Patrick Deneen – Why Liberalism Failed

In Democracy in America Tocqueville was amazed how average Americans not only participated in politics but consumed it regularly. Politics has long been the true American pastime. And it influences multiple aspects of American society. So, liberalism is not simply the dominant strain of American political thought. It is incorporated into multiple aspects of American culture. So, Patrick Deneen’s critique of liberalism is not simply a commentary on political ideas. It becomes a social commentary with ideas about American culture.

It is not necessary to agree with Deneen to find value in his work. This book will pose important questions about liberalism and its role in politics. It has a special influence in the United States, but liberal thought has its origins in Europe and has been disseminated throughout the world. Of course, liberalism is what some might call a “great idea.” It’s not easily pinned down or defined. The classical liberalism of Locke is different from the liberalism of Hillary Clinton. Yet there are commonalities in all forms of liberalism.

Deneen views liberalism as a philosophy of rationalism rather than a political theory. As an academic he incorporates the concepts of a liberal education into the larger ideas of political and economic liberalism. Traditionally, a liberal education required a wide breadth of subjects with an emphasis on humanities. But Deneen sees the specialization of education as the natural culmination of the liberal worldview. University education has become the new apprenticeship where people learn specializations like nursing and engineering in preparation for a professional career. In contrast, the traditional curriculum of education focused on classics in preparation for life.

The liberal worldview has a fundamental difference from democracy. Liberalism establishes fixed principles. For example, human rights are universal. They apply equally to all of humanity. They do not change from culture to culture. Democracy, on the other hand, is meant to become a reflection of its people. Its outcomes are different in different cultural contexts. Indeed, democracy is a political system for a postmodern era, while liberalism is a relic of the Enlightenment. All of this creates a tension inherent within liberal democracy.

Yascha Mounk wrote about the tensions between liberalism and democracy. In his work The People vs Democracy he explained how an undemocratic liberalism has begun to emerge. The universalism of liberal ideals lends itself well to technocracy. Indeed, monetary policy is managed by central banks. Trade policies are arbitrated by the World Trade Organization. And civil liberties are defended by the judicial system. What is left for democracy to decide? Patrick Deneen believes liberalism places too many limitations on democracy.

And yet Deneen does not envision a world of democratic uncertainty. Rather he sees an alignment between traditional values and the will of the people. Liberalism subverts traditional norms and institutions without consideration for the collateral damage from radical change. And yet he has no answer to create an impetus for change when it is necessary. Slavery was culturally accepted within the South. Its reform required a Civil War between the North and the South. And yet racial segregation and prejudice persisted for another hundred years afterwards. Change was difficult. Institutions were eliminated from society. The entire social structure was remade and then was remade again after the Civil Rights Movement.

Ultimately, I do not believe Deneen truly understands liberalism. The origins of liberalism begin with Hobbes and Locke. They were both obsessed with the law. Hobbes justified absolute monarchy because the monarch gave its subjects the law. But Locke saw the monarch subject to the law as well. His political theory implied an equality under the law with enormous political consequences. Today this is known as the rule of law. Liberalism is a political theory which gives institutional supremacy to the law. Institutions can confer authority. Parents have authority within the family. But everyone is subject to the law. No institution has a greater claim to authority than the law. There are places where people are not treated equally under the law or where a political party has a different set of rules than the rest of the nation. But these are not liberal nations. They lack the rule of law.

Patrick Deneen offers an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of liberalism. The polarization of politics requires us all to reconsider our own preconceived ideas and understand different perspectives. The work is important for liberals as much as those who are in search of an alternative political theory. Thankfully, it is available on Audible, so it is an easy read. I highly suggest reading Locke’s Second Treatise of Government as a companion for those who have just begun to explore politics.

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