Toward a Postliberal Future
by patrick j. deneen
sentinel, 288 pages, $30
What we are witnessing in America is a regime that is exhausted,” writes Patrick Deneen in his new book. The United States is fabulously rich; our military remains peerless. But on such key metrics as life expectancy and mental health, America is deteriorating, and the indictment of a former president hardly signals a functional political class. But for all the unsparing criticism Deneen levels against our present system, Regime Change advances an essentially optimistic vision of America’s future: We can refashion our common life toward something better. This optimism marks a notable change from his previous and widely read book, Why Liberalism Failed, which depicted American public life as fatally bound to an irreformable political order.
A regime amounts to more than a system of government laid out in a constitution. It is a hierarchy of power and prestige, a mechanism for the allocation of wealth, and a climate of opinion that justifies the power of those in power. The present regime rests on three pillars: a meritocratic ideal, broad middle-class prosperity, and the commonality of experiences and attitudes across social classes. As Deneen documents, each pillar has fallen. Our elite go to great lengths to ring-fence their privilege. The current economic system has benefited the upper end of society while imperiling the American middle class. And a cultural divide has opened up. A few decades ago, prosperous coastal elites began to speak of vast swaths of the nation as “flyover country,” a dismissive attitude unthinkable in my childhood.
Deneen makes a convincing case that our present distempers arise because the people who run our country have little or no contact with the vast majority of their fellow citizens. “Progress” has come to mean “globalism” and “borderlessness” working in tandem with liberation from traditional moral and social norms. This new fluidity suits the elite, who can insulate themselves from the negative consequences of instability while exploiting its opportunities. Detached from the common man, they become rapacious, their consciences lax.
Cheerleaders for the regime insist that the changes of recent decades have been win-win. America has never been richer and more inclusive! But an ever more liquid society runs counter to “what most ordinary people instinctively seek,” Deneen insists. They want “stability, order, continuity, and a sense of gratitude for the past and obligation toward the future.” These desires reflect a proper judgment about the conditions for human flourishing. Today, deprived of these conditions, the general population tends toward dissolute and self-destructive behavior. The citizenry is decaying into an irritated, angry rabble.
In view of what I’ve written in Return of the Strong Gods, readers will not be surprised that I find this assessment persuasive. An “open society” consensus dominates elite opinion, and it has dissolved our society’s anchoring institutions. But man was not made to tread water endlessly in a liquid world. Unless those who lead the country encourage continuity and stability (the “strong gods”) by renewing and repairing our traditions and institutions, as well as adjusting economic incentives in the free market system, I cannot see a future for the United States. Deneen is right: No nation can endure when the elite prosper atop a disintegrating body politic.
At first glance, Deneen gives little hope. He details the perverse ways in which the richest and most privileged Americans have exploited diversity, equity, and inclusion to cast themselves as indispensable protectors of the vulnerable, while deriding populist voters as dangerous oppressors: racists, xenophobes, and homophobes. He mocks the delusion of former Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, who denounced selective societies at Harvard for “enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values.” Those values might be news to the 95 percent of applicants who are annually denied admission to a university with an endowment larger than the GDP of many countries.
Yet Deneen observes that the populist upsurges throughout the West suggest that the winds of change are blowing. A new source of political power is rising. To that end, Deneen advertises a politics that employs “Machiavellian means to Aristotelian ends.” The term “Machiavellian” oversells the edginess of his program. In comparison to Michael Lind, whose suggestion that populist rebellion can force frightened elites into making concessions has a genuinely Machiavellian sound to it, Deneen’s ambition is gentler. He hopes for “a fundamental displacement of the ruling class ethos” through a combination of exhortation, argument, shame, and cool calculation about how to use the power of government. A great deal of the agenda laid out in Regime Change amounts to targeted political action and good statesmanship in the tradition of postwar Christian Democracy: “the promotion and construction of a society that assists ordinary fellow-citizens in achieving lives of flourishing.”
Deneen is a political theorist, so it is unsurprising that his first step toward reform involves a reorientation of our thinking about civic life. As he observes, liberalism, whether classical or progressive, shares with Marxism a vision of “transformative progress.” In order to advance market efficiency and empower entrepreneurs, classical liberalism often rids society of the nettlesome attachments of ordinary people to custom and tradition. Though progressive liberalism is less interested in markets, and more concerned with empowering technocratic experts, it too requires the sidelining of ordinary people. Marxism flips the formula, valorizing the masses. “According to all three progressive versions of modern political philosophy, only one segment of the political order is oriented to advancing progress—either the ‘few' or the ‘many,' the elites or the populace—while the other element is suspect for its tendency to resist the changes wrought by progress.”
Had I written this summary account of the modern political imagination, I would have added Nazism, another progressive movement that, like Marxism, juxtaposes “the many,” the Volk in touch with the true genius of the nation, and “the few,” in this case denominated “the Jew,” the rootless and cosmopolitan elite.
Deneen does not endorse populist fantasies of rule by “real Americans.” He insists that every political community requires elite leadership, not just to ensure effective government, but also in order to raise the tone of society and tutor the masses. What’s needed is a “nonprogressive” vision, which he calls “common-good conservatism.”
Regime Change is not concerned to adumbrate a detailed conception of the common good. By using the term, Deneen simply indicates a return to the premodern goal of political life: The first duty of the sovereign is to preserve the realm, not just from foreign invasion, but also from internal disorder and conflict. In some ages, the great threats to the realm rest in rigidity and stagnation. In others, the problems are disintegration and instability, which Deneen convincingly argues are precipitating a crisis in the West. In my analysis, the crisis stems from an overreaction toward “openness” after Auschwitz, a synecdoche for the catastrophes of the early decades of the twentieth century. As was the case in Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen insists the rot goes deeper. The progressive mentality, with its destruction of inherited forms of life, dominates the modern political imagination.
Deneen’s “new elite,” by contrast, will pursue a politics of repair. This approach requires a “mixed constitution,” a confusing term for most American readers, because Deneen means by “constitution” not a legal framework, but the organization of the body politic such that the “high” and “low” share a great deal in common. In order to restore stability and repair our divided country we need a “mixing” (a term Deneen uses often). An elite who regularly mix with those over whom they exercise power will, Deneen predicts, practice a governance “grounded both in the ‘common sense’ experience of ordinary people, as well as the more refined, even philosophic understandings that are more available to the ‘few’ through a liberal arts education.”
This hardly strikes us as “Machiavellian.” It’s a classical vision of a harmonious social hierarchy, tinctured with modern democratic confidence in the civic competence of ordinary men and women. For example, in economic policy, Deneen calls for an approach “that especially seeks conditions for the flourishing of people of all classes, particularly a balancing of change and order that allows for strong families and encourages strong social and civic forms.”
I can hear a reader object: Deneen relies on platitudes. Who does not desire the flourishing of all classes of society? Yet, as Deneen convincingly shows, our regime seeks other ends. A “principled” American right insists on the priority of economic growth and of maintaining the American empire. Economic policies that encourage strong families are denounced as “conservative social engineering.” The “principled” American left treats its ongoing program of “inclusion” as a non-negotiable imperative. Activists warn that talk of “strong families” serves as a code for patriarchy, and that “strong social and civic forms” amount to nativism and white supremacy. Deneen is correct: Political life in America is configured in accord with the progressive pattern. The economic, social, and moral needs of the many are largely neglected.
Given the network of power, social status, wealth, and received opinion that constitute our regime, effecting social harmony among classes will require political upheaval—regime change. For this reason, Deneen’s rhetoric is often strong, even revolutionary. He speaks of “replacing” elites and urges “the creation of a new elite.” He calls for “the peaceful but vigorous overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class.” There’s a hint of Machiavellian guile in these bold claims, since Deneen’s practical proposals, on which more below, do not require any actual manning of barricades. Perhaps the rhetoric is meant to reassure Deneen’s young conservative readers that he remains a firebrand unwilling to compromise with a “failed” liberalism. Yet there is a tension here, since Deneen’s political program remains within the bounds of the political system that he deemed irreparably liberal in Why Liberalism Failed.
Deneen provides a list of proposals to attain a “mixed constitution.” They range from increasing the membership of the House of Representatives to six thousand, to requiring that the Federal Reserve set aside board seats for non-bankers or even (gasp!) a person who earns an hourly wage, to dispersing federal bureaucracies to fly-over cities. He entertains the idea of compulsory national service and calls for reduced funding for universities matched by increased funding for vocational education, more local involvement in primary and secondary schools, a return to vigorous anti-monopoly enforcement, and industrial policies to encourage repatriation of manufacturing. In the social realm, he urges limits on pornography, support for families, and other efforts to protect and renew traditional social norms.
None of these proposals run counter to the American Constitution; most have been enforced or proposed in the past; all reflect aspects of the American political tradition. None require mass protests, much less revolutionary violence. They require winning elections, and then proposing and passing legislation. Some may be impracticable or may do more harm than good. (Count me skeptical of a six-thousand-member House of Representatives.) But such ideas can be regarded as “revolutionary” only because they run counter to our present regime. For instance, Deneen suggests (indirectly) that we should seek to reinstate blue laws in order to protect Sundays from the invasion of commerce. To call such a proposal “illiberal” (as some have done when I have proposed the same measure) amounts to an anti-Americanism akin to the 1619 Project, since blue laws were the norm throughout our entire history—until the present regime consolidated its power.
In spite of the fact that Deneen’s recommendations operate within the rule of law, I’m sure that some reviewers will warn readers that he is a dangerous man who flirts with demagoguery. Or they’ll say that he is opposed to the very idea of America, and this in spite of the fact that Regime Change hopes for a settlement reminiscent of Eisenhower’s America. But of course, today’s establishment, right and left, regards the 1950s as a betrayal of America’s genius—an economy of state-sponsored crony capitalism and a society dominated by racists who kept their wives enslaved in their kitchens.
From another and more interesting angle, I can imagine mavens of the “New Right” complaining that Regime Change engages in false advertising. “Replacing the elite” sounds like a bold agenda, but Deneen’s proposals for “mixing” seem weak beer. How can such measures be effective, given the tremendous power and indifference of today’s elites, a power and indifference he documents so well?
I’m not inclined to dismiss Regime Change as wishful thinking, for the general thrust of its program fits within the American tradition of regime change. In 1932, under the weight of an economic crisis, voters elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although hardly a revolutionary, Roosevelt was out of sync with the elite of his day, who were wedded to old truisms. FDR seized the initiative and empowered men (and a few women) who possessed a new, technocratic vision for America’s future. Even after his landslide reelection in 1936, a significant majority of leading businessmen, Ivy League graduates, and other elites opposed his policies and reviled him. FDR was undaunted and used every available instrument of political power and popular pressure to advance his agenda.
Pearl Harbor eased elite opposition to Roosevelt’s program. The war was a technocrat’s dream, the New Deal on steroids. It cemented into place a new regime, not just in economic life, but in foreign affairs as well. From a nation generally hostile to global commitments, America became one that projected power to the far corners of the earth. As Stephen Wertheim details in Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, the elites who coalesced around this new consensus astutely manipulated public opinion, constructed new instruments of power and legitimacy such as the United Nations, and engaged in campaigns to smear dissident elites, whom they derided as “isolationists.”
Our circumstances are different, but Deneen senses that we are reaching a similar moment. The populism roiling our politics is a symptom of regime dysfunction, as are declines in trust in mainstream institutions. What is to be done? The establishment right tells us that we can grow and innovate our way out of these troubled times. Those on the left promise that if we will but press ahead with diversity and inclusion our country will become a multicultural paradise, a beacon to all the world. Both sides preach ongoing transformation—more progress will put our troubles behind us.
Like Deneen, I am no enemy of economic growth, technological innovation, or the just treatment of my fellow citizens. But these alone cannot end the West’s long season of disintegration. Our institutions have lost their authority. Our societies are fragmented and anxious. Our economies offer few stable places for the once prosperous middle class. And to compound our troubles, those to whom we look for leadership, “the few,” are detached from those they lead, patronizing “the many” with promises of universal basic income when not disdaining them as “takers.” Deneen is correct that the present regime is teetering, and that the way forward requires an appropriate “mixing” of the few and the many.
Deneen calls our present regime “liberal,” and he insists, in this book and elsewhere, that the new regime must be “postliberal.” Is that correct? FDR led regime change, and America did not move from capitalist to post-capitalist. Our economic system became more consolidated and more closely allied with government, but it preserved the capitalist form. In my estimation, a new elite, or more likely our present elite chastened by something of the fear Michael Lind would like to instill and inspired by something of the common-good aspirations Deneen expresses, will emphasize solidarity in economics and continuity in culture. This emphasis will infuriate the old elites, as did FDR’s policies and rhetoric. They will hurl charges of “illiberalism” and rage that “true liberalism” has been betrayed. (They are already doing so.)
Rhetorically, the rage of the dying regime will vindicate Deneen’s use of the term “postliberal.” But we should not allow the polemics of our adversaries to shape our political imaginations. Deenen advocates a genuinely conservative politics that restores “stability, order, continuity, and a sense of gratitude for the past.” This means that, if successful, the change he desires will inaugurate a new regime that is recognizably liberal, even as it emphasizes solidarity. Deneen’s “mixed constitution” does not require repealing the First Amendment, nor do industrial policy and other measures to restore middle-class prosperity entail the overthrow of the market system. Our tradition is braided with liberal attitudes, institutions, and ideals. Continuity and gratitude for the past—worthy and necessary imperatives—involve reforming rather than replacing that tradition.
And so I find myself wondering: Will Patrick Deneen and his “integralist” and postliberal comrades welcome a new regime that honors a great deal of the old regime it has superseded? Or are these theorists closet progressives, determined to close a chapter of “history” and inaugurate something entirely new and pristine, something unsullied by the no doubt imperfect and sometimes individualistic and deracinating aspects of our American way of life, a way of life that one cannot deny has been shaped by modern liberalism? Count me hopeful that they opt for the former. Let us await another—doubtless very different—Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
Image by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration on picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image color edited and cropped.
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