Blaming Liberalism

Why Liberalism Failed

by Patrick J. Deneen, with a foreword by James Davison Hunter and John M. Owen IV
Yale University Press, 225 pp., $30.00; $18.00 (paper)
Olive & Market Street, 2012; photograph by Julie Blackmon
Julie Blackmon: Olive & Market Street, 2012

As if to mock the triumphalism of 1989, liberal democracy has faltered with stunning abruptness. Even the most robust democracies are suffering from dysfunction and defection. The election of Trump in the US, the Brexit quagmire in the UK, and the diminished support for mainstream parties across Europe all reflect the accurate perception of a failed governing class.

For both the far left and the far right, recent events are evidence that liberal democracy is inherently flawed and even doomed. To Marxist critics, parliamentary democracy was always a smokescreen for the rule of capital, and the current travails of democracy mean we have reached the terminal crisis of capitalism at last.1 Even non-Marxist progressive economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Dani Rodrik agree that we can’t have both unrestrained global capital and a functioning democratic nation-state. Among traditionalist conservatives who cherish an organic conception of society—as opposed to free-marketeers—liberal democracy is a dangerous betrayal of deeper sources of culture and civilization such as the family, the tribe, the nation, and the church. Liberalism, in this telling, is reaping the consequences of an assault on tradition. For Patrick Deneen, a political philosopher at Notre Dame, today’s crisis is not transient but fundamental to liberal democracy.

In Why Liberalism Failed, published in 2018 with an expanded paperback this year, Deneen recounts the widespread disaffection from democratic politics and governance, the growing distrust of the global marketplace, the erosion of values and virtues such as loyalty and self-restraint, and the weakening of family and community. He blames it all on what he calls “liberalism.” Deneen’s quarrel is not merely with modern liberal philosophers such as John Dewey or John Rawls, or with today’s Democratic Party and liberal assertions of new rights for women and oppressed minorities. No, his target is the entire liberal tradition, all the way back to the Enlightenment. For Deneen, even ills that most people would attribute to conservatism—such as the instability wrought by market fundamentalism—are the mischief of liberalism.

When it appeared in 2018, with jacket quotes from Ross Douthat on the right and Cornel West on the left, Deneen’s book garnered respectful reviews. Harvard legal scholar Adrian Vermeule, writing in American Affairs, called Deneen “a worthy successor of Tocqueville.” The New York Times review, by Jennifer Szalai, was mixed but prominent, stating that it “articulates something important in this age of disillusionment.” The book’s thesis was convenient for conservatives looking to blame all ills on liberals, and also appealed to some progressives for its excoriation of market excess. It seemed to speak to a broad public bewildered by the abrupt collapse of liberal democracy. The 2019 paperback edition even includes a blurb from President Barack Obama, who praises its “cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community.”


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