Bernard Vaillant, Socrates Looking in a Mirror (c. 17th century). Public domain
The most telling sentence in Patrick J. Deneen’s new book, Regime Change (Sentinel, June 2023), might be its last one. Concluding his acknowledgments, Deneen thanks a short list of fellow conservative writers for their “sustaining friendship,” commenting: “I couldn’t think of a better group of comrades with whom to share a foxhole.” Deneen knows his friends so he can recognize his enemies, and between them, he expects combat, soon.
This positioning marks a remarkable shift in Deneen’s thinking, perhaps echoing a broader shift within the American Right.
In his widely-discussed 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen had cautioned that “the end of liberalism and its replacement by another regime” is not “to be wished for,” and he disavowed a “political revolution to overturn [liberalism’s] revolutionary order.”
Now, at least rhetorically, he digs in for war.
In both Why Liberalism Failed and Regime Change, Deneen, a political theory professor at the University of Notre Dame, criticizes the modern political tradition that runs from Locke to Mill to the social progressivism and free market economics of our era. But between those two books, he changed his mind about the nature of liberalism and the path toward a postliberal alternative.
In Why Liberalism Failed, liberalism begins as a new political doctrine in which human beings are individuals with innate rights and without innate obligations. From that doctrine, early liberals built the modern state and market, the social architecture housing the policies, technologies, and self-understandings to which we are now accustomed.
No one who lives in a liberal order, Deneen suggested, is immune from an organized pressure to uproot, to compete, to experience time as a “pastless present” and to experience places as “fungible.” Liberalism thus becomes an “anticulture,” detaching people from histories and loyalties, militating against everything small or local; a liberal order keeps the peace but does not offer genuinely humane lives and communities.
Liberalism became entwined with state power—and so, Deneen concluded, a postliberal politics should be different, fostering local variety and intellectual humility, “the patient encouragement of new forms of community that can serve as havens in our depersonalized political and economic order.” Liberalism’s critics need not a theory of revolution but “better practices” giving rise to “countercultural communities” that serve as “lighthouses and field hospitals” from which “a better theory of politics and society might ultimately emerge.”
Apparently, Deneen no longer holds out much hope for that vision of slow cultural reconstruction. Not for nothing does he borrow from Lenin the title of his new book’s concluding section: “What Is to Be Done?” In his new telling, liberalism has been all along a technique for suppressing the perennial tension between “the few” and “the many.” It promises that material progress, achieved through “an ever-freer and more expansive market,” will ensure “political peace” between a new meritocratic ruling class (those Locke called the “rational and industrious”) and everyone else.
Deneen now proposes that the liberal order produces its own gravediggers: the resentment of meritocracy’s losers for its winners grows as the liberal order matures. Since there exists a growing class of people disgruntled with liberalism, Deneen declares, intellectuals like himself who seek “Aristotelian ends” can—indeed, must—depend on “Machiavellian means,” the “raw assertion of political power by a new generation of political actors” to displace the old ruling elite and implement a program of its own —provided, of course, that the revolutionary class is led by a political elite equipped with postliberal ideas. If liberalism is power politics all the way down, the only viable response to it is an opposing power politics.
Why does Deneen now reject the ideas of Why Liberalism Failed? One factor, I suspect, is that in a certain way Why Liberalism Failed failed. A usefully provocative book, even for readers who are not, in a superficial sense, on the same side as Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed hitched together ideas that pulled in different directions. Deneen abjured the quest for liberalism’s “replacement by a new … ideology.” Yet he described liberalism as a total system, a completed project. Note his verb tenses: “Liberalism … failed because it has succeeded,” in that our society “has been remade in the image of an ideology.”
If liberalism’s hegemony has been fully accomplished, it is hard to see how anything other than a new hegemony-seeking ideology could successfully confront it. The logic of Why Liberalism Failed yielded a dilemma: it must have seemed to Deneen that he had to choose between his desire to eschew what Straussian thinkers call the “modern project of mastery” and his desire to reach a “time after liberalism.”
With Regime Change, Deneen has made his choice. He had noted in the preface to Why Liberalism Failed that he finished writing that book in October 2016, and commented that he “might have written a somewhat different book in light of recent events.” As if shocked by a vision of a conservative project of mastery, Deneen has now written that “different book.”
It is not that he fell for Donald Trump. A reader can easily guess whom he has in mind when he excoriates “demagogic political leaders who are implicated in corruption and marked by moral laxity, whose main attraction is their brusqueness.” Uncomfortable with Trump, Deneen is nevertheless fascinated by his electoral coalition.
Trump’s supporters, it appears, perceive American society as a conflict between “elites” and “ordinary people.” Adopting this perspective, Deneen develops a new view of liberalism’s place within modern political thought. Classical liberals like Locke, he notes, thought the common people had revolutionary instincts, and feared them; Marx read the people the same way, and embraced them. Progressive liberals like Mill, then, saw the people as conservatives at heart, and feared them for it.
The logical alternative to all these positions—a fourth modern ideology, no less than the others an idea in quest of state power—would be a politics that assumes that the people are averse to disruptive “progress” and sides with them for this reason. Deneen calls this stance “common good conservatism.” “Ordinary people,” he declares, are the “most instinctively conservative” social group because they “seek stability, predictability, order, within a system that is broadly fair.” Trump’s election signaled, Deneen seems to think, that there is, after all, a mass base for a postliberal politics.
It’s not clear, however, what it means to say that a common good politics must be “conservative.” To value community and stability is to be conservative in the simple sense of wanting to sustain or preserve what is good. But surely this need not mean being conservative in the partisan sense. Deneen writes admiringly about the tradition of British modernity-skeptical communitarianism but shows little interest in the fact that Labour has contributed as much to this tradition as the Conservative Party. The decentralist sociability-conserving socialisms of, say, George Orwell or R. H. Tawney are, unmistakably, varieties of common good politics. But they suggest a political program and movement different from the ones on which Deneen now pins his hopes. The short-term policy agenda that Deneen outlines in Regime Change is only tepidly “pro-worker”—offering little policy support for working people beyond protectionism, and endorsing unions only in the private sector—while being remarkably conservative on social issues.
Moreover, Deneen’s description of American non-elites shows them to be, at most, inconsistent conservatives. “Rooted,” they are guided by the wisdom of a “common sense” emerging from “the [thick] web of ties in their home communities.” Yet “when truth must be told,” he concedes, “‘the people’ are … far less likely to exhibit certain kinds of virtues related to marriage, family, work, and criminality [and] far more likely to exhibit various measures of social pathology such as divorce and out-of-wedlock marriage than ‘the elite.’ They have become susceptible to the pathologies of various addictions, ranging from marijuana and opioids to video addictions and pornography.”
Deneen rightly notes that “ordinary people” face “straitened economic circumstances and diminished upward mobility.” But the dysfunctions he lists do not seem like the responses of rooted communities to hard times. They look more like the desperate expressions of a self-seeking and unsociable worldview that might best be described as a variety of, well, liberalism.
Deneen writes as if “ordinary people”—a category he seems to equate with Trump’s electorate—simply need better leaders. He envisions a postliberal intellectual elite drawing out the people’s conservative instincts, an alignment he calls “aristopopulism.”
Yet what if Deneen’s “ordinary people” don’t want to be led by Aristotelians devoted to virtue and stability? If the “social pathology” and taste for “brusqueness” of Trump’s voters run as deeply as Deneen suggests, then the political style that best matches that electorate’s mood may well be the tyrannopopulism (as Deneen might call it) of Trump and his imitators.
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates confronts his accuser Meletus: Who among the Athenians, he asks, knows how to improve the character of their city’s youth? “These gentlemen, Socrates, the jurors,” replies Meletus. “All of them, or some but not others?” asks Socrates. “All of them,” replies Meletus.
Deneen invokes Machiavelli, but at a deeper level his model is Meletus: the whole class of “ordinary people,” all of them, have the right political instincts, and only the liberal “ruling elite,” like the deplorable Socrates, is corrupting the American polity. It is hard to see how Deneen will be able to keep up this shell of a strategy. He has abandoned his former vision of decentralized “countercultural communities,” but the “aristopopulist” project of Regime Change is also likely to fall apart under its own contradictions.
Regime Change breaks with Deneen’s earlier thinking in still another way: of the eight books he has written or edited, it is the only one that does not mention the man he once called “the smartest and the wisest and the kindest and the most loving man I ever knew”—Wilson Carey McWilliams. A longtime Rutgers University professor of political theory, McWilliams was Deneen’s scholarly mentor; after McWilliams’s death in 2005, Deneen co-edited two superb collections of his essays, along with Pomona College political theorist Susan McWilliams, his daughter.
Deneen inherited from McWilliams his conviction that there is a human nature with which politics should accord and his paired worries about economic inequality and the breakdown of neighborly bonds. For McWilliams, these concerns led to a generous egalitarianism, an abiding loyalty to the Democratic Party, and what he called a “lover’s-quarrel with the Left.” The curious thing is that McWilliams, whose writings Deneen knows as intimately as anyone, thought a great deal about the very problem that bedevils Deneen: how to fit political means to ends beyond the horizon of liberal individualism.
McWilliams was among my teachers, too. In the fall of 2000, I began graduate study in political theory at Rutgers. Deneen, then teaching at Princeton, dropped by the new student orientation to regale us with a story or two. Later that semester, McWilliams gave a talk on campus. He spoke about the November elections and about the deeper patterns of American politics: the fraying of community, the erosion of civic dignity. A student sitting next to me raised his hand and asked, “Does this mean we’re headed for some sort of crisis?” McWilliams rumbled back: “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Jim, I’m a Calvinist. I always think we’re headed for a crisis.”
And that is precisely the point that Deneen seems to be missing. Liberalism hasn’t failed: vulnerable and durable, inadequate and appealing, it is by its nature continually on the verge of failure. McWilliams was indeed a lifelong Presbyterian, but at the heart of his Calvinism was an insight hardly unique to the Reformation, perhaps best described as Augustinian: we are restless creatures, pulled always toward a love of self, yet made for a love directed beyond the self. The liberal doctrine of unencumbered personhood speaks to our self-love; it morphs our instinctive egoism into a systematic theory. Yet because our self-love is never the whole of who we are, the appeal of liberalism, deep though it runs, is never the only call we hear. We are always on the edge of the cliff; we always have a way to turn back.
Deneen tidies the conflict between liberalism’s inadequacy and its appeal by making it an external event, a battle between a communitarian people and a liberal elite. McWilliams taught something more subtle: “The conflict between ancient and modern culture in America,” he wrote, “takes place less and less between groups and classes and more and more within the psyche of the individual, schooled in modern individualism but drawn, however confusedly, toward the ideal of political community.” American political culture, in McWilliams’s account, mixes the liberal project of the Framers with a second tradition, a fraternal ethos that resurfaces in each generation. That unpredictable swirl of influences gives a peculiarly American shape to our most fundamental self-contradictions.
If McWilliams was right—and I think that he was—then Deneen’s “aristopopulist” strategy for a “postliberal future” is both impracticable and unwise. The popular constituency for “common good” politics is never ready and waiting; it always needs cultivation, and it crops up in unexpected places.
If being “conservative” means conserving those things that make for a common good, then “conservatives” (who may well be socialists) will be found in many odd corners of society, often befuddled and adrift, in need of one another’s company and encouragement.
Where Deneen has leaped from a minimalist vision of “lighthouses and field hospitals” to a maximalist demand for “regime change,” McWilliams scouted a middle path, a modest politics of creative reform and hopeful friend-finding, inevitably touching on questions of policy and state power but anchored elsewhere. “If men can recognize both the need for political fraternity and the fact that modern society makes it impossible,” McWilliams wrote, “they will not necessarily discard that society.” Those who hunger for a common good can still “attempt to provide the greatest approximations possible; they can make communities and fraternities more possible, more likely rather than less.” Through “a long series of partial moves and shrewd compromises,” they can build “a fraternal city within an unfraternal polity,” learning that one can “recognize one’s fellow citizens when chance casts them in the way.”
If Deneen’s “new Right” now disdains this patient and democratic work, perhaps a new and wiser Left will need to take it up.
Geoffrey Kurtz is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of Social Sciences at Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY, and is the author of Jean Jaurès: The Inner Life of Social Democracy.