What is identity politics? Is it, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, a part of society you don’t like that’s fighting for its interests as fiercely as yours does? Or is it, as Mark Lilla puts it in The Once and Future Liberal, ‘a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition’? The book belongs to the genre of responses to Donald Trump’s election in which liberal American academics turn their rage on their own intellectual-political class. Lilla argues that the pursuit of identity politics by liberal graduates, brainwashed by their teachers into a self-centred world-view that filters all issues through their own bespoke set of oppressions, has crippled the Democrats, distracting them from the struggle for institutional power at county, state and congressional level. For Lilla, the Democrats’ failure to win elections isn’t a consequence of bad candidates, or fake news, or Russia, or the Democratic establishment’s chumminess with the billionaire class, or people thinking too many immigrants are coming in and too many jobs are going out. The reason is that liberals haven’t established an ‘imaginative, hopeful vision’ of citizenship all Americans can believe in. Instead they have scattered, spending themselves in the hermetic purity of causes.
Lilla portrays America’s colleges (he is professor of humanities at Columbia University) as dark, suspicious places where debate has been smothered by political correctness and use of the pronoun ‘we’ is anathematised. The great movements for justice in America’s past, in civil rights and gay rights and feminism, he says, worked through political institutions to right wrongs. They sought equality in citizenship. Those who joined them wanted to be part of things, to have the same opportunities and freedoms as straight white men. But during the 1970s and 1980s, encouraged by left-wing professors who were inspired, in turn, by French thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida, a new politics disseminated from university campuses that rejected such binding concepts as citizenship and duty. It emphasised the special status individuals could acquire by virtue of their claim to a particular identity, whether related to gender, or sexual orientation, or ethnicity, or body type, or disability, or chronic medical condition:
What’s extraordinary – and appalling – about the past four decades of our history is that our politics have been dominated by two ideologies that encourage and even celebrate the unmaking of citizens. On the right, an ideology that questions the existence of a common good and denies our obligation to help fellow citizens, through government action if necessary. On the left, an ideology institutionalised in colleges and universities that fetishises our individual and group attachments, applauds self-absorption, and casts a shadow of suspicion over any invocation of a universal democratic we.*
It is the solipsism of liberal identity politics, according to Lilla, that is responsible for the loss of a generation of young liberal activists. Instead of getting out among the people with an inspiring message about advancing together, caring for each other as citizens with common goals, young left-wing graduates seek self-validation in movements that emphasise, through a claim of oppression, the inherited differences that set them apart. For them the unit of political activism is the romantic self; its fullest expression, the urban demonstration in support of a particular cause, as big and boisterous as possible. They are romantics, Lilla says, and not in a good way. ‘We need no more marchers. We need more mayors.’ He calls the Black Lives Matter movement, set up to challenge police brutality against black people, ‘a textbook example of how not to build solidarity’, and, using a term from an article by Tom Wolfe from 1970 about blacks who exploited white guilt to get municipal handouts, accuses the movement of using ‘Mau-Mau tactics to put down dissent’.
It’s true that the Democrats, to put it mildly, have a grass roots problem. Long before Trump became president and the Republicans cemented control of both Houses of Congress, the GOP was tightening its grip on power at the state level. Each American state has a mini-congress and head of state of its own, the governor. Out of 99 state legislative chambers (Nebraska, uniquely, has a unicameral legislature) the Democrats now control only 32; only 16 of the 50 governors are Democrats. During Obama’s two terms in office, Democrats at state level suffered a net loss of almost a thousand seats. While the progressives were out occupying Wall Street, it seems, the Republicans were occupying the country.
There’s a large assumption at the heart of Lilla’s case. He presents it as one argument that liberals’ obsession with identity politics prevents them making: a universally appealing case for a civic, communitarian America. In fact, he’s making two arguments: first, that liberals have such an obsession; and, second, that it is identity politics which is to blame for liberal no-shows in the battle for the hinterland. The assumption being that if liberal activists spent less time on movement politics, protests and single-issue campaigns in the coastal cities, they’d have more time to swarm over small-town Illinois, doorstepping swing voters to chat about the Democratic state senatorial candidate’s exciting tax plans. That might happen. But it is just as likely that if energised young liberals, the passionate romantic idealists Lilla regards with such hostility, were discouraged from ‘identity politics’, they would drop out of politics altogether; that instead of turning a diverse, chaotic, squabbling host of overlapping campaigners into a disciplined army of moderate civic foot soldiers, you would extinguish the very force that keeps the Democrats going.
‘If you want to win the country back from the right, and bring about lasting change for the people you care about,’ Lilla advises activists, ‘it’s time to descend from the pulpit.’
You need to visit, if only with your mind’s eye, places where wifi is non-existent, the coffee is weak, and you will have no desire to post a photo of your dinner on Instagram. And where you’ll be eating with people who give genuine thanks for that dinner in prayer. Don’t look down on them. As a good liberal you have learned not to do that with peasants in far-off lands; apply the lesson to Southern Pentecostals and gun owners in the mountain states … Impose no purity tests on those you would convince.
He rather undercuts this message a few pages later:
Whatever might be said about the legitimate concerns of Trump supporters, they have no excuse for voting for him. Given his manifest unfitness for higher office, a vote for Trump was a betrayal of citizenship, not an exercise of it … his voters were generally clueless about how our democratic institutions work … All they seemed to possess was a paranoid, conspiratorial picture of power.
No purity tests, then, except for the 63 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump.
It’s true that passion has become a cheap commodity, a stale marketing word and a banal political accessory; and that justification by passion risks opening the way to justification by anger. It is right to be wary of those who bring to political activism an egoistical yearning for personal transcendence. But it is hard to distinguish the charlatan, the poser and the ego-tripper from the genuine idealist who wants to do good and whose passion may be sincere. The generalisations of Lilla’s polemic elide such subtleties. In previous books he has been fastidious about the complexity of the past, and scathing about the reactionary mythologising of past golden ages; here he skates over the differences between the various historical manifestations of ‘identity politics’, making a simplistic division of the past hundred years of American political history into a ‘Roosevelt dispensation’ and a ‘Reagan dispensation’.
The phrase ‘identity politics’ is often traced back to the statement issued in 1977 by the black feminist Combahee River Collective, which declared itself to be struggling against interlocking systems of oppression based on race, sex, sexuality and class. ‘We realise,’ they said, ‘that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us … This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.’ Barbara Smith, one of the women who drafted the original Combahee statement, pointed out in 2015 that they hadn’t come up with the term ‘identity politics’ to exclude anybody, only to get themselves included. Yet the phrase was seized on by conservative commentators and has mutated to acquire the pejorative sense in which Lilla uses it. What began as self-proclamation has become a charge levelled by the designator at the participant. The participant makes an assertion of oppression, and a claim for fair treatment; the designator makes the accusation that the participant isn’t really oppressed, just making an unreasonable demand for treatment that is not so much fair as special.
The distinction Lilla makes between the black Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which was seeking equal citizenship with whites, and Black Lives Matter, which he admits is also seeking equal citizenship with whites (in the sense that blacks as well as whites have the right not to be shot by the police for no reason), is unclear. It certainly isn’t a distinction Barbara Smith, an active participant in desegregation since she was a schoolchild in the 1960s and a strong supporter of Black Lives Matter, would recognise. Lilla doesn’t appear to notice the similarity between his attitude to Black Lives Matter – that they are an aggressive, impertinent crowd of identity politicians who, for all the legitimacy of their demands, need to be more patient and quiet down – and the queasy attitude of those white ‘moderates’ in the 1960s whom Martin Luther King lamented in his famous letter from jail in Birmingham, Alabama were ‘more devoted to “order” than to justice’.
‘The thing is,’ Smith told Curve magazine earlier this year,
everyone has an identity – historically, culturally, politically and economically based – and you can’t get rid of that. You can’t run away from it. What we meant as feminists of colour in the Combahee was not that the only people who are important are people like ourselves. The reason why we asserted identity politics so strongly at that time – at the time black women were so devalued and so marginalised that nobody thought we counted for anything – was that no one thought it was legitimate for us to have our own political perspectives, or that there was even a political perspective to begin with. Where were black women to stand? That was the point we were making.
Is it really possible to find a period in the life of any country when there wasn’t an aggrieved minority – ethnic, class, gender or sexuality-based, geographical, linguistic, sectarian – seeking both recognition and acceptance? Might it not be that majorities are themselves aggregations of minorities brought together by scepticism towards the grievances of others? Might it not be that ‘identity politics’ is just what politics has become – or what it always was, in a way that has only now become impossible to ignore? The formal structure of US politics may still be binary, Republican v. Democrat, and it is a binary world of liberals and conservatives that underpins Lilla’s book, but the reality, as in all world democracies, is that politics is no longer one-dimensional, conducted along a left-right axis, but multi-dimensional. It’s been a struggle to come up with terms for the new landscape as snappy as ‘left’ and ‘right’. The University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill Expert Survey, for instance, has since 1999 been plotting European party ideologies on a double axis – one left/right, the other calibrated with what it calls the ‘GAL-TAN dimension’, standing for ‘Green/Alternative/Libertarian-Traditional/Authoritarian/Nationalist’. It’s unwieldy, and not very accurate: ‘nationalist’, in Europe, can mean two very different things, and a modern Green government would be extremely hostile to libertarians. But the broad effort is the same whoever is making the attempt: to try to conceptualise the new politics in a single framework that incorporates economic and cultural axes. The economic axis leads from communitarianism, in which citizens are compelled in their own best interest to contribute equally to powerful state structures that meet many of their needs, to libertarianism, which holds that each individual is responsible for their own welfare and their own luck, and must not be compelled to help others. The cultural axis goes from traditionalism, in which citizens are bound by custom, cultural heritage and divinely revealed natural justice (with a big stick for deviants) into observing time-honoured concepts of gender, class and race, to liberalism, in accordance with which all humans are granted equal rights, together with the freedom to be different where that doesn’t restrict the freedoms of others.
In the United States and Britain, two countries notably struggling to keep up the pretence of one-dimensional politics, Labour and the Democrats are united by communitarianism, the Republicans and the British Conservatives by libertarianism. Each party is divided between traditionalists and liberals; each knows that its supporters on one axis are liable to cross party lines on the other. At one time the moderate centrists Lilla yearns for only had to face the enemy to their front and watch that they weren’t stabbed in the back by the radicals at their rear. Modern centrists like Hillary Clinton and Ed Miliband looked isolated because they were: they were surrounded. It’s too late to call for activists to abandon movement politics in favour of some ideal of politics-politics when movement politics is what all politics has become. And not just at the top level: the Tea Party, Momentum, Ukip and the Scottish National Party have shown that movement politics is capable of entering city hall peacefully and passionately.
There is a further problem, which Lilla sidesteps: the awkward issue of identity politics in the age of globalisation. If you frame ‘identity politics’ as a self-indulgent distraction from the vital business of creating a shared vision of America that all Americans can believe in, you’re not only taking identities of gender or race or sexuality out of play; you are also taking for granted what it means to be ‘American’. In a world without the internet or cheap air travel, in a world before there was a global higher education system, in a world where capital couldn’t shop around for the cheapest labour and the lowest taxes, in a world where governments didn’t provide their citizens with pensions and healthcare that could be compared to those in other countries, you could get away with that. But we don’t live in that world today. It is the extreme fluidity of capital, cultures and people that has created today’s multi-axis politics, and to dismiss a preoccupation with race or gender or sexual orientation as ‘identity politics’ while maintaining an unquestioning investment in one’s nationality is cloudy thinking.
It can only be coincidence that publication of a new book by Lilla tends to signal that something terrible is about to happen in the United States. His work on thinkers who provide intellectual cover for tyranny, The Reckless Mind, was, he notes ruefully in an afterword to its recent reissue, originally published on 9 September 2001. The Stillborn God, about the separation of religion and state, appeared as the 2007-8 financial crisis erupted from the business section onto the front page. The Shipwrecked Mind, about reactionaries, popped up last year, just before Donald Trump became president. The Once and Future Liberal is unusual in being a response to a crisis, rather than a burst of ideas that happens to go off against the background of a crisis, like a firework display amid an artillery barrage.
Lilla’s earlier books are meticulous, elegant and erudite studies of mainly dead, mainly European thinkers. He cruises the libraries like an academic blue whale, filtering the ocean of scholarship for the krill of insight. There is a connection – not overt, but perceptible – between his crisp analyses of various thinkers’ reprehensible steps away from the path of enlightenment and his recent attack on ‘fellow liberals’, even though he’s dealing with opposites. On the one hand, the philosopher’s corruption by an excess of zeal for an all-encompassing Truth about worldly affairs. On the other, the student’s corruption by an excess of zeal for a single political Cause, rooted in a solipsistic concern for personal definition, which explicitly excludes the idea of action embracing a whole political universe. In fact, the connection is clear enough: Lilla doesn’t like the zeal. He mistrusts the conjunction of reason and ‘passion’.
The Shipwrecked Mind, Lilla writes, is a product of ‘my own aleatory reading’ – ‘random’ would presumably have sounded too random. All the same, a random reader may be looking for something particular. If thinkers can be divided into hedgehogs with one big idea and foxes with many ideas, scholars who delve into thinkers may be reading foxily or hedgehog-wise – taking on board whatever they find, that is, or looking everywhere for versions of a single essential manifestation. Lilla is a hedgehog, and the recurrence that fascinates and disturbs him is the passage of the philosopher to a neighbouring realm of thought (the political, for instance, or the religious), a journey prone to corruption by a surfeit of faith, or emotion, or romanticism, or personal desire, or myth-making.
In The Shipwrecked Mind, the delusion masquerading as reason takes the form of nostalgia, the reactionary’s visceral and dangerous faith in a lost golden age that never was. Lilla picks out Eric Zemmour, author of Le Suicide français (2014), a best-selling dose of apocalypse auto-gratification enumerating the myriad self-inflicted wounds that have doomed France, including birth control, the end of the gold standard and conscription, halal food in schools, the smoking ban, the EU and the surrender to Muslims across the board. He writes about Brad Gregory’s popular book The Unintended Reformation (2012), which fantasises medieval Europe as a kind, loving, harmonious place infused with a universal Christian spirituality, which the Reformation then destroyed, condemning us to the hellhole of modernity. He writes about Leo Strauss, the German-born founder of a school of political science in the University of Chicago, who maintained that the greatest thinkers are bound to be dead, and that it is only through detailed study of their work and their often cryptic teachings that a neo-aristocratic cadre of the enlightened might temper the ignorance of today’s pseudo-democratic masses. These ideas, Lilla says, were appropriated and distorted after Strauss’s death in 1973 by American neo-conservatives wishing to identify the United States as the new avatar of Athenian wisdom.
Lilla contrasts the ‘American’ story of Strauss with the ‘German’ story of Martin Heidegger, another believer in a prelapsarian philosophical idyll – although where for Strauss Socrates was the good old days, for Heidegger Socrates was where the rot set in. Lilla’s essay about Heidegger opens The Reckless Mind, his first book about great thinkers gone bad, and it is in his account of the relationship between Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers that his sense of the proper boundaries of philosophy emerges more clearly, along with his fascination for what happens when they are violated.
The three first intersected in Germany in the 1920s, when Heidegger was the brilliant young philosopher and teacher in Marburg, Jaspers his slightly older, slightly awed philosopher friend, and Arendt the student on the brink of her own life as a thinker. She attended Heidegger’s lectures and for a few years, during which Heidegger published his masterpiece, Being and Time, they carried on an intermittent affair. Jaspers supervised her dissertation. In April 1933 Heidegger became rector of Freiburg University; the following month he joined the National Socialist Party and became an active and eager Nazi.
After the war both Jaspers and Arendt seemed to regard the unrepentant and self-pitying Heidegger as beyond redemption, belittling his ideas, which ostensibly sought to renounce the metaphysical as a new form of superstition and mysticism. But in the end it was only Jaspers who held to the break with his old friend. Arendt decided she couldn’t do without Heidegger’s friendship; they maintained an on-off relationship from 1950 until her death in 1975. She found ways to praise his greatness and helped get his works translated into English; he wrote her poems. She didn’t talk to him about his Nazism. Why?
The word ‘passion’ crops up a lot in Lilla’s essay. More than forty years after first seeing Heidegger speak, Arendt wrote of that early encounter: ‘We are so accustomed to the old opposition of reason versus passion, spirit versus life, that the idea of a passionate thinking, in which thinking and aliveness become one, takes us somewhat aback.’ Trying to account for Arendt’s behaviour, Lilla writes: ‘She knew that Heidegger was politically dangerous but seemed to believe that his dangerousness was fuelled by a passion that also inspired his philosophical thought.’ Jaspers’s rejection of Heidegger, Lilla thinks, made him a better friend than Arendt:
[Jaspers] felt betrayed by Heidegger as a human being, as a German, and as a friend, but especially as a philosopher … he saw a new tyrant enter his friend’s soul, a wild passion that misled him into supporting the worst of political dictators and then enticed him into intellectual sorcery … Jaspers displayed more care for his former friend than Hannah Arendt did, and deeper love for the calling of philosophy.
All these concerning passions: Arendt’s personal passion for Heidegger, Arendt’s belief in the desirability, the possibility, of ‘passionate thinking’, Heidegger’s yen for fascism as a possessing ‘wild passion’. These are the fires that Lilla believes threaten the wise soul, though they are also the fires whose heat quickens his own interest.
It wasn’t always as easy as it is today to portray the impassioned as noble and the dispassionate as ignoble. At various times the hero has been the philosopher who calmly drank the hemlock, the saint who quietly went to excruciating martyrdom, the stoic, the one with the stiff upper lip, the rational, the reflective, or, more recently, the resignedly, knowingly, sceptically witty, the world’s Elizabeth Bennets. The word ‘enthusiasm’ was borrowed from the Greek in the 17th century as a term of abuse for those Christians who were seen as intoxicated by personal revelations of the divine – who were, in other words, too passionate. We have come far since then. Lilla gives a nice sense of what the modern dispassionate would be up against in his commentary on the Russian emigré Alexandre Kojève in The Reckless Mind. Kojève, who held court among the intellectuals of Paris before the Second World War, was an apostle of Hegel who believed that either Stalin or the United States – it didn’t matter which – was in the end bound to establish a peaceful, prosperous global order. Whatever the content of intellectual discourse, what was of vital importance to Kojève and his initiates was that they were engaged in ‘passionate thinking’. Lilla quotes Georges Bataille as saying that each encounter with Kojève left him ‘broken, crushed, killed ten times over: suffocated and nailed down’. Bataille felt it necessary to validate an intellectual experience by redescribing it in bodily terms – to purify a synaptic encounter by rendering it hormonal.
In an epilogue to The Reckless Mind Lilla writes about Plato’s failed attempts to check the tyrannical impulses of the ruler of Syracuse, Dionysius, who had philosophical aspirations. Plato warned that the souls of weak-minded intellectuals are prey to the lure of eros, a passionate yearning for a truth they cannot reach which, accordingly, drives them mad. It is reasonable to argue that passion is the label on the key that unlocks the door separating the philosopher and the tyrant. It is true that passion is the last defence of the intellectual charlatan. The trouble is, ‘passion’ is also a word to describe the emotional medium through which, in our modern, most un-Athenian democracy of one person, one vote, a political movement ultimately rooted in ideas can refresh the thinking of the electorate.
The most thought-provoking essay in The Reckless Mind deals with the German legal scholar and political theorist Carl Schmitt. Schmitt joined the Nazi Party at about the same time as Heidegger, in May 1933, and became an enthusiastic pamphleteer, proselytising for the rights of the German Volk to unite in racial purity under a National Socialist Führer. He caught the eye of Hitler’s future transition team in 1932 when he pleaded the last pre-Nazi German government’s case for emergency powers to rule Prussia. (He lost.) He went on to defend Hitler’s massacre of political opponents on the Night of the Long Knives, even though one of those killed was a close friend of his. At a conference held in 1936 to discuss the ways non-Jewish German lawyers might best make things hot for Jewish Germans, he suggested clearing library shelves of books by Jewish authors. ‘By warding off the Jews,’ he said, quoting Hitler, ‘I struggle for the work of the Lord.’
Still, the Nazis didn’t consider him tough enough, even when he came up with a legal basis for Germany’s territorial expansion. He fell from favour. After the war he was detained by the Americans and the Soviets, responded to interrogation with arrogant self-justifications, was released, and went home to Westphalia. He died there in 1985, aged 96, quite unrepentant; his private notebooks, published a few years later, showed him a virulent Jew-hater even after the war.
Schmitt’s Nazi past didn’t stand in the way of his intellectual rehabilitation after the war, and while he is, according to Lilla, little known in the US, he is considered in Europe (and, Lilla wrote in an intriguing article a few years ago, by the Chinese intelligentsia en masse) one of the great 20th-century political theorists. He writes well; more important, Lilla argues, after the war he was the last German standing who wrote cleverly about such things as sovereignty, national peoples and war. The right-wing case for studying Schmitt is that he exposes as fake the ideal of liberalism – of a tolerant global continuum of individually diverse but equally entitled human beings, their identity rights protected by laws based on universal values:
When they try to cultivate liberalism while neglecting the genuine foundations of a political order, the results are disastrous, especially in foreign policy. Ever since the two world wars, Western liberals have considered war ‘unthinkable’. In the view of Schmitt’s conservative admirers, this only means that war has become more thoughtless, not less frequent or less brutal.
Partly for the same reasons, Schmitt has also been useful to certain thinkers on the left – Derrida, Kojève, Alain Badiou, Jacob Taubes and, more recently, Slavoj Žižek. Schmitt’s appeal at this end of the spectrum is his evocation of a force that smashes the liberal façade of the dominant class, his endorsement of the virtue of antagonism when there is a ruling elite to be overthrown.
In isolation, elements of Schmitt’s political philosophy can be made to sound reasonable, even wise. His 1920s critique of war waged by liberal governments on humanitarian grounds – that it implicitly renders their opponents inhuman, and thus marked not for defeat, but extermination – found a resonance in the years around the turn of the millennium. But taken as a whole, his ideas are ghastly, no less so for the directness and brilliance with which they are expressed. Schmitt doesn’t object to war, only war waged by liberals. War, per Schmitt, is neither necessary nor inevitable, but states only have meaning in so far as they are perpetually on the brink of fighting one. His very definition of politics is based on the idea of enmity. Where aesthetics distinguishes beautiful from ugly, and morality between good and bad, he writes in The Concept of the Political (1932), politics is the skill of distinguishing friend from enemy. ‘For Schmitt,’ Lilla writes, ‘a collectivity is a political body only to the degree that it has enemies.’ And for Schmitt, there’s no middle ground. In his words, ‘if a part of the population declares that it no longer recognises enemies, then, depending on the circumstance, it joins their side and aids them.’
Because the Volk is defined by enmity, and is always on the edge of a war, a point is bound to be reached in the life of a liberal democracy when its faith in peace, love and understanding is shown to be misplaced, and it thereby loses its authority. A natural sovereign takes over: a conceptual dictator, perhaps in the form not of a person but an event, unfettered by laws or universal principles, a decider (hence Schmitt’s doctrine of ‘decisionism’). But the sovereign isn’t simply rescuing the Volk from the shilly-shallying of flabby liberals: it brings the Volk out of a state of blasphemy, since a society defined in enmity is the natural order imposed by God. The biblical injunction to love your neighbour, Schmitt says, ‘certainly does not mean that one should love and support the enemies of one’s own people’. And as Schmitt made clear in 1938 in an attack on Thomas Hobbes, the particular enmity God had decreed for the Volk was towards the Jews, the greatest beneficiaries of the liberal order, the ‘providential enemy’.
There is much that is Schmittian in the ascent of Trump. Distinguishing friend from enemy is what the new president does. His favourite ideologues preach contempt for liberalism, embrace the idea of a world filled with enemies of America, and want those enemies not merely to respect American might, but to fear it. Yet what I kept thinking of, reading Lilla’s essay on Schmitt, was Brexit: how a liberal democracy with a seemingly robust representational and judicial system, which is used to balancing innumerable interest groups and projects and regulations, suddenly found itself subjugated overnight, for a generation at least, to the one-word answer to a 16-word question. A small majority of the British Folk found its providential enemy in the European Union, and Brexit stands mutely sovereign over all, enclosing Parliament rather than being enclosed by it.
Not only that: just as Schmitt’s apparent ‘realism’ about a world divided into friends and enemies gives way, on closer inspection, to an anti-Semitic, un-Christian divinity egging humans on to war, the supposedly hard-headed, commonsense ideologues of Brexit turn out to be pushing a pagan religion of British ancestor worship, a mythology of British exceptionalism projected onto a future that is built on faith alone. A lot of people bought into it, and that shouldn’t be surprising: such metaphysical ideas as patriotism, self-identification with the heroism of ancestors in wars you didn’t fight in, the oneness of land and people, the holiness of flags and symbols and colours, the special sanctity of certain tombs and landmarks, the rites of pilgrimage to sites hallowed by the past presence of mythologised characters in a national story, the sense of belonging in a landscape and the fear of defilement by non-belongers are present in some measure in most voters. Calling it ‘culture’ doesn’t quite capture the fact that even the least religious among us is likely to have neo-religious feelings, and that even the most Christian or Islamic or Jewish is likely also to have a stake in such pagan notions as patriotism.
In his essays about philosophers gone wrong Lilla is highly sensitive to the signs that a thinker’s lurch into politics might be caused by an excess of neo-religious enthusiasm, of passion, of romantic yearning for the Beyond. There’s no reason here for him to stray from his narrow focus on the intellectual heights of 20th-century Germany, France and the US to consider the hundreds of millions of people who have, since the advent of universal suffrage, been obliged, however briefly, to come up with a personal political philosophy, and act on it in the polling booth. But when, as in The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla moves onto the ground of practical politics, the voters’ philosophy, the voters’ beliefs and the voters’ passions must be taken into account, not just their ability to receive rational ideas rationally. Instead he prefers to scold the activists whose own romantic yearnings may be liberals’ only resource for connecting with those they have alienated.
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