To reimagine modern constitutional democracy, we need to think through its limits and failings. In this series Laura K. Field re-reads Patrick Deneen’s 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed with a view to the dangers posed by the reactionary Right and lessons we might draw from the Trump years for the future of constitutional democracy.
Deneen’s book offers a useful window into some of the conditions that made Trump possible and are likely to sustain the GOP moving forward. Field focuses on areas where Deneen (and some of the other reactionaries who have gained traction in recent years) go wrong in ways that matter. In the first section, she calls attention to Deneen’s use of the language of liberalism and articulates a few major interpretive errors, as well as some of the things that she thinks he gets right. In Part 2, she takes on a major methodological flaw that characterizes reactionary conservatism more generally: the lack of serious historical standards for political judgment, which, in its interplay of dystopianism and fuzzy/unaccountable idealism, amounts to a dangerous evasion of reality. In Part 3, Field considers Deneen’s muddled claims about modern individualism. She discusses his manipulations of theoretical texts and his lopsided account of contemporary political life. In Part 4, Field turns to Deneen’s pinched understanding of liberal education and freedom. She concludes the series with a consideration of the dangers lurking in Deneen’s way of thinking and some reflections on the future course of liberal democracy.