Liberal democracies are once again under assault from without and within. During the Cold War, the internal challenge came from the totalitarian Left. Powerful Communist parties, all of them loyal to the Soviet Union, could be found in the leading European liberal democracies. But the existence of such parties presented a puzzle. By 1973, when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume Gulag Archipelago was first published, so much was already known about the purges, the terror, the camps, the artificial famines, one would have thought it indisputable among all thinking people that the god of Communism had failed. But the Stalinist model, despite its glaring defects, continued to appeal to millions. In his 1976 The Totalitarian Temptation, Jean-François Revel attempted to unravel the mystery. “Why are democratic societies, inside and outside their area, vilified much more than totalitarian states?” was one of the questions he asked.
Nearly fifty years later, the Soviet empire is gone and the few remaining states adhering to the Stalinist model hold little allure. But the extraordinary vilification of liberal democracy persists. By some strange historical inversion, the vilification is no longer coming from the Left but the Right. A case in point is the widely discussed book, Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame.
Deneen’s basic argument is that liberalism has failed because of a contradiction lying in its very heart. Thanks to the radical individualism that is its core idea, liberalism acts “as a solvent upon all social bonds,” inexorably causing the disintegration of the fundamental ties of civic and familial life that make a decent social order possible. “Liberalism has failed,” he writes, “because liberalism has succeeded. As it becomes fully itself, it generates endemic pathologies more rapidly and pervasively than it is able to produce Band-aids and veils to cover them.”
Thanks to the relentless advance of liberalism’s individualistic ethos, neighborhood and nation, family and religion are all left in “ruins.” Promising “an ennobling set of political ideals,” what liberalism has actually accomplished is the realization of “new and comprehensive forms of degradation.” No matter which direction we turn in Deneen’s tour of the horizon, he exposes the falsity of liberalism’s claims. A political philosophy “that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty,” in practice, Deneen writes, “generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.”
Representative government, supposedly a hallmark of our liberal democratic order is, to Deneen, a sham: “Our capacity for self-government has waned almost to the point of nonexistence.” What we call democracy is nothing more than “an emaciated form of spectator politics.” Indeed, we are no longer truly self-governing but instead subjected to the rule of a new class of “select elite actors.” Liberal democracy, “having claimed to bring about the downfall of aristocratic rule of the strong over the weak, culminates in a new, more powerful, even more permanent aristocracy that fights ceaselessly to maintain the structure of liberal injustice.”
Apart from the emergence of its own nomenklatura, in other critical respects, argues Deneen, liberalism shares critical features with fascism and Communism. For one thing, like its two great ideological cousins, liberalism is an “architecture that proposed transforming all aspects of human life to conform to a preconceived political plan.” To be sure, qualifies Deneen, the creation of a liberal order has not hinged on a “visibly authoritarian” regime. Instead, liberalism works invisibly, as the backdrop to our lives. In this respect liberalism is if anything “more insidious” than its past competitors. Moreover, a “signal feature of modern totalitarianism was that it arose and came to power through the discontents of people’s isolation and loneliness,” which leaves “deracinated” individuals “to seek belonging and self-definition through the only legitimate form of organization remaining available to them: the state.” Acknowledging that few contemporary thinkers would apply that analysis to liberalism, Deneen demurs from the consensus, writing that “there is no reason to suppose the basic political psychology works any differently today.”
If liberalism, to Deneen, has totalitarian features but is not itself totalitarian, it is still a form of tyranny, one that he labels “liberalocratic despotism.” One of its mechanisms is the pervasive destruction of traditional local culture, including by a dehumanizing materialism in which we “consume prepackaged, market-tested, mass-marketed consumables, often branded in commercialized symbolism that masks that culture’s evisceration.” Another is the forward march of technology, which instead of conducing to our betterment often “ends up ruling or destroying us.” Yet another is the formation of a powerful state, whose reach grows according to “the logic and grain of the regime.” Altogether, the combined forces of a “massive state architecture and a globalized economy” have a crushing impact, atomizing society and leaving “the individual powerless and overwhelmed by the very structures that were called into being in the name of freedom.” Given the way liberal democracy has unfolded, it is nothing short of an “accumulating catastrophe.”
In presenting Deneen’s charge sheet, one must be complete. For even as he indicts liberal democracy for a panoply of grave sins, he also qualifies. Having painted liberal democracy with the darkest colors, toward the end of his book Deneen abruptly picks up a brush with a more optimistic hue. Attempting to imagine a “humane alternative” to the philosophy he decries, he begins by declaring that the “achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged.” He adds that “the desire to ‘return’ to a preliberal age must be eschewed” and any movement forward must build upon liberalism’s achievements while still “abandoning the foundational reasons for its failure.” He says that post-liberal theorizing should be cognizant of both “the rightful demands” liberalism makes, “particularly for justice and dignity,” and also of liberalism’s “retention of essential concepts from a pre-liberal age—especially that of liberty.” He cautions, however, that any movement forward requires not incremental reform but overturning liberalism root and branch: “The only path to liberation from the inevitabilities and ungovernable forces that liberalism imposes is liberation from liberalism itself.”
In summarizing Why Liberalism Failed to highlight some of its distinctive aspects, I do not want to obscure the fact that it is brilliantly written. For both its erudition and sparkling prose, it has amply earned the wide attention it has garnered. The book features blurbs not only from leading conservative thinkers but also from liberals including Barack Obama, who praises it for “cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel,” as well as voices further to the left, like Cornel West, who calls it “courageous and timely,” and, following Deneen, warns that “if we remain tied to liberalism’s failure, more inequality, repression, and spiritual emptiness await us.”
The receptive audience Deneen has found is itself a significant point of data, for what leaps out from Deneen’s pages, at least to this reader, is the extravagant language of Deneen’s indictment. What, for example, is the precise nature of the “catastrophe” that he says has befallen our liberal democratic order? Where are the “ruins” in the midst of which he contends we are living? What constitutes the “new and comprehensive forms of degradation” that he finds wherever he turns his gaze? Beginning with his book’s question-begging title, Deneen is remarkably apodictic. Readers are repeatedly confronted with pronouncements about the condition of liberal democracy—in particular, diagnoses of great social ills—that are presented as if they are incontestable facts.
Much of Deneen’s argument hangs, for example, on the contention that, thanks to the forces unleashed by liberalism, there has been a “breakdown of family, community, and religious norms and institutions, especially among those benefitting least from liberalism’s advance.” If by “breakdown,” Deneen means deterioration and not total collapse, his is no doubt an accurate claim about trends over the last several decades. And the social decay he points to, just as he also claims, has unquestionably hit hardest those on the bottom rung of American society, those left out of the modern information economy by the relentless meritocratic sorting of both our educational system and our employment market.
But shouldn’t an evaluation of a socio-political system’s merits and demerits take under consideration its flexibility and its capacity to adjust? One hundred years ago, those “benefiting least from liberalism’s advance” were the African-Americans of the American south—and not only the south—consigned by the system of Jim Crow to a life apart, second class citizenship, a systematic deprivation of the franchise, and the lynching of the guilty and the innocent alike. Was that moment—and the decades of segregation that both preceded and followed it—less or more of a “catastrophe” than our own?
And one hundred years before that, the forebears of the same African-Americans who endured segregation were slaves. Men, women, and children were placed on the auction block, their naked bodies exhibited for inspection, and then sold to the highest bidder, often never to see their family members again. Here is a passage about one of his overseers from the memoir of the escaped slave Frederick Douglass:
I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.
Once again, one must ask: Were commonplace moments like that more or less comprehensively degrading than anything occurring in our own era? Deneen writes that “[t]oday, as in past centuries, a vast disconnect exists between our stated ideals and our practices.” That claim is a falsehood, or at best a partial truth, for even if a gap persists between our ideals and practices, in any fair appraisal it has narrowed significantly from 100 or 200 years ago. In assessing the condition of liberal democracy, surely the arrow of progress must be taken into account. But Deneen, never pausing to look at history, instead offers an entirely static evaluation of his subject.
“There is a great deal of ruin in a nation” is Adam Smith’s famous observation, an observation that Deneen and like-minded conservatives overlook to their intellectual peril. Deneen’s method is to take a snapshot of the ruin he finds in contemporary America and declare it a horror show. The fact of the matter is that one can take snapshots of America at previous moments in our history and find ruin an order of magnitude greater. Heaping obloquy on contemporary liberal democracy, Deneen uses the word “bondage” profligately throughout, decrying the bondage of the autonomous self, our bondage to technology, our bondage to economic inevitability, and so forth and so on. But he never applies the word to the genuine bondage of slavery that our liberal democracy permitted under its constitution and abolished at great cost. As Revel points out in The Totalitarian Temptation, “inequity in a society can be measured at a moment in time or over the long term.” Choosing among these two yardsticks, the West European Communists of the 1970s incessantly decried whatever evils of contemporary capitalism appeared before their eyes but elided all discussion of capitalism’s success at creating and distributing wealth over time. Deneen’s appraisal of liberal democracy proceeds in precisely the same fashion.
A significant part of Deneen’s indictment of liberal democracy is the claim that “the liberties that liberalism was brought into being to protect—individual rights of conscience, religion, association, speech, and self-government are extensively compromised.” Is he right about any of this?
To begin with the rights of conscience and religion, it is undeniable that today threats come from both Left and Right. On the Right, the bald fact is that America’s President is a religious bigot, summoning hatred of Muslims from his followers, a feature of his political complexion overlooked by a number of prominent Christian intellectuals and theologians who, with open-eyed hypocrisy, hail him as a champion of religious liberty. On the Left, one finds a strand of progressivism with an agenda hostile to religion and religious freedom and which would extend government deep into the most intimate spheres of life. That agenda has made considerable progress both in the legal arena and in the formation of public opinion. Serious Christians in America, and not only Christians but also worshippers in other faiths, are not wrong to see themselves besieged by a post-modern culture that not only rejects time-honored teachings about the nature of marriage and the immutability of gender, but also, and what is far more egregious, condemns the public defense of those time-honored teachings as a form of bigotry. The progressive attempt not merely to drive religion from the public square but to place it in the stocks can rightly be called “totalitarian” in its ambitions, as George Weigel has done.
But ambitions are one thing. Realization is another. The coexistence of competing systems of morality, exceptional in human history, is one of the great achievements of liberal democracy.The coexistence of competing systems of morality, exceptional in human history, is one of the great achievements of liberal democracy. It also can be one of its most painful features, for maintaining such coexistence is not an automatic process. Rather, it entails constant resistance to the encroachments of the intolerant, coming today from both Left and Right. Religious liberty is certainly under assault today, but it can be and is being defended via the channels of democratic decision-making. That is no small part of what our hotly contested elections and our intense fights over judicial usurpation and judicial nominations are about. Deneen inveighs against “the inevitabilities that liberalism imposes.” In so doing he treats liberalism as if the abstraction itself were some sort of tyrannical agent inexorably grinding down religious and other forms of freedom. Such historical determinism is nothing more than a fiction convenient to his argument: No outcome is preordained. In a liberal democracy such as ours, living, breathing individuals are the real agents of history. In public opinion, in the courts, and in the political arena, the pendulum of democracy swings and will continue to swing.
What is more, when it comes to freedom of conscience, in the broader sweep of things we are very far from a low point in the arc of the pendulum. Consider the position of Catholicism in the United States in the 19th century. Many in the dominant Protestant majority regarded the Pope as the “anti-Christ” and Catholics as his agents; lurid tales of sexual slavery, torture, and infanticide circulated widely, stirring fear and hatred. Belief in a Catholic conspiracy to undermine liberty was a driving force behind the growth of the Know Nothings from a secretive fraternity to a full-fledged political party. Among the planks of its 1856 platform were:
- Hostility to all Papal influences, when brought to bear against the Republic.
- Eternal enmity to all those who attempt to carry out the principles of a foreign Church or State.
- War to the hilt, on political Romanism.
- American Laws, and American legislation; and death to all foreign influences, whether in high places or low!
These were not mere words. As impoverished Catholic “hordes” poured into the country from Europe, they were targeted by nativists and subjected to pogroms in which Catholics were murdered and churches burned to the ground. Once again, if one compares the darkness of that era to the travails of our present moment—including, for example, the genuine trespass on religious liberty of forcing nuns to purchase health insurance policies that cover contraception, or compelling a conscientiously objecting Christian baker to bake a wedding cake for a homosexual couple—should one conclude that liberalism has failed or that it has enjoyed considerable success? All such comparisons across time are absent from Deneen’s account.
Deneen’s cements his relentless case for pessimism by concluding that the mechanisms of self-government have been irretrievably subverted. Our electoral processes, he writes, seem to be “a Potemkin drama meant to convey the appearance of popular consent.” And appearance is one thing, reality another. “The genius of liberalism was to claim legitimacy on the basis of consent,” Deneen writes, but what it has actually done in practice is to “arrange periodic managed elections, while instituting structures that would dissipate democratic energies, [and] encourage the creation of a fractured and fragmented public.”
But what exactly is the problem with elections that Deneen is identifying? Is he talking about ballot access, voter suppression, corporate contributions, gerrymandering, a surfeit of political advertising, or one or more of the above? Deneen never says. Instead, his claims are left hanging in the air as if they are established facts. And, once again, he attributes to our liberal order features of totalitarianism. In the Soviet Union and its empire, after all, elections truly were Potemkin affairs, periodically “managed” to demonstrate unity and crush the potential non-conformist by returning unanimous results.
Has freedom of speech also been extensively compromised, as Deneen maintains? Evidently assuming this to be a widely recognized fact, he offers not a single example to back up this claim. I was left presuming that he is referring to the plague of political correctness, particularly evident on college campuses, that inhibits honest discussion of vital subjects. Whatever Deneen has in mind, once again it is worth turning one’s head to episodes in liberalism’s past. Across the 19th century, laws punishing sedition, criminal anarchy, and conspiracy were employed to suppress the speech of abolitionists, religious minorities, trade union organizers, and suffragists. The Virginia Act of 1836 provided that anyone who came to the state to “advise the abolition of slavery” by speaking or writing could be punished by up to three years of imprisonment. In the early 20th century, Americans were imprisoned under the Sedition Act of 1918, which forbade either the utterance or the publication of “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.” How do those kinds of draconian legal restrictions on speech stack up against a political correctness that, however antithetical to the free exchange of ideas, is enforced almost entirely either by social pressure to conform or by private agents like university administrators?
Deneen invokes Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement speech to bolster his claims about liberalism’s “lawlessness.” In turn, it is worth invoking Solzhenitsyn in connection with freedom of speech. In writing The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn had to operate in secrecy, keeping his labors hidden from the authorities who were desperate to suppress it. In the summer of 1973, his devoted typist, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, was detained by the KGB and interrogated. Placed under pressure, she revealed that a copy of the manuscript was buried at the dacha of an associate. Three days after the KGB released her, she hung herself. When a professor at a distinguished American university bemoans, without a scintilla of substantiation, the supposed fact that free expression has been “extensively compromised” in our open society, one is encountering the same travesty that Revel found on the Left in the 1970s: the “fashionable intellectual processes by which free societies are transformed into totalitarian societies.”
In a similar vein, Deneen sees great social harm emanating from the fact that the “liberal state expands to control nearly every aspect of life” (emphasis added). One begs to know whether Deneen, who teaches political science, is acquainted with states, some still in existence, that accomplish exactly that. Stalinism at its height aimed for such total control. So did Chinese Communism. Interestingly, the Soviet press in the relative thaw of the post-Stalin era sometimes described—quite accurately—how such controls operated under the leadership of Mao Tse Tung, as in this excerpt from the Soviet weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, quoted by Revel:
Several houses make up a cell whose members are required to report their thoughts and actions to each other. . . .Each week the head of the family reports on the ideological situation in the family to the neighborhood revolutionary committee, which is nothing less than a system of informing. In practice everyone is required to do the same, including schoolchildren who at the end of the week write essays on the class struggle in their families and among their classmates. The individual has no right to a personal life: each of his actions is subject to rigorous surveillance. Everything he does at home. . . .where he goes, what he talks about, what he eats, what he reads, what he listens to on the radio, all this is immediately learned by those around him and reported to the neighborhood revolutionary committee.
Here we see a picture of what it really means for a state “to control nearly every aspect of life.” It is getting tiresome to point out that the failings Deneen attributes, without evidence, to liberal democracy are actually the central features of totalitarian regimes. The totalitarian temptation analyzed by Revel rested on just such slanderous transposals.
Deneen’s is not a lone voice. There is an emerging school of conservative intellectuals who, with variations, are adumbrating similar ideas. Ryszard Legutko’s 2016 book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, comes packaged in a red, white, and blue dust jacket, complete with stars of the American flag juxtaposed to the communist hammer and sickle. Legutko, a professor of philosophy at Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland, a member of the European parliament, a former official in Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, and, before the collapse of Communism, an activist within Solidarity, finds extraordinary commonalities between liberal democracy and Communism.
To be sure, Legutko forcefully acknowledges the “superiority” of liberalism to Communism, citing his own personal experience of living under both kinds of regimes. No reasonable person, he writes, would question the advantages of one over the other, although this argument, he cautions, should not be used as a form of “intellectual and moral blackmail.” His purpose, he says, is to explore the “profound” similarities of the two systems, which cannot be “absolved or explained away by the mere fact of this superiority.” Though Legutko acknowledges in one breath the critical qualification that Communism rested on terror and liberalism does not, in another breath he qualifies his qualification, explaining that both systems rest on some form of coercion. They are both, he writes, “all-unifying entities compelling their followers how to think, what to do, how to evaluate events, what to dream, and what language to use” (emphasis added).
Liberal democracy presents itself as a “system of breathtaking diversity,” writes Legutko. In fact, he maintains, “the opposite view seems now closer to the truth.” If anything, liberal democracy is an engine of conformism, “a powerful unifying mechanism, blurring differences between people and imposing uniformity of views, behavior, and language.” Far from being distinct from Communism, liberal democracy is merely “a new ideological shell,” one in which “people became hostage to another version of the Newspeak but with similar ideological mystifications.” As under Communism, there are “[o]bligatory rituals of loyalty and condemnations,” only a variation that entails “different objects of worship and a different enemy.”
Like Deneen—and using strikingly similar language—Legutko argues that liberalism is more “insidious” than its totalitarian sibling. Under Communism, writes Legutko, it was clear that the official ideology “was to prevail in every cell of social life.” To achieve that end, the Communist party employed “brutal coercion” and “propaganda.” Liberal democracy achieves the same goal even though “official guardians of constitutional democracy do not exist.” This, he explains, both reflects and creates a paradox: “the overarching nature of the system [is] less tangible, but at the same time more profound and difficult to reverse.”
Contributing a foreword to Legutko’s volume is the British conservative John O’Sullivan, a former top editor at National Review and currently the president of the Danube Institute, a government-funded think tank in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. O’Sullivan unhesitatingly embraces Legutko’s equation of contemporary liberalism with Communism, writing that, like Marxism, liberal democracy is becoming “an all-encompassing ideology,” one that, “behind a veil of tolerance, brooks little or no disagreement.” In this, as in other respects, continues O’Sullivan, liberal democracy in its modern form shares “a number of alarming features with communism.” Both, he explains, are utopian projects, and in seeking to realize their utopian vision, both “require that all social institutions—family, churches, private associations—must conform to liberal-democratic rules in their internal functioning” (emphasis added).
Reviewing Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy, Adrian Vermeule, a chaired professor of law at Harvard Law School, laments the fate of “illiberal citizens” in our liberal democracy; as a self-professed Catholic integralist, that is, as a believer in the establishment of a Catholic confessional state, he includes himself in this category. Such illiberal citizens, writes Vermeule, must endure the ordeal of dwelling in societies where they are “trapped without exit papers, suffer a narrowing sphere of permitted action and speech, shrinking prospects, and increasing pressure from regulators, employers, and acquaintances, and even from friends and family.” Just as Communism falsely boasted of being supremely democratic, liberal society also presents a false face. It “celebrates toleration, diversity, and free inquiry, but in practice it features a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism.” Given their overlapping qualities, Vermeule finds the “stock distinction between the Enlightenment’s twins”—namely, that “communism is violently coercive while liberalism allows freedom of thought”—to be “glib.”
But, of course, unlike in the Communist world where citizens were truly unable to obtain “exit papers,” and were physically “trapped” by an iron curtain bordered by minefields and guarded by soldiers in watch towers armed with machine guns, Vermeule or anyone like-minded is free to leave the United States at any time and emigrate to a more congenial country, be it Poland under Legutko’s Law and Justice party, Orbán’s avowedly illiberal Hungary, or Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In actual fact, however, despite all of the ruins supposedly surrounding us and all of the supposed repression, in the average year out of a population of more than 325 million, fewer than 5,000 Americans renounce their citizenship, typically not to escape the depredations of liberalism but to avoid paying taxes. At the same time, millions of foreigners strive to come to the United States, many of them giving up all their worldly possessions and risking their lives on the journey. These migration patterns would seem to suggest that our liberal democracy, far from being reduced, as in Deneen’s assessment, to “burning embers” amid the “gathering wreckage of [its] twilight years,” still retains a modicum of health.
We also need to inquire if Vermeule is correct that in commenting on public affairs from his perch at America’s premier law school, he—or any American—is subjected to a “narrowing sphere of permitted action and speech” of the kind that dissidents under Communism encountered. Obviously, Vermeule understands that Communism rested on terror and liberalism does not. And just as obviously, in likening himself to a Soviet refusenik, Vermeule is indulging in a vicarious form of victimhood; America’s culture of victimhood, formerly the bane of conservatives, has apparently become contagious. As for Vermeule’s contention that the distinction between liberalism and “violently coercive” Communism is “glib,” it has to rank as a prize-winning classic in the genre of moral equivalence, a kind of fallacy that, once upon a time, conservatives vociferously condemned.
John O’Sullivan’s assertion that under Communism the social institutions he cites—the family, churches, and other private associations—were compelled “to conform to liberal-democratic rules in their internal functioning” is a weird inversion of historical reality. As O’Sullivan surely knows, there were no private institutions in the Soviet Union. As he also surely knows, all of civil life was run not to conform to “liberal democratic rules” (whatever he might mean by that), but according to Marxist-Leninist principles, with hierarchical control extending downward from the vanguard party at the top. O’Sullivan states that the parallels he draws between liberal and Communist institutions “must strike a newcomer to the argument as absurd.” In that claim, at least, he is right. They are absurd. In certain conservative circles, the desire to calumniate liberal democracy by equating it to totalitarianism has led to grotesque distortions of the past.
It is notable that today’s anti-liberal theorists are, for the most part, rather vague about what they envision replacing the liberal-democratic order they decry.
Legutko faults liberal democracy for not giving Christianity the privileged position it has enjoyed across centuries. “All the objectives the communists set for themselves,” he writes, “and which they pursued with savage brutality, were achieved by the liberal democrats who, almost without any effort and simply by allowing people to drift along with the flow of modernity, succeeded in converting churches into museums, restaurants, and public buildings, secularizing entire societies, making secularism the militant ideology, [and] pushing religion to the sidelines.” Though Legutko shrinks from specifying any particular form in which Christianity could or should assume state power, he pronounces it to be “the last great force that offers a viable alternative to the tediousness of liberal-democratic anthropology.”
Deneen, for his part, seeks a “humane alternative” that would dwell in peaceful coexistence within liberalism’s framework. He has in mind building up “the remnants of orthodox religious traditions” like the old-order Amish, along with fostering “localized practices of care, patience, reverence, respect, and modesty.” Here he leans heavily on the writings of Wendell Berry, the writer and environmental activist who, in Deneen’s telling, sees community as a “place of constraint and limit” that makes possible “healthful family life.” Deneen notes approvingly that Berry advocates “the communal prerogative to demand that certain books be removed from the educational curriculum and insist on the introduction of the Bible into the classroom as ‘the word of God.’”
Vermeule has a more well-defined objective. He rejects Deneen’s “retreat into localism” as insufficient, arguing that such a communitarian vision can “exist only at the sufferance of the aggressive liberal state.” The proper response, he suggests, is “to co-opt and transform the decaying regime from within its own core.” This can be best achieved by refocusing liberal institutions, in particular the bureaucracies of liberalism’s administrative state, toward the construction of an integralist Catholic order:
It may thus appear providential that liberalism, despite itself, has prepared a state capable of great tasks, as a legacy to bequeath to a new and doubtless very different future. The vast bureaucracy created by liberalism in pursuit of a mirage of depoliticized governance may, by the invisible hand of Providence, be turned to new ends, becoming the great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.
Of course, “the new and doubtless very different future” Vermeule has in mind—rule by some illiberal Catholic entity that determines what constitutes “the good”—is not likely to be palatable to non-Christians, nor, I suspect, to most Christians as well. That said, it is easy to agree with Vermeule that Deneen’s stab at communitarianism is not a sufficient replacement of the liberal democratic order he deems “bankrupt,” nor does it correspond to the gravity of the ills Deneen sees as afflicting that order. Needless to say, the technologically abstemious Amish, who shun electricity (except when it is produced by their own windmills), do not offer a practical model for the social organization of a modern society comprised of hundreds of millions of citizens.
Evidently stung by criticism that he fell short in developing a plausible alternative to liberalism, in the paperback edition of Why Liberalism Failed Deneen returns with a more radical cast of mind. He writes in a new preface that after the passage of several months since his book first appeared, and with the fragility of liberal democracy having been exposed by the sudden rise of left-wing socialist and right-wing nationalist movements, it now appears to him that the existing order is rapidly approaching its terminus. Indeed, we are drawing near to a moment, he writes, akin to the sack of Rome in 410 A.D., when what is required is “epic theory” that will call forth “a new departure in political thinking.” But he confesses that he is not at present prepared to engage in epic theorizing and expresses hope that some young reader of his book will one day come forth to do the job.
I take it as an encouraging indicator of liberal democracy’s intrinsic strength that one of its most aggressive critics cannot even pencil-sketch the contours of a plausible superior alternative.I take it as an encouraging indicator of liberal democracy’s intrinsic strength that one of its most aggressive critics cannot even pencil-sketch the contours of a plausible superior alternative. But that is not to say that alternatives are presently lacking. Deneen and like-minded anti-liberal theorists are writing at a moment, not entirely unlike the 1930s, when liberal democracy is in retreat around the world, confronting energetic populist and authoritarian movements and states. Deneen places himself on the side of the populist challengers. Yet it is one thing, as George Weigel does in a judicious essay in National Affairs, to regard the rise of populism as akin to a fever in a human body signaling that something is wrong. It is another thing, as Deneen does, to welcome the fever.
Deneen characterizes the word “populist” as a pejorative applied by liberals to dismiss policies and politicians that do not accord with liberal commitments. For all of populism’s problems, among which Deneen himself includes “its easy manipulation by demagogues,” he nonetheless judges that it “signals a reinvigorated democratic impulse.” But recent and not so recent history, which Deneen characteristically ignores, does not support such a sanguine stance. Populists in power have a dismal record when it comes to maintaining the rule of law, protecting the independence of the judiciary, defending freedom of the press and individual rights, and tolerating minorities. The Know Nothings of the 19th century were a classic populist movement, one at the hands of which Catholics, much like Muslims and Hispanic immigrants today in their encounter with Trumpian populism, bore the brunt.
In any event, given that Deneen contends that liberal democracy is already a form of despotism, he is singularly ill-equipped to draw distinctions between political movements that support freedom and those that would trample on it should they ever come to power. In this respect, as in others, Deneen is in alarming congruence with the leftist intellectuals of the Cold War era, pointed to by Revel, for whom “the faults of free societies are so magnified that freedom appears to mask a totalitarian reality.” Indeed, Deneen echoes no one so much as Herbert Marcuse, the quasi-Marxist philosopher of the Frankfurt School, whose contempt for the “false” freedoms offered by liberal democracy provided inspiration to the New Left of the 1960s and whose doleful influence lingers to this day.
Like Deneen, Marcuse regards liberalism as a mask for tyranny. What Deneen calls “liberalocratic despotism,” Marcuse calls a society of “total administration” and “totalitarian democracy.” In his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse insists—in language which Deneen closely maps—that the promises of liberalism are actually camouflage for social control: “What is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.” To Deneen, the pernicious promises of liberalism are also camouflaged: Liberalism, he writes, is “a pervasive invisible ideology” that “surreptitiously” remakes the world in its despotic image.
Marcuse rails against the “false needs” generated by advertising amid the dehumanizing broader culture of consumerism. Deneen offers nearly the identical complaint, condemning consumerism as a pathway to spiritual impoverishment: “We have endless choices of the kind of car to drive but few options over whether we will spend large parts of our lives in soul-deadening boredom within them.” Deneen sees democratic elections as a “managed” process that serves to “dissipate” democratic energies, fragment the public, and consolidate the power of a new “permanent aristocracy” bent on maintaining a regime of “liberal injustice.” Marcuse, for his part, writes that the exercise of political rights such as voting in elections “only strengthens the system of total administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness.”
Deneen see liberal democracy as resting on an insidious false consciousness, a phenomenon Marcuse explicated in his 1964 One Dimensional Man. Marcuse writes there that a “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization” and that liberal democratic society “takes care of the need for liberation by satisfying the needs which make servitude palatable and perhaps even unnoticeable.” For his part, Deneen offers the breathtaking admission that the failures of liberalism have been “generally undetectable to the denizens of liberal regimes,” or at least undetectable to those denizens who are satisfied with its successes. Continuing with what is nothing other than a Marcusean mode of materialist analysis, Deneen argues that “liberalism’s apologists” are in the grip of a “self-deception” that is “generated by enormous reservoirs of self-interest in the maintenance of the present system.”
To be sure, despite all the congruence, Deneen and Marcuse would prescribe very different cures for liberal democracy—or perhaps, to put it more accurately, they would kill off the patient in very different ways—but they find a strikingly similar set of malignancies in their diagnoses.
Serious contemplation should be provoked by the convergence of the destructive anti-liberal philosophy of the New Left with the emerging anti-liberalism of contemporary conservative thinkers. Given the warm reception Deneen’s book has enjoyed at both ends of the political spectrum, it is plain that the sirens of an illiberal temptation are seductively beckoning. One is left wondering whether writings like Why Liberalism Failed will, as has been the case with Marcuse’s work, reverberate for decades, chipping away at the moral and intellectual foundation of the most humane socio-political order ever to grace the face of the earth. Without a doubt, as Deneen argues, radical individualism taken to an extreme carries the potential to undermine the social bonds necessary to sustain self-government and freedom; that is not in dispute. But conservative jeremiads that condemn liberal democracy as irredeemably flawed from its inception and which baselessly equate its institutions with those of the most bloodthirsty regimes in modern history damage the cause of freedom at a moment of liberal democracy’s mounting vulnerability.
Deneen professes to value liberty, but the liberty he values is distinct from what he calls our currently existing “ersatz version,” the primary negative achievement of which is combining “systematic powerlessness with the illusion of autonomy in the form of consumerist and sexual license.” If Deneen succeeds in his project of liberating us from liberalism root and branch, one trembles to contemplate what substitute will come in its place as the fruit of post-liberal “epic theorizing.” Given all the hard lessons we have learned over the last century about human nature and the fragility of civilization’s veneer, liberal democracy in a developed mass society is exceedingly unlikely to evolve into something resembling the quaint localism of the old-order Amish and far more at risk of lapsing into the kind of blood and soil nationalism that, here and abroad, we are watching take shape before our eyes.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is the author of, among other books, Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.