The Problems of Liberalism: A Q&A With Patrick Deneen

The Problems of Liberalism: A Q&A With Patrick Deneen

The Problems of Liberalism: A Q&A With Patrick Deneen

An effort to determine whether common ground can, or should, be found between factions of the left and right against liberalism.


In the past few years, certain factions of the left and right have advanced critiques of liberalism. But the “liberalism” to which they refer, or the reasons they find it objectionable, usually differ. For some on the left, “liberalism” is a stand-in for the ways in which global capitalism has hijacked democracy. Some on the right use “liberalism” to point to the political order that has eroded the traditional bonds of family, community, and custom.

Perhaps that’s why Patrick Deneen’s recent book Why Liberalism Failed has received praise from critics as ideologically diverse as Cornel West and Rod Dreher. A political theorist at Notre Dame, Deneen incorporates elements of both critiques: Liberalism has left people economically, culturally, and religiously unmoored. It has done so in large part because it set out to do so. Liberalism has been a “success”; therefore, liberalism can be succeeded.

What will come after? Deneen, like the rest of us, worries about today’s “widespread yearning for a strong leader.” What he would prefer to see is the rise of small communities, ones in which citizens would recover traditional religious customs and the habits of small-d democracy. This prescription is telling. In the book, Deneen makes much of what he considers liberalism’s “hostility” to religion, and not nearly enough, in the view of critics like Jennifer Szalai, of the gains liberalism has made for the rights of women.

Deneen and I discuss these issues. Our conversation, at least in my view, was an effort to determine whether common ground can, or should, be found between factions of the left and right against liberalism.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

—Joseph Hogan

Joseph Hogan: Francis Fukuyama famously announced in 1989 that we’d reached the end of history: Liberalism had defeated all rival ideologies, and that was that. You seem to agree that in some sense liberalism’s been a success—but also, as you write in Why Liberalism Failed, that it “created the conditions, and the tools, for the ascent of its own worst nightmare.” What do you mean?

Patrick Deneen: In many ways, the specter of a virulent anti-liberalism has been fostered by the very successes of liberalism. So while Fukuyama in 1989 could somewhat confidently argue that history had ended—by which he meant that the question of regime had been settled decisively in favor of liberalism—today, the very real possibility is now faced by people in liberal democracies that there may be a successor, and that successor might be a quite authoritarian anti-liberalism. And I think that’s the source of a lot of anxiety.

Again, it’s not because of the failures of liberalism that one sees the threat of these anti-liberal successors. It’s because of the success of liberalism. It’s not a deficiency of liberalism; it’s a kind of excess of liberalism. So the very thing being celebrated by Fukuyama now appears to foster the conditions for some kind of awful successor, to foster the conditions in particular that allow the idea of a self that’s self-creating. In order to foster this self, all boundaries and barriers have to be erased. Culture has to be flattened; national boundaries have to be erased; the family has to be rewritten.

JH: Here’s a good line: “The economic system that simultaneously is both liberalism’s handmaiden and also its engine, like a Frankenstein monster, takes on a life of its own, and its processes and logic can no longer be controlled by people purportedly enjoying the greatest freedom in history.” How much does global capitalism factor into your critique of liberalism?

PD: I see it very much as the right hand of the liberal political project. I see these two systems as having grown up together. Every political worldview has an accompanying economic worldview.

Now, people debate whether we have capitalism or crony capitalism or statist capitalism. But essentially we have what, I think, is market ideology—the ideology that locates in the economic sphere a realm driven by private decision making—and this is the economic counterpart of the self-making self of the liberal political sphere.

I think we tend to have this narrative that capitalism is the opposite of statism. But you see that, so often in American history and in recent years, the growth of a global market has been driven by political processes. Our political order creates our market order.

JH: So in this way the story you tell is not unlike the one told by critics on the left, such as Cornel West, who attack “neoliberalism.” Do you tend to agree with left critiques of “neoliberalism”? Do you think those critiques align with your own account of the failure of liberalism?

PD: There’s a certain overlapping consensus in the left’s critique of global capitalism and my own. But we probably part in some of the ways we seek to address the problem. I tend to favor less-global political solutions, which is I think where the left tends to go. According to the left, the way to address the injustices of global capitalism is to move toward a more comprehensive global political structure. But this, I think, would only tend to increase the abstraction and depersonalization of our political and economic systems. My interest is more in this question: How does one animate our political and economic lives with more concrete commitments and local knowledge?

JH: That sounds a bit like when you call liberalism not a culture but an “anticulture.” But isn’t liberalism itself a kind of cosmopolitan culture? Or, as others would have it, a political system in which many different cultures could coexist?

PD: The latter turns out to be only true in theory—the claim that liberalism is a kind of vessel in which many cultures can coexist. We’ve seen more visibly the ideology of liberalism becoming true in reality: Liberalism is not simply a neutral system of organizing. It actually means that all cultures are secondary to our primary commitment as detached liberal agents.

JH: And what is “culture,” then?

PD: I take “culture” to be the locus of a certain kind of cultivation—the cultivation of a certain kind of human. For this reason, culture is inextricably local. It takes on the features of local places, of particular historical conditions, of customs and longstanding practices. But when you talk about a liberal culture, I think you’re talking about a liberal anticulture. It is defined by the capacity to transcend place, to transcend any particular time, to transcend nature. And to create a condition in which we are able to live the same everywhere: a homogenized, standardized, monoculture.

JH: You write that “moving beyond liberalism is not to discard some of liberalism’s commitments,” but then, your critique of one of liberalism’s main projects—the liberation of people from the parochialisms of small cultures and communities, religious or otherwise—seems really to be one of liberalism’s central achievements. So then, what are the achievements of liberalism you really think should be kept, and which ones, in your view, should actually be discarded?

PD: The irony is that liberalism’s anticulture creates an insidious form of what I call the “New Aristocracy.” The anticulture exists particularly for the gain of a small number of people that especially benefit from the absence of cultural markers and cultural formation. Our global elite: deracinated, unplaced, dehistoricized people who flock to cities like New York and London. These people enjoy disproportionately the rewards of an economic system that is not enjoyed by the people who are now, I think, actually not doing well in the anticulture.

Liberalism in theory builds upon a longstanding effort in Western thought to limit despotic political power, an effort born of the recognition of the inviolable dignity of the individual. It has failed in this aim in practice, but those commitments are worthy of defense and continued efforts.

JH: One issue that might be overstated in your book—and here, perhaps, is one gap between the left and right critique—is the effect of liberalism’s “unmooring” of people from certain traditions or cultural norms. I think you’re right to say that liberalism “lowers the exit” from traditional communities, or that it makes leaving those communities easier. But you also say that liberalism is in fact “hostile” to them, particularly to “the self-imposed limitations and strictures” of the religious. Again, this sounds like overstatement.

PD: Maybe you think it’s overstated. But we’ve just gone through actions by the Obama administration that require institutions to carry birth control and even abortifacients—my own institution, Notre Dame, being one of those. I think there were other ways to achieve that end, short of what was actually done. I took that, and many religious believers took that, to be an act of hostility to religious institutions that did not want to provide this chemical agent. Put generally, to the extent that traditional religious beliefs on birth control and abortion are obstacles to the realization of the self-making self, they must be the objects of critique and ultimately opposition within a liberal order.

JH: But don’t the religious people you’re talking about actually have a lot of power in our liberal political order? They had the power to lash back against what they perceived to be the impositions, say, of the Obama administration. This could be seen in the success of Donald Trump… What do you think of Trump?

PD: Maybe the worst fear of liberalism is Donald Trump. But I think there’s even worse out there than Trump. We may look back with nostalgia at how ineffective he was if we get a really effective authoritarian.

But I think that Donald Trump is, in some ways, the reaping of what has been sowed—especially the fears of evangelicals of a much more aggressive federal government toward them. So I think, from the point of view of the left, religious institutions are seen as powerful and capable of fighting back. But you have to recognize that from the side of the right—or, I should say, religious institutions—the feeling is very much that they are losing in our culture today, and they are playing a very defensive battle. Obviously, there’s a difference of perceptions that are involved here. But there’s a real danger in precipitating a kind of political blowback in a society that can’t take into account and respect the cultural differences that exist.

JH: It may be the case that religious communities would have this perception of being attacked. But here’s the distinction I’m trying to make. It seems like there’s a difference between saying that liberalism is hostile to religious belief or the traditional bonds of community, and just the fact that, in a liberal society, religious belief and traditional values are one option among many.

PD: Absolutely.

JH: So maybe it’s good that liberalism has helped people break traditional bonds, but perhaps only because those bonds are themselves weak or, otherwise, too restricting and oppressive—not bonds but shackles.

PD: I think you’ve stated a core understanding and ambition of the liberal order: of turning religious identity or family identity or one’s geographic identity into one option among many. I would go one step further, and here’s where I think you see the excess of liberalism. We begin to see the actual diminution of any of these particular forms of cultural identity. I think that one hallmark is this: As you move through recent generations, you find that the younger you are, the more likely you have no identifying markers. Now 50 percent of millennials identify with no religious tradition, are unlikely to marry, unlikely to have children, and show the lowest measurements of patriotism ever in American history. Say what you will: This might be a good thing. But I would say it’s potentially a bad thing to have a society of disaggregated, atomized individuals who, I’d argue, are not socialized to be sociable.

My fear is that, if things continue as they’re going, a highly atomized society is one that is very susceptible to the attractions of a despot. Someone who can offer a political identity that would prove attractive as the kind of flattening of our political, economic, and cultural life continues.

What I would like to see is this: a change of our anthropological assumptions, our assumptions about human nature. We should think about ourselves as more fundamentally familial and social; as political animals in an Aristotelian sense, and also as cultural animals. I’m not arguing that we should just go back to 1950 or 1870. We have to go forward. We have an opportunity of building and fostering cultures from the ground up, not as imposed from above.

JH: It’s interesting that you point out that you don’t want us to move backward. Your vision might strike some readers not as “post-liberal,” but as nostalgic for a kind of small-scale religious traditionalism. Jennifer Szalai, in The New York Times, points out that a “faith-based, localist program” would likely just reinstate some of the problems from which liberalism can offer at least partial escape: “Gendered injustice,” she says, as well as “homegrown prejudices and petty grievances.” What do you think of that?

PD: She seemed to draw certain inferences from the book that I don’t myself think were there. I wasn’t calling for the creation of a religious political order. In fact, I’ve been criticized by people to the right of me for not doing so.

No, I’m much more of a Tocquevillian. I think America has benefited from a separation of church and state, and that’s benefited the churches and the religious institutions. Religion has flourished in America because of that separation. But at the same time, a genuinely democratic culture allows people to bring their beliefs to the public square.

I think, for instance, the civil-rights movement has been rewritten to be a story of secular liberal triumph. It was a religious movement. Just as abolition was a religious movement.

JH: I guess I can put the matter more generally. Your localism has a lot in common with the Orthodox Christian Rod Dreher’s proposed “Benedict Option”: Traditionalist Christians, he says, ought to just wash their hands of modernity and retreat into their own communities. Of course, nothing is stopping them from doing so. But if they do, the problems of liberalism and global capitalism persist. Is localism a total solution to the failure of liberalism then, or just a convenient one for religious traditionalists who want to opt out of what they consider a raw deal?

PD: We’re not going to replace the entire liberal system. Indeed, the system has a lot of power. We have to acknowledge that liberalism has failed, but its failure is not going to mean that it’s going to stop. It’s just going to continue to produce these baleful effects.

I mention Rod Dreher in the book as an example, and he proposes this strategy for Christians. But what I was really pointing to was that, for people who want to form, from the ground up, new kinds of culture, it will require a conscious strategy of the sort Rod talks about. But by no means was my recommendation narrowly intended for religious people. It seems to me that there are a lot people who would self-describe as much more secular who have been exploring the same kinds of things. This goes back to the 1960s and the original counterculture.

It was really meant as an invitation for people who want to do something local, close to home, right now. But I do think that there needs to be larger scale, top-down thinking too. Here we might find some resonance with each other. I think that there should be some efforts to break up centers of power.

So the question is: How would one begin to think of breaking up that power?

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