Demonstrators during the Women’ March on Washington in 2017. (Rosa Pineda)

Patrick Deneen is a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame who is an adherent to a form of conservatism at war with modernity in all its forms. Just to be clear what this means, Deneen’s conservatism has little in common with versions adopted by today’s Republican Party, including, or so I surmise, the Trumpian one. To Deneen, much of today’s conservatism—not only Paul Ryan’s crush on Ayn Rand, but also the “American greatness” yearnings of William Kristol and David Brooks—is one or another form of liberalism. Unfortunately Deneen never tells us what genuine conservatism means, although there are hints ranging from twelfth-century conceptions of natural right to the agrarian writings of the contemporary neo-Rousseauian Wendell Berry. It would have helped this reader if Deneen had talked more explicitly about the conservatism against which liberalism was a reaction. 

In spite of this conceptual neglect, I found myself surprised by the number of points on which Deneen and I agree. He claims, against both libertarians and welfare-state defenders, that the “classical liberalism” of free markets lies along the same path as the “modern” liberalism of active government involvement. That accords with my own position that Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes belong in the same political camp. We both consider John Stuart Mill a liberal par excellence. Deneen argues, again I believe quite correctly, that the liberal arts in most colleges and universities have run their course and that few contemporary students ever receive full exposure to the glories of the humanities. Liberalism, in his view, prioritizes culture over nature; I agree.  Liberalism’s goal is to free human beings from artificial constraints that prevent them from realizing their full potential; I also agree with that. 

In pursuing his argument, Deneen should have one advantage: unrestrained by any hint of academic caution, he writes in the style of an eighteenth-century pamphleteer, making dramatic claims and hoping that his eloquent prose will carry the case. Even with respect to this rhetorical approach, we are not that different. I also try to write in a style suitable not just to academics and I have been known to be a bit polemical. Reading Deneen, I found myself thoroughly engaged and I wish more books like this would come from the editorial offices of university presses.

The only major difference between us, alas a rather significant one, is that for Deneen liberalism is one of the great horrors of world history; its failure is so complete that it will soon (if it has not already) lose all its adherents while creating one disaster after another. I believe that liberalism, in spite of the rightwing nativism currently fashionable in one liberal democracy after another, still has a great deal to achieve before it runs its course, and that there is no existing alternative political philosophy that can rival its staying power.

Why Liberalism Failed, moreover, does have its share of problems. For a phenomenon alleged to be so destructive, I do not know precisely what Deneen means by liberalism. At times it means the ideas of great liberal thinkers. That is all well and good, but the ideas of thinkers have only a tangential relationship, at best, with what decision-makers carry out in their name. By themselves, liberals have not done all that much damage and I do not believe, although Deneen holds the opposing viewpoint, that divorce is common because John Locke argued that marriage is a form of contract or that “our default condition is homelessness” because liberals imagined a state of nature. I can think of only two exceptions, two liberals who had a direct impact on history. One is Keynes, whom Deneen ignores. The other is John Dewey and his writings on pedagogy, and while Deneen does discuss Dewey, he pays little or no attention to his views on education.

In contrast to liberals, Deneen is a fan of those writers who condemn the kind of lives most of us modern people lead. Deneen’s reasoning runs like this: liberalism in theory worships science, technology, and profit; in the quest for all three, chemical companies have developed new ways of growing crops; the use of such artificial technologies has destroyed both the crops themselves along with the entire environment of family farms and holistic agriculture that once accompanied them; and if we do not stop soon, all human beings will become genetically modified organisms. There is thus a direct line from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal writers to human cloning.

This chain of reasoning is not convincing, at least to me. Liberalism is indeed compatible with science and technology. Everything else is problematic: liberalism is generally sympathetic to free markets but not to monopolies such as chemical companies that rig the market; some liberals might defend genetically modified crops but nearly all liberals abhor them; one can find as many liberals active on behalf of local communities as conservatives, if not more; and it is a giant step, and one most liberals would never take, to move from manipulating crops to manipulating DNA.    

It only adds to the confusion that Deneen argues that what killed liberalism was, of all things, liberalism itself. If this sounds vaguely Hegelian, that is because it is. Like Hegel’s student Karl Marx, Deneen believes in the dialectic. But unlike Marx, who praised capitalism as a prelude to denouncing it, Deneen only denounces liberalism without ever quite praising it. I should qualify that statement. After retelling one horror story after another, he writes toward the end of his book that, “like all human projects, liberalism is not without its achievements.” 

The abolition of slavery, let alone the advancement of women, hardly seem like ordinary achievements.

Despite this backhand compliment—praising liberalism in the negative—I was glad, finally, to see this apparent concession. What would be these “achievements,” I wondered: the abolition of slavery, the rights of women, greater regulation of irresponsible capitalism? Liberal principles, after all, gave us the language of the Declaration of Independence, upon which Lincoln’s arguments against slavery were based. Did liberalism fail because President Andrew Johnson, presumably a liberal under Deneen’s capacious conceptualization, turned against Lincoln’s ideals in giving former Southern slave owners by and large what they wanted? That makes no sense because liberalism cannot be both pro-abolition and pro-slavery at the same time. The abolition of slavery, let alone the advancement of women, hardly seem like ordinary achievements.  In the whole scope of human history, liberalism, in fact, is responsible for one political miracle after another.

INSTEAD of expressing genuine admiration for liberal achievement in the way Marx praised capitalism, Deneen returns to conservative boilerplate. Liberalism, he argues, rather than helping great liberal achievements along, stood firmly in their path. But this makes no sense. Our greatest conservative thinker, John C. Calhoun, although he changed his views over the course of his life, lacked any shred of liberalism; slavery was simply too important to him to advocate any idea that might lead to its abolition. (Calhoun does not figure in Deneen’s book.) Who, except for Roy Moore and Joe Arpaio, could really doubt that our country was improved because Lincoln’s ideas won out over Calhoun’s?

We live at a time when populism and nationalism are attacking liberalism with renewed vigor. Under such conditions, there exist critiques of liberalism aplenty. Would Deneen be happy seeing his book embraced by ultra-right quasi-fascists or ultra-left Sanders-like populists? I hope not. But I cannot see in this book any path that would allow serious political thinkers to find fault with Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, or, it must be added, Donald Trump. Something tells me that if Trump were ever to read a book (an idea about which we need not worry) he might like this one.

The takeover of the Republican Party by Trump and his defenders has brought into the public spotlight a whole host of anti-Trump conservatives such as Jennifer Rubin, Bret Stephens, and Michael Gerson, and they are writing the best political commentary available today. Hopefully one of them will be tempted, when matters calm down, assuming they ever do, to explain the path that led them as conservatives to denounce the populistic immorality of the extreme right. 

Along similar lines, we will need a passionate case on behalf of blending religion and politics, because what passes for the Evangelical case, if there even is one, is full of holes. As the Republican Party continues to swirl down the drain of immorality, the field is wide open for a conservative to let us know what the next step ought to be in making our society a tad bit more ethical. In the age of Trump, we know what liberalism is but we have no idea what conservatism is—or will be.

Deneen’s form of conservatism can never serve such a crucial purpose. He rejects all politics and not just liberal politics. His arcadia of a small-producer economy has more in common with Woodstock than Washington. All is downhill in his account and all is bad. He loves, even as he misunderstands, the Amish. I am glad that there are so few of them.

The last time I wrote anything as angry as Why Liberalism Failed was when I was a radical leftist marching in opposition to the war in Vietnam and listening to Phil Och’s classic satire “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” Fortunately I outgrew that phase and became a fairly mainstream Democrat in my political thinking. It is disturbing, I confess, to hear such counter-culture advocacy coming from the right. If the American right wants to copy all the flaws of the New Left, I guess the republic will survive. But it sure would be nice to have a conservatism that takes reality seriously.


Why Liberalism Failed
Patrick J. Deneen
Yale University Press, $30,  248 pp.

Alan Wolfe’s most recent book is At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.

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Published in the February 23, 2018 issue: View Contents
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