Book review. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, by Mark Lilla

Reviewed by Patrick Keane

To begin with full disclosure: I am in essential agreement with the now famous or infamous salvo Mark Lilla fired off shortly after the publication of the book here under review. I refer of course to his widely discussed and hotly debated op-ed, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” which appeared in the November 18, 2016, issue of The New York Times. Lilla argued there that Donald Trump’s victory nine days earlier had much to do with the fact that American liberalism, in rightly honoring the nation’s diversity, had in recent years “slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity”: a fixation that had “distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

Trump’s victory, an outcome Lilla unequivocally pronounced “repugnant,” had many causes, some of them still being sorted out by a Special Counsel and by various congressional committees investigating Russian interference in that election. Though the final result seems to have been tilted in Trump’s favor by the Russian intervention and was certainly contributed to by Hillary Clinton’s flaws as a candidate, Trump’s victory is in large part attributable to the disaffection of much of the vast middle of the country: the rejection of a Democratic Party that has in recent years increasingly aligned itself with liberal identity politics. A majority of voters in the so-called Heartland, mostly white, very religious, and non-college educated, was irritated, even repelled, by the self-righteousness of a secular ideology that had enshrined hyper-sensitivity, multi-culturalism, and political correctness at the expense, Lilla argued, of electoral common sense.

A progressive himself, Lilla, Professor of Humanities at Columbia, is anything but hostile to diversity, empathy, and tolerance. But in 2016, with momentous issues facing the nation (not least the possible election of a mendacious, malignant narcissist and potential demagogue), Lilla complained that far too many shortsighted liberals, narcissistically fixated on viewing almost everything through the lens of identity, had lost focus and alienated great swaths of voters—fiddling, for example, with gender issues involving which bathrooms and lockers people might use while Rome burned. Odious though the right-wing distinction between liberals and “real” Americans may be, two facts are undeniable. First, however intolerable it may be to the sore winner, Hillary took the over-all popular vote; but, second and crucially, Trump won the electoral college and the presidency because two-thirds of whites without college degrees voted for him, as did over 80% of white evangelicals, and more than half of white women.

Though greeted with much approval, the op-ed also provoked a firestorm among some progressives…