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Is A Postliberal America Even Possible?

Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen has a new book, Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, that asks a lot of important questions about America’s future and provides some unsatisfying answers.

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Regime change begins at home, and we need it. Our nation has been run into the ground, and our leaders seems at best clueless about, and at worst complicit in, the destruction. But replacing an elite caste is difficult; elites are, well, elite in power and connections, even if not in competence.

Notre Dame political theory professor Patrick Deneen has some ideas about why our elites are so bad, and what to do about it. A half-decade after his successful book Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen is ready to answer the question, “What now?” with Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future. He deserves credit for attempting to build and not just critique, and this volume is an insightful, challenging, and sometimes perplexing sketch of what has gone wrong in our nation, and what might be done to put it right.

The book’s diagnosis begins with a critique of liberalism that emphasizes how the persistent divide between the few and the many is exacerbated by liberalism, which suppresses the views of the many in the name of progress. Some sort of elite is inevitable, but liberalism encourages an elite that is antithetical to the many.

Deneen argues that an ideological commitment to progress will always be directed against the people, who naturally tend to be conservative. What the people need and want “is stability, order, continuity and a sense of gratitude for the past and obligation toward the future,” which is to say, a “conservatism that conserves.” What liberalism offers in its classical form is the churning, dislocating “creative destruction” of the global marketplace and, in its progressive form, the dissolving moral and social chaos of revolution against old norms, obligations, and communities. And the two varieties are increasingly combined in woke capitalism.

‘Aristopopulism’

Elite obsessions with race, sex, and so-called gender allow them to wage culture war as class war against the working class. Even as they enjoy the prestige and material rewards of their status, our elites wallow in claims of victimization and justify their assaults on the lower classes by ludicrously designating them as oppressors who deserve their lot. Hence the spectacle of some of the most privileged people in history claiming that disagreement with, say, gender ideology, is an active form of harm that threatens their safety and must therefore be suppressed and excluded. Somehow, the ostensibly marginalized and oppressed have every major corporation lining up to sponsor them and squash their enemies.

Our leadership class is rotten, but Deneen’s castigation of the elites does not let poor and working-class Americans off the hook; they have too often joined in the destruction of their families and communities. And reaction against the elites is not enough to revive the remains of a healthy working-class culture. In Deneen’s view, the populist revolt against the elites has thus far been “untutored and ill led” with former President Trump a “deeply flawed narcissist” who failed to deliver on too many promises. Tanking Bud Light and Target is satisfying but not nearly enough.

Thus, Deneen calls for renewal in the form of a mixed regime that goes beyond balancing the interests of the elites and the masses against each other, and instead seeks to create genuine solidarity between them. Though the U.S. has never had an aristocracy as such, Deneen identifies the professional classes — such as doctors, clergy, and lawyers — as having long served some of the same conservative aristocratic imperatives to “resist the innovators and elevate the masses.” Local leaders tend to be more dedicated to the good of their communities, including the working poor, than far-away moneymen and social justice schemers.

Establishing the sort of “aristopopulism” Deneen envisions will require a combination of populist pressure and class traitors. The end goal is to change the elites, in part by replacing them, and in part by providing new incentives that require them to serve the common good in order to keep their power and positions. Deneen hopes for a cadre of elites who will harness populist political energy to establish themselves as a vanguard of the common good, and Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, who has promoted Regime Change, may be a prototype.

Deneen offers a variety of proposals that Vance and others might pursue. For example, regarding the use of corporate power to impose economic sanctions on socially conservative states, he writes, “Any economic institution with sufficient power to bring financial ruin upon a sovereign political entity should be severely curtailed in the name of the common good.” This insistence that the market be subordinated to non-economic considerations may be heresy to some on the right, but it is a necessary corrective.

Deneen is likewise right that liberalism’s claim to neutrality is a lie. It is impossible to really be neutral between good and evil, God and Satan, truth and falsehood. There is nothing neutral, for example, about liberalism’s embrace of the idea of rational adult individuals as politically normative, and this ahistorical understanding of human persons has a host of ill effects, led by the disdain it inculcates for dependence. As Deneen notes, “Every political order rests on certain theological assumptions,” and he is skilled at unmasking those upon which the varieties of liberalism are based.

Deneen does briefly note the Christian roots of liberalism, and it would have been illuminating had he engaged seriously with David Walsh (another former professor of mine) who has made perhaps the most compelling case for liberalism on these grounds. However, we cannot ask for everything of interest to be included in one book. We may also forgive some generalizations and imprecision in a political theory book for a general audience.

Nonetheless, even a sympathetic reader must wrestle with aspects of Deneen’s arguments. It is not just that he leaves tensions unresolved, but that he ignores some of them, thereby leaving some of his views opaque. An obvious example is that his emphasis on the few and the many elides the importance of the middle class in the United States. The country is filled with those who are neither working class nor elite, and have both benefited from and been harmed by liberalism. Yet Deneen seems to shy away from analyzing this class, even though their loyalties can make or break his political and cultural project.

Restoration or Subversion?

More fundamental still is the question of whether Deneen’s vision of regime change is conservative. Is his goal to “restore the republic” or to replace it by quietly subverting it into a functionally different regime? This in turn is bound up with the question of whether the United States was founded as a fundamentally liberal nation — if so, does American conservatism necessarily consist of merely preserving an earlier iteration of liberalism?

Many on the right have answered yes, arguing that American conservatism is dedicated to the preservation and perfection of the classical liberalism famously expressed in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. This interpretation of American conservatism is fundamentally revolutionary and ultimately oppressive, but it has been widely championed by a host of self-described conservatives, led by disciples of the Claremont professor and Lincoln biographer Harry Jaffa.

The prominence of this ideology prompts Deneen to denounce “what has passed for ‘conservatism’ in the United States for the past half century” as simply another variety of liberalism. In contrast, he champions an older tradition that American conservatives can look to, and describes the postliberal new right as “a rediscovery of early-modern forms of conservatism” and its thinkers, who “warned of the dangers emerging from an ideology of progress.” Among the examples he cites are the American colonists (as seen in the actual text of Winthrop’s oft-quoted “city set on a hill” sermon) and the anti-federalists.

Indeed, Deneen could have written much more about our nation’s non-liberal heritage and how conservatives may learn from it. Unfortunately, his appreciation for our conservative patrimony and his judgment of the Constitution and the founding seems to remain ambiguous, if not hostile. For example, he refers to the “progressive liberalism of America’s Founding Fathers” and asserts that “the American constitutional order … represented the Founder’s belief in … a system in which a designated elite would govern with an aim to advancing an ideal of progress while rendering tractable any recalcitrant popular resistance.”

Thus, the question remains of whether Deneen believes that genuine American conservatism is compatible with our Constitution, and therefore whether his vision of regime change is conservative. Deneen seems, at best, ambivalent, arguing for the “peaceful but vigorous overthrow of our corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class and the creation of a postliberal order in which existing political forms can remain in place, as long as a fundamentally different ethos informs those institutions and the personnel who populate key offices and positions.”

Deneen’s sufferance of our Constitutional system appears conditional on it being run by a new elite with an ethos contrary not only to that of our current leaderships class, but also to that of our founders. However, we may wonder why this new elite, if they acquired the power Deneen hopes for, would not try to change our political forms to something not founded on liberalism. Would anything other than the difficulty of formally amending our supreme law restrain them?

Consequently, though Deneen says he wants to use Machiavellian means to Aristotelian ends, it is possible to read him as urging something more like Platonic means for Platonic ends — encouraging his readers to imagine themselves as philosopher-kings seizing control of and rerouting the ship of state. He is, after all, writing for the new elite, and it is, at best, unclear whether they should be restorationist or subversive of our constitutional order.

Deneen’s ambiguity on this separates him from the many conservatives who, despite generally agreeing with his critique of liberalism, do not believe our nation’s founding was irredeemably liberal. This might also explain Deneen’s inaccurate attack on Ryan Anderson and Robert George — they certainly do not believe that the good “must be a matter of private or subpolitical civic concern,” but they are advocates for our constitutional order.

And they should be. The founders were not liberal ideologues, but statesmen whose ideas were a sort of political and cultural syncretism. As I have put it, “Our nation’s heritage and founding principles … deliberately tempered and restrained liberal ideology. Locke was in the air at the time, but so were Lycurgus and Leviticus. The American system of government was devised not from ideological abstractions, but from experience and compromise.” Despite Jefferson’s Lockean flourishes, the American founding was imbued with many non-liberal elements.

Therefore, there is tension in Deneen’s conclusion. He urges that we learn from the “common-good conservative tradition” yet seems unwilling to acknowledge its role in our founding and Constitution. And so his closing call to “abandon the ruins we have made … and then build anew” may be read as either conservative or radical — not to mention unclear. Does Deneen want us to rebuild and renew our ancestral political and cultural order, or to create a new order for the ages amid the wreck of liberalism?


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