Most leftist academics are too busy “resisting” Trump and demanding still more genuflections to the gods of diversity to think about what they have wrought. One who is different is Mark Lilla, professor of the humanities at Columbia.
In his August 12 Wall Street Journal article, “The Liberal Crack-Up” Professor Lilla dares to point out that identity politics, with its fixation on groups and grievances, has had terrible consequences – for the Left. He laments that this fixation has caused most Americans to see Progressives (as he calls himself) as “aloof, elitist, out of touch.”
As a consequence, Progressives have been losing more and more of the American electorate. Voters who, Lilla believes, ought to be in favor of his ideals have been lured away by conservatives. “Ronald Reagan,” he writes, “almost single-handedly destroyed the New Deal vision of America that used to guide us. Franklin Roosevelt had pictured a place where citizens were joined in a collective enterprise to build a strong nation that protects each other. The watchwords of that enterprise were solidarity, opportunity, and public duty.”
That kind of nostalgic, “Golden Age of FDR” writing is not just naïve, but historically inaccurate. Powerful groups used government coercion to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of society every bit as much as they do today. The cartelization of the economy that FDR promoted under the “Blue Eagle” and the aggrandizement of labor unions under the Wagner Act did not lead to a sense of public duty. Instead what we got were anti-competitive groups using government power to facilitate their greed.
To a considerable extent, that Progressive “accomplishment” has been undone by politicians like Reagan and organizations like the National Right to Work Committee and the Institute for Justice. The American economy today would be as stagnant and corrupt as Greece had it not been for their hard work in removing the shackles on economic freedom that Progressivism necessarily imposes. Lilla’s so-called liberals fought bitterly against economic liberalization every step of the way.
Nevertheless, Lilla gets something absolutely right – the harmful impact of leftism on our colleges and universities. He writes, “Conservatives complain loudest about today’s campus follies, but it is really liberals who should be angry. The big story is not that leftist professors successfully turn millions of young people into dangerous radicals every year. It is that they have gotten students so obsessed with their personal identities that, by the time they graduate, they have much less interest in, and even less engagement with, the wider world outside their heads.”
The trouble with the obsession over group identity is that it prevents students from learning how to think and how to deal with controversy. “Classroom conversations that might once have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B,” Lilla writes. He seems to have grasped exactly the same point as Professor Michael Munger (who is not a progressive, but a libertarian) who argues that college really shortchanges liberal students, who are taught that it’s sufficient merely to declare that ideas offend them rather than learning how to argue against them.
If it were possible at this point for the Left to jettison the divisive, and to most ordinary Americans, off-putting, fixation on identity – which it can’t because too many jobs for professors in various “Studies” programs as well as Chief Diversity officers depend on it – that might help the Left woo back some voters who abandoned “liberalism.” At the same time, however, that move would loosen the hold that the Left has on the millions of people who have been indoctrinated to believe that only leftist politicians care about their groups.
In any case, Lilla is looking in vain for a “unifying vision for progressives.” The only unifying vision for humanity is freedom under the rule of law – the vision of the American Founding. Progressivism’s demand for big government to rule over us rejects that vision and inevitably leads to vicious battles among political factions.