Alexis de Toqueville


This essay is the first in a series of three responses to the book Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen.


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”


These famous lines from the Declaration of Independence capture well America’s most iconic and influential idea, which is that individuals have rights and that one of the government’s most fundamental jobs is to protect those rights. This is the idea that has failed, according to Patrick Deneen’s formidable book.

Professor Deneen believes that this liberal idea, rooted in the philosophy of John Locke, has led Americans to create a giant and ultimately destructive force in social and political life, “the state as agent of individualism.” Other writers blame the Democrats for the growth of the state, but Deneen believes Republicans have been almost as complicit in that development. While each political party emphasizes different rights (civil rights for Democrats, property rights for Republicans), both parties empower the state to defend their favorite rights against interference from families, churches, and traditional communities. Both parties are complicit, Deneen argues, in using the liberal language of rights to justify strengthening the state and weakening the authority of local communities.

When we accept “the state as agent of individualism,” we think we are securing for ourselves the freedom to try to shape our lives as we wish. Professor Deneen warns us that we are only indulging an adolescent desire to become a “self-fashioning expressive individual.” We like to think that we will flourish once we are finally freed from the domineering clutches of tradition and community, but Deneen thinks that we will tend to end up unhappy and unfree. With some caricature, but also penetrating insight, he describes people living under liberalism as morally unserious, unburdened by a sense of duty, quick to disrespect parents and community elders, insensitive to the virtues of traditional religion, and willing to spoil the natural world out of lust for security, comfort, and cash.

For much of our history, Deneen allows, Americans were more “Burkean” than our official philosophy recognized. By this he means that in spite of celebrating the Declaration of Independence every Fourth of July, we were not especially revolutionary in our daily lives. We followed paths cleared by family and tradition and did not insist on rebelling against the authority of custom at every moment. Gradually, however, the philosophy of Locke and the Declaration worked on us. It delegitimized every inherited authority, progressively empowering the government to wean us off our various traditions, loosening us from the support of local communities, leaving each of us nominally freer but in fact more alone, rootless, atomistic, materialistic, and powerless against both state and corporate power.

Deneen seems to think that liberalism necessarily corrodes community. The logic is never spelled out clearly, but it might go something like this. Liberalism asks us to accept only authorities we have chosen. But we can’t have chosen an authority unless we had the option to leave it behind. We can’t truly consent to our house of worship, for example, if we have no chance to leave it. Liberalism therefore tends to produce menus of options. Even in the realm of religion we are treated to a marketplace of denominations, congregations, and sects. Once we find ourselves in a market, it is hard not to always be looking over our shoulders for better opportunities. (“I heard the congregation downtown has a better choir—should we give that one a try?”) The liberal principle of choice requires that we have escape options, and seeing those possibilities sparks second thoughts about whether we are satisfied with our current situation. In liberal societies we are therefore surrounded and lured by alternative ways of life, and we spend our time shopping for better communities rather than working to improve the ones we happen to find ourselves in. Deneen suggests that a social world designed to protect our rights of free choice tends to make us impatient with the inherited and lasting ties that human beings need to live well with one another.

These complaints about liberalism have a long lineage on both sides of the political spectrum. In 1832—just as liberalism came into the lexicon as a political alternative—Pope Gregory XVI launched an attack in Mirari vos, an encyclical condemning “Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism.” Gregory condemned the freedoms of conscience, opinion, speech, and the press, as well as the separation of church and state, portraying the whole package of liberal rights as a recipe for anarchic egoism.

Just eleven years later Karl Marx hit some of the same themes from the other side of the political spectrum in his own critique of rights, an essay titled “On the Jewish Question.” Like the pope, Marx thought that individual rights sanctified selfishness. More fundamentally, he thought that the U.S. Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man stranded individuals from one another, leading them to relate to one another indirectly (by asking the state to enforce rights claims against one another) rather than to deliberate with one another directly. Some readers may be surprised that Professor Deneen’s book has gained an appreciative audience on the left as well as among traditionalists on the right, but Deneen’s complaint about “the state as agent of individualism” is a recognizable variant of Marx’s critique of the liberal state. Pope Gregory XVI wanted to go back to traditional authority while Marx wanted to move forward toward a new, more democratic social authority, but both objected to liberalism for roughly the reason that Deneen does: both thought that governments devoted to protecting individual rights destroyed communal social life.


Liberalism poses a unique set of psychological and moral demands, but it does not damn us.

What all of these critics of liberalism reject is the hope that was once associated with the United States—the hope that individuals freed from an oppressive feudal past can consciously reconstitute their communities to make them fairer, the hope that liberated individuals can sift and choose among the traditions they have been freed from to find new ways of living together that are more compatible with freedom and equality than the old ways.

Professor Deneen’s book demands that we think harder about the viability of that hope. Are the principles of choice and consent at the heart of liberalism compatible with deep commitments and lasting social ties? How much does the ever-present possibility of leaving a community infect and corrupt our lives within it? Does the ready availability of divorce make us less committed to our marriages? Does a competition among sects for worshipers undermine the moral authority of any particular religious community? I found myself reflecting on my own religion: conservative Judaism arose as an effort to self-consciously reconstitute traditionalist religion in a world of other options, to choose what had formerly been viewed as inherited commandment. Can this form of Judaism offer a coherent and compelling source of guidance, or does the element of choice in it undermine its authority? Edmund Burke, friend of tradition that he was, nevertheless wrote of “a choice of inheritance” in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. The phrase has a paradoxical sound to it, but is it impossible to live by? These are serious questions and Deneen is right to raise them, but I don’t think he’s right to assume that liberals can’t answer them.

The famous nineteenth-century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville shared many of Professor Deneen’s concerns about democratic liberalism. Still, when Tocqueville wrote the first volume of his great book Democracy in America, he thought the United States might offer a way out of these quandaries. He saw in America hope that modern individuals enjoying liberal freedoms could construct and maintain communities of meaning with the materials left to them by earlier traditions.

Tocqueville pointed out that Americans did not stay within traditional churches but also did not simply reject religion. Instead they crafted for themselves new sects and churches to which they were intensely devoted and which helped to structure their communities and their morals. Outside religion, Americans lacked the old-world inheritance of medieval guilds and aristocratic intermediary bodies, but they founded towns and voluntary associations that provided the human-scale contexts for meaningful lives. What Tocqueville thought he found in America was the possibility of a “democratic social state” in which free and equal individuals practiced “arts of association” that kept them from falling into the hopelessly atomized and unsocial existence, the liberal “anticulture” that Deneen seems to think is now almost unavoidable.

Professor Deneen is a wonderful reader of Tocqueville and his book demonstrates how reading Tocqueville well can help us see beyond the partisan debates of the moment to more fundamental issues. Because he is such a good reader of Tocqueville, it is especially arresting to find in Why Liberalism Failed a judgment that Tocqueville was ultimately wrong about the promise of America.

I myself think it’s too soon to count Tocqueville out. The only alternatives to liberal society that are treated favorably in Why Liberalism Failed are relatively closed communities of meaning (almost always Christian ones, I notice). What justifies the closedness of these communities? What explains Deneen’s sympathy for the Amish practices that restrict members’ ability to know about and experiment in the world outside their home, for example? The book never quite explains. I think the justification must be the old and venerable view that what human beings most need to flourish is to be raised by, cared for, and ruled by a loving and wise community or church, one in which we may play some participatory role but over which we should expect to have no definitive influence—and one from which we should not expect to escape. This is ultimately a feudal view of the world: we are happier when we are ruled well than when we rule ourselves or set out on our own. The resurgence of this view would indeed mark the failure of liberalism. But I doubt that many of Deneen’s readers are really willing to go so far with him, and I can’t go there myself. I’m not willing to give up the escape hatches that liberalism offers to people trapped in oppressive circumstances. I would prefer to try to make modern liberty work better.

I therefore suggest that we read Deneen’s book as a challenge for liberalism rather than an epitaph. Of course rights are sometimes co-opted into crude defenses of selfish materialism, but when people are oppressed those rights offer a powerful justification for resistance and a guarantee of the right to flee. What we do after we rebel or flee is up to us. Liberalism poses a unique set of psychological and moral demands, but it does not damn us. The possibility that the young Tocqueville glimpsed may still be waiting. For Americans not ready to give up on the Declaration of Independence, Professor Deneen’s book should serve as a spur to exercise our rights more wisely and so to prove, through our example, that liberated individuals can in fact live well together.

Bryan Garsten, a political theorist at Yale University, is the author of Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment (Harvard University Press).

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