Review: Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen
Since the birth of the modern age, conservatives of various stripes have lamented—often with good reason—the cultural decline of post-Enlightenment society. Such critiques have emphasized different defects: the shrinking of human beings to mere seekers of comfort; the loss of reverence for religious traditions and transcendent truths; the celebration of sexual license and the collapse of the family; the reduction of culture to trivial entertainment; a new despair that life is disenchanted and meaningless (a “joyless quest for joy,” as Leo Strauss once put it) or the mass illusion that our dehumanized lives are better than they really are.
The most honest critics of modernity do not casually dismiss its remarkable achievements in agriculture, transportation, medicine, and domestic comfort. They don’t simply gloss over the starvation, drudgery, and disease that afflicted premodern life, or ignore the injustices and indignities of the premodern political order. The old days were not always so good, when mothers and children died regularly in childbirth, when members of some races and religions were treated as second-class citizens (or worse), and when mundane chores like washing dishes and cleaning clothes could be life-dominating. But some conservative critics believe that the price of progress has been too high; they challenge us to imagine something deeper, higher, and truer in human existence that can be recovered and renewed from the wreckage and wasteland of modernity.
Why Liberalism Failed, by University of Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen, is yet another addition to the literature of conservative lament, hitting notes that any reader of T. S. Eliot or Russell Kirk or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would surely recognize. Deneen’s critique of—and often assault on—modern liberalism goes right to the foundations. His target is not simply the progressive liberalism of Barack Obama but the social contract theory of John Locke; not the liberationist legacy of the 1960s but the vision of radical human autonomy advanced by John Stuart Mill; not the adverse consequences of modern industrialization but the Baconian view that man is at war with nature in the quest for survival and comfort.
Deneen certainly takes aim at the most progressive version of San Francisco liberalism, which now uses the political powers of the state and the cultural powers of the media to expand the empire of sexual freedom. But he gives equal weight to the forms of cultural disintegration caused by Silicon Valley capitalism, with its vision of the free, wealth-producing individual whose waves of “creative destruction” undermine inherited places, cultures, and traditions. Left and right alike, according to Deneen, are variants of the modern liberalism that has “failed.” And left and right together have led us into the cultural crisis that we now face in modern democracies around the world.
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Liberalism is arguably the most confusing word in the English political vocabulary. At the risk of oversimplifying, the original purpose of the liberal project was to redefine the role of government as the protection of individual rights: the right to secure and exchange property, the right to practice one’s chosen religion or no religion at all, the right to criticize those in power in a free and open press, and the right to form associations and communities in accordance with one’s own beliefs and purposes. The “classical liberals”—from Locke to Smith to Madison—believed that the possibility of living a reasonably decent life was inhibited by despotic modes of government, inefficient economic systems, and ineffectual technologies. They imagined something better—a “social contract” that protected individuals from both tyrannical kings and tyrannical majorities and that harnessed the motivating force of private self-interest toward a more prosperous, more stable, and more comfortable way of life.
Some classical liberals believed that this political order would also liberate great-souled men and women for the pursuit of excellence, since newly freed individuals would rise as far as their talents and energies would take them, instead of living under the constraints of religious law or within the rigid social hierarchies of their birth. Other liberals recognized that the heights of man’s artistic, theological, or intellectual reach might diminish in liberal societies that focused on commercial pursuits and practical knowledge, and yet they believed that advancing human equality by securing universal human rights was worth the cultural price. And the most morally self-confident liberals believed that liberal democracy was now the only legitimate political regime and that it was the duty of liberals to export their ideas around the world.
Deneen does not deny that liberalism has achieved many of its desired aims, especially the creation of wealth and the unshackling of religious norms that once constrained the varieties of human experience. But he believes that the liberal idea of human nature—and especially the liberal idea of freedom—is a perversion of the real truth about who we are as human beings. We are not simply autonomous individuals; we are members of distinctive families, communities, and nations. We are not simply free to choose who we are and how we live; our identities are limited by webs of inherited obligations that give life meaning and purpose.
According to Deneen, the liberal vision blinded us to the anthropological truth that we live among the generations, with duties to both our ancestors and our descendants. Liberalism is a Lockean lie that worked. But human nature is finally getting its revenge, as evidenced by the cultural depravations all around us, from collapsing birthrates to ecological deterioration, from broken communities plagued by opioid addiction to massive governmental and personal debt, from tween sexting to the collapse of liberal education.
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So why have we failed to diagnose the deeper cause of our current problems? Deneen focuses on two connected reasons. The first is that the political and cultural wars between left and right obscure the fact that progressives and conservatives alike accept the liberal understanding of human freedom as “expressive individualism.” They treat each other as mortal enemies, and yet they are both engaged in advancing an “anti-culture” that tells young men and women that liberation is their only birthright. As Deneen describes it:
The ways in which the individualist philosophy of classical liberalism and the statist philosophy of progressive liberalism end up reinforcing each other often go undetected. Although conservative liberals claim to defend not only a free market but family values and federalism, the only part of the conservative agenda that has been continuously and successfully implemented during their recent political ascendance is economic liberalism, including deregulation, globalization, and the protection of titanic economic inequalities. And while progressive liberals claim to advance a shared sense of national destiny and solidarity that should decrease the advance of an individualist economy and reduce income inequality, the only part of the left’s political agenda that has triumphed has been the project of personal and especially sexual autonomy. Is it mere coincidence that both parties, despite their claims to be locked in a political death grip, mutually advance the cause of liberal autonomy and inequality?
According to Deneen, individualism and statism thus go hand in hand. Classical liberals may lament the rise of “big government” but they fail to recognize that big-government liberalism was the inevitable consequence of individualism’s triumph: Only the “welfare state” could provide the safety net that families and local charities once provided, and only the “therapeutic state” could attempt to ameliorate the spiritual void once organically filled by faith-based communities. Conversely, progressive liberals may still believe that they are agents of toleration—of a live-and-let-live ethos—but they have become anticultural policemen who permit no dissent from (for example) the new sexual morality.
Which leads to the second reason for our self-deception: The victors in modern liberal society—the “new aristocracy,” as Deneen calls them—are the ones reaping the greatest personal benefits from liberalism while leaving the worst cultural wreckage to those whose economic, moral, and metaphysical lives are far more fragile. The new aristocrats can enjoy unlimited sexual adventures through their twenties and then settle down in stable marriages, with therapists, nannies, and life coaches on call to make it all work. The new aristocrats can move around from one city to the next, one job to another, since they are “networked” beyond the old boundaries of place. But this cosmopolitan (or Cosmopolitan) way of life is unavailable—or undesirable—for the majority of men and women, who yearn for economic stability, moral order, and a clear set of cultural expectations to guide and restrain them. When this cultural script breaks down—and when the dynamism of the modern economy sweeps aside established patterns of life—we get the dysfunctions of what Charles Murray called “Fishtown”: broken marriages, irresponsible men, insecure women, and poorly raised children.
We have now reached the point, according to Deneen, when ordinary citizens are ready to revolt against the liberal order: citizens whose lives are often in turmoil, whose faith in leaders and institutions (“the establishment”) is shattered, who feel like their voices are not heard even as the administrative state tries to minister to their every need. Yet this new revolt against liberalism is illiberal and debased. Or as Deneen describes it, liberalism ends in Trumpism:
We should finally not be surprised that even a degraded citizenry will throw off the enlightened shackles of a liberal order, particularly as the very successes of that order generate the pathologies of a citizenry that finds itself powerless before forces of government, economy, technology, and globalizing forces. Yet once degraded, such a citizenry would be unlikely to insist upon Tocquevillian self-command; its response would predictably take the form of inarticulate cries for a strongman to rein in the power of a distant and ungovernable state and market. Liberalism itself seems likely to generate demotic demands for an illiberal autocrat who promises to protect the people against the vagaries of liberalism itself. Liberals are right to fear this eventuality, but persist in willful obliviousness of their own complicity in the birth of the illiberal progeny of the liberal order itself.
Deneen’s alternative to the false hope of Trumpism is the renewal of communal life at the local level: true religious communities that worship together, celebrate together, mourn together, and stay together; local markets that resist the demands of the global economy; local self-governance focused on the concrete problems of towns and neighborhoods; and a renewed sense of local responsibility, which should inspire the most capable young men and women to devote their talents to where they grew up rather than fleeing into the cosmopolitan never-never land. Out of this post-liberal experience of localism, Deneen hopes that a new theory of politics will emerge from the ground up and that the era of liberalism will come to an end.
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There is much to admire in Deneen’s book, which combines impressive learning in the history of political theory and genuine attention to the complex realities of contemporary life. And the cultural and political problems that worry him should worry all of us. But the book is also deeply flawed, and in the end its critique lacks the prudence, realism, and generosity of spirit that wiser cultural critics—like Irving Kristol and Leon Kass—have demonstrated in their own deep efforts to confront the problems of modernity.
For one thing, Deneen treats American society as if it is simply a Lockean (or Madisonian) abstraction. For a book that celebrates the importance of particular peoples—with histories and heroes, stories and songs, rituals and traditions—it is remarkable how little attention Deneen pays to the real American story. Yes, liberal ideas informed the American founding; and yes, modern American culture evinces many of the degradations of advanced liberal society that Deneen so ably observes. But Deneen’s cold abstraction is not the American story. We are a nation that remembers (or could be reminded of) the cracked bell in Philadelphia emblazoned with a passage from Leviticus; Washington’s heroic crossing of the Delaware; Hawthorne’s mythic house of the seven gables on the waters of Salem; Lincoln’s log-cabin origins and soul-shaping rhetoric; the huddled masses entering through Ellis Island; the Jewish woman whose poetry adorns our Statue of Liberty and the rabbi who arrived as an American chaplain when Hitler’s concentration camps were finally liberated by American force of arms. To reduce America to mere liberalism is a crime against memory being committed by a thinker whose aim is to elevate our memories and our attachments. And to reduce modern Americans to small and selfish men is to ignore the selfless citizens—especially in the American military—who see America as a story of freedom, not simply an abstract idea of freedom. And that distinction, entirely missed by Deneen, makes quite a difference.
Likewise, Deneen demonstrates too little gratitude for the genuine moral achievements of American modernity—and too little appreciation for the pathos of premodern men and women who suffered in mortal nakedness when blind nature was stingy or cruel. Surely Deneen is correct that the will to progress can become a dangerous and deforming human illusion: the belief that man can conquer the world, once and for all, including the problems of human misery and mortality. Such hubris can only lead to self-delusion and self-destruction. But the will to progress is also, at its best, an embodiment of the higher possibilities of the human spirit: creativity, wonder, persistence, charity. Yes, modern technology is oriented toward the practical needs of bodily life, as Bacon envisioned it. But the scientific spirit still yearns to know the truth, and ameliorating the bodily needs of life includes the ultimate act of charity: the physician-scientist who rescues a sick child from a now-avoidable death sentence. Deneen makes clear that he does not seek a return to the past, and he does not romanticize the premodern age. But for a thinker who puts gratitude at the center of his philosophical anthropology, Deneen’s level of gratitude for modernity itself is perhaps a bit too stingy.
Finally, Deneen pays little attention to the harsher necessities of modernity that cannot be avoided and no attention to the threats we face from our most zealous and committed enemies. For all their flaws, America and the other liberal societies of the world are generally redeemable places, worthy of defense. They may be decadent, but they are not evil. And the defense of America and its allies requires tremendous power: military power, economic power, and political power. America has a moral responsibility to be powerful, and the preservation of American power requires competitive success in the modern economic and geopolitical world. This may be harsh and unpleasant; living well as a nation with such competitive pressures may partially diminish the very lives that the perpetuation of such power exists to protect. But this is reality—a reality that Deneen never quite confronts. And because he ignores it, he is able to engage in cavalier attacks on modern capitalism and cavalier calls for opting out of the global economy. Many wise and decent parents recognize that participating in the modern economy is the price of feeding, clothing, and healing their children, just as many modern nations—like America and Israel—recognize that succeeding in the modern economy is the price of preserving their imperfect forms of civilization against the threat of well-armed barbarism.
In his desire to offer an evenhanded critique of liberalism—holding right and left equally accountable for our cultural decline—Deneen perhaps misses an opportunity to contribute to the renewal of a realistic version of Burkean conservatism, which he rightly seeks and which this era sorely needs. At a policy level, such an effort might explore in greater detail what a reinvigorated federalism could look like, making the argument that both civic peace and civic renewal require allowing California to be California and Utah to be Utah, with each region given more space to embody its distinctive visions of the social good. He might have combined a new defense of federalism on matters of domestic and cultural life with a new defense of noble nationalism when it comes to projecting American power in the world.
Or even closer to Deneen’s heart, he might have explored, concretely rather than abstractly, what the renewal of communal life could really look like: what it would mean to strengthen and sustain Catholic schools in Indiana, or to educate a new generation of evangelical pastors, or to preserve traditional Jewish schools and synagogues in blue states like California and New York, where the costs are high and the surrounding culture is increasingly hostile. He might have developed his case “from the bottom up”—putting a spotlight on civic heroes, like Eva Moskowitz, who has created the most successful charter-school system in the nation, all to educate the underprivileged kids who are being left behind by the very dysfunctional progressive liberalism that Deneen describes.
One cannot fault Deneen for writing a work of political philosophy, which inevitably tends to abstraction. But if he takes his own philosophy seriously, his next book will enter into the nitty-gritty of some aspect of the cultural renewal that he seeks. He will discuss real institutions and real people. He will elevate civic heroes, not simply attack the wayward masses and decadent elites. And if he takes the spirit of gratitude seriously, then he may find ways to honor and redeem the architects of modernity for the human goods they brought into being, even as he seeks to remedy their original anthropological sin: giving too much weight to the myth of the self-made self and paying too little attention to the web of human attachments that ought to define us.
Eric Cohen is an adjunct fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and executive director of the Tikvah Fund.