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Why Liberalism Failed

Patrick J. Deneen—

A political philosophy conceived some 500 years ago, and put into effect at the birth of the United States nearly 250 years later, was a wager that political society could be grounded on a different footing. It conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life. Opportunities for liberty were best afforded by a limited government devoted to “securing rights,” along with a free-market economic system that gave space for individual initiative and ambition. Political legitimacy was grounded on a shared belief in an originating “social contract” to which even newcomers could subscribe, ratified continuously by free and fair elections of responsive representatives. Limited but effective government, rule of law, an independent judiciary, responsive public officials, and free and fair elections were some of the hallmarks of this ascendant order and, by all evidence, wildly successful wager.

Today, some 70 percent of Americans believe that their country is moving in the wrong direction, and half the country thinks its best days are behind it. Most believe that their children will be less prosperous and have fewer opportunities than previous generations. Every institution of government shows declining levels of public trust by the citizenry, and deep cynicism toward politics is reflected in an uprising on all sides of the political spectrum against political and economic elites. Elections, once regarded as well-orchestrated performances meant to convey legitimacy to liberal democracy, are increasingly regarded as evidence of an impregnably rigged and corrupt system. It is evident to all that the political system is broken and social fabric is fraying, particularly as a growing gap increases between wealthy haves and left-behind have-nots, a hostile divide widens between faithful and secular peoples, and deep disagreement persists over America’s role in the world. Wealthy Americans continue to gravitate to gated enclaves in and around select cities, while growing numbers of Christians compare our times to that of the late Roman Empire and ponder a fundamental withdrawal from wider American society into updated forms of Benedictine monastic communities. The signs of the times suggest that much is wrong with America. A growing chorus of voices even warn that we may be witnessing the end of the Republic unfolding before our eyes, with some yet-unnamed regime in the midst of taking its place.

Nearly every one of the promises that were made by the architects and creators of liberalism has been shattered. The liberal state expands to control nearly every aspect of life while citizens regard government as a distant and uncontrollable power, one that only extends their sense of powerlessness by relentlessly advancing the project of “globalization.” The only rights that seem secure today belong to those with sufficient wealth and position to protect them, and their autonomy—including rights of property, the franchise and its concomitant control over representative institutions, religious liberty, free speech, and security in one’s papers and abode—is increasingly compromised by legal intent or technological fait accompli. The economy favors a new “meritocracy” that perpetuates its advantages through generational succession, shored up by an educational system that relentlessly sifts winners from losers. A growing distance between liberalism’s claims and its actuality increasingly spurs doubts about those claims rather than engendering trust that the gap will be narrowed.

Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. As liberalism has “become more fully itself,” as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology. A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom. Its success can be measured by its achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve. Rather than seeing the accumulating catastrophe as evidence of our failure to live up to liberalism’s ideals, we need rather to see clearly that the ruins it has produced are the signs of its very success. To call for the cures of liberalism’s ills by applying more liberal measures is tantamount to throwing gas on a raging fire. It will only deepen our political, social, economic, and moral crisis.

This may be a moment for more than mere institutional tinkering. If indeed something more fundamental and transformative than “normal politics” is happening, then we are in the midst not just of a political realignment, characterized by the dying gasp of an old white working class and the lashing out of debt-burdened youth. We may rather be witnessing an increasingly systemic failure, due to the bankruptcy of its underlying political philosophy, of the political system we have largely taken for granted. The fabric of beliefs that gave rise to the nearly 250-year-old American constitutional experiment may be nearing an end. While a number of our Founding Fathers believed that they had lighted on a “new science of politics” that would resist the inevitable tendency of all regimes to decay and eventually die—even comparing the constitutional order to an entropy-defying perpetual motion device, “a machine that would go of itself”—we should rightly wonder whether America is not in the early days of its eternal life but rather approaching the end of the natural cycle of corruption and decay that limits the lifespan of all human creations.

This political philosophy has been for modern Americans like water for a fish, an encompassing political ecosystem in which we have swum, unaware of its existence. Liberalism is the first of the modern world’s three great competitor political ideologies, and with the demise of fascism and communism, it is the only ideology still with a claim to viability. As ideology, liberalism was the first political architecture that proposed transforming all aspects of human life to conform to a preconceived political plan. We live in a society and increasingly a world that has been remade in the image of an ideology—the first nation founded by the explicit embrace of liberal philosophy, whose citizenry is shaped almost entirely by its commitments and vision.

From Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Patrick J. Deneen is Professor of Political Science and holds the David A. Potenziani Memorial College Chair of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His previous books include The Odyssey of Political TheoryDemocratic Faith, and a number of edited volumes. He lives in South Bend, IN.

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