As the title suggests, Patrick Deneen’s first public-facing book, Why Liberalism Failed, did not ask whether liberalism had failed, assuming that it had.
A rootless society plagued by hedonism, growing class divide, and general unhappiness is the result of the founding principles of liberalism itself, according to the University of Notre Dame political science professor.
“Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself,” Deneen wrote in his 2018 book.
Ignoring the end of religious wars and the blessing of immense material prosperity that liberalism bequeathed, Deneen castigated a regime dedicated to the protection of individual rights as recklessly naïve and destined for our irredeemable decline.
Deneen left readers of his first book wondering what was to be done in such a wasteland. Four years later, we have his answer in Regime Change: Towards a Postliberal Future.
Given that we “are inexorably entering the time after liberalism,” we must avoid the delusion that more liberalism is the solution, just as we must resist “untutored and ill led” populism of the masses. Instead, we must revive an older tradition of a “mixed-constitution” by means of “Aristopopulism.”
In practice, this means replacing our current elites in government, the media, and universities with a class of “self-conscious aristoi.” This new elite will “secure the foundational goods that make possible human flourishing for ordinary people.” More specifically, this new elite will abolish the system of “separations” that plague modernity including the separation of church and state and the separation of powers. The stakes are high for this more ennobled form of postliberalism. Should we fail to embrace it, we may well lurch toward “civil war, hot or cold.”
Deneen’s drama aside, there are points worth admiring. For example, today’s elites are gravely out of touch with Trump country (though one wonders the last time Deneen grabbed a beer with an iron worker or a McDonald’s employee). There is a growing sense of isolation strongly correlated with the loss of community and religious faith. What is more, many of Deneen’s policy proposals are not as radical as the general tenor of his works would suggest. Increasing membership in the House of Representatives, spreading federal bureaucracies across the country rather than concentrating them in D.C., and incentivizing elite college graduates to pursue lower-paid vocations. These are all sensible policies for healing the divide between the few and the many, the “winners” and the “losers.” Unfortunately, the virtues of Deneen’s book are limited to the recognition of serious symptoms and a handful of interesting policies.
Others have already discussed how Deneen’s diagnosis of liberalism is over simplistic, how his “Aristopopulism” is utopian or impractical, how his account of the American founding is plain wrong, and how the thrust of his rhetoric is dangerous. These are all important criticisms to make, and ones I endorse. But there are two points that must be more fully fleshed out. First, Deneen’s concern with revitalizing localism and citizenship is not served by expanding or replacing a national administrative state. And second, religious life can, contra Deneen, flourish without government endorsement.
The most moving chapters in Why Liberalism Failed discussed the decline of citizenship and local cultures in liberal democracies. Citing political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville and Kentucky essayist Wendell Berry, Deneen celebrated a form of local self-rule rooted in a sense of freedom that emphasized rights in the service of duties. This form of democracy “demanded the discipline of self-rule” and an “awareness of the common good that could become discernable only through ongoing interactions with fellow citizens.” The localism of this democracy was crucial. It is only the “nearness and immediacy of the township” that impelled citizens to care about their collective fates. The local setting, be it township or even city, in turn becomes a “conduit for culture and tradition” and gives its residents a sense of place and timely respect for the past.
Education policy is a good example of how concerns that were originally in the spheres of localities and states became supplanted by federal oversight. For nearly two centuries after the founding, schools were the business of localities, private charities, and state governments. Shared concern for children’s future furnished the incentive for precisely the sort of communal collective action that Deneen praises.
Since the Great Society, however, decisions regarding K-12 education have been increasingly directed by executive agencies and court mandates. Consider, for example, the regulations of schools imposed by President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” or even President Biden’s expansion of Title IX regulations. I suspect Deneen would similarly bemoan the loss of local control of educating the youth to federal bureaucracies. But because he focuses on the philosophic orientation of elite decision-makers rather than the existence of national institutions, he fails to note what Tocqueville understood well: a shared need compels local action. When outside institutions provide for x need, they remove the incentive for that action which yields precisely the sort of rooted enjoyment he celebrates.
Because Deneen misses this, he proposes not the return of responsibilities to local and state actors (a promise, he notes well, which Republicans have failed to keep), but a simple replacement of department heads with the “right” people. The “Big Government” tendencies in Deneen are so pronounced, one reviewer called the project “Deneen’s New Deal.” But this is no recipe for a renewal of the citizen-farmer spirit Deneen once celebrated so eloquently. Only a reinvigorated sense of federalism can do that.
Among Deneen’s more outlandish proposals is the suggestion that the separation of Church and State be abolished. Pointing to rising “deaths of despair,” Deneen insists that it is not enough to “ensure [the people’s] freedom to pursue” essential goods of human life, such as religious faith. “Religious liberty” is no substitute for “piety.” Deneen is never explicit on how a new elite should “positively guide” ordinary folk to faith besides “supporting the life of prayer.” What does this mean? Will there be a national establishment of Christianity? If “religious liberty” is jettisoned, does this mean excluding from civic participation or even legally prosecuting those who do not profess the faith? The proposal is so unlikely, it seems Deneen is writing for the sake of provocation. In the United States, with its declining church attendance and hodgepodge of Christian sects who seem to break apart more than they join together, it is difficult imagining Baptists, Catholics, Anglicans, or Methodists willfully subsidizing the other.
In this section Deneen seems to forget the advice of that sage Americanist he so admires. Tocqueville would have balked at the proposal for state support of religion. He respected instead that “English America…peopled by men who, after having escaped the authority of the pope” practiced a “democratic and republican” Christianity. Even priests did “not lend their support to any political system in particular” and eschewed political parties. This did not diminish, but rather enhanced belief in the new republic. Religiosity in the United States thrived under these conditions for two centuries after the founding without federal support just as it did in states, like Virginia, which did not subsidize a particular faith. The causes of the decline of religiosity are many, but cannot be said to be ingrained in liberalism when faith flourished for so long in a liberal regime.
Jettisoning the liberal principle of “separation” will not revive piety. Only revivals do that.
At a time when the United States suffers from serious political ailments, it is tempting to bash liberalism. But a more constructive approach would better assess the many blessings of liberalism and the many dangers of engaging in populist rhetoric. It is easy to forget what hunger is like when our freezers are full. And it is easy to forget how dangerous “riots in the streets” are when you convince yourself that elites are simple tyrants. I do not know how to heal class divides or revive a rooted sense of place. But the guides Deneen invokes may offer some help. Aristotle, Burke, and Polybius all extolled prudence and moderation in politics just as they all praised the rule of law. Deneen should remember that when stoking revolutionary fervor.
Max J. Prowant is a Research Associate for the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Government at the University of Texas at Austin.