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Is Joe Biden the Future of Liberalism? Let’s Hope So

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“Will the Democrats prove captive to cultural grievance, identity politics, anti-racism, and the like? Or will they throw their lot in with Biden-style moderates…”

The New York Times reported earlier this week that “President Biden’s economic advisers are preparing to recommend spending as much as $3 trillion on a sweeping set of efforts aimed at boosting the economy, reducing carbon emissions and narrowing economic inequality, beginning with a giant infrastructure plan that may be financed in part through tax increases on corporations and the rich.” Coming on the heels of the $1.9 trillion Coronavirus (COVID-19) stimulus bill, that $3 trillion price tag—yes, trillion, with a T—is somewhat jaw-dropping. Infrastructure investments are much needed and long overdue, but one does not have to be a penny-pinching fiscal conservative to start to wonder whether we are going too far on the spending front.

Debt and deficit concerns aside, President Joe Biden’s oncoming infrastructure push would stay true to form. As I argued in the lead-up to the 2020 election here in the pages of Merion West, a Biden administration would offer us a more substantive, policy-driven politics. He certainly has delivered thus far. President Biden is not particularly interested in the culture wars (in large part because the Left has a much less popular stance on many such issues, and President Biden is politically adept), and he has issued a flurry of executive orders and passed a monumental piece of legislation in the form of the American Rescue Plan, all while overseeing an increasingly successful national vaccination effort. President Biden is opting for tangible policy—and policy that is geared towards dollars and cents and points of fairly broad-based consensus—instead of more divisive, symbolic stances. It is not surprising that his administration is doing so poorly with immigration policy thus far. Immigration is more divisive, more culturally fraught than sending people bundles of cash or rebuilding our infrastructure, while the Republicans dawdle and read Dr. Seuss books. 

President Biden’s policy-heavy, identity politics-light presidency has some astute political observers like David Brooks thinking that he is more than the placeholder president we all thought he would be. He just might betransformational.”

Maybe. But it is still too soon to tell. President Biden could, in fact, be ushering in a new era of big government that is focused more on dollars and cents and economic security than on slicing and dicing the citizenry along the fraught lines of race, gender, and culture. Or, he could be a fleeting resurrection of New Deal liberalism, one that will soon wither away as the culture wars and tribalism of the Trump era come roaring back with a vengeance. Which will it be? How the post-Trump Republican Party (if there is such a thing?) evolves in the coming years will shape the political landscape but so too will Democrats’ own takeaways from the Biden years: Will the Democrats prove captive to cultural grievance, identity politics, anti-racism, and the like? Or will they throw their lot in with Biden-style moderates—politicians and thought leaders that lean to the left on matters of economics but are not especially interested in purity politics, cancellations, and other “woke” precepts?

Wherever one falls on the political spectrum, we all should hope that Lilla’s and President Biden’s vision of a capacious, civic liberalism wins out over the Left’s identitarian variant.

Whether President Biden’s style of governance is a passing fancy or a harbinger of things to come depends in large part on the American left’s ultimate response to the argument put forth by Columbia University professor Mark Lilla in his 2017 book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics

Lilla writes as a “frustrated American liberal.” The roots of Lilla’s frustration run deep: “My frustration has its source in an ideology that for decades has prevented liberals from developing an ambitious vision of America and its future that would inspire citizens of every walk of life and in every region of the country.” In Lilla’s telling, the universalist ideals of the New Deal—particularly its focus on economic security and a sense of national unity and duty to the well-being of one’s fellow Americans—gave way over the course of the 20th century to a narrower, less inspiring form of liberalism. As the American right moved away from Eisenhower-esque moderation and towards the Reaganite credo of unfettered individual freedom, liberals responded with their own variation of an individualist political program centered on the concept of the self. In the face of the Reaganite challenge, liberals “threw themselves into the movement politics of identity, losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation.” Lilla looks back on the Reagan era with biting regret: “You might have thought that, faced with a novel anti-political picture of the nation, liberals would have countered with an imaginative, hopeful vision of what we share as Americans and what we might accomplish together. Instead, they lost themselves in the thickets of identity politics and developed a resentful, disuniting rhetoric of difference to match it.” 

In throwing in their lot with identity politics, liberals lost touch with civic liberalism—with a liberalism of care and compassion for fellow citizens regardless of their ethnic, religious, or cultural markers. They instead opted for “a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.” In Lilla’s eyes, his fellow liberals’ obsession with the self and with identity, particularly of the racial, ethnic, and sexual varieties has neutered their political power. “Identity liberalism has ceased being a political project and has morphed into an evangelical one. The difference is this: evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” Liberals turned inward to elite institutions, especially the universities, and relied excessively on the courts to notch policy wins, disconnecting them from large swaths of the wider American public and weakening their political potency. For liberals, certain forms of purity flourished at the expense of political power and a sense of shared citizenship.

Lilla’s call for civic liberalism is a moving one. Lilla envisions a liberalism that is once more capable of mounting a JFK-style call to civic duty, to togetherness, to selflessness. And he argues repeatedly that such a vision can only gain traction if it is sufficiently aligned with the relevant social realities of the day. COVID-19 has certainly exposed a number of social realities that cry out for the civic liberal vision, and President Biden has more or less supplied it. 

Wherever one falls on the political spectrum, we all should hope that Lilla’s and President Biden’s vision of a capacious, civic liberalism wins out over the Left’s identitarian variant. Yes, I am a bit skittish about some of the price tags and inefficiencies the Biden administration is bringing into existence, but I know that America has muddled through amid plenty of wasted tax dollars in years past. I am much less sanguine about our prospects of trudging along if an ideology that slices and dices fellow citizens into castes gains more traction. Granted, there are many valid objections to be made to Biden-and-Lilla-style liberalism’s odes to unity, and thoughtful conservative writers like National Review’s Kevin Williamson and The Dispatch’s Jonah Goldberg often make them. 

But we need a healthy version of the Left, just as we are in desperate need of a healthy Right, and I cannot think of a healthier version of the Left than the one Mark Lilla puts forth in The Once and Future Liberal

In other words, I and others can (and should) point out inefficiencies, undue government largesse, and wasteful spending from the Biden administration, but we should be rooting for its success—at least in the Democratic Party—without reservation. The alternative is not pretty.

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98

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