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1968 and the Crisis of Liberalism

FOR A LONG TIME, a faction of U.S. liberals shouldered the burdens of a fully inclusive social compact. They rightly indicted welfare-state compromises that served some and not others, and that served even the most privileged beneficiaries—white working-rlass men—only to some extent. Recognizing that the New Deal was a raw one for the neglected poor as well as African Americans and women, some liberals in the early and mid-1960s gave sustained critique to the structural limitations of New Deal liberalism and the Cold War geopolitics that framed the enterprise.

After 1968, disaster set in. Faced with the sins of Vietnam, the Democrats flirted with ending Cold War militarism only to double down on it. The critique of the welfare state, not the demand for its extension, prevailed. A toxic brew of white identity politics, a rhetoric of “family values” and “personal responsibility,” and, above all, anti-statist economics wafted across party lines. Fifty years later, Donald Trump is in the White House, embattled but victorious.

How did we get here? Much depends on how one narrates the path from 1968 to Trump’s election.

Mark LiHa’s book of last year, The Once and Future Liberal— a follow-up to his hugely influential New York Times op-ed “The End of Identity Liberalism,” published days after Trump’s win—has gone far toward defining the terms of that story. But instead of looking carefully at how liberal self-reinvention failed in facing down its scurrilous enemies, Lilla cuts off his enterprise in a dodge. Lila thinks that U.S. welfare-state liberalism was doomed in the 1970s, when its neoconservative enemies rightly sounded its death knell. He goes on to report that the heirs of the raucous sixties, failing to reinvent liberalism beyond its prior statist limits, embraced the anti- and pseudo-politics of “identity.” For much of the book, indulging his Francophile proclivities, Lila channels the moro list Alexis de Tocqueville, blaming our contemporary degeneration on a culture of narcissism, adding a whiff of the novelist Michel Houellebecq in unmasking the “real” legacy of the sixties as a journey into the interior. A cult of the self prospered as politics died.

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“Genius. This extraordinary issue reminds us that Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of America’s most radical philosophers. Forget the dream, he called for a revolution in values that stood in stark contrast with the nightmare of neoliberalism, permanent war, and state-sanctioned violence. These essays will inspire a new generation to return to the source.” —Robin D. G. Kelley