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Why Deneenism Fails
The political theorist is back with another broadside against American liberal democracy—this time sketching out the future he’d like to see.
IN 2007, WHEN I FIRST ENCOUNTERED the work of Patrick Deneen, a political theorist then at Georgetown and now at Notre Dame, he was propounding the thesis that the world was running out of oil and the entire liberal-democratic edifice, constructed on a foundation of continuous economic growth, was heading for catastrophic collapse.
But later, in his widely discussed 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen silently dropped the “peak oil” thesis. World oil production that year reached an all-time high, perhaps leading to a change of mind. Whatever the case, he was now concerning himself with an entirely different kind of calamity, namely that the United States had become a form of tyranny that he called “liberalocratic despotism,” a tyranny that was rapidly approaching its terminus. He concluded this book with a call for “epic” theorizing that would call forth “a new departure in political thinking,” a search for some sort of intellectual structure that could occupy the place of the dying liberalism.
Now Deneen is back with just such a stab at a new departure, a book with the arresting title of Regime Change. He opens it with the apocalypticism that, ever since his peak oil days, has been his trademark. The foundations of liberal society, he warns, are moving from decay to a violent collapse that will potentially spawn a dictatorship. “Once-beautiful cities and towns around the nation have succumbed to an ugly blight.” Falling fertility rates coexist with rising suicide and overdose deaths. “The louder the calls for tyranny, the more likely the eruption of a civil war; and the more likely a civil war moves from cold to hot, the more likely it is ultimately resolved through one or another form of tyranny.”
Deneen’s central argument is that as liberalism careens toward its “inevitable failure,” it needs urgently to be replaced. One of his key premises is that the two sides of American politics—conservatism and liberalism—form a kind of exhausted uni-party. They both share the mistaken conviction that economic and social progress can solve what ails us. But what both sides fail to grasp is that “the consequences of unfettered progress are no longer acceptable to the demos.”
Indeed, Deneen continues, the demos are already in revolt. The common people, he maintains, reject both sides of the traditional left-right political divide. Instead of progress, what is needed, he writes,
and what most ordinary people instinctively seek—is stability, order, continuity and a sense of gratitude for the past and obligation toward the future. What they want, without knowing the right word for it, is a conservatism that conserves.
The vehicle for ushering in this improved form of conservatism is the populism that has been sweeping the globe, very much including the United States. Up to now, this populist movement has been “untutored and ill led.” The trouble has been Donald Trump: populism’s “nominal champion” in the United States, is “a deeply flawed narcissist.” Trump’s accomplishment was that he “appealed to the intuitions of the populace.” But his principal shortcomings were that he did so without articulating the populace’s grievances and without turning its “resentments into sustained policy and the development of a capable leadership class.”
In constructing a brand of populism without the deeply flawed Trump as its leader—Trumpism without Trump—it is the twin lacunae of sustained policy and capable leadership that Deneen aims to fill.
ONE OF THE OLDEST QUESTIONS in political philosophy revolves around the relationship between the few and the many—elites and the masses. Deneen offers a lengthy excursion through this problem, with stops at Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Aquinas, Machiavelli, and Tocqueville, before offering his own contribution. Our current ruling class, he writes, is “uniquely ill equipped for reform, having become one of the worst of its kind produced in history.” What is “essential” is the creation of a new elite, “self-conscious aristoi,” he calls them, “who understand that their main role and purpose in the social order is to secure the foundational goods that make possible human flourishing for ordinary people.”
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As for the nature of these “foundational goods,” they include not only family and community, but a “culture that preserves and encourages order and continuity, and support for religious belief and institutions.” To this end, Deneen offers a lengthy list of policies in a section whose title, with unsubtle irony, is borrowed from Lenin’s famous pamphlet, “What Is to Be Done?”
These policy prescriptions are too numerous to catalogue here in full, but they include compulsory public service, more vocational education, a “strenuous” industrial policy to support manufacturing industries, prosecution of employers who hire illegal immigrants, a ban on pornography, and “renewed efforts to enforce a moral media,” including, “where necessary, further forms of legislation that promote public morality, and forbid its intentional corruption.”
Finally, and most importantly, there must be “forthright acknowledgment and renewal of the Christian roots of our civilization.” This means “public acknowledgment and celebration of these Christian roots” a policy that will mean not only a return of blue laws “that allow families to gather, free of the distractions and demands of commerce,” but also “public opportunities for prayers,” and a “revitalization of our public spaces to reflect a deeper belief that we are called to erect imitations of the beauty that awaits us in another Kingdom.”
DENEEN’S LAST BOOK, as I remarked upon its publication, was, despite its manifold defects, “brilliantly written,” a display of “erudition and sparkling prose.” With the passage of five years, though, something bad appears to have happened to Deneen’s pen. A great deal of erudition is still present, but the prose, far from being brilliant and sparkling, is windy and turgid, with heavy, lengthy sentences the norm: “The ascendant elite is selected for its distinction from the perceived backward elements of society, and not for any exemplary virtue that should be widely shared and emulated.” Or: “The separation of the progressed from the recidivist became an essential feature of the modern liberal regime: progress can only advance by recognizing, distinguishing, and promoting the elements of society that most ensure the forward progress of history.”
Yet shortcomings of style are the least of the book’s problems. If Regime Change is taken seriously by many on the right—and it will be treated as gospel by some—it is a roadmap leading directly to the very tyranny that Deneen warns is awaiting us.
One set of issues revolves around who is to compose the new elite, the aristoi, who are to rule in the name of the common good. Deneen, sounding every bit like a Leninist, writes that it will require “some number of ‘class traitors’ to act on behalf of the broad working class.” Deneen never spells out from whence these class traitors are to be recruited, but the answer is entirely clear. The “stewards and caretakers of the common good” are to be Deneen himself and likeminded thinkers, “a virtuous elite,” fellow postliberal Catholic integralists like those he lists in his acknowledgments, including Sohrab Ahmari, Gladden Pappin, Chad Pecknold, and Adrian Vermeule, whom he thanks with an appropriate martial metaphor, “I couldn’t think of a better group of comrades with whom to share a foxhole.”
Another problem involves determining what constitutes the common good in this sort of common good conservatism. Deneen has a particular vision in mind: it entails extirpating liberalism root and branch and replacing it with a political order based upon a conservative form of Christianity. But what if a majority of voters disagree with such a vision? After all, policies like “celebration of [our] Christian roots” or forbidding the “intentional corruption” of “public morality,” whatever that might mean in practice, promise to be rather controversial—to put it mildly—in our multireligious, multiethnic, sexually heterodox democracy.
To be sure, there is a constituency for some of the policies that Deneen enumerates, but taking those policies in their totality, that constituency is vanishingly small, if not quite as small as the new elite, the aristoi, the vanguard party that is to steer the proletariat toward the realization of Deneen’s postliberal political order. Deneen circumvents the problem of garnering democratic support with hints at the necessity of coercion. Though he assures us he is only interested in a “peaceful” transition away from liberalism, “where necessary,” he menacingly intones, “those who currently occupy positions of economic, cultural, and political power must be constrained and disciplined by the assertion of popular power.” But what form will this “assertion of popular power” take? Will it entail violence, a “hot” civil war of the kind he warns might be imminent? Will it include more scenes like those of January 6, 2021? Or does Deneen have something else in mind? In a book full of high-level abstractions, a book that also assiduously avoids hard questions about the actual practice of politics, Deneen never gets around to explaining what means he would employ to get to his promised land.
Deneen’s reactionary dream of stopping “progress” presents another set of thorny problems. We are in the middle of—or perhaps still at the beginning of—a technological revolution that already has had far-reaching social and political ramifications. The future promises even more profound transformations, as yet unknowable in content. What does it mean, in these circumstances, to rail against progress? Deneen has in mind harnessing the power of the state to buck up traditional forms of social life, heterosexual marriage, community, and religion. He writes approvingly of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, whose policies he characterizes, after having made his own pilgrimage to Budapest, as a “rejection of the broader modern commitment to a project of progress that seeks to displace, dismantle and overcome all boundaries and limits to infinite choice and self-creation.”
But once again, we run into the problem of coercion. Hungary is a small, landlocked country with a homogeneous population of 10 million and a dark history of the violent extermination of minorities in its midst. Orbán’s avowedly “illiberal democracy” depends upon authoritarian methods and extensive cronyism to rule and stay in power. Such a country cannot serve as any kind of model for a nation as large, populous, diverse, dynamic, and democratic as the United States.
The deeper problem is that for better and worse, “progress”—including social and technological change and the dissolution of traditional practices and ties that come with it—is not stoppable without coercion on a grand scale, and even then, it cannot be truly halted. The best that can be hoped is for change to be channeled along humane corridors.
FINALLY, SERIOUS QUESTIONS about Deneen’s judgment arise from his claim that our “current ruling class” is “one of the worst of its kind produced in history.” These are the words of a man evidently consumed by a burning hatred of our liberal democracy. They are of a piece with his contention that the United States is a despotism suffering under a form of “liberal totalitarianism.”
Totalitarianism? One of the worst ruling classes produced in history? Serious criticisms can be leveled at America’s elites, but one can also go overboard and lose all perspective.
Has Deneen overlooked the ruling class in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China? Is he unaware of the horrors committed by ruling classes in the genuinely totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century: Nazi Germany, Stalinist Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge?
George Orwell offers what is the most likely explanation for Deneen’s extraordinary contentions: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that; no ordinary man could be such a fool.” In this respect, the bogus theory of peak oil and the apocalyptic advocacy of regime change share in common something amusingly grotesque. But there is nothing amusing about postliberalism—or Trumpism without Trump. It is a tyrannical fantasy whose proponents, launching fusillades not from foxholes but from ivory towers in the name of “ordinary people,” are intellectual cranks with a dangerous will to power.