to a sanctimonious “plague on all their houses” attitude. That may earn one points as a purist radical on campus, but it leaves the fields of local and state politics open to others with very different values, allowing them to seize power for their own ends. “Evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend truth.”
Lilla wants colleges and universities to do a much better job of educating students to understand the mechanisms of power and how to engage in electoral politics so as to exercise that power more equitably. Fair enough. Sophisticated skepticism, no matter how intersectional, should not just be an excuse for giving up on the practices of electoral politics.
Recalling the “Roosevelt dispensation,” Lilla also longs for new images of solidarity to replace what he thinks of as an unhealthy emphasis on difference. And here’s the rub. I, too, believe that we need to weave together disparate strands of potentially progressive coalitions. But those in higher education who have developed academic fields emphasizing particular groups marginalized by mainstream scholarship have done so because past visions of solidarity have made these groups invisible. Lilla must be aware that the old solidarity came at the expense of all too many, and that thanks to the movement politics he derides, our politics now has the potential to be more inclusive. One can hope, despite the occasional outbursts of intolerance, that students and professors engaged in the study of identity and difference will be more prepared to reject coalition building that replicates the old scapegoating and erasures.
It is a core responsibility of liberal education to contribute to the political capacity of our citizens, and the challenges of this endeavor must not be reduced to the twin parodies of fragile undergraduates or politically correct student warriors. Political education at colleges and universities should not be indoctrination into any faculty member’s particular policy preference nor into a professor’s hip indifference to the political realm. Political education should inspire civic participation in ways that allow students to connect with people who share their views and to engage with those who don’t. That’s why intellectual diversity is so important on campus: to give students opportunities for debate and not just sharing. Through engagement with difference ― including intellectual difference ― students will find their own views tested, and their ability to effect change will grow as they learn to work with people with varied vulnerabilities and aspirations.
Even if Lilla sometimes caricatures the social justice warriors he says he wants to recruit for a new liberal solidarity, he has raised crucial questions for activists who disdain efforts to connect with people who don’t share their views. But the great issue today facing the once and future liberal is not how to overcome identity politics. The great issue for liberals and conservatives alike is how to overcome inequality. It’s not today’s campus activists who make coalition building so difficult; for decades, economic inequality has been destroying possibilities for solidarity, which means destroying possibilities for democracy.
Lilla is right that we need an “inspiring, optimistic vision” for America, but that will be only shallow political branding if we don’t find ways to deal with economic inequality while acknowledging our differences. Finding such ways amounts to insisting that as a polity we “live up to our principles” ― that we try to, in James Baldwin’s oft-quoted words, “achieve our country.” Without overcoming inequality, America will drift farther and farther from this task, and we will continue to propagate poverty, addiction, resentment and the closing down of hope. Education, like democracy, depends on hope ― on a belief that we can find ways to improve our lives in common. Cultivating that belief and making it real are momentous tasks for colleges and universities today.
Cross-posted with Inside Higher Ed.
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and author, most recently, of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.