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: 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.