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The idea is central to Deneen’s argument in Why Liberalism Failed, which announces America’s failed — past tense — liberal tradition. For Deneen, “liberalism” refers not just to the political beliefs of self-identified liberals or progressives, but also to the broader, rights-based political philosophy that has guided both major political parties for most of American history. That philosophy, according to Deneen, depends on a flawed understanding of human nature. This understanding can be seen most clearly in the social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, which take their cues from the image of the radically individualistic “state of nature” rather than the “thick” social soil of the garden. They thus prepare the way for today’s liberal market and state, which work together to “emancipate” individuals from morality, tradition, and even biology. “Ironically, but perhaps not coincidentally,” Deneen writes, “the political project of liberalism is shaping us into the creatures of its prehistorical fantasy: increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.”
Deneen’s perspective on the corrosive effects of liberal “anticulture” — as he calls it — is not altogether new, but it is newly ascendant. One consequence of Trump’s election has been an increased public presence for leftist academics, their bylines strewn from Jacobin to The New York Times, committed to charting a course “beyond liberalism.” But it is not only scholars on the left who have found a growing public audience for the exploration of alternatives.
Patrick Deneen is part of a loose network of largely Catholic conservative thinkers, often described as post- or nonliberals — present, if not always prominent, in liberal institutions like Harvard and Stanford, and more deeply entrenched in religiously affiliated universities like Notre Dame and Georgetown — who have likewise seen in our grim political present an opportunity to broadcast their message that another world is possible.
For much of the past decade, debates involving these thinkers have taken place on out-of-the-way blogs like Front Porch Republic and in niche journals like Communio, at panel discussions hosted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, or in the bowels of unorthodox political-science departments. And at first glance, it might have seemed like the conference in Fox Hill — a place with neither television nor all-hours internet access — represented a continuation of this trend. But even there, the group’s growing stature at the nexus of academia and right-wing intellectual publishing was apparent.
As Deneen was speaking, blueberry pie was served to an audience that included Rod Dreher, the well-known American Conservative blogger and author of The Benedict Option; Matthew Schmitz, an editor of the ecumenical religious journal First Things; and Bria Sandford, editorial director of Penguin’s right-of-center Sentinel book division. The next morning, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat arrived.
In the year and a half since the conference, other writers who have staked out public positions on the nonliberal right include the Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule, the First Things editor R.R. Reno, the former Washington Examiner managing editor Helen Andrews, and the University of Dallas assistant professor of political science — and deputy editor of the journal American Affairs — Gladden Pappin. One might add Mary Ann Glendon, the Harvard law professor and former ambassador to the Vatican, who in July was named the head of President Trump’s Commission on Unalienable Rights. (The commission includes professors from Stanford, the University of South Carolina, the University of California at Irvine, and Notre Dame.) That same month, the much-discussed “National Conservatism” conference — held at a Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., and featuring prominent conservative politicians and policy experts — made manifest how far the nonliberals have traveled from ivory tower obscurity.
But while the summer of 2019 gave evidence that the nonliberals are edging closer to political power, it also raised questions about the soul of their own movement. “As usual in politics, it’s easier to define yourself by what you are against rather than what you are for,” Deneen told me. In other words, reaching a consensus about the dead consensus may turn out to be the easy part.
Because the rise of nonliberalism has coincided with the rise of Trump, some have viewed the movement as an attempt to plaster a “veneer of ideas” — as one New York Review of Books headline put it — upon the president’s seemingly arbitrary bluster and bigotry. The charge is not without justification: At the National Conservatism conference, which took place just before the president’s “send her back” rally in North Carolina, the University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax argued for the importance of being able to discuss culturally targeted immigration policies, even if they resulted in “more whites and fewer nonwhites.” Yet such a framing does little to account for how most nonliberal intellectuals view their own project, and it risks obscuring the extent to which the lineage of the nonliberal turn can be traced to scholarly debates on the Catholic right that long predate the emergence of Trumpism.
A network of conservative Catholic thinkers sees in our grim present the opportunity for a better world.
Deneen has emerged as a focal point in part because he was for so long a pugnacious participant in those debates. Pappin, the American Affairs editor and former colleague of Deneen’s at Notre Dame, directed me to a provocative article Deneen had written for the American Conservative in 2014, “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching.” The title refers to Deneen’s contention that the real battle lines within the Christian intelligentsia at the time were not, as many outsiders believed, between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics. Indeed, Deneen argued, “liberal” Catholicism was on its way to being a misnomer just like liberal Protestantism, as both became functionally indistinguishable from conventional secular liberalism. The showdown worth watching, rather, was between the “American tradition of orthodox Catholicism,” and that of “radical Catholicism.”
Deneen associated the American tradition with thinkers like the theologian George Weigel and the Princeton political philosopher Robert George, who hold that “there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism.” This view, which had exponents in Straussian political philosophy departments like those at Claremont McKenna and Hillsdale Colleges, was basically friendly to establishment conservatism and often found favor with the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party.
The radicals, on the other hand, were those who believed that American liberalism had always been deeply hostile to the core values of Catholics. Less publicly visible than the establishment Catholics — and mostly out of communication with mainstream conservatism — they are represented in academia by theologians like William T. Cavanaugh and C.C. Pecknold, of DePaul and Catholic Universities respectively. Their intellectual lodestar is the Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who in landmark studies like After Virtue (1981) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988) invoked the Aristotelian tradition of “virtue ethics” — by way of Aquinas and, to a lesser extent, of Marx — to expose a moral and philosophical incoherence at the heart of “liberal individualist modernity.”
Although both traditional and radical Catholics were critical of the supposed excesses of progressive, cosmopolitan liberalism — e.g., rampant greed and materialism, sexual permissiveness, and a disrespect for embedded social values — they diverged on what Catholic conservatives should do in response. The traditionalists believed Catholics should fight, possibly in league with establishment Republicans, for a return to a “classical” or constitutional liberalism. Like some of the most prominent anti-Trump conservatives today, they felt that the country’s liberal democratic tradition, with its commitment to individual rights, religious liberty, and a free-market economy, was capable of providing adequate — if far from optimal — soil for Christian values to flourish.
The radicals, by contrast, contended that, as Deneen puts it, “America was never well-founded”: It has always been structurally inhospitable to people of faith, beginning with its constitution and including its commitment to an amoral and unrestrained capitalism. They therefore fluctuated between two strategies that put them at odds with both major political parties. One was withdrawal from political life, exemplified for instance by Dreher’s recommendation in The Benedict Option (2017) for Christians to form self-sustaining communities on the model proposed by the medieval monk St. Benedict. (Dreher’s proposal nods back to MacIntyre’s famous conclusion to After Virtue, where he intones that “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”)
Deneen counts himself on the radical side of this divide, for reasons he articulates at length in Why Liberalism Failed. Notably, some critics of the book, like Daniel McCarthy in The National Interest, have charged Deneen with “cherry-picking” his genealogy of the liberal tradition — as if a straight line can be drawn from Hobbes to Hillary. The criticism is fair enough: Why Liberalism Failed lacks the generous engagement with the exemplars of modern liberal thought that characterizes both After Virtue and — another of the book’s iconoclastic influences — Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. But Deneen’s decision to focus on certain aspects of liberal thinking — namely those he sees contributing to contemporary alienation and rootlessness — may be explained in part by his position in the foregoing debates. In light of his previous writing on radical Catholicism, the book should perhaps be read less as an attempt to provide a full accounting of the liberal tradition than as a cautionary tale aimed at the kind of social conservatives who continue to hope, foolishly in Deneen’s view, to find a home there.
Why Liberalism Failed appears destined to be one of those books whose significance is assured by the conversation it inspired. A month after Deneen spoke at Fox Hill, President Obama included the book on his summer reading list. (“I don’t agree with most of the author’s conclusions,” Obama commented, “but the book offers cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel, issues that liberal democracies ignore at their own peril.”) And one measure of the book’s longer-range impact is that, in 2019, Christian conservatives do not need to plead for anyone to pay attention to their debates. The explosive confrontation in May between the New York Post editor Sohrab Ahmari and the National Review columnist David French, over how “civil” Christians ought to be to the liberal establishment, was a good example. In Deneen’s schema, Ahmari occupied the “radical” Catholic position, with French as an American traditionalist. What was at issue was whether Christians oriented toward the “Highest Good,” as Ahmari put it in his polemic in First Things, can coexist politely with an American liberalism they believe is designed to exclude and belittle them.
The radicals contend that America has always been inhospitable to people of faith.
Conversation about Deneen’s book was a “turning point,” Pappin told me, because it “made these divisions on the intellectual right clearer.” At a pivotal moment for conservative intellectuals in the wake of the Obergefell decision on gay marriage in 2015 — celebrated by a rainbow colored Obama White House — and the Trump election a year later, respondents to the book fell into two camps: those who thought conservatives should work to restore, say, the status quo ante Obergefell, and those who agreed with Deneen that Obergefell and Trump were merely the latest evidence of American liberalism’s inveterately corrosive effect on everything conservatives hold dear. Perhaps signaling broader shifts in the country since 2014, Pappin believes the debate has worked to the advantage of the latter, establishing “the nonliberal or post-liberal side of that question as a significant party.”
Deneen’s critics, however, were not only those who believed he was too harsh on the American liberal tradition. The most notable attack on Why Liberalism Failed came, ironically, from within the radical Catholic camp, on the grounds that Deneen had himself been too much of a liberal accommodationist. In “Integration from Within,” the most talked about of the four essays American Affairs published on the book in 2018, the Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule accused Deneen of failing to grapple fully with the consequences of his own diagnosis. Although he agreed with Deneen’s account of the intrinsic weaknesses of liberalism, Vermeule did not agree with Deneen’s proposed solution of nonliberals’ forming autonomous local communities, similar to those recommended by Dreher. What was needed was not the creation of new societies — which would survive only at the forbearance of the reigning powers — but a coup against the liberal “imperium” from within.
Vermeule, in other words, favors re-founding over retreat — and he provides precedents. He celebrates Esther, St. Cecilia, and St. Paul, each of whom had worked to advance their faith from the inside of powerful administrative structures. For these Biblical exemplars, Vermeule writes, there is “no hint of retreat into localism. There is instead a determination to co-opt and transform the decaying regime.” According to this vision, the “vast bureaucracy created by liberalism” becomes less a barrier to the emergence of a new order than an instrument for bringing it about. Rather than withdrawing from the power centers of liberal society, Vermeule recommends that administrators and other elites find a “strategic position” from which, as dissatisfaction with liberalism grows, they can turn that bureaucracy to “new ends.”
The dispute may have looked arcane or fanciful to many of Vermeule’s Harvard law colleagues, but within the radical Catholic cohort it signaled a potential rift between communitarian localists like Deneen, who seemed focused on how dissenters could escape the reach of liberal institutions, and “integralists,” who believe in wielding political and cultural power for the sake of advancing a moral and spiritual agenda. Recently, however, the two sides have tended to focus on the places they agree. When I asked him about Vermeule’s review, Deneen pushed back against the idea that his book had counseled withdrawal as an endgame. “People have tended to overlook that at the end of the book I do talk about a rethinking of political philosophy that moves toward a post-liberal way of thinking,” he told me. “It wasn’t just let’s just retreat and form local communities.”
That Vermeule’s call for a long march through the institutions came in American Affairs is itself revealing. When I read Why Liberalism Failed, I pictured Deneen’s “local communities” as pastoral locations, somewhat like the Bruderhof community that held the “Beyond Liberalism” conference. But there is more than one way to fence off a space to develop new habits and practices. American Affairs, which emerged in 2016 out of the anonymously authored “Trumpist” blog The Journal of American Greatness, has become a wide-ranging forum where nonliberal ideas from across the ideological spectrum are laid out and debated: The journal has published conservative nonliberals like Vermeule and Pappin alongside skeptics of liberalism from the left like the New School political philosopher Nancy Fraser and the Harvard law professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger.
Particularly in its attempt to address the deficiencies of “actually existing capitalism,” Pappin describes the magazine as carrying on the project that was begun in Why Liberalism Failed. “Deneen ended the book with something of a question mark,” Pappin said, “and people wanted to know: Where are all the policy proposals? The journal seems to be a place for people on the left and right who have a particular interest in political economy to continue that element of intellectual discourse.” (As evidence of the impact of this discourse on policy makers, Pappin touted an Atlantic op-ed by the Florida senator Marco Rubio announcing legislation to limit corporate stock buybacks, which cited an American Affairs article on the topic.)
But what kind of transformation? As with some of the movements to supplant liberalism on the left, the radical Catholic critics have an easier time imagining laying waste to the current system than they do laying out a plausible vision of what might replace it.
Traditionally, American conservatives have looked to the founding for clues about what it is most necessary to “conserve.” This is the explicit approach of the “West Coast Straussians,” many of them clustered at Claremont McKenna College, who were some of the earliest intellectuals to come out in support of Trumpism. But if one thinks the country was “never well-founded,” where can one look for inspiration about how to become the “responsible steward” of its traditions?
One place some of today’s nonliberal intellectuals are looking is to Europe — especially France, Hungary, and Poland — where nonliberal movements and governments have gained widespread popular support. Last summer, I saw Vermeule speak at an event hosted by First Things in Manhattan, where the guest of honor was Ryszard Legutko, the Polish political philosopher and a representative in the European parliament. Legutko’s significance for American nonliberals is based on his book-length polemic The Demon in Democracy (2016), in which he insists that Communism and liberalism have more in common than has previously been appreciated, with both having prevented the Polish people from following their preferred path to a Catholic integralist state. Vermeule, who reviewed The Demon in Democracy for First Things in 2017, thanked Legutko for helping to “awaken so many of us from our modernist slumbers.”
Deneen’s book tour has taken him to several countries dealing with their own post-liberal formations, and he has met with many of the figures, often Catholic, who have provided their intellectual scaffolding. Such movements, Deneen told me, contribute to “a sense of possibility about new political openings.” At the same time, he expressed doubts about whether those movements could provide useful templates for America. “Poland, Hungary, and France are places with a tradition, with a dominant part of the population who hold and express those beliefs that support policy — Hungary has policies favoring family formation and the growth of families,” he said. “It’s difficult to imagine that happening in what is essentially the first Protestant nation.”
Deneen’s skepticism about the viability of a Catholic-led political movement in America has been echoed by other religious commentators. Alan Jacobs, a humanities professor at Baylor University, has wondered how those making “integralist and other post-fusionism arguments” will be able to build political coalitions even with sympathetic “non-Catholic Christians,” much less with a more hostile secular populace. Matthew Sitman, a former student of Deneen’s who is an associate editor of the left-leaning Catholic journal Commonweal, has expressed a similar point more polemically: On his podcast, he has connected the rise of integralism to an “anti-democratic” turn on the Catholic right, as if in recognition of the fact that the majority of Americans will never “go along with ordering society to the ‘Highest Good.’”
Sitman did lay out for me, in a subsequent conversation, a more democratic — if no less troubling, from his perspective — path forward for the nonliberals. He called it the “Tucker Carlson project”: an alliance between some form of cultural nationalism and a “revamped” social conservatism, emphasizing “things like birthrates, the opioid crisis, and natalism.” Referring to the National Conservatism conference where Carlson was a headliner, Sitman reflected that “a lot of the language of nationalism was wrapped up with the language of religion. The nationalism was in fact being driven by social conservatives in many ways.”
In his remarks at the conference, Deneen voiced his own hesitation about social conservatives entering into another ignoble bargain, as they had in the days of the three-legged stool. Turning to the emblazoned conference title behind him as he began to speak, he issued a rebuke — polite, but not subtle — to the conference organizers who had emphasized the word “national” in the title at the expense of the word “conservative.” Meanwhile, in his scholarly work, Deneen is looking less to the post-liberal Catholics in Europe than to a more homegrown tradition. His next book revolves around the American historian Christopher Lasch, who began his career as a Marxist critic of capitalism and ended it as a defender of traditional values he felt were being undermined by elites in both political parties. “If you go back and read True and Only Heaven and The Revolt of the Elites” — two of Lasch’s late-career books of social criticism — “both were efforts to articulate deep discontent with both the meritocratic left and the Reagan-conservative right, using resources in the American populist tradition that from one perspective look conservative, and from another look left or progressive, but which really end up being something quite different,” Deneen said. “And that’s part of the tradition I see myself working in.”
Deneen believes this tradition, which he has christened “Aristo-populism,” can help address the hostile stalemate in which many liberal democracies now find themselves. “We have these two sides aligned against each other,” he told me. “One is represented by liberal elites in major institutions who spend all their time denouncing the populists and the people, while claiming the mantle of being democrats. And we have populists represented by their own elites who spend all their time denouncing elites, but aren’t themselves especially savory characters.” For Deneen, the urgent challenge is not to eliminate either of these parties but to pressure our elites — both financial and cultural — to participate in a truly “mixed regime”: Proposals he has floated range from familiar anti-monopoly legislation to more inventive ideas like limiting the size of congressional districts, and incentivizing prestigious universities to open satellite campuses in underdeveloped communities. “How can a better elite form a better citizenry,” the new book will ask, “and how can a better citizenry help to form a better elite?”
It is far from clear, for the moment at least, that the conservative base is with the nonliberals either. Polls show they are with Trump, and although there are good reasons to suspect there is an opening for a conservative movement that challenges our oligarchic economic arrangements in the way Trump has mostly only pretended to do, there are also reasons to worry that building such a movement would require an appeal to precisely the elements that Deneen likely understates by calling “unsavory.” Moreover, especially on social questions that remain central to the nonliberal agenda — immigration, abortion, transgender rights — it is questionable how, absent the guardrails of liberal rights and protections, Deneen’s eye-level localism can protect itself against those who will inevitably be willing to use administrative power to turn the whole nation into a garden where only one “culture” is encouraged to flourish.
Peter Mommsen, editor of Plough Quarterly and a member of the Bruderhof community that hosted the “Beyond Liberalism” conference, told me that while he supports proposing “a robust ‘nonliberal’ vision of the common good,” he worries about the consequences of “pursuing it through partisan politics.” “I’m convinced the ‘nonliberals’ do want communities like the Bruderhof to be able to exist, since such a way of life embodies many of the virtues they prize,” he said. “The irony would be if the political expression of nonliberalism ended up undermining the very rights and liberties on which nonliberal communities and religious groups of whatever creed rely.”
Critics of liberalism on both the left and the right today like to emphasize that liberalism’s purported “neutrality” is a myth. But at least one thing can be said for actually existing liberalism: It is showing itself capable of playing host to a robust discussion about what might replace it. Will the societies that lie beyond liberalism be able to do the same? The historical record is, at best, inconclusive. As one of the participants at the Fox Hill conference pointed out in an anomalous moment, the liberal commitment to pluralism and religious tolerance could be said to be responsible for the fact that members of the various branches of Christianity at the conference were, instead of trying to kill one another, chatting amiably about the decline of liberalism. The line got a good laugh.