It isn’t easy being Patrick J. Deneen. In 2018, he published “Why Liberalism Failed,” a scathing and sweeping critique that was attentively discussed by the very people (establishment politicians, Ivy League academics, mainstream journalists) he depicted as too ruthless and arrogant to care about the problems ravaging the country: ecological degradation, economic devastation, social isolation, deaths of despair. Magazine sections were given over to debating Deneen’s thesis; Barack Obama promoted the book on his reading list. Multiple articles in this newspaper parsed his argument, precisely because it voiced some of the discontent that had helped propel Donald J. Trump into the highest office.
Yet if Deneen’s new book, “Regime Change,” is any indication, he and his fellow social conservatives are feeling as persecuted as ever. Never mind that the Supreme Court effectively overturned Roe v. Wade last year, and statewide bans on abortions are proceeding apace. Or that red-state lawmakers are removing books on the barest pretext that they might offend conservative sensibilities. In “Regime Change,” Deneen, who teaches political theory at the University of Notre Dame, depicts the current dispensation as not just inadequate but unbearable — so much so that he deigns to go beyond theorizing to propose what he would like to do about it.
He spends the early chapters railing against that trusted bugaboo of right-wing pundits — academics who “veil their status” by speaking the language of egalitarianism while basking in the privilege and prestige conferred by their fancy degrees. In a particularly heated passage, he writes about how the political scientist Charles Murray, a co-author of “The Bell Curve,” notoriously linking intelligence to race and class, was invited to speak at Middlebury College in 2017 and then shouted down by protests that turned violent.
Deneen finds this hypocrisy especially galling. He points out that Middlebury is extremely expensive to attend. It is also, Deneen notes, “among the most selective schools in America — accepting only 17 percent of applicants in 2017.” (If Deneen is bothered by the fact that Notre Dame’s acceptance rate stands at 15 percent, he doesn’t say.) For a book that’s ostensibly about the oppressively liberal American political system, a surprising number of pages are devoted to the ins and outs of what happens on elite college campuses.
But all the campus adventures amount to so much throat-clearing before he gets to the gravamen of his argument. In the introduction, he gives a hint at what’s to come: “What is needed — and what most ordinary people instinctively seek — is stability, order, continuity and a sense of gratitude for the past and obligation toward the future. What they want, without knowing the right word for it, is a conservatism that conserves.”
The confidence (and condescension) is breathtaking, but it turns out that Deneen doesn’t believe that “ordinary people” are up to the task of effecting the necessary change. They have been too degraded by an “invasive progressive tyranny” to yield anything other than a populist movement that is “untutored and ill led,” he writes, alluding to Trump. After spending 150 pages disparaging the “elite,” Deneen goes on, in the last third of the book, to try to reclaim the word for a “self-conscious aristoi” who would dispense with all the liberal niceties about equality and freedom and instead serve as the vanguard of a muscular “aristopopulism.”
The desired result, he says, would be a “mixed regime” or “mixed constitution.” Scholars have already discerned some traces of a mixed constitution in the American system’s separation of powers, but Deneen envisions something more radical (and less liberal) than “checks and balances.” He wants a “blending,” or “melding,” of the conservative elite with the (non-liberal) populace, their interests and sensibilities fusing into “one thing.” As much as he tries to dance around how such a profound transformation might come about — devoting page upon page to windy disquisitions on Tocqueville and Aristotle — he eventually admits what he believes it would take: “The raw assertion of political power by a new generation of political actors inspired by an ethos of common-good conservatism.”
Here we go. Deneen spends much of “Regime Change” taking cover in gauzy abstractions, so it’s the occasional blunt-force statement like this that reveals what he would ultimately like to see. There is a lot about “the past” in this book and barely any actual history. He gets misty-eyed reminiscing about the “quiet leadership” provided by “small-town doctors” and a Hollywood that produced movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It all sounds gentle and quaint except when Deneen erupts in demands for an “overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class.”
Deneen offers a vague reassurance that the “raw assertion of political power” would somehow be wielded in a “peaceful but vigorous” way, proposing that the number of representatives in the House be expanded to a truly wild 6,000 and pointing to autocratic Hungary’s efforts “to increase family formation and birth rates” as exemplary. He also offers a vague reassurance that the postliberal future will not revive the prejudice and bigotry of the past. His prolix “to be sures” are so conspicuously awkward (“I don’t want to be misunderstood as denying the justified and necessary commitment to racial equality and respect owed toward people who have been historically marginalized and excluded”) that one way to make reading this book less of a slog would be to create a drinking game out of these labored attempts to cover his flank.
But Deenen’s fellow social conservatives can take heart that at least some prejudices — or “customs” — would remain, as Deneen decries what he calls an “effort to displace ‘traditional’ forms of marriage, family and sexual identity based in nature.” Never mind the shoddy thinking that somehow equates pluralism with replacement, as if a same-sex marriage (or, as he puts it, “marriage between two homosexuals”) is something that could “displace” a marriage between a man and a woman. Deneen’s worldview is unrelentingly zero-sum. He says he seeks nothing less than the “renewal of the Christian roots of our civilization.”
And what if you don’t want to live in this regime — one that rejects “democratic pluralism” and sounds suspiciously like a theocracy? Well, that’s too bad for you. “The common good is always either served or undermined by a political order,” Deneen declares toward the end of his book. “There is no neutrality on the matter.” He wants to recreate “the authoritative claims of the village,” but on a national or even international scale — sidestepping the uncomfortable fact that such grand projects have had, to put it mildly, a troubling historical record. He calls on postliberals to aim big, “embracing, fostering and protecting not only the nation but that which is both smaller and larger than the nation.”
Underneath all the gemütlich verbs lurks a suggestion that some readers may find chilling: a vision of the “common good” so obvious to Deneen that it’s not up for debate or discussion.
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