This is part 1 of a 5-part series. Read the full series here.

Why Liberalism Failed may be the first book that I have ever read twice out of a sense of intellectual frustration. I do not know the book’s author, Patrick Deneen, so nothing about it is personal. The frustration I feel is philosophical and political, and it is complicated. Why Liberalism Failed is about the state of the modern political order, and it is one of those books that I feel acutely qualified to judge. Like Patrick Deneen, I have a Ph.D. in political theory. So I have thought a lot about modern liberalism, have often sympathized with its critics, and I agree with some of Deneen’s basic arguments and diagnostics. But I can also see that his work is sloppy in its causal attributions, overweening and lopsided in its analysis of current affairs, and dogmatic about the future of constitutional democracy. As a work of scholarship, Deneen’s 2018 book is a disappointment. It contains clumsy interpretations of major philosophical thinkers and eras — and sometimes his political arguments do not rise to the level that I would expect from good students. Why Liberalism Failed was published by an academic press, but for me it was just one big troll. 

None of this would matter much if the book were about something unimportant, or if it hadn’t gotten much attention, or if the world around us today were different than it is. Unfortunately, the book is about the status and future of modern liberal democracy, it has had a tremendous amount of attention in the two years since its publication, and Deneen has now become part of a global reactionary “moment.” The book was reviewed extremely widely and even made it onto Obama’s 2018 reading list. Deneen’s status rose accordingly, and he has since become a fixture on the new nationalist and reactionary Right. In March 2019, he signed on to a First Things letter that celebrated the end of the pre-Trump conservative establishment. He attended the inaugural National Conservatism Conference in the summer of 2019 and visited with Viktor Orbán in Hungary last fall. Unlike other staunch conservatives like David French and Rod Dreher, he does not speak out against the Trumpy GOP on social media. He is also an open supporter of something like Adrian Vermeule-style Integralism (Vermeule has recently been appointed to the American Conference of the United States, or ACUS, by the president). His mode of thinking is representative of a broadly-entertained hope for a “new fusionism” of social conservatism and populist “working-class” economics on the American right (among those whom I would classify as reactionary conservatives, Deneen stands out for his economic leftism/aggressive opposition to capitalism).  

To be clear, I do not believe that the fusionist hope is necessarily illiberal or reactive, insofar as I believe you can hold deeply socially conservative views, as well as pro-working-class economic views, while still working to uphold others’ rights (and even while disagreeing with the character or scope of particular rights). I characterize Deneen as illiberal and reactionary because his work regularly makes vague, backward-looking appeals to the past, and he abandons the idea of liberal rights (or at least fails to delineate the scope of his rejection of rights with any clarity). My sense is that Deneen’s work has, in tandem with that of many others on the anti-liberal Right, helped pave the way for the emergence of populist, illiberal authoritarianism as a serious political force in the United States. Although at this point I do trust that Trump will leave the White House in January 2021, the reactionary outlook is not just going to disappear. It has gained a foothold in the United States and is on the rise around the world. 

So I have spent some time looking at Deneen’s book more closely than can be done in a standard book review in this series of commentaries for Niskanen. I think this is worth doing because Deneen’s book is the most serious defense I’ve seen of illiberal conservatism, and as such it offers a useful window into some of the conditions that made Trump possible (and are likely to sustain the GOP moving forward). The book also resonated with people like Barack Obama and Cornel West because it got some things right, and it would be a mistake to ignore those insights. 

Furthermore, Deneen’s book goes wrong in ways that are instructive. Deneen’s main claim throughout the book — I call it his inevitability thesis — is that modern liberal democracy has failed because it has been too true to its deepest commitment of radical individual autonomy, which necessarily acts like a solvent on the social fabric. Deneen repeats his thesis all the way through the book, a bit like a wizard, and everything in turn serves this insight: liberalism is about individualism, which leads to collapse, which leads to despotic government; wash, rinse, repeat. The biggest problem with the book, as I see it, is that the inevitability thesis simply isn’t true. Radical individual autonomy is not the essence of liberal democracy properly understood, and so there’s not much that is inevitable about rampant individualism wielding destructive power throughout the modern world. All political life involves a complicated interplay of individual freedom, collective concerns and aspirations, material conditions, and other historical contingencies. Yet Deneen wants us to believe that, thanks to some early modern ideas about individuals and nature, there is only one direction for modern constitutionalism to go. In other words, his book takes us down a long tunnel of providential doom, but along the way, he is the one quietly closing the doors and windows that might lead to alternative (liberal, constitutional) futures and possibilities. Since Deneen’s mode of thinking is representative of something important within conservative thought today, it’s useful to call out these mistakes, these closures, and these exclusions — to stop and say “No, this isn’t true, and that isn’t how it works. Let’s think about how things might be otherwise.” 

In the series, I focus on three areas where Deneen (and some of the other reactionaries who have gained traction in recent years) go wrong in ways that matter. In this first post, I call attention to Deneen’s use of the language of liberalism and articulate a few major interpretive errors, as well as some of the things that I think he gets right. In Part 2, I take 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, I consider Deneen’s muddled claims about modern individualism. I discuss his manipulations of theoretical texts and his lopsided account of contemporary political life. In Part 4, I discuss Deneen’s pinched understanding of liberal education and freedom. I conclude in Part 5 with a consideration of the dangers I see lurking in Deneen’s way of thinking — and that I worry Republicans and conservatives have still been too slow to acknowledge. I also recommend some antidotes to Deneenism. 

The language of liberalism 

I want to begin by highlighting something simple but important about Deneen’s book, which is the way that he uses the language of liberalism. Deneen’s title boldly declares that liberalism has failed, but what exactly does he mean, and is it true? Unfortunately for the average American reader, Deneen makes adjudicating such questions more difficult than it needs to be through his sloppy linguistic choices. Political labels always pose problems (What is the difference between a social democrat and a democratic socialist? How are today’s liberals and socialists distinct?), but when it comes to simple clarity and consistency of meaning, in an American context, the word “liberalism” is especially problematic. The word is extremely vague and varying. It means one thing to Putin, and another to Trump; an American on the far left will use the word disparagingly to describe the center, while conservatives and much of the mainstream use it as a catch-all for the American left. It almost always carries a highly partisan valence. It is unfortunate that, from the get-go, Deneen chooses a word that often confounds more than it clarifies. 

In the introduction to his book, Deneen does explain that he means “liberalism” in the very broadest, theoretical sense. When he speaks of liberalism, Deneen explains on pages 1 and 2, he is talking about the modern liberal democratic order — the system of representative government that gradually gained authority throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and that now characterizes democratic life in much of the world. In other words, Deneen claims to be using the word as American political theorists often do, to describe modern, multiracial, constitutional democracy. Since the book is written for a general audience, a more transparent title would have been Why Liberal Democracy Failed, or Why Modern Liberal Constitutionalism Failed. The claim implicit in Deneen’s title is that the American Founding has amounted to a failure, and it implies that all liberal democracies in the world are headed that same way. This book is supposed to be about an entire regime type, and to have very little to do with the American left vs. right. 

But one significant implication of Deneen’s title, and his use of highly-charged “liberalism” and its cognates throughout the book (he ends up blaming the ascendant “liberalocracy” for a good share of America’s problems), is that it allows him to tap into all the pent-up anti-Democratic, anti-liberal partisanship of the American right (and left), while dodging and concealing the radical, reactionary nature of his claims. Whether it was intentional or not, this seems to me like a highly-charged political choice dressed up as scholarly objectivity — and one that is often replicated throughout the media, especially on the right, to the detriment of discourse and institutions. For the sake of clarity, whenever possible I try to stick to the term “liberal democracy” or “constitutional democracy.” 

Some scholarly disagreements 

I am not the first to argue that Why Liberalism Failed lacks scholarly integrity (as political scientist Alan Wolfe put it in his review of the book, Deneen’s work is “unrestrained by any hint of academic caution”), but I would like to back up such a charge right away by briefly highlighting a few places where Deneen’s philosophical interpretations strike me as off-base. The first two have to do with Deneen’s claims about the relationship between nature and culture, and the last has to do with his reading of Tocqueville. 

One of Deneen’s key claims is that liberal democracy is based on a strictly antagonistic relationship to the natural world and that the liberal idea of organizing people into stable, law-governed societies corresponds to aggressive modern efforts to conquer nature. There is certainly some truth to this claim, as the empirical history of capitalism, chattel slavery, imperialism, and resource exploitation demonstrate. But Deneen strips this history of nuance or ambiguity and oversimplifies both pre-liberal and modern views about the relationship between nature and society.  

Take, for example, Deneen’s treatment of the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1625). I am not surprised that Deneen disagrees with elements of Bacon’s thought, but I am surprised by his slapdash characterizations of Bacon, who was by any measure a serious thinker who helped to lay the foundations for modern science. In the introduction to his book, Deneen offers this quick summary of Bacon’s outlook: “Francis Bacon — who rejected classical arguments that learning aimed at the virtues of wisdom, prudence, and justice, arguing instead that “knowledge is power” — compared nature to a prisoner who, under torture, might be compelled to reveal her long-withheld secrets” (14). I do not know where Deneen got the idea that Francis Bacon had no interest in cultivating virtues like wisdom, prudence, and justice, given that one of Bacon’s most famous works is a collection of moral essays that considers some of these themes, and another, called The Wisdom of the Ancients, offers a re-telling of ancient Greek mythology for young people. Bacon and Deneen would probably disagree about the character of ancient virtue and wisdom, but Bacon was clearly inspired by the ancient world; he was a quintessential “Renaissance Man.” 

And even just as a characterization of how Bacon thought about nature, Deneen’s claim is deeply misleading. Francis Bacon wrote several significant works about science and knowledge that attacked the contemporary status quo. He was writing at a time where universities were dominated by scholasticism — a mode of understanding the world that drew on both classical and theological traditions, and which, in Bacon’s view, tended to rely too much on metaphysical abstractions. In works like The New Organon and The Advancement of Learning, Bacon advocated for a renewal of ancient (with an interest in pre-Socratic) questioning, combined with his own new ideas about experimentation and scientific induction. While it is true that Bacon sometimes speaks of “torturing nature” to reveal her secrets, his metaphors at other times signal a deep appreciation for nature’s mysteries, dynamism, and potential. One great example of this comes early on in The New Organon, where Bacon describes his vision for the future of science. Having just described his hopes that thinkers and scientists will work to understand their own human biases (or “idols”), he explains: 

[Once we have] clarified the part played by the nature of things and the part played by the nature of the mind, we believe that, with the help of God’s goodness, we will have furnished and adorned the bedchamber for the marriage of the mind and the universe. In the wedding hymn we should pray that men may see born from this union the assistants that they need and a lineage of discoveries which may in some part conquer and subdue the misery and poverty of man.

Bacon was not merely interested in “torturing” nature to discover her secrets, as Deneen repeatedly alleges. He was interested in understanding and interpreting the world, and in discovering the causes of things in the hopes of alleviating human suffering. He even entertained hopes that modern people might explore new ways of living and being together. The legacy of the so-called modern scientific project is complicated and fraught, but when Deneen reduces Bacon’s efforts to an aggressive seizing-upon the natural order, it’s a falsification. The suggestion that such a posture defines early modern thinking more generally is laughable (just think of Rousseau). 

Given how much Deneen’s inevitability thesis depends on early modern thinkers having a single ideological outlook and program, it is troubling that Deneen would mischaracterize Bacon’s views. Still,it is perhaps understandable, or at least it’s a very human thing to do. What is more surprising to me is how Deneen misreads pre-liberal thinkers. For example, at one point Deneen argues that, whereas all versions of liberalism betray a “fundamental commitment to the severance of nature from culture,” for pre-liberal humanity, “even the possibility of a divide between these two would have been incomprehensible” (67-8). Deneen suggests that pre-liberal thinkers did not think in terms of nature vs. nurture and that they understood the two basically to be symbiotic. His aim throughout this section of the book is to show that liberal modernity destroys culture by severing it from its natural roots. According to Deneen, in the pre-liberal world, culture was understood as the flourishing culmination of a natural order, whereas the moderns believed culture to be something artificial, distinct, and therefore of questionable value (as he puts it a few pages later: “a core feature of the liberal project is antipathy to culture as a deep relationship with a nature that defines and limits human nature” 72). 

Now, as a characterization of “the modern view,” this is a vast oversimplification (my own view is that the early moderns were aiming to break free of a totalizing theological culture, not from culture as such; they used the wedge of natural science partly as a way of opening up a path to other broader cultural inquiry and renewal). But in the course of making his point Deneen has also said something that is badly off about pre-liberal thinking. Not only does ancient thought (and here I limit myself just to the ancient Greeks) recognize a distinction between “nature” and “nurture” (an anachronistic linguistic distinction, but one that tracks roughly on to the Greeks’ physis/nomos), ancient thinkers were deeply committed to investigating this difference. The ancient Greeks sought to understand what accounts for differences across different conventions or forms of “nurture;” they worked to adjudicate different norms and customs according to more and less natural standards. They also carefully weighed the extent to which human cultures should strive to shape individual souls in more or less “natural” ways. While it is true that ancient philosophers often thought about both nature and culture in teleological terms (i.e., they argued that conventions/culture emerge in accordance with a natural order), they also regularly challenged and interrogated that pat way of understanding of the world, exposing its metaphysical and practical limits. Plato’s Republic is largely a meditation on the question of whether any human culture (or “cave”) is — or should ever be made to be — compatible with either the true common good or the natural expression of individuals’ innate capacities and potential. Aristotle’s corpus is full of radical questions about what it means to  “have a nature,” and about how natural human flourishing relates to better and worse social conventions and relationships. Even Homer is interested in how human beings are shaped by more or less humane conventions, and there is no simple, more “natural,” answer. To suggest that the nature/nurture distinction did not exist in the pre-liberal world is to be closed to what is most interesting in ancient philosophy and literature. 

I take my final brief example of Deneen’s sloppy writing from his account of Tocqueville, a writer that he clearly admires and takes seriously. Deneen appeals to Tocqueville repeatedly in Why Liberalism Failed, and he makes his overall interpretation of Tocqueville more explicit in a response to some critics that came out in Commonweal magazine last year. The disagreement hinges on the question of the inevitability of liberal democratic decay. In the course of chiding his interlocutors for their “optimistic” reading of Tocqueville, Deneen argues that Tocqueville “insisted” that democracy followed an “inexorable logic” toward “toward individualism, materialism, ‘restlessness,’ short-term thinking, and a kind of civic infantilism fostered by a tutelary state.” According to Deneen, Tocqueville held that liberal democracy acts as a destructive scourge even on the sources of renewal that he [Tocqueville] identifies and delineates (“each of these ‘remedies’ is subject to liberal democracy’s corrosive logic”). In other words, Deneen’s Tocqueville always believed the very same thing that Deneen does — namely, in a fixed and inexorable determinism that renders democracy’s downfall inevitable. 

Now, regardless of one’s judgment of democracy in America today — and granting the premise that we should care what Tocqueville thought — as a reading of Tocqueville, this is incoherent. For all of his pessimism, Tocqueville very clearly admired, and hoped to foster, genuine political liberty and agency within a democratizing world. Deneen insists that liberalism cannot sustain and reconstitute itself, but Tocqueville tried to do this very thing — through his inquiries, arguments, and haunting rhetorical appeals. It is true that both volumes of Democracy in America conclude in pessimism — volume one with a devastating chapter about “the three races” in America, and volume two with a harsh warning about soft despotism and tyranny. These are stirring readings, to be sure, but that doesn’t make them equivalent to fatalistic swan songs. Given that Tocqueville describes himself throughout his life as a friend of liberty and of America (as well as, at one point, “the persevering enemy of despotism everywhere”), it is more sensible to read the tragic passages as questioning appeals to latent — and perhaps as yet unknown — democratic possibilities. And though it is true that, later in life, as an older man, in private letters, Tocqueville expresses further doubts about America’s democratic prospects, that shift is a response to specific historical changes and transformations, not a pronouncement for all time. Against this rich Tocquevillian backdrop, Deneen’s claims about liberal democracy’s inevitable decline is a rigid and unfortunate projection. 

The argument about inevitable decline also fails to account for any of the vast, if lurching, improvements that American democracy has enjoyed since Tocqueville’s day — starting, I guess it bears repeating, with hard-earned rights and freedoms for Black Americans and for women. According to Deneen’s reasoning, America is worse-off as a political state than it was in Tocqueville’s day (i.e., since before the Civil War). Maybe this is what he believes. My own view is that, as others have noted, in history things usually get better and worse at the same time. Deneen doesn’t tell us much about how he gauges the difference between better and worse, even while he proclaims liberal modernity a failure. I say more about his failure to provide substantive historical evaluative standards in Part 2.  

I would not bother pointing out these bad interpretative moves on Deneen’s part if I did not think it mattered for how we understand the world today. After all, it’s not just Bacon, the ancient Greeks, and Tocqueville that Deneen gets wrong, and it’s not just Deneen who makes such unequivocal judgments. The projections he makes onto these texts match the pattern of what he and other reactionaries read into the world. Again and again, they mishandle and mislead. 

Some points of agreement

One of the reasons I find reading Deneen so frustrating is that, despite my disagreement with his thesis, I do agree with some of his basic claims about current affairs in the United States. I agree, for example, with Deneen’s critique of capitalism’s excesses. I agree with the idea that, absent cultural restraints, human desire is basically without limit and that this is a problem because we live on a finite planet. I appreciate his willingness to step up as a conservative voice for environmental conservation and sustainability.

I also agree with significant portions of Deneen’s assessment of modern culture and am fond of his formulation of the “twin depletions of nature and culture.” I agree with Deneen that too often people in modern liberal democracies disavow or disregard the kinds of activities and civic modes that could help people contend responsibly with rapid social and technological transformations, and, like Deneen, I am troubled by the eclipse of the humanities and liberal arts in our universities by STEM. Like Deneen (and Wendell Berry), I enjoy thinking about what culture can do for people (and for life more generally), as opposed to focusing on how it necessarily constitutes an oppressive force. Here’s a passage where Deneen says something thoughtful about culture: “Preserved in discrete human inheritances — arts, literature, music, architecture, history, law, religion — culture expands the human experience of time, making both the past and the future present to creatures who otherwise experience only the present moment” (77). I am sure that my definition of what counts as a cultural inheritance is different from Deneen’s — and I discuss this important difference in Part 4 — but Deneen is right that cultural artifacts and institutions can be powerful resources for reflection and transformation, and I think we would do well to acknowledge this more often.

I also like aspects of Deneen’s solution to our political crisis quite a bit. Deneen makes an open-ended appeal to grassroots community-building (what he calls “the cultivation of cultures of community, care, self-sacrifice, and small-scale democracy,” 20) as a way of moving forward in the wake of liberalism’s supposed failure. In the course of his conclusion, Deneen makes the case for a kind of political retreat and renewal, hoping that we might build new, alternative communities and practices “outside the gathering wreckage of liberalism’s twilight years.” Unfortunately, thanks to his highly rigid ideological framework — which posits that liberal democracy cannot operate in tandem with genuine community — Deneen’s alternative communities lack basic protections against political domination and abuses of power (see pages 196-197; I discuss Deneen’s anti-political streak in Part 3). Apart from that, the appeal to local communities and cultures strikes me as altogether appropriate. I also like some of his specific policy ideas about how to achieve greater socioeconomic diversity and a more genuinely “mixed” regime (as he outlined them in an otherwise pretty odd speech on “Aristopopulism” at Catholic University in March 2019, where, among other things, he advocates using “punitive” “Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends”).

For someone on the left, there is quite a bit to like in what Patrick Deneen has to say. He is astute when it comes to the dangers of capitalism, as well as on environmental questions — indeed, at times, his arguments parallel those of Naomi Klein or others further left on the spectrum. Overall, and for reasons that I hope will become clearer in the course of the series, I think Samuel Moyn had it right when he argues that Deneen’s book is more about the failure of neoliberalism and libertarianism than of modern liberal constitutionalism, and suggests that the challenge for us today is to revive the latter and “pursue it in its most persuasive guises.” Deneen is awfully dismissive towards that suggestion — a reflection, I think, of just how wedded he is to his tale of lamentation and woe. 

In the end, though, I think Moyn and other critics are perhaps too charitable towards Deneen. Throughout his analysis, Patrick Deneen adopts the pretense of performing a scholarly postmortem on an entire class of regime that is still very much in existence all around the world; my sense is that he’s more like an active cheerleader for decline. In other words, Deneen pretends to be objective, but his book preaches anti-liberalism. In writing it, he breaches many liberal (and not just liberal) intellectual presuppositions of honesty, fair-mindedness, and transparency. I do not know whether Deneen breaches these standards knowingly, or whether his ideological blinders are just so thick that he has lost his intellectual compass. 

The suggestion that Deneen is so illiberal/authoritarian that he would manipulate and massage arguments to serve illiberal ends ought not scandalize anyone who has followed him on social media, or listened to his speech on Aristopopulism, and so who understands how seriously he appears to take his own project. The same goes for fellow-travelers like Adrian Vermeule (whose writings strategize about a religious takeover of modern bureaucracies, and who sees Deneen as advocating for “integralism from within”), or Sohrab Ahmari (who has officially given up on the idea of civil discourse, and preaches a politics of “war and enmity” instead), or Bill Barr (who likes to refer to folks on the left as fanatical totalitarians). It seems to me that Deneen’s book takes advantage of readers’ good faith (and of liberal good faith in particular). Why Liberalism Failed is not, at bottom, a scholarly book. It is a political screed swathed in academic prestige. As someone who believes in constitutional democracy, I think this concern is worth articulating clearly. I hope readers will consider all five parts of this series and judge for themselves.

It seems to me that Deneen’s book takes advantage of readers’ good faith (and of liberal good faith in particular). Why Liberalism Failed is not, at bottom, a scholarly book. It is a political screed swathed in academic prestige. As someone who believes in constitutional democracy, I think this concern is worth articulating clearly. I hope readers will consider all five parts of this series and judge for themselves.