In 2018, Patrick Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame, published a book entitled Why Liberalism Failed. Many liberals, most notably The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, wrote scathing condemnations. Gabby Birenbaum and I added to the criticism last year, observing in these pages how Deneen’s conflation of liberalism with libertinism had deeply influenced Tucker Carlson and his fellow travelers. (See “Inside Tucker Carlson’s Brain.”)
But the book also received a respectful hearing in some surprising quarters. The back cover of the paperback edition included a blurb from the New York Times columnist David Brooks, as well as one from former President Barack Obama, who praised its “cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community.” The book came at a moment when people across the political spectrum were beginning to question the bundle of “neoliberal” policies embraced by both parties since the 1970s that have contributed to the hollowing out of America’s industrial base and to the downward mobility of the working class.
Now Deneen is out with a sequel, entitled Regime Change. This time there are no endorsements from Brooks or Obama, but the third-party presidential candidate and Black political philosopher Cornel West lends his name, as does Republican Senator J. D. Vance. In this second take, Deneen seriously turns up the volume—to say the least. While disputing that America is structurally racist, he seeks a reckoning with America’s “structurally liberal” history. Our only salvation from this shameful legacy, he claims, is a regime change that repudiates progress and meritocracy and commits to a new order of “aristopopulism.”
Structural liberalism, Deneen tells us, is implicated in nearly all that has gone wrong with America since the Puritans lost control. That includes everything from laissez-faire capitalism to today’s mounting inequality, falling life expectancy, and low birth rates. Those Republicans who spent the past 40 years advocating for lower taxes and deregulation of large corporations are liberals, too, says Deneen, whether they have done the work to realize their implicit liberalism or not.
In Deneen’s telling, structural liberalism dates to the 17th century, when figures like the English philosopher John Locke started casting around for an ideology that would entrench a new elite made up of their own kind. These early liberals were intent on overthrowing the inherited power of kings and nobles, but not if it meant giving power to the people. So they invented a political order under which democracy was limited to industrious, self-made white men of property who would rule unconstrained by popular will, religious authority, or a strong central state. If this take sounds familiar, it’s because Deneen is basically retelling Karl Marx’s account of the rise of bourgeois democratic capitalism without giving Marx credit.
Deneen’s next move is to describe how the “classical” liberalism of Locke and the Founding Fathers combined in the 19th century with the “experimental social libertarianism of progressive liberalism” championed by John Stuart Mill. In his 1859 essay “On Liberty,” Mill famously argued that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” This principle, says Deneen, committed liberalism to a relativist concept of truth and therefore to a moral order in which “individuals would be maximally free from the judgment of society altogether.” Consistent with his views on liberty, Mill was a bravely outspoken critic of slavery, yet Deneen uses out-of-context quotes to suggest the opposite and then goes on to lay Western imperialism on the door of structural liberalism as well.
Next, Deneen tells a story about how early-20th-century progressives like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were also part of the plot. “Like their classical liberal forebears, progressive liberals greatly feared and even loathed the people,” he writes. Only instead of fearing that the masses might be too revolutionary, progressive liberals feared that the people would frustrate progress by clinging to the old ways. And so liberals fought off populism by favoring rule by experts and an expansion of big imperial government. Curiously, Deneen doesn’t mention other great Progressive Era causes like the popular election of senators, government through referendum and initiative, and women’s suffrage.
Which brings us to today. By now, says Deneen, all the different strains of structural liberalism have fused into “Woke Capitalism,” which he describes as “the perfect wedding of the ‘progressivist’ economic right and social left.” It’s a presumably same-sex marriage that, he concludes, “aims to produce a populace that is satisfied with diversion, consumption, and hedonism, and, above all, does not disturb the blessings of progress. And, if that doesn’t work, there remains the use of levers of political and corporate power to suppress populist threats.”
At this point you might expect Deneen to make a spirited defense of populism, and he does at one point praise the superior judgment of common folks. “The wisdom of the multitude arises,” he says, “… because they have the benefit of ‘common sense’ and
experience—everyday interaction with the objects or practices of the world that are so often lacking in the theoretical evaluations by experts.”
But Deneen also believes that the “demos,” as he puts it, cannot handle much individual liberty. Without strong cultural and religious constraints on their behavior, ordinary people fall prey to all manner of degeneracy, he says, citing the breakdown in moral order he sees everywhere in America. “We have the freedom to marry, but fewer people wed,” he observes. “We have the freedom to have children, but birth rates plummet. We have the freedom to practice religion, but people abandon the faiths of their fathers and mothers.”
And so what’s needed, he concludes, is not populism or direct democracy, but “an elite cadre skilled at directing and elevating popular resentments” and at getting the people “to adopt a wider understanding of what constitutes their own good.” To restore the once pervasive human flourishing that structural liberalism has destroyed, we need to bring back, he says, “common good conservativism” led by a virtuous elite. As a model, Deneen evokes John Winthrop’s Puritanical vision of a shining city on a hill.
What would Deneen have these new moral guardians do? He’s clear that he wants them to focus their energies on ensuring that the commoners don’t deviate from the wisdom of ancient customs, particularly those having to do with marriage, gender roles, child-rearing, and religious observance. He also hints at a few specific policy proposals that he thinks aristopopulists should insist on, like mandatory national service and a restoration of blue laws to honor “a day of rest on the Sabbath” (presumably meaning Sunday, not Saturday).
But he evades the hard questions that would inevitable accompany any such regime change. Who gets to be among the new elect, and how is that decided? How do we ensure that the new power elites don’t abuse their power, and who is “we,” anyway? And if aristopopulists are to be responsible for guiding the masses back to the customs of the past, does that mean all the customs—primogeniture, arranged marriages, divine rights of kings? And how do the nobles get the hoi polloi to go along?
After centuries of religious wars in Europe, some people, like John Locke and the Founding Fathers, came up with at least partial answers to some of these kinds of questions. The answers broadly included a constitutional order that promised expanding equality of opportunity along with checks on concentrated political and economic power.
And they included calls for religious freedom and tolerance, which became encoded in the First Amendment. Subsequently, though it has gone through periods of religious awakening and decline, America has remained a place marked by much higher rates of churchgoing and other forms of religious observance than any other modern nation, no doubt in large measure because no sect in America enjoys the kind of state-chartered dominion over civic life that Deneen seems to favor.
If Deneen thinks he has answers to the hard, practical questions of statecraft needed to put America on the right course in these fraught times, he should say what they are out loud. Otherwise, it’s time to move on to more serious thinkers.