Why 'Why Liberalism Failed' Fails

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Patrick Deneen’s "Why Liberalism Failed" is an important book—and an important failure. It fails because its central idea is a grievous error.  It is important because, despite this error, the book is taken seriously.

Here is Deneen’s thesis: “Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded.”

His claim is that the political and cultural pathologies which bedevil America today are simply the result of the liberalism of the American Founders, in Deneen’s words, becoming “fully itself.”  The classical liberalism of the Founders evolved into “the advanced liberalism” (Deneen’s term) of today.  According to Deneen, today’s illiberal politics and cultural decadence can be traced directly to the Founders’ ideas.

There is no question that the classical liberalism of the Founders has been replaced to a great and ever-increasing extent by a new regime.  The focus of classical liberalism was the theory and practice of liberty.  Liberty meant, at the very least, limited government.  According to the Founders, the reach of government must be necessarily limited in order to preserve the vast field of liberty reserved for the people.  According to the “advanced” liberalism of LBJ and Nancy Pelosi, however, the powers of the federal government are virtually unlimited, certainly not limited by the Constitution, and not even limited by America's ability to fund their exactions.  Deneen puts it this way:

“The liberal state expands to control nearly every aspect of life…”

But what he calls the liberal state is really the progressive state operating under a false flag.

At the beginning of the Progressive Era, American Progressives were quite open about their rejection of the classical liberalism of the Founders.  Woodrow Wilson and his fellow Progressives set out to discredit the Founders’ philosophy of liberty and to dismantle the Constitution which embodies that philosophy. According to the Progressives, the Constitutional limits on the power of government the Founders had so carefully crafted were actually defects.  Those limits hobbled government, preventing those in power from using government to change American society according to the progressive vision.  The Progressives were determined to put government at the center of American life, and their success to date has meant the failure of the Founders’ idea of America.

It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who stole the name of liberalism for the Progressives.  FDR was a proud Progressive who had served in the Wilson administration, but he was elected in a time when the American people recoiled from Wilson’s progressivism.  FDR realized it was time for a name change—and what a change it was.  Nowhere is FDR’s genius for politics more evident than in his decision and his brilliant campaign to re-name progressivism as liberalism.  A lesser politician could never have gotten away with it.

Think of it: FDR stole the label of the philosophy of liberty and bestowed it on the party of the state, the self-proclaimed political enemies of classical liberalism and of limited government.  For the Democrats, the benefits were enormous.  FDR managed to completely change the meaning of a word and to transform American political discourse with an impact stretching to our own time.

It is thanks to FDR that Deneen gets to use one term—“liberalism”—to describe the Founders’ ideas and the ideas of the Progressives who explicitly rejected the Founders.  But the liberalism of the Founders and the illiberalism of the Progressives are opposites.

So, we should reinterpret Deneen’s thesis this way: Classical liberalism has failed because progressivism has succeeded.

Deneen presents “Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded” as a deep truth in the form of a paradox.  The apparent paradox disappears when its central error is exposed. 

But we have not yet gotten to the reason ?Why Liberalism Failed" is an important book.  It is important because of what it reveals about our forgetting of the ideas of the Founders.  It is because our forgetting is so widespread and so very far advanced today that a mistake of this kind and this magnitude can go largely undetected.  There was a time not so long ago when the ideas of the Founders were better remembered and more generally understood.  Mistakes like this one would once have been quite unlikely and, if made, quickly recognized.

Robert Curry is the author of "Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Ideaand "Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World”, just published by Encounter Books.

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