Patrick Deneen's new book, Why Liberalism Failed, has caused a bit of a stir, largely because it implicates thinking of those on both sides of the political spectrum on the problem of what is wrong with our culture. It won't make those who call themselves conservatives happy and it won't make those who call themselves liberals happy either. And the reason for this is that conservatism—at that strain of conservatism that fashions itself "libertarian"--shares the same basic assumption as the liberals.
The difference between liberals and libertarians—as I have said many times—is only three or four letters.
In fact the reason I'm blogging on it now, is my recent Twitter exchange with Andrew Walker, the former Baptist ELRC director who recently left that organization to return here to Kentucky to take a position with his alma mater, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Andrew and I worked together as lobbyists several years ago, and so we know each other well. I took the opportunity of yanking his chain about a tweet with an endorsement (and link) to Paul D. Miller's "Against 'Conservative Democracy'," an article which was remarkable largely for its lack of insightfulness. I see he has since redeemed himself by tweeting a link to the far more insightful thinker, the British philosopher Roger Scruton, even though what Scruton says and what Miller says are quite different, if not completely inconsistent.
Anyway, it prompted me to ahead and start on Deneen's book, which I will be reviewing in several posts over the next week or so.
Deneen takes an admittedly hard line against our twin liberalisms, one espoused by Democratic progressives and the other espoused by people who call themselves conservatives but whose thought bears little similarity to the thought of Edmund Burke and T. S. Eliot, the thinkers between whom Russell Kirk sandwiched the history of conservatism in what remains the greatest book about conservatism yet written: The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot. Most people who call themselves conservatives in the United States, in fact, are no different in their fundamental assumptions about politics--a prominent theme of Deneen's book.
The central tenet of the book is that liberalism is immolating itself in the flame of "freedom" and more liberalism will just feed the fire. The problems with liberalism are inherent in its very nature, and cannot therefore be solved by anything within liberalism. "Liberalism," he says, "has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself." The "ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success."
The aspect of this book that I suspect will be most suspect—at least among conservatives—is the implications of his analysis for America itself. America "is the first nation founded by the explicit embrace of liberal philosophy, whose citizenry is shaped almost entirely by its commitment and vision."
According to Deneen, what we are seeing now in what all sides of the political spectrum recognize as, if not a crisis, at least a problem, is the breakdown of an ideology, and the kind of breakdown common to all ideologies:
Among the few iron laws of politics, few seem more unbreakable than the ultimate unsustainability of ideology in politics. Ideology fails for two reasons—first, because it is based on a falsehood about human nature, and hence can't help but fail; and second, because as those falsehoods become more evident, the gap grows between what the ideology claims and the live experience of human beings under its domain until the regime loses legitimacy.
Deneen argues that this is indeed what is happening: Liberalism is based on a false view of human nature and now in a crisis of confidence in politics, economics, education, and science and technology.
We'll talk about how in the next post.
Suffice it to say for now that the book is about not just the failure of liberalism and the inevitability of that failure, but also about the nature of true conservatism.