At its best, Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is a book that helps fish like us see the water. For that reason alone, you will benefit from it. The water in question here is the political philosophy of liberalism, what Deneen calls “an encompassing political ecosystem in which we have swum, unaware of its existence.”
When Deneen, who teaches political science at Notre Dame, writes of “liberalism,” he isn’t writing about the views held by contemporary Democratic politicians or self-described “progressives” (at least not directly). Instead, he has in mind the governing philosophy that animated the American Founders and has defined America ever since, influencing modern conservatives and liberals alike. Think freedom of speech and religion, individual liberty, equality under the law, private property rights, and other values most Americans take for granted. Think “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Looking at the Western world more broadly, “liberalism” evokes the legacy of the Enlightenment, with its commitments to reason, scientific progress, tolerance, and liberation from all the allegedly oppressive traditions (political, social, ecclesiastical) of the past.
Liberalism hasn’t always been the only game in town. Not so long ago in history, fascism and communism appeared to present credible rivals. But by the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, only liberalism remained. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously declared that the triumph of liberal democracy had brought about “the end of history.” In other words, we’re all liberals now.
Nearly 30 years later, however, we know liberalism has failed us, and Deneen spells out the precise nature of this failure in his book, which has grabbed the attention of the faith-and-politics crowd everywhere from The New York Timesto The Federalist. His argument is straightforward: Liberalism has failed by succeeding. It achieved what it set out to achieve, and we are all worse off for it.
Liberalism, for instance, claims to limit government and keep it accountable to the people. But now the state expands into nearly every area of our lives. And it’s run by an unaccountable executive-branch bureaucracy.
It affirms the equality of all people and seeks better standards of living. But it generates growing economic inequality and anxiety.
It pays lip-service to diversity and multi-culturalism. But beneath the different clothes, it homogenizes our worldviews. We all think the same.
It seeks to free us from the constraints of nature through science and technology. But it turns us into consumers who rob the future for the sake of immediate gratification.
In short, liberalism aspires to free us as individuals from all the traditions, values, judgments, and relationships that burden us, but we’re left feeling lonely, empty, and unfree. And as Americans increasingly feel this gap between liberalism’s promises and real life, we will go looking for a strong man to fix our problems. The 2016 elections gave us a taste of the autocracy in store, and Deneen suggests that more can be expected.
The Anthropological Problem
The basic problem of liberalism, argues Deneen, is its individualistic anthropology. It views human beings as fundamentally autonomous. If grandfather’s religion prevents the discovery of my true self, I should cast it off. If mother’s marital expectations defy who I want to love, I should insist on the right to marry whomever I please. No duties, responsibilities, debts, or relationships must finally define me. I must be free to define myself. The government’s job, furthermore, is to remove such obstacles to my freedom.
Ironically, as Deneen observes, the growth of individual freedom is connected to the growth of the state. The state moves into more and more areas of life to ensure people remain “free.” In other words: “Statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism.” No longer do we view ourselves in relationship to this middle layer of community and culture—churches, families, and all the cultural institutions which comprise our local communities. Rather, we become dependent on this large, abstract, impersonal state to maximize our freedom.
When economic anxiety hits or the culture war turns against us, maybe we tinker with our laws. Maybe we look for a better candidate. Yet the real problem is systemic. It goes all the way back to the anthropological assumptions we began making at the American Founding, assumptions learned from writers like Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. Both sides of today’s culture war, moreover, have been duped. The only real difference is method. Conservatives work for individual liberty and equal opportunity through a free market. Progressives aim at economic equality and freedom from traditional social norms through the government. Yet right and left are the two sides of “the same counterfeit coin,” says Deneen.
Just think: Are you surprised the Republican Party leadership keeps betraying Christian social values? You shouldn’t be. Both parties operate by the same deeper principle: upholding the primacy of the sovereign individual, no matter what that individual demands.
Liberalism might pretend to be neutral between different views of the good life, but in fact, it colonizes our institutions. It shapes how we think. It’s a sectarian wolf in a non-sectarian sheep’s clothing.
What’s Deneen’s alternative to liberalism? Not another theory. “The search for a comprehensive theory,” he writes, “is what gave rise to liberalism and its successor ideologies [communism and fascism] in the first place”. Instead, we need to recommit ourselves to a better set of practices. Better theories will grow out of better practices.
Specifically, we need to stop being consumers and learn once again how to grow, build, plant, cook, and write our own music. We need to create new countercultures in our homes, churches, and neighborhoods that thicken our ties to the people around us. In these local settings and relationships, perhaps we can relearn the virtues of civic participation and self-government.
The Theological Problem
There are two ways I can read Deneen: sympathetically or unsympathetically.
To read him sympathetically, I would conjecture that Deneen, a convinced Roman Catholic, eschews another “theory” because he’s writing for a secular audience. He knows his own comprehensive theory of justice and morality, God and the universe, would stop their ears.
In this sympathetic read, Deneen knows a person cannot not have a comprehensive theory. He knows there is no such thing a “view from nowhere,” to borrow a philosopher’s phrase. There is no such thing as moral and religious neutrality. Every position we take in the public square—from our views on abortion to same-sex marriage to health care to federal funding for national parks—relies upon some view of morality and justice, God and the universe. When we enter the public square, we enter with our God or gods. All of us do—the evangelical, the progressive, the secularist, the Hindu, your mom and my mom. The public square is nothing more or less than a battleground of gods, as I’ve argued in a couple of places.
Perhaps (in my sympathetic perspective) Deneen is a contextually sensitive missionary to the land of liberalism. He knows better than to start with his own comprehensive view of life and morality. He has to begin by helping the natives realize their gods aren’t making them happy. So he hides these other cards up his sleeve.
That’s the sympathetic reading, and it might be the right one. I don’t know. The more unsympathetic reading is that Deneen doesn’t realize all of this. Instead, he’s convinced himself he’s not building on a comprehensive theory, and he truly imagines he can offer a “view from nowhere,” as liberalism pretends to do. The thing is, liberalism has been bluffing for centuries. It possesses a comprehensive theory of life and morality. It imposes. It colonizes. Deneen understands that. Yet is he offering the same bluff?
Like Deneen, I have problems with philosophical liberalism, both classical and contemporary. Yet liberalism’s basic problem is not anthropological. It’s theological.
Any view of government that does not place government under a higher authority makes government absolute. This is what liberalism has done. The original liberal theorists might have offered nice-sounding toasts to the laws of the Almighty. (Consider the Declaration of Independence, with its invocation of “Nature’s God” and inalienable rights endowed by our “Creator”). But they didn’t actually write God into the social contract. The contract is for believers and unbelievers alike. It stipulates that our obligation to obey government doesn’t come from God (how could you require that of an unbeliever?). It comes from our own consent.
Once a people view themselves as their own highest authority, whatever they most value becomes their god. And that god will rule their nation. Indeed, such a nation will even take good, God-given gifts and turn them into tyrannical idols. Communism did this with equality. Liberalism does this with liberty.
Perhaps you wonder which liberties I would give up, as another reviewer asked Deneen. That’s easy: Christians should give up unjust freedoms. We should eschew the freedom to terminate an unwanted pregnancy or the freedom to redefine marriage or the freedom to ask minorities to sit on another part of the bus. The trouble is, liberalism doesn’t let us define justice in a substantive way. It’s defined by whomever wins the most votes. It becomes utterly dependent on time and place.
Christians know, however, that governments exist most fundamentally to do justice (Gen. 9:5–6; 1 Kings 3:28; Prov. 29:4; Rom. 13:1–7). Which means justice, not freedom, should be a Christian’s preeminent political value. Freedom is a secondary political good and should always be constrained by justice.
When we make freedom our uppermost value, we effectively make it a god. Freedom is like a car you can drive in a good direction or a bad one. That’s why George Washington and John Adams said their form of government worked well among a virtuous people but less well among an unvirtuous people.
And here I think Deneen is on to something, even if he misidentifies the culprit. The real culprit is our idolatry of freedom. When freedom becomes the only value proclaimed in our classrooms and movies and Fourth of July speeches, it soon colonizes everything. We lose the ability to distinguish between a just freedom and an unjust freedom. We have nothing to say to the woman who wants the freedom to abort her child. There is no other publicly satisfying moral language left.
The culprit is not anthropology, per se. In fact, liberalism learned to affirm the dignity of every individual from Christianity. If a parent abuses a child or a man his wife or a mother her unborn child, we want the state to intervene on behalf of that individual—not because we pit the individual against family, but because God has given the state jurisdiction precisely there.
Liberalism’s trouble is that it wants the flower (the dignity of every individual) while cutting off its roots (the fact that we’re created in God’s image). It wants the anthropology without the theology. And such flowers never last.
Holding Tight to the Wisdom of God
My disagreements aside, Why Liberalism Failed is an eminently worthy read. Today’s culture wars did not start in the 1960s or ’80s. They go back to the Founding, and Deneen offers us a useful doorway into that more difficult conversation.
It’s difficult but necessary because Christianity and the American experiment overlap at crucial points, and it’s not always easy to separate one from the other. That’s especially the case if, like me, you love baseball, pumpkin pie, and Abraham Lincoln.
Yet Deneen is right. Liberalism is just one more ideology. To put it in my own way, the Founders did not give us the Bible. They gave us the wisdom of man. And the wisdom of man works in some situations, but not in others (see Eccl. 3:1–8). God’s wisdom we must hold with a tight grip, man’s with a loose grip. Deneen’s book helps us loosen our grip and not take everything we’ve received for granted.
Jonathan Leeman is the editorial director for 9Marks and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland. He is the author of How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age (Thomas Nelson) and Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (IVP Academic).