By most measures Patrick Deneen’s 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed was an astonishing success. It won admiration from thinkers on the left and the right, from President Obama to the integralist curmudgeon of Harvard Law School, and it almost singlehandedly put postliberalism as a movement on the map.
The popularity of the book on the right was a cause of both surprise and alarm. Surprise, because Deneen had made the same argument in First Things in 2012 without so much fanfare, and because his account of liberalism was not new. Alarm, because despite substantial criticism to which he never fully responded, Deneen redoubled his attack on the principles of the American founding. He thus helped undermine a path of patriotic resistance to progressive despotism just as it was turning in a disturbingly illiberal direction.
A second and broader criticism of Why Liberalism Failed was Deneen’s antipolitical localist remedy for the depredations of liberalism. In his otherwise fulsome review, Adrian Vermeule took Deneen to task for asserting that a postliberal politics must “avoid the temptation to replace one ideology with another. Politics and human community must percolate from the bottom up, from experience and practice.” Vermeule argued that a genuine postliberal politics requires “a comprehensive theory to beat a comprehensive theory,” and that, far from retreating from politics, it must seek to “occupy the commanding heights of the administrative state” and turn it to “new ends, becoming the great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.”
Just as Why Liberalism Failed was previewed in a First Things article, so Deneen’s most recent book Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future was previewed in a First Things lecture in 2019. The title of the lecture, “Aristopopulism: A Political Proposal for America” hinted at Deneen’s intention to remedy the defect of Why Liberalism Failed by providing a real postliberal alternative to American liberalism. There Deneen made clear that Vermeule had helped cure him of his Benedict Option antipolitical localism and persuaded him to become an advocate for energetic national government. “I think Adrian [Vermeule] will be very excited by my talk tonight,” he said. “He will conclude that I have finally come around, that we need Schmittian and Machiavellian assertion of power to assert the will of those who should be the good guys.” Deneen described his proposal as a “reassertion of politics,” using “Machiavellian means for Aristotelian ends” (a phrase he repeats in his book). The reversal is shocking, although it would not have surprised Thomas More, who revealed the mysterious link between idealism and cynicism in his Utopia.
The Basic Argument
The basic thesis of the book is this: every human society is necessarily composed of “the few” (the aristoi) and the “many” (the populi), two classes with different strengths and weaknesses. (Deneen does not explore the basis for this claim.) The basic strategy of preliberal Aristotelian politics is to promote a complementary mixture of the few and the many, Aristotle’s “mixed regime” or “polity,” in which each class benefits the other and is prevented from exploiting the other. Thus Deneen’s neologism “Aristopopulism,” with its play on both aristoi and Aristotle.
The modern political project of “Liberalism” (this includes classical liberalism, progressivism, and Marxism) pits the many against the few for the sake of “transformative progress.” Whatever its form, liberalism is intrinsically disruptive and oppositional, and always exists at the expense of the many.
The “postliberal” remedy for this state of affairs is what Deneen calls “Common-Good Conservatism,” which he describes as a “rediscovery and updating of the ancient tradition of the ‘mixed constitution.’” To this end, Deneen calls for “a new elite . . . dedicated to the promotion and construction of a society that assists ordinary fellow citizens in achieving lives of flourishing.” The result is a regime that is “left-economic and social-conservative.”
For different reasons, both conservatives and liberals will wonder whether such a fusion of traditionalism and economic leftism is coherent, sustainable, or desirable. To his credit, Deneen often hedges his arguments just enough (and just in time) to prevent easy targets, but his overall project to commandeer the administrative state for leftist economic and social conservative ends is clear. Whether conservatives sympathetic to his earlier critique will have the intestinal fortitude to swallow both his red pill and his blue pill is another matter.
Characteristically Deneen ignores the classical aristocratic elements in the American Founding. As Publius writes in Federalist 57, “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.” And in practice, Deneen omits the addendum: “And in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” These two principles are the key to understanding the aim of the American founders’ constitutional design: to provide good government, and to prevent bad government. Strangely for a book bearing the title Regime Change, Deneen is largely silent about political institutions. Instead, he focuses on personal beliefs and actions.
Deneen gives an unsparing critique of progressivism. Drawing on a wide body of literature, including James Burnham, Christopher Lasch, Michael Lind, Charles Murray, and Tim Carney, he details how a placeless, homogeneous, privileged, credentialed, managerial elite has leveraged its tremendous political and financial power to attack the practices and beliefs that are proven conditions for human flourishing, such as religion, tradition, loyalty, and intact biological marriage. As a result the working class is “far more likely to exhibit various measures of social pathologies” and disadvantages such as “divorce, nonmarriage, out-of-wedlock childbirth, crime, addiction, un- and underemployment, bankruptcy, disintegrating social networks, and declining religiosity and moral formation” than are elites. “People in these classes,” Deneen observes, “have experienced the first decrease in the average life expectancy of any American generation, a consequence of these choices now increasingly described as ‘deaths of despair.’”