In November 2016, the scholar discovered a talent as a polemicist. His way of mourning the strange defeat of the Democratic camp. Ten days after Donald Trump’s presidential victory, Mark Lilla launched his fire, a column published in the New york times, under this scathing title, “The end of identity liberalism”. Translate by the end of an American left that delights in a discourse on diversity, forgetting the economic and social issues that preoccupy the working classes. Mark Lilla lashed out “Collective hysteria” of a “Generation of narcissists indifferent to the need to listen to Americans of all conditions” for “Become a unifying force capable of governing”.
In the pundits arena
More familiar, until then, with debates hushed up in intellectual cenacles, the historian of ideas found himself plunged into the arena of “pundits” – these political commentators, experts in the art of slashing – under fire. nourished by the thuriferous of the progressive left. Not dismantled, it persists in an essay published in 2017 (1). In essence, he writes, the elected members of the Democratic Party, the former working-class party, have largely become a coalition of educated elites and minorities.
In The Spirit of Reaction (2), a premonitory book published in 2016 in the United States, the essayist observed the return in force of reactionary thought and analyzed its springs. “It all starts with our connection to history “, He says to La Croix. “To make sense of events, we use a magical form of thought with which we divide the past into distinct ages, with narratives of progress, regression and cycles, presupposing a mechanism. “ When no rational explanation is necessary, the reactionary advances his apocalyptic vision of history, a mythical golden age, a fantasized past: we have the choice between retracing our steps, or rushing towards the fall.
In France, the cantors of “political nostalgia” – the journalist Éric Zemmour and the novelist Michel Houellebecq, in particular – are riding the wave of decline and cultural pessimism. In Budapest, Viktor Orban suggests that the Hungarians lived better during the “Greater Hungary” era. In Russia, Vladimir Putin “Sells dreams of a restored empire, blessed by the Orthodox Church and supported by looting and vodka”.
“A liquid world in which everything moves”
“We live in a liquid world in which everything moves, the economy and technology, just like society, family and sexuality. The feeling of accelerated change, combined with the absence of ideological benchmarks, feeds political anxiety ”, Mark Lilla points out. “People who are confused become very sensitive to the fairy tales of reactionaries and demagogues who explain to them why we got there. “
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Mark Lilla, 64, grew up in the Midwest in Macomb County, a suburb north of Detroit. A working father, then designer, in a machine tool factory. A nursing mother. Democrats like we are doing more, in the vein of the New Deal by Franklin D. Roosevelt, for whom public power has the mission of building social solidarity and defending equal rights. Vision that Ronald Reagan swept away with his slogan: “Government is not the solution. “
The feeling of abandonment of the white working class
In the Michigan of his youth, a state of the Rust Belt, that old industrial region that will vote twice for Obama, before switching to Trump, the white working class, attached to the family. and religion, feels abandoned: the Democratic Party first defends blacks, the very poor, immigrants and feminists.
Confined to New York, Mark Lilla now teaches online courses to Columbia students. On the program, a seminar entitled “Critic of curiosity” and a course on “The democratic spirit” Alexis de Tocqueville, the psychology of the democratic man with his passions, fears, aspirations, prejudices and self-image.
Will the pandemic permanently end the “liquidity” of our lives? Will the recession loom deepen “The spirit of reaction” or will it stimulate revolutionary hopes? “I have nothing to say about the current situation and I do not make any forecasts”, answers Mark Lilla, reluctant to any form of political meteorology. “Societies are governed by passions. Liberal democracy rests on the solidity of the institutions and the lucidity of those responsible ”, drop the literate end. “We must denounce the false prophets, this is my contribution to the fight. “
His inspiration: sociologist Daniel Bell, “a kind of mentor”
In the late 1970s, Mark Lilla, a Harvard student, met Daniel Bell. The American sociologist, who described himself as “A socialist in economic matters, a liberal in politics and a conservative with regard to culture”, becomes for him “A kind of mentor”.
In 1980 Mark Lilla joined for four years as an editor, The Public Interest, a quarterly review created in 1965, by Daniel Bell and his friend Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of the neoconservative current. The right-wing and dogmatic drift of this intellectual movement then encourages it to distance itself. Daniel Bell still refused to be labeled as one of its founders.