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Man Who Knows Nothing About American Political History Is Here to Lecture You About American Politics


Mark Lilla wrote a very bad op-ed that got a lot of attention. It has now been turned into a quickie book, which Lilla is now defending in interviews. The results are…astounding:

Mark Lilla: I would really date the break around 1980. From the New Deal up until 1980, you can think of that as one era of American politics and American liberal politics. The sort of governing ideas were solidarity, equal protection under the law, public duty, and there was a sense of the country pulling together ever since the Depression and Second World War to take care of each other.

Wow. Just wow. The Golden Age of American politics, when the governing ideas were “solidarity” and “equal protection of the law” was…a period in which segregationists had a de facto veto over national policy and African-Americans were largely excluded from critical federal benefits? Or is really only talking about 1964-1980, in which…the fight over civil rights was central to Democratic politics, but this isn’t “identity politics” because…look, Bobby Kennedy!

This argument is like incoherence and ignorance married and had a really ugly baby.

Chotinier pushes back effectively, producing some gibberish:

You’re talking about a period between, let’s say, 1932 and 1980, 48 years, that you feel that there was more of a common purpose, and we were more united, so in your argument—

Even if we weren’t united, the idea was to be united. The idea was that we stick together and we stand up for each other’s rights and there’s a national purpose to doing this.

I see. The “idea” was that would be united, and really, what’s some state-winked-at terrorism and systematic defiance of federal court orders between friends? Also, when I think of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, “we’re all in this together” is exactly what comes to mind.

It gets worse.

But in the majority of that period, we had segregation in this country, for example.

I’m not talking about the reality on the ground. I’m talking about the way we thought about the reality on the ground. The reason we fought in the civil rights movement isn’t because of difference. We fought for equal rights because every citizen, by virtue of being a citizen, deserves to have those rights. And so the language we employed on the left was that of equal citizenship and solidarity. When you lose that language, then you no longer have a weapon. The word we is the most important word in the Democratic lexicon. If you cannot appeal to that, you cannot rally people.

“I’m not talking about reality on the ground.” Oh. And what’s the empirical basis for the argument that modern civil rights discourse eschews language of “equal citizenship,” anyway?

I also like the last sentence. Yes, if only the Democratic presidential nominee had run on a slogan like “Stronger Together,” she woulda won. Sadly, we’ll never know. Also, when prominent Democratic leaders make constant calls for unity, this doesn’t matter because some campus activist somewhere.

What about the mass resistance to Trump?

Just an example that you know what happened at the beginning of the organizing of the Women’s March. After Trump’s election, it was a very simple idea: This woman in Hawaii posted something on social media saying, “We should just all go to Washington, and we ought to demonstrate against this president who has spoken about women the way he has, has acted the way he has, and to make our voices heard.” What could be simpler to rally people around the country? And immediately what happened is she was criticized because she hadn’t created a committee that was multicultural, everyone had to feel included, and the thing really ground to a halt.

Wait, but it happened, it was one of the biggest marches of the modern era and broadly considered a giant success.

Oh well, it was with us. But for instance, one feminist group that’s also religious and pro-life was originally accepted into the coalition, and when it was discovered that they were there by other groups, they were disinvited. This happens in public. I mean this was on Fox News every night.

So, there was a an anti-Trump march that was a massive success, despite some internal discussion that in Lilla’s imagination “ground it to a halt.” Only not really, because a group opposed to reproductive rights was not invited to a women’s march. Which offended Fox News, which otherwise would have been very supportive. Indeed, I’d say whether Fox News covers it positively should be the metric by which the effectiveness of all liberal politics should be measured. This is all deeply silly.

Does Lilla’s book whine about how Saint Bob Casey was not permitted to denounce reproductive rights at the Democratic National Convention? It certainly should!

There’s a lot more verbiage here, and essentially Lille’s argument is the centrist version of the “Smug Style in American politics.” Some random activists on elite campuses do things that annoy him, and he’s constructed a whole causal explanation out of it that makes less than no sense. Again, Chotinier pushes back on this very effectively, and Lilla has no good answer:

We have to get outside of our too-closed bubble. We need to be able to go to places where the Wi-Fi sucks, where you don’t want to take a picture of your dinner, where you’ll be sitting with people who are giving thanks to God for that dinner, and they’re not worried about whether spaghetti and meatballs is cultural appropriation.

You’re acting a little bit as if local Democratic candidates are telling voters that eating meatballs is cultural appropriation. Or Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi is telling people that they shouldn’t eat Italian food because that’s offensive. I’m sure there are stupid people online who have some stupid comment about meatballs—I have no doubt that you could find that. I have no doubt on college campuses, where you now spend more of your time than I do, that there’s all kinds of silliness going on all the time. I understand how that’s broadcast on right-wing media. But who’s sending the message that the Democratic Party cares about cultural appropriation of meatballs or that local candidates or candidates for governor do?

Again, that’s not my point. Certainly, this is fodder for Fox News, and it’s not sufficient to say they’ll always find something. Look, I want them searching the garbage cans for something, not feeding them it on a plate. What I’m saying is that the focus on identity and groups has prevented Democrats and liberals and progressive together from thinking. It’s a mentality question, thinking about the need to develop a message. We have an allergy to the word we.

Again, nothing about this makes any sense. First, the idea that you can impose complete message discipline on everyone on the left of the political spectrum is absurd. There will always be people who do things that annoy Mark Lilla, and there will always be random people Fox News can gin up outrage about, and none of this provides either a useful explanation for political outcomes or has any value going forward. And, as noted, this alleged allergy to the word “we” is completely fictitious.

And now, the punchline:

The one thing I maybe disagree with your book about the most was that bigger question of why all these former Democratic states are now Republican states. It seems to me that the overwhelming answer to that question is race, which is not something you talk particularly about in the book. Do you not see what’s happened racially post the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in this country as being the primary driver of the fact that a majority of states now are Republican states, which was not the case 50, 60 years ago?

I certainly do not.

You don’t think race is the central reason?

The central reason? Not at all, not at all. Just go out there. It’s not the central reason.

Wait, go out there?

Yeah go out there. Let me tell you, I grew up in Macomb County, Michigan, which is a blue-collar county right at the border of Detroit. It’s known as the home of the Reagan Democrats and studied to death. In the early ’60s, it was the most liberal suburban county in the United States. By 1972, it had gone for Nixon, and it never looked back. Now, where I grew up it was blue-collar and blue-collar ethnic, and there was a lot of racism, no doubt about that.

Race is not the major reason the South stopped voting for conersvative Democrats and started to vote for conservative Republicans? Which you’ll know if you “get out there” to…suburban Detroit? Are you shitting me?

This is just embarrassing, ahistorical nonsense from soup to nuts, and I can’t believe how many people are taking it seriously.

…Beverley Gage has a really good review of the book.

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