Liberal Democracy Is Not the Problem

With authoritarianism on the rise at home and abroad, now is no time to give up on the American experiment.

There is no shortage of books by American conservatives attacking American liberals, and at first sight Why Liberalism Failed might appear to be just one more addition to the genre. But the book’s title is misleading, for its author, Patrick Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame, offers a critique of contemporary conservatism as well. Indeed, he views contemporary progressivism and conservatism, the “main political options of our age,” as two sides of “the same counterfeit coin.” Both sides accept the fundamental principles of liberalism in the broader sense, the sense conveyed by the phrase “liberal democracy”—principles that include individual rights, constitutionalism, and the rule of law.

Why Liberalism Failed
by Patrick J. Deneen
Yale University Press, 248 pp.

Despite its attack on the basic underpinnings of the American regime, Deneen’s book has already been greeted with respectful, if critical, comments by the conservative New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat. It is easy to see why Deneen’s defense of the family, order, virtue, and tradition would appeal to many conservatives. Likewise his attack on the looseness of contemporary culture (or “anticulture,” as he prefers to label it) for its emphasis on individual autonomy over community values.

Yet the views he expresses on other matters are likely to appeal to progressives. He deplores “our environmental crisis—climate change, resource depletion, groundwater contamination and scarcity, species extinction.” He is also a staunch critic of free-market capitalism, “including deregulation, globalization, and the protection of titanic inequalities.”

Deneen would argue, however, that there is no contradiction in his simultaneous rejection of both the individualism of the pro-market right and the statism of the big-government left. For he sees these two political orientations as giving rise to “a vicious and reinforcing cycle,” in which an ever-expanding state is the inevitable response to the disruption produced by the market and the rampant individualism that it fosters.

What unites these two seemingly opposed political orientations, according to Deneen, is a common attachment to the fundamental principles of the modern liberal tradition, which he rightly traces to the writings of the philosopher John Locke. Preeminent among the fundamental political principles championed by Locke were human equality, individual rights, and government by consent of the governed. These, of course, are also the three key principles affirmed in the Declaration of Independence. Deneen is not so bold as to attack the Declaration or these three principles directly. But he is quite explicit in attacking Locke’s political philosophy, the U.S. Constitution (“a completely new form of political technology that . . . rested on the harnessing of self-interest”), and the case for the large republic put forward by James Madison in the Federalist Papers.

Deneen is not wrong in arguing that Locke and the Federalist took a much more benign view of self-interest than premodern philosophers had, depicting it as the engine of a free and stable political order. But it is a caricature to suggest, as Deneen does, that they thought free government could rely solely on self-interest. As Madison put it in concluding Federalist no. 55, self-government cannot succeed if “there is not sufficient virtue among men.”

Deneen does not deny that the principles of liberalism and the institutions built to implement them have had remarkable success. In fact, he asserts that “[l]iberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded. As it becomes fully itself, it generates endemic pathologies more rapidly and pervasively than it is able to produce Band-aids and veils to cover them.” Among these pathologies, in his telling, are gross inequality, the destruction of the environment, the weakening of local and communal ties, and the irreversible expansion of a state that is increasingly beyond the control of its citizens. Occasionally, he concedes that there was something “of great and enduring value in the achievements of liberalism.” But most often he presents it as a doomed system whose approaching downfall is foretold by the dissatisfactions of present-day liberal societies.

Having called for the root-and-branch rejection of liberalism, what does Deneen offer in its place? Precious little. He never even attempts to provide a coherent and practicable alternative. Frequently he invokes a set of communitarian allegiances—to place, neighborhood, family, nation, religion, tradition, and the like. Yet the only concrete example he gives of a community that fulfills some of these attachments is the Amish, and while he clearly admires them, he does not suggest them as a model to be followed. He also speaks from time to time of the virtues of “preliberal” peoples, but this covers so vast and varied a historical terrain that it can yield very little positive guidance.

At the level of theory, Deneen is clearly an admirer of the pre-modern tradition of Western political philosophy, with its emphasis on virtue, moderation, and self-control. He expresses seemingly equal approval for its ancient version and its Christian version, however, so it is hard to draw from his discussion any sense of the specific direction that present-day rejectionists of liberalism should follow. Perhaps this helps to explain why he concludes that the temptation to come up with a new and better political theory must be resisted. Instead, after all his fiery denunciations of liberalism, he ends his book with a prescription that hardly rises above a whimper: “What we need today are practices fostered in local settings, focused on the creation of new and viable cultures, economics grounded in virtuosity within households, and the creation of civic polis [sic] life. Not a better theory, but better practices.”

Although Deneen targets some genuine weaknesses of liberalism, sometimes with considerable eloquence, he never succeeds in presenting a coherent alternative. Nor does he make it clear which “achievements” of liberalism he is prepared to accept. He seems to reject slavery and the subordination of women, for instance, but never spells out the (presumably non-liberal) grounds that lead him to these positions.

Deneen portrays the contemporary world as having been utterly transformed by the triumph of liberalism. There is one sense in which this may be accurate: global capitalism, arguably an outgrowth of liberalism, has indeed reshaped life almost everywhere. But liberalism in its political form, based on the protection of individual rights and government by consent, has not been nearly so successful, despite the great strides it made in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Authoritarians of one sort or another continue to rule a considerable portion of the world, and today their power and influence appear to be ascending, while the liberal democracies are in retreat.

This means that the weakening of liberal democracy is likely to lead not to an efflorescence of small communities honoring their local traditions and practicing homespun virtues, but rather to the advance of political orders like Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. For a professor of political science, Deneen’s view of the world is surprisingly unpolitical. One telling sign of this is that he virtually never mentions liberal democracy’s contemporary rivals—or, indeed, any countries outside the United States. Nor does he consider the political constraints imposed by living in a world of sovereign and potentially hostile states—except in a paragraph belittling the Federalist’s argument that the new republic would need a strong defensive capacity.

Deneen appears simply to take for granted the security that has long been provided by America’s defense of freedom abroad and its constitutional order at home. He describes the current situation as if things in this country were so terrible that one should not fear that they could become any worse. This is a supremely foolish stance to take at a moment when both the fabric of America’s liberal democracy and its position in the world face greater challenges than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

There is only one modern political philosopher whom Deneen frequently cites with approval: Alexis de Tocqueville. It is true that Tocqueville was a sharp critic of democracy and modernity. No other thinker has characterized so eloquently the shortcomings of modern democracy and what has been lost with the demise of pre-liberal societies. But Tocqueville was nonetheless a lover of freedom and therefore a friend of liberal democracy. He believed that the triumph of the principle of equality had irreversibly transformed the world, but he also argued that the fate of the emerging democratic era was still an open question. He concluded Democracy in America with these words: “it depends on [men] themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or to barbarism, to prosperity or to wretchedness.”

This is still the choice before us. Contrary to what Deneen suggests, freedom and the self-government that is essential for its preservation have been exceedingly rare in human history. They existed in very few pre-liberal societies. The notion that we should give up on the American experiment and reject its founding principles not only is profoundly hostile to the spirit of Tocqueville—it is also the height of political irresponsibility.

Marc F. Plattner

Marc F. Plattner is the founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and the author of Democracy Without Borders?: Global Challenges to Liberal Democracy.