'Why Liberalism Failed' by Patrick Deneen

'Why Liberalism Failed' by Patrick Deneen
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this RealClearBooks series, RealClear Book of the Week, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. This week Alexander Stern discusses "Why Liberalism Failed" by Patrick Deneen.

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Liberal democracy is under threat. Commentators and intellectuals of all stripes are by now generally agreed on this point. But they disagree about the nature of the foe that looms over it. For some, it’s anti-democratic strongmen like Vladimir Putin and even Donald Trump. For others, it’s the gradual cession of democratic power to unaccountable bureaucracies like the European Union and our own administrative state. Still others wonder if capitalism and its addling technology and media have rendered citizens incapable of democratic debate and self-government.

Patrick Deneen, professor of political science at Notre Dame, takes a bolder position in “Why Liberalism Failed,” an early contribution to this literature and one that has generated a lot of debate. Liberalism is not falling, according to Deneen, but has already fallen; and it was felled not by some external enemy, but by its own “inner logic.”

That logic, which began unfolding a half-millennium ago and was made concrete in the American Constitution, is finally breaking down in our own time under the weight of its self-contradictions. Liberalism, Deneen writes, “was launched to foster great equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different culture and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty.” But “in practice [it] generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.” 

Populist uprisings, widespread disaffection and loneliness, our thralldom to technology, the transformation of universal education into a sorting mechanism for the new aristocracy — all these are not betrayals of liberal values but symptoms of its success.

Despite the originality of the thesis, many of the ideas Deneen expounds in his book are not new, but instead represent a synthesis and reframing of many familiar conservative ideas and even some leftist ones. By placing individual rights and freedoms above all else, Deneen argues, liberalism and its economic counterpart, free-market capitalism, destroy traditional and localized communities, values, and, eventually, the solidarity and civic norms on which liberal democracies have long depended. Liberalism fosters a bankrupt and individualist concept of freedom that acknowledges no limits and produces lonely narcissists too busy fashioning identities to take on genuine cooperative political action. They instead merely appeal to — and thereby justify the growth of — an ever-expanding centralized and paternalistic government that further weakens local institutions. Universities, by detaching the liberal arts from any teleological conception of the good — deemed religious, restrictive, and “illiberal” — ensure their apparent irrelevance to professional “culture” and rob academics of the language needed to defend them.

There is certainly a danger that a book telling us liberalism is dead might encourage us to abandon liberalism. And one should be circumspect about the kind of new, as yet undefined, post-liberal culture Deneen advises us to foster, since, whatever it may be, it is by no means guaranteed to protect hard-won individual freedoms. But in our apparently transitional political moment, Deneen’s book should encourage both Left and Right to reevaluate long-held social, political, and economic assumptions whose time may have passed.

Alexander Stern is deputy editor of RealClearPolicy. 

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