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

In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen takes a look at the modern world around him, and he doesn’t like what he sees. Unfortunately, the result is a book that engages with the history of political thought carelessly, and which takes a blinkered approach to political life: It is, I think, an apocalyptic cri-de-coeur disguised as political theory. 

The story here isn’t very complicated. In his eagerness to prove the modern experiment with liberal democratic constitutionalism a failure, Deneen betrays that he is a motivated and interested party. This is a deeply conservative, anti-liberal individual who has radical and reactionary ideas about politics. Which, at least within a liberal context, is entirely his prerogative. The problem is that in the book he takes on a faux posture of scholarly objectivity, and this takes advantage of liberal democratic naive habits of intellectual good faith. Deneen, I worry, plays games with his readers’ trust, in the service of political ends. 

And the political ends have not been good. In the years since the book was published, people whose views overlap in obvious and explicit ways with Deneen’s have fought to harden Donald Trump’s grip on power. Although Deneen tends to speak (and tweet) obliquely and opaquely about current affairs, many of his patterns of thought match those of the president and his keenest defenders. Deneen gives us a reductive account of liberalism as necessarily self-destructing; Trumpworld asserts that liberals (under the spell of Marxists) are out to destroy the country. Deneen’s work is soaked in vague nostalgia; white MAGA culture is the centerpiece of Trump’s appeal. Deneen speaks of the present as a dystopian wasteland; Trump goads a restless country further into fear and violence. Deneen refuses to (theoretically) preempt the possibility of autocracy and theocracy, and openly supports Vermeulism; Trump appointed Vermeule to the Administrative Conference of the United States (and we hear plenty of Patrick Deneen redux from the United States Attorney General). Deneen fails to specify a practical vision for the political future; Trump’s GOP had no 2020 platform

Deneen refers to the current electoral system as a Potemkin drama; Trump et al. treat it as such. 

What to make of all these parallels? It is genuinely hard to say. 

Just how illiberal? Just how naive? 

2020 in particular has been a difficult and disorienting year for everyone  —  a long year of pandemic, of unrest, and of political anxiety. I, for one, would have preferred to conclude this series with something hopeful  —  about how, for example, while it’s hard not to feel isolated and even despondent right now, there are also, contra Deneen, good reasons for Americans to have hope for the future. The 2018 elections were a victory for women and for our participatory democracy, and 2020 has brought increased solidarity in America around racial injustice and the country’s need for criminal justice reform. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election decisively, against an incumbent, under very difficult and unpredictable circumstances. Voters showed up to vote in unprecedented numbers, and there has been no serious evidence of voter fraud. Many Americans, it seems to me, are far less apathetic about politics right now than they were four years ago. One of the main problems I see with Deneen’s account of liberal democracy’s failure is that it doggedly refuses to acknowledge these obvious prospects for civic renewal. Under different circumstances, my critique of Deneen might have ended there.

Instead, I think it makes more sense to say more about the specific dangers involved in Deneen’s outlook. I didn’t begin writing about Patrick Deneen with a sense that I would wind up talking about authoritarianism, or totalitarianism, or fascism, but if there’s one thing the last four years has given me  —  and I would imagine I am not the only one  —  it is a far clearer understanding of how some variation of autocracy can come about in a place like the United States. These things have a way of sneaking up on people, and especially on those of us (often white, middle-to-upper-class) who have lived reasonably comfortable lives in modern liberal democracies. While I am now confident that Trump will leave the White House in January, and that with this a serious crisis has been averted, the threat of illiberalism in this country will haunt us for the near future, and this is in no small part thanks to the work of folks like Deneen, who have given their highbrow intellectual imprimatur to today’s GOP. Deneen is not an overt Trump supporter (he will make the occasional semi-public comment about Trump’s “clumsiness,” and back in 2016 he admitted to finding Trump to be a “reprehensible person”), but otherwise, so far as I have seen, Deneen has not said much against the administration. On December 10, 2020, as the administration filed one spurious anti-democratic lawsuit after another, Deneen was tweeting about how Trump represented “a burst of democracy” until the “elite made sure to roll that back.”

Which is not to say that Deneen is some kind of fascist. In my view, Alexander Zaitchik got it right when he put it like this last year: “Nobody is accusing the post-liberals of being Hitler-style fascists. It’s enough that they often sound like the people who prepped the ground for later authoritarian or fascist movements.” In my view the specific concern so far as Deneen goes is not fascism, it is illiberalism. We can readily see at this point that Deneen’s visit to Viktor Orbán last year was not some lapse in judgment: Orbánism appears to be an inspiration to Deneen, and vice versa. We can say with some confidence that the intention of many reactionary intellectuals on the new Right is to use the levers of the constitutional order to create an autocratic illiberal state in service of the “Common Good.” For Orbán, this has meant manipulating the courts, shaping electoral processes to his advantage, undermining the press and academic freedom, whitewashing an anti-Semitic history, and rewriting the school curricula. My sense is that Deneen and others would be very glad to follow suit, and that they are quite comfortable with the idea of an oppressive illiberal regime. 

But I admit to having no idea how they think this will happen in the United States without risking terrible violence. 

In other words, my sense is that Patrick Deneen, and Adrian Vermeule, and Matthew Peterson, and Michael Anton, and Sohrab Ahmari, aspire to something they think is very noble and good, even if “softly” oppressive, but they refuse to grapple in a serious way with what it could come to mean on the ground, especially in an American context. In June 2019, Damon Linker put the situation like this to the Atlantic’s Emma Green (he was speaking of the new conservative Nationalists, but I think it captures the problem with others like Deneen and Vermeule, too): 

It’s very easy for intellectuals in general, and the ones we’re talking about in particular, to sort of live in castles in their minds that are very elegant and beautiful, and not fully grasp that the real-world analogue to what you’re talking about is actually a kind of white-supremacist political order. You have to bridge that, somehow, and face the consequences.

Linker stated this generous view back in 2019; he is harsher of late. And rightly so. 

Today, in the aftermath of the election, these dangers should be obvious to anyone with eyes to see. Even Deneen’s friend Rod Dreher has started to call foul. He has spoken out powerfully against efforts to discredit the election results and the incredible bad faith of the Trumpy right (to his credit, and in sharp contrast with Deneen and others, Dreher regularly expresses concerns about Trump). Writing about the Jericho March in defense of Trump on Dec. 12, Dreher notes (with a note of despondence): 

At the height of Flynn speech, Trump appeared overhead in Marine One. Like an apparition! After Trump choppered off to the Army-Navy game, Flynn resumed his address. Every time they attack Trump, he said, they’re attacking you! Total identification of the collective with the individual man. I despise facile comparisons, but this is a core fascist trope. 

Unfortunately, it is a bit late to be making such realizations. In America today there is open talk of secession, and civil war, as well as the need for revolutionary refounding. In the wake of Biden’s win, experts warn of ongoing mass radicalization. Even if you think, as do I, that Trump’s ongoing efforts to subvert the law and the will of the American people will fail to keep him in office, the damages and dangers here are altogether real.  

In light of all this, the important question, for me, isn’t whether-Patrick Deneen is some kind of dyed-in-the-wool fascist. The question is why he hasn’t been more careful to differentiate his own political ideology from the worst far-right traditions of the 20th century, both in America and abroad (Sarah Churchwell provides a powerful overview of the hallmarks of fascism in this essay from the summer; she also forces an encounter with its American reality in the Jim Crow South). In Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen abandons real democratic constitutionalism — which constrains through laws and inspires with humane ideals — in chapter one. The rest of the book is soaked in nostalgia, anti-modernism, and anti-intellectualism. It works in the service of a very particular conception of culture, and a rather incoherent picture of government, and in the end winks at the notion of theocracy. According to Deneen, the 81,282,376 Americans who voted for Biden are part of a liberal oligarchic effort to roll back the real democracy inspired by Trump, and he speaks of a need to (punitively) replace these elites. What place will all those people have in his reconfigured illiberal world? What will the new local communities that Deneen envisions do with all those locals who disagree? Deneen has condemned the modern liberal system of government — a system of government designed to contend with such difficult questions — as a total and abject failure. His answer seems to be “I don’t care,” and he has made it very difficult to know the boundaries of his toleration for totalizing autocracy and cruelty.  

Maybe Deneen doesn’t really mean all of what he says, and his work is just a partisan show. If so, I believe he’s playing with political dynamite. And to the extent that he and other reactionary conservatives are not worried about America or other Western democracies plummeting anew into those truly degraded political forms, perhaps they trust in modern liberal democratic constitutionalism (and in liberals) more than they let on. 

Either way, at this point it is hard for me to see why Deneen should get the benefit of my liberal doubt. 

Choosing ambiguity 

Political life is always fragile, because people differ, cultures differ, human beings can be greedy and brutal, and agreement about important things is hard to come by. Recent years have shown how fragile and volatile political life can be, even in the constitutional democracies many of us have taken for granted. Though liberal democracies have arguably proven more stable (and arguably even more decent) than other modern regime types, they obviously have real vulnerabilities, too. Concern for individual freedom and human rights can coexist with or tip into a culture of rank self-regard and selfishness. The promise of material comfort can coexist with and fuel rank greed, inequality, and exploitation. 

Furthermore, law-governed liberal democracies are always especially vulnerable to certain kinds of traditionalist attacks, because of their refusal to impose a single conception of “the good life” on their citizens. Liberal democracy is obviously moral/normative in its orientation, because it supports and sustains human freedom and dignity, among other values. But it refuses to answer some of the deepest human desires in any definitive way  —  desires for total spiritual belonging, for example, or for cultural unity, or for answers about how best to live. Liberal democratic constitutionalism provides spaces in which citizens can cultivate their own distinctive civic practices and meaning within a set of negotiated boundaries. But its cultural and spiritual programming is weak by design. 

This means that liberal democracy is more demanding than other political regimes, and that it will always be subject to bad-faith attacks by people who cannot differentiate between toleration for diverse ideas and blanket moral nihilism, or between a political framework designed to limit totalizing political cultures and a framework that works to destroy culture per se. In liberal democratic societies, people always live in a type of limbo: between positive and negative freedom, between culture and individual liberty, between various levels of government and the people, between formative and critical education, and on and on and on. The challenge for free peoples is to make the most of these difficult, tension-ridden things. 

Deneen’s book might be able to help a critical reader appreciate some of the genuine problems of the contemporary liberal world. It offers a clear, if lopsided and partisan, diagnosis of some of our worst pathologies. But his more radical causal claims exploit liberalism’s genuine vulnerabilities, rather than protecting them. He attributes all of the failures of modernity to his own strawman account, and this leads him to give up on the real thing — which, being a moving, historical tradition, is not reducible to a single thought or principle. His argument trades in cynicism, grasping despondence, and partisan bad faith — all of which are dangerous, in that they fuel defection from genuine politics (in all its messy pragmatism), spur on dangerous alternatives, and conceal genuine avenues of strength and repair. 

And clearly such avenues exist, even if they are not always perfectly apparent (and even if Deneen, in his wizard-like way insists that the “most challenging step we must take is a rejection of the belief that the ailments of liberal society can be fixed by realizing liberalism,” 18). Above all they involve attention to and defense of the true hallmarks and principles of liberal democracy — those democratic basics that Deneen jettisons early on, but which we all ignore and take for granted at our peril. The path forward involves attention to and defense of the true hallmarks and principles of liberal democracy against the perversions of individualism and unmitigated capitalism — as well as those of authoritarianism. Re-legitimating our political forms means working from principle — starting with the basics, like democratic voting rights and representation, and then working out from there. As Hugo Drochon observes, the challenge is to renew the pluralist project of building bridges among different communities (as he puts it, “what we need now is more politics”). In my view the way out of the present morass also involves remembering what those on the Right too often deny: that self-government involves governing, which means investing in public services and the commons. All of this may well entail a more fundamental cultural reorientation away from neoliberal individualism towards new ideals of mutual care and public service. It would probably all be helped by a liberal arts revival — understood in the broadest, most rigorous and dynamic terms. 

What is possible? 

Roughly four years ago, on November 10, 2016, the novelist Zadie Smith gave a short speech in Berlin upon receiving the Welt Literature Prize. Smith was troubled by the election of Trump days earlier, as she had been by Brexit months prior, and she used the occasion of her speech in Germany to speak about the contemporary rise of illiberalism in Europe and America. Four years later it is still the best short rebuke of the illiberal right that I have seen. The speech is entitled “On Optimism and Despair” and it disassembles the anti-liberal despondency and nostalgia of folks like Deneen especially well. She contrasts their fears about inexorable decline and their explosive plans for return with her own more realistic hopes for a multicultural future. She concludes the speech with the following:   

In this argument it is the writer [i.e., novelists like Smith] who is meant to be the naive child, but I maintain that people who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

It’s easy to know who’s who in the history books, and to side with the good guys each time. Trump, similarly, is not a very hard case. It’s the acquiescence of so many around him — and the success of books like Why Liberalism Failed, with their simple formulas and doctrines of declinethat make me worry about what could come next. 

With the 2020 election, Americans have bought some time for their constitutional democracy. It will be the labor of the coming years to protect, renew, and reinvent our shared civic life. I have no idea whether this will work or not, or for how long. But as Zadie Smith also remarked on that day four years ago in Berlin: 

Neither do I believe in time travel. I believe in human limitation, not out of any sense of fatalism but out of a learned caution, gleaned from both recent and distant history. We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride. I took pride in my neighborhood, in my childhood, back in 1999. It was not perfect but it was filled with possibility. If the clouds have rolled over my fiction it is not because what was perfect has been proved empty but because what was becoming possibleand is still experienced as possible by millionsis now denied as if it never did and never could exist.

“It was not perfect but it was filled with possibility.” 

And it still is, so far as anyone can know. This history hasn’t happened before.