Patrick Deneen Offers a Powerful Critique of Liberalism

Patrick Deneen

Patrick Deneen is a Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame University. He is the author of Why Liberalism Failed and the forthcoming Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future.

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By my reading of political philosophy every regime in a sense ultimately comes to an end because its contradictions ultimately undermine whatever virtues it might have had. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think it’s a very real possibility that we’re in a hinge of history where the next thing is in the offing and my hope is that that next thing is going to be a better and more humane way of organizing our society because the prospects of a worse and less humane way is also ever real and ever worrying.

Patrick Deneen

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:51
  • Deneen’s Critique of Liberalism – 2:57
  • Human Rights – 14:06
  • Democracy – 25:18
  • Why Not Reform or Repair – 37:38

Podcast Transcript

Patrick Deneen is a difficult one to pin down. He criticizes the extreme inequality in America today, but does not like progressives either. Nonetheless, his challenge against liberalism is powerful, because it is unhesitatingly direct. Still, it can be difficult to understand. His case against liberalism isn’t really about policies or even political reforms. 

Rather, Patrick wants to reorient values away from the individual and back toward the community. He believes liberalism’s emphasis on individualism has created vast inequality and hollowed out local communities. 

Patrick Deneen is a Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame University. He is the author of Why Liberalism Failed and the forthcoming Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future. 

Now before we get started I want to reflect on how this conversation fits together into this three episode arc on liberalism. In last week’s episode Michael Walzer referred to liberal as an adjective. It was a way to think about the importance of liberal values. So, Patrick’s values based case against liberalism directly challenges those liberal values. Of course, most of us do value individualism, but we also value our relationships and our community. Still, it’s not clear whether we should have to choose one over the other. Next week’s guest Francis Fukuyama will have more to say. 

Now if you like these conversations please give the podcast a 5 star rating on Apple or Spotify. You can also find a full transcript of this episode at But for now… This is my conversation with Patrick Deneen…


Patrick Deneen, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Patrick Deneen

Hi, thanks for having me.


So, Patrick, I’ve already mentioned that I think you provide what I consider to be the strongest critique of liberalism. In Why Liberalism Failed you write, “Liberalism has failed, not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.” In that quote you don’t leave a lot of room to say liberalism lost its way or maybe it was corrupted. It’s a direct attack.

But before we kind of get into the reasons for that, I want to make sure that we’re on the same page, because a lot of times when we talk about liberalism, different people have different meanings and it allows people to kind of escape some of those attacks or to be able to defend it in different ways. Why don’t we kind of start there? Can you explain what it is that you mean when you describe liberalism?

Patrick Deneen

So, I think if we got a room of 10 intellectuals or 10 intellectuals in this room, there would be a very small likelihood that everyone would agree on a definition. That’s kind of the nature of the beast. But I’ll offer my own and, of course, people can agree or disagree, but I think at its root, it goes to this change of definition of liberty from a kind of classical to a modern understanding. If you read Hobbes or you read Locke at the very beginning of their respective, most famous texts on the social contract. They both describe the state of nature as the condition of being free and in a condition of freedom. Freedom is defined as the freedom to dispose of your person and your property as you see fit.

So, you could say that a liberal order, political, social, economic, and so forth, is going to seek to lower or eliminate all barriers to the free use of my body or myself. Indeed, all barriers and obstacles to defining who I am, have to be lowered, if not eliminated altogether. Of course, the disposal of my property, the disposal of the things that are mine, or more broadly, a civilization that sees the world as something for me to do with as I wish. A world in which science, technology, the use and often abuse of the materials of the world, the environment, becomes the dominant way in which we perceive what freedom is.

It is the freedom to be myself and to do in the world what I want to do and this by implication means that anything that limits my freedom to dispose of myself or my property is seen as contrary to the deepest assumptions of the regime. I say regime here in the kind of classical sense, the kind of comprehensive way of life. So, this will take various forms. I think when we think of conservatism or what I would call right liberalism, we tend to think of this freedom especially in the economic realm and this is why the idea of the free market and the market as singular. No boundaries and barriers to the free trade and movement of goods, services, work, and workers. An unbounded single marketplace where there’s no limitation on my ability to dispose of my person and my property as I see fit.

That becomes, in some ways, the first stage of liberalism, especially in the economic realm. But in more recent times we see, especially left liberalism, pushing the ideal of a kind of autonomous human individual who is entirely self-defining. So, it has to be in some ways liberated, not just notionally, but kind of metaphysically, ontologically from any preexisting definition of who I am or who you are. So, you’re not defined by your family or where you came from. You’re not defined by your gender. You’re not defined by your sexuality or only to the extent that that’s something that one can in some ways alter potentially through science and technology. So, we see this broad spectrum of ways in which our freedom is understood that we often think of as divided between the left and the right.

My argument is that both, indeed all, and more of these understandings of freedom advanced together in a liberal order. Moreover, what we tend to treat as separately. ‘Oh, the problem is in the economic realm. The problem is in the social realm.’ I see this really as a much more comprehensive problem of regime and the more free we become by this definition, the less capable we are or even willing to act together on behalf of something we might consider or craft as the common good. The more fragmented we will become in our individual lives and the more disassociated, contentious, even fractious and hostile we will become in the political realm and any obstacle to my achievement of my liberty will now become a kind of existential crisis.

So, again, what we often treat as a problem of our politics is actually, I think at a deep level, the problem of our regime. The deepest irony is that what we’ve actually done is create the conditions of the state of nature and we’ve done it through a lot of contrivance. We’ve done it, not because it’s natural to us, but because it required a pretty massive kind of apparatus, political, economic, social apparatus to make us free in the way that Hobbes and Locke described our freedom as by nature. It turns out that that doesn’t exist by nature, but you can create an imitation or a version of it through artifice. This is why I suggested in my book that liberalism has failed, because the more it succeeds, the more it creates the conditions that it was supposed to overcome, the state of nature.


So, what I’m hearing from you in your critique is that we’ve lost a lot in our adoption of liberalism. That we’ve lost our sense of duty, our sense of responsibility, obligation. At the end of the day, it sounds like we lost our sense of community itself. Is that fair for me to say that? Is there anything else that we’ve lost in our adoption of liberalism?

Patrick Deneen

Yeah, I don’t necessarily want to just tell a story of loss. Of course, what any sort of non-liberal in the room would talk about is all the things that we’ve gained. Those things tend to be material, often economic, a kind of sense of progress. I do think that we have to, in some ways, see the attended costs of those and in some ways this is a loss and here social science can actually measure some of those losses.

Famously Robert Putnam and a number of other social scientists like Christian Smith at Notre Dame in his studies of religion and religiosity, all kinds of studies of marriage, of friendship – In other words, all of the ways that we can measure and sort of tabulate relationality all show without exception show declines and that this is the cost of the progress. Now, if you are the kind of person who says what really matters is our material comfort, our prosperity, our wealth, then you would say, this is the greatest time in the history of human civilization to live. Indeed, I have many friends who make these arguments.

If you measure human happiness, in some ways, by measures of relationality, by the thickness of our relationships, you would have to say this is one of the worst times for human beings to live given the kind of cratering of bonds and relationships and kinship that we’re seeing. So, it’s a realm of contestation of gains and losses. But I do think that one inevitable and unavoidable consequence of this understanding of liberalism and the realization of this aspiration is going to manifest itself as an ever more perfected autonomous individual, especially in as much as our liberty is really defined to the extent to which we have constant resort and opportunity to exit. I think this is really one of the key aspects of what liberalism is.

Liberalism in some ways creates a world in which exit becomes almost a kind of default. So, when I say exit, I’m using a social science language going back to Albert Hirschman who actually used to be at the same institution where Michael Walzer currently is now, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. So, Albert Hirschman was thinking in terms of consumers and how consumers relate to consumer products, but he thought this was an analogy more broadly for social and political phenomena. He said there are ways that people relate to products. I mean, think about a product that you might like that changes or there’s something about it that you don’t like anymore.

People of a certain age, remember when Coca-Cola changed its formula and brought out a new formula. It’s loyal consumer base protested and Coca-Cola then brought out the old product calling it Classic Coke, while alongside they had New Coke. This existed for a period of time, but people were so unhappy about New Coke that it eventually disappeared from the shelves. You don’t see it anymore. This is an example of what Hirschman would say would be consumers who use voice because they’re loyal. They’re loyal to that product and therefore when something is less than satisfactory, they exercise voice.

But there’s another way to sort of register your discontent in a kind of consumer world and that’s to exit. In this case, you would just go buy Pepsi or you would go buy another product, or you might not buy the product anymore at all. This is the action or activity of exit and what Hirschman wanted to understand. What are the conditions in which one is more likely to develop loyalty and therefore exercise voice as opposed to exercising exit? Part of it is a society where exit is a little bit more difficult. Where there are certain obstacles to exit in which you sort of more broadly develop the disposition of loyalty that in the first instance when you’re discontent with something your first thought isn’t just an exit. Instead, it’s how do I make this condition better?

We can begin to then transfer this analysis from the economic realm, from the realm of the consumer. We can think about this more broadly about the town where you grow up in or the region you grow up in or the family you grow up in, the marriage you enter, the family you make, the country you live in. I mean, there are lots of ways you could begin to think about this. I would say that in a liberal order more and more of our default responses to discontent becomes the exercise of exit. That’s a fundamental aspect of what a successful liberal society is. It is to promote exit so that you leave the conditions where you’re no longer, happy or content as opposed to having a disposition of loyalty.

So, this is where I think you can see how, let’s say, a kind of change of the default would by necessity require us always to have loose ties and loose connections to other human beings or to places or to traditions or to religions or you name it. You name the object and you’re going to see these measurements that we see in social science that show we are in some ways one of the loneliest populations in the history of civilization.


I did want to come back to the idea of what liberalism has actually improved and you kind of preempted me by saying that we have a wealthier society, that we have more material goods. But something that you didn’t mention was our commitment to human rights and a sense of moving away from some of the most egregious forms of oppression against certain minorities, particularly based on race or religion. Do you see those as improvements? Do you think that those are overstatements in terms of what liberalism has brought to the table? How do you see the gains that we’ve had because of our commitment to liberal ideas?

Patrick Deneen

Every regime is always going to be very aware of the goods that it produces and it’s going to be, let’s say, far less willing to look squarely at either the costs or where there is lacuna in those goods. You know, even just to acknowledge that we are more wealthy, I think the more successful a modern liberal society is, the more likely it is, and we certainly see this United States today, the more likely it’s going to produce massive levels of economic inequality to the point in which it creates profound political instability. So, in every human society, of course, there’s economic inequality. I’m not suggesting that there was less economic inequality in some utopian time in the past.

But we have a particularly radically wide span that today divides the uber wealthy from the disadvantaged in American society today. So, when you look in the aggregate, you say, ‘Wow, we’re a wealthy society.’ But when you start to look down at a much more fine tune level, you see we have really just pockets of our society where they’re successful. The wealthy, the upwardly mobile, they aggregate together. They put out of their own view those who have not been successful in the economic race of our time and our day and largely conclude that those people have essentially chosen their condition.

This is one of the consequences of liberalism. You choose your condition and if you’ve made bad choices, those choices are your own fault. If you read, for example, some of the recent literature on meritocracy, Michael Sandel’s book, for example, you see a lot of the ways in which this is articulated. This kind of sense that, ‘Well, you know, you got what you deserved, you made your bed, and now you have to sleep in it.’ So, even the claim that we’re wealthier is, of course, problematic.

A liberal society, especially a kind of liberal society that has a deep substrate of Lockian property economic tradition like the United States, like Britain is not well equipped to talk about the ways that this economic disparity is actually bad politically, because the assumption is that if we’re becoming wealthier in the aggregate, everyone’s better off. This is course right there in book five, chapter five on property in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. The wealthier the society is as a whole, as an aggregate, the better off everyone is in that society. The more flat screen TVs we all get, the more cell phones we all get. And that’s true. Any economists will tell you that.

But at the end of the day, when there’s a radical divide of wealth and the absence of wealth, that’s still going to manifest itself politically, socially, and otherwise. This is something that we’re not really well equipped to talk about in ways that, again, the classical tradition talked about a lot. Aristotle, very early in his Politics, talks about the ways too much inequality is going to be very bad for the social order and the political order. One of the primary concerns of a good political order will be to have relative equality in the society, relative material equality.

So, a second frequent response of what we’ve gained is exactly what you described, how there have been gains in, you mentioned human rights, oppressed minorities and again here I think you can point to a lot of examples in which that’s certainly the case. But at the same time, I think you can point to the ways in which liberalism has always had its blind spots, what we now regard as the wins of liberalism were of course earlier on not wins of liberalism. So, liberalism tells itself a story that the treatment of African Americans, the treatment of women, the treatment of minorities, the treatment of the Native Americans wasn’t liberalism, but it was.

These oppressions were framed and justified in the language of liberalism. Think of the Native Americans, again. Go right back to John Locke and those who are not industrious and productive, those who are not economically industrious are not really full members of a liberal society. They are not really to be accorded the same recognition. In a liberal society, the industrious and the productive are the people who are going to be the most important in a liberal society. So, those who are not industrious and productive, they don’t get to keep whatever notional property they have because they’re not being industrious and prosperous in their treatment of that property.

So early on, the treatment of Native Americans, in what became the United States was premised on liberal presuppositions. Moreover, I think we still actually have these presuppositions. They’ve just migrated to different places. Here especially, I’ll speak as a Catholic and as a religious believer, but it’s not just religion. The idea that every human being has dignity. Dignity doesn’t stop at the boundary where you are not industrious and you’re not productive. It didn’t do so when it was concerning Native Americans or Africans who were enslaved. It doesn’t do so today to the unborn and it doesn’t do so to those who are infirm and ill and sick and elder.

More and more of the old justifications for why you are not a human and therefore you don’t belong or you’re not a full member of our human community has migrated from certain groups to which that assumption is no longer applied and it’s migrated to other groups. Now we don’t see that because… Well, I say we. Liberals don’t see, because this is part of what liberalism has always been. Identify the group that’s not industrious, that’s not productive, that’s not a member in full standing of our liberal community and exclude them from membership. Yet by a different understanding, a non-liberal understanding, we would see that. That would be evident to us. It would be obvious to us.

But by a liberal understanding in the same way that Native Americans weren’t human, African Americans weren’t human for a period of time, in that same way, the unborn, the infirm, the ill, the elderly, those people who need to be euthanized, people with Down syndrome, all these people don’t qualify. Therefore, they’re invisible to us in the same way that in earlier generations Native Americans, African Americans, are invisible to us. So, I think liberals have a tendency to self-congratulation and a kind of whiggish version of history. That’s probably true of all regimes, but it seems especially evident to me among those who are most likely to crow about advances in human rights, advances in recognition of oppression when it exists and persists in quite vivid ways in our own midst, in our own time.


I think this is really important to make sure that we’re on the same page, because a lot of times when we talk about illiberal democracy we’re talking about people that believe in democratic rights, but don’t believe in civil liberties. I’m getting the impression from you that you wouldn’t describe yourself as an illiberal. It sounds like you’re trying to describe yourself as a non-liberal. Do I understand that right or would you clarify that?

Patrick Deneen

I’m not sure what your definition of illiberal would be. It seems to me that in I L the work that it’s doing is that you are a bad person. It’s a prefix in which liberal is assumed to be the good and the norm and ill is definitionally you are not a good and normal human being. Your views are not within the range of accepted opinion. That’s the way in which I hear the word illiberal being used most of the time. You are one of these people outside of the boundaries of the good and the acceptable. I guess this is a problem, a kind of definitional problem that I’ll be the first to admit to. Too many of the efforts to give a kind of label to where I am and the number of people that I’m trying to think alongside.

You know, we kind of take our queue from or rather almost the default is liberalism. It’s hard to get out of the gravitational pull of liberalism. So, the label that a few of us have adopted of late and we’re writing a substack under the title is postliberal. This is a label that’s been out there for a little while. It was developed in theological circles as an effort to move beyond liberal conceptions of anthropology of the human being and liberal conceptions of the nature of freedom. But even the language of postliberal still identifies itself in relationship to liberalism. I would really like to begin to think of ways to move simply beyond the category of liberalism as the supposed norm to which you’re comparing yourself. So, I’m dispositionally much more attracted to the language of common good bonum commune in the Latin.

This is, of course, the pre-modern tradition, but it can be refitted and developed in a new way for contemporary times. But it seems to me in almost every particular, the idea of what a common good is by definition opposite to the liberal understanding of the human being, of the nature of society that somehow our politics is always simply and inescapably a form of aggregation, of individual opinion, and maybe this gets us eventually into a discussion of democracy. This is how most of my colleagues in political science, this is how my students, even Catholic students at Notre Dame, this is how most contemporary liberals understand how we operate in modern liberal society. It is through aggregation, aggregation of individual opinion or in the marketplace the aggregation of individual choices.

This is typical when we speak of the market. The market is not something where we talk it over, deliberate and decide this is the best way to operate our computers and so forth. We aggregate the individual choices and the individual opinions. But the idea of common good is really distinct from the idea of aggregation. It’s very different from the idea of aggregation. It’s really the effort of a political community to deliberate and articulate a shared understanding of the good that moves beyond merely aggregation. That moves beyond individual opinion. That seeks to shape a kind of more comprehensive understanding of how my individual good and the good of the community as a whole, in some ways, can be seen as consonant.

But that’s a deliberative process. It’s not where people start. It’s hopefully in a good political order where people go. But that’s not the nature of a liberal political order. So, all this is to say I don’t recognize myself in the language of illiberalism, because I don’t begin with the assumption that liberalism is the default or the norm.


So, it sounds like you imagine a postliberal future or a future that doesn’t define itself with liberalism doesn’t sound like it abandons democracy. The way you’re describing it, it sounds like, under your terms, it would invigorate democracy. Am I understanding that right?

Patrick Deneen

So, I don’t want to speak for every postliberal out there, but I am particularly drawn to non-liberal forms of democracy. In other words, it seems to me that one of the deep confusions that not just the average man in the street or woman in the street or a person in the street has about the nature of democracy and the definition of democracy, but it goes all the way to the kind of highest level of intellectual reflection on what is democracy. Again, I’m in a political science department and almost everyone today working in the areas of political science, sociology, and so forth describes democracy in terms that I just laid out. In other words, in liberal terms. That democracy is a kind of aggregation. It’s the aggregation of a variety of human wills.

This is the basis of public opinion polling, for example, that we know what the people want by polling them. What’s polling? You call somebody up at eight o’clock at night and we get these phone calls. Then we aggregate all the various opinions. We ask them questions and then we say this is what the American people want. But this is just a snapshot of random people’s thinking about something that hasn’t been developed. You haven’t probed. You haven’t put those views into conversation with other people. You haven’t brought into a public space the claims that we might instinctively or intuitively think that this is what I believe and put them to the test and challenge them in the presence of other people.

So, when I think of the language and the words of democracy, it especially comes out of a classical understanding, a Greek understanding, something like Aristotle who speaks of what is citizenship. I think I’ve already mentioned citizenship is a kind of activity. It’s a verb. It’s not a noun. It’s not an adjective. It’s not a status. It’s actually about something rather active and requires a kind of activity. Aristotle describes it as ruling and being ruled in turn. In other words, we learn how to be ruled. We learn, in other words, how to discipline ourselves. Every child has to learn how to, in a sense, be ruled to discipline our appetites and when we have the capacity then to discipline our appetites, then we can rule in turn.

We’re not born with the ability to govern, which I think is the liberal assumption. We all just kind of enter at 18 years old into the public sphere and then you start voting. Rather citizenship is a kind of learned ability and it’s learned in and through the exercise of civic and political governance then developing the kinds of governance by which we rule ourselves. So, it’s a constant feedback loop of ruling and being ruled in turn. This means you actually have to think a lot about how much of this activity can be given over to other people. This is something that was highly debated at the time of the American founding. There was a real worry among the critics of the Constitution, the so-called anti-federalists. The worst label ever for a political group, never be defined as the anti-group. You have to be Pro.

So, the pro-federalist side… Honestly, they were actually in favor of a kind of federalism. But those who were opposed to the constitution were very worried about the extent to which these civic kinds of formation of activities, of the development of civic discipline would become sort of emaciated like muscles that aren’t exercised. They would just simply become flaccid and no longer developed. As a result, you would have more and more of the so-called citizenry of the United States that would see themselves increasingly as private as opposed to public spirited that would think of who they were and what their interests were solely in terms of consumers, of people who wanted to be fulfilled in the material realm and not as citizens who had to be active in terms of how they govern themselves.

You’ll notice an awful lot of the way in which newspapers will describe the American public will often describe them as consumers. This week consumers expressed their unhappiness with rising interest rates… It’s actually relatively rare to read in a newspaper that citizens this week expressed their unhappiness with blah, blah, blah. We have a tendency to do exactly what those early critics of the Constitution feared, which is to think of ourselves in highly private terms and I think this is really one of the consequences of liberalism. It is to hollow out the public sphere and in its place develop us without our even awareness of it conceiving of ourselves in highly private terms.

But it is, I think, important to begin to distinguish what I think of as democracy from what many people think of as democracy, which more often than not is actually liberalism. It’s actually a form of liberalism and it’s not by a classical or alternative definition democratic at all.


So, in the book, you actually talk about liberalism using what you describe as occasional consent through voting where people get asked just every couple years through elections rather than having something that, based on your current comments, sounds very much like a thicker form of democracy. I mean, do you think of democracy as really being a form of consent of the people or do you think of it as something else entirely?

Patrick Deneen

In the book I mentioned the way in which liberalism eventually becomes friendlier toward what we would think of today as democracy or elections. We should remember that liberalism begins, first of all, in a fairly, if not anti-democratic, then having a deep suspicion toward democracy. In some ways, liberalism is developed in significant part as a way to constrain what were then rising democratic energies. The energies of a more active, a more demanding democratic public. As education became more widespread, as workers began to see their interests, especially with the Industrial Revolution, democratic energies were unleashed. Of course, you had the democratic revolutions in the mid-1800s and so liberalism, we tend to forget this history if we ever knew it, develops as a way of constraining democracy.

So, how do we retain our primary allegiance to freedom, to this freedom of the autonomous individual, while allowing a degree of democratic energies to emerge? So, the way in which those democratic energies are allowed to emerge is largely through the mechanisms of what we think of as modern constitutionalism. Through periodic elections that are highly well-defined and are above all elections, generally not in which we would say democracies decide the future course of our country, but rather in which we select people who will decide the future course of our country and how those people come to be selected becomes a very important part of this story.

Again, if you read the Federalist Papers written in the late 1700s, 1787-17 88, Madison and Hamilton believe that the Constitution has been designed in such a way in which a very particular, what they call fit characters or select characters, will be the likely people who will be sufficiently visible to the general populace to be selected. Again, if you read the Federalist Papers, the great fear is that we actually not become a democracy, that we not have some form of direct rule by the demos, but that becomes filtered through a series of layers and levels. About 50 years later or so, 60 years later, John Stewart Mill is thinking about these same questions in a piece of writing called Considerations on Representative Government and if anything, there’s more democratic pressures when Mill is writing.

So, Mill’s very worried that the growing influence of democracy and the demos of the people is likely to constrain individual liberty. He sees the demos as almost a kind of conservative force. The demos tends to want to do things the way they’ve done things because that’s what a kind of conservative disposition of the people tends toward unlike Marx who’s writing around the same time. Marx thinks that the people are a revolutionary force. Mill thinks that the people, the demos, is actually a conservative force. I think probably on balance Mill is actually more correct. That much of the time the people tend to be a bit more of a kind of conservative force except when they get really riled up.

They generally want a world that’s predictable, that’s orderly, that’s stable, and this is what worried Mill, because what Mill really wanted was for really unique, distinct individuals to be able to emerge from the kind of muck of everyday opinion and to become these kind of distinct, free thinking, original, highly inventive people who would push forward progress, who would push forward new ways of thinking, new ways of being. You know, Mill is in some ways like modern progressives. He’s one of the first of the modern progressives. You know, when you hear someone like Obama talk about how the backward people cling to their guns and their Bibles or Hillary Clinton talk about the basket of deplorables, they’re kind of a modern version of John Stewart Mill.

The fear that the demos is this conservative, stick in the mud, obstacle to progress. So, what Mill argues in Considerations on Representative Government is that what we really need is to have democracy. Everyone should be able to vote in these periodic elections. Not often, not too often, but periodically. Still, we need to ensure that the most progressed and progressive people in our society are going to be more likely to take the lead. They are going to be more likely to have their opinion carry the day. So, what Mill proposes is he goes through various ways of thinking about how can we ensure that, because it’s always going to be a smaller part of the population.

It concludes that the way we could ensure that the most progressed people will be in the governing seat, will be in the driver’s seat, is to give people with more education, more votes. So, the more degrees you have, the more years of education you have, the more votes you should get. That’s the proposal of plural voting. And this for Mill was how you would prevent the general demos from sort of overrunning the electoral process. We clearly don’t have a lot of people necessarily running around today saying these things out loud, although some people do. Some people actually think there should be some educational requirements for voting in order to ensure and continue progress.

But I think de facto, we have a society in which the more progressed, the more educated are likely to occupy the positions, the kind of commanding height of the most influential institutions. Of course, the universities, the media, the bureaucracy, all the various institutions in which you could say, this is where an organized form of progressivism is found in our society today. So, we don’t have the actual plural voting advantage of the educated, but we have a de facto advantage of the educated through an institutional form. Again, this is one of the ways that liberalism and democracy are not the same thing. Rather, it seems to me liberalism learned how to use and utilize the periodic consent feature of voting in particular to tame it.

To tame the potential dangers, the demonic dangers, the popular dangers of voting, of democracy and to ensure an ongoing legitimation through elections that nevertheless insured more or less regularly, if not all the time ensured liberal outcomes. So, when there were non-liberal outcomes that’s when you encounter accusations and decrials of populism, which is just a way of saying democracy didn’t work to liberal ends.


So, in your critique of liberalism, I mean, in some ways it’s very innovative and very unique, but in other ways, you share a lot of those ideas with a lot of other writers, some of which actually describe themselves as liberals. You’ve mentioned the critique about the meritocracy that Michael Sandel has in his recent book, Tyranny of Merit. There’s lots of deliberative democratic theorists out there who talk about some of the same ideas about democracy in terms of having more deliberative structures rather than having something that’s more aggregative like you described. What is it that you would say to those people who just say that it’s not that liberalism failed, it’s just a failure of execution and we just need to be better liberals?

Patrick Deneen

I guess I would just say many of the things you would want as a liberal are actually what have come true. So, in some ways the onus is on you to tell me the ways in which what you regard as an unfortunate side effect… You know, we could say what you might describe as a bug, I would describe as a feature. So, to the extent that every political order is going to generate certain kinds of consequences how is it that one can conclude that the very aim of liberalism to detach people from their past traditions, places, people, identities, and so on that that’s not going to produce the kind of consequences that we’re seeing today.

So, I feel like the evidence is on my side and the opposition, the loyal defenders of liberalism, you know, they have a problem. The problem is that the very thing it seems to me that they, on the one hand, criticize is also pretty clearly and directly a consequence of what they otherwise praise. So, the more powerful response by liberals to me is, well, what’s your alternative? That’s where I have a book coming out called Regime Change in which I begin to try to lay out some of those arguments for some of those alternatives, that’s coming out June 6th, about what a kind of postliberal order might look like.

But I guess the other thing I would say is that, and you began your question with this, and it’s funny because a couple of times during our conversation you said I’ve articulated something original and powerful. I don’t see what I’ve articulated is in any ways original. Maybe it’s powerful. That’s up to you to judge, but I don’t see it as in any way original. I think a lot of political theory tends to be repeating things other people have said in a new time and for a new audience.

I came of age, intellectual age, I should say, when the kind of giants that roamed the earth included people like Michael Walzer, who was kind of deemed in the kind of communitarian camp. Christopher Lasch was a great critic of meritocracy long before Sandel began thinking about it. A couple of my teachers were great critics of liberalism. Wilson Carey McWilliams was a great thinker and teacher about American political thought and he taught me a lot about the American founding period and helped me see how right the anti-Federalists were as opposed to conservatives who love the Federalist Papers and love the Constitution. I see many of the debates and arguments that were lodged by the anti-federalists as having been really prophetic and we ignore them at our hazard.

Another one of my teachers was Benjamin Barber. You mentioned participatory democracy. Ben Barber was really one of the great articulators of participatory democracy. So, I had a lot of teachers, both actual classroom teachers as well as people whose books I was reading, who were really the soil and the loam in which my own thinking developed. Maybe I have in some ways articulated some of these ideas and thoughts in ways that have particular relevance to our time in ways that may not have then and couldn’t be articulated in quite that way. But it’s certainly not a bad thing it seems to me to take really good ideas and to make sure that those stay current and newly articulated to relate to our time.

If anything, it seems to me many of those thinkers whose names I just mentioned, were probably a little bit more sanguine about the prospects of liberalism than I think I see myself being capable or even any of us who are honest about it can be capable of being right now by my reading of political philosophy. Every regime in a sense ultimately comes to an end because its contradictions ultimately undermine whatever virtues it might have had. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think it’s a very real possibility that we’re in a hinge of history where the next thing is in the offing and my hope is that that next thing is going to be a better and more humane way of organizing our society because the prospects of a worse and less humane way is also ever real and ever worrying.


Well, thank you so much for joining me today. We’ve been talking a lot about the ideas from your book, Why Liberalism Failed, but like you said, you do have a new book coming out in June called Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, so be looking for that to be coming out soon. Thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much for your writings. They definitely gave us plenty to talk about. Thank you.

Patrick Deneen

You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.

Key Links

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen

Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future by Patrick Deneen

Postliberal Order Substack

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Michael Walzer on Liberal as an Adjective

Olivier Zunz on Alexis de Tocqueville

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