Conservative Postliberalism Is a Complete Dead End

Conservative intellectuals have recently levied a “postliberal” critique of the status quo, claiming to defend ordinary people against elites. But the solutions offered are little more than reactionary nonsense dressed up in populist rhetoric.

Donald Trump speaking during a "Great American Comeback" rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, on September 18, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

In the first few years of Donald Trump’s term, a political movement bubbled up purporting to speak to a political right that had broken with the “dead consensus” of “fusionism” — the marriage of free markets and religious social conservatism that has dominated the Republican Party for decades. While there had been challenges to fusionism before, certain once-fringe intellectuals saw in the Trump administration a distinct departure.

Of the many boosters who viewed Trump as a consensus-shattering figure, the group that earned the most airtime was the so-called postliberals. Figures such as Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, and Adrian Vermeule — an odd assortment of academics and commentators — believed that America’s future could only be secured by building a bigger welfare state, but one founded on a conservative Christian conception of the common good. Their aim was, in the words of Ahmari, “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

We now know that this institutional revolution did not come to pass, or, at least, that it was something altogether different than the revolution promised. However, when prophecy fails, a redoubling of faith often follows. During the Joe Biden administration postliberal critiques have become almost expected for any aspiring right-wing talking head or senator. If one were to believe the talking points of various Republicans, it is they who now bear the standard of the American worker.

It is in this context that Deneen, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, has written Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, meant as something of an activist manifesto for the movement. The book’s many faults are the faults of the movement more generally: it only further reaffirms the contradictions and pitfalls of the conservative critique of the liberal status quo.

Not Postliberal Enough?

Ironically, Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2019) — a book that crystalized the first postliberal wave — was taken by some reviewers as evidence the author was, in essence, a liberal.

In Dissent, Daniel Luban noted that “the communitarian critique of individualism that Deneen recapitulates is probably best understood as a particular strand of liberalism rather than an alternative to it.” More damningly, Vermeule, a fellow postliberal and ostensible Deneen ally, offered a critique allegedly minor, but in reality scathing: that “at the stage of prescription, [Deneen] relapses into liberalism.” Vermeule, while calling Deneen Tocqueville’s heir, accused him of inconsistency: “[Deneen’s] diagnosis is inconsistent with his prescription,” because his solutions “eschew any substantive comprehensive theory of the common good.”

In Vermeule’s account, the only true path up from liberalism is not Deneen’s retreat into ill-fated localism — a solution alluded to at the end of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and doggedly taken up in the work of Rod Dreher — but rather a muscular reaction, a “determination to co-opt and transform the decaying regime from within its own core.” Without full state capture at the hands of a willing few ready and able to “sear the liberal faith with hot irons,” the liberal system will quash all opposition.

Deneen’s fittingly titled Regime Change seems to offer an explicit response to Vermeule’s friendly challenge. It is meant to be overwhelmingly prescriptive, providing a way out of the impasse posed by a critique of liberalism seemingly lacking a theoretical alternative.

In many ways, Deneen’s postliberalism resembles a neoconservative version of “bringing the war home”: now it is America’s government that is the oppressive one, its citizens the long-suffering would-be revolutionaries awaiting the intervention of an enlightened elite; when the elites come, they will articulate the authentic needs of the people. They will set things right — the rhetorical playbook for Iraq now being used to save Main Street.

Yet whereas the first neoconservatives managed to bring with them a few lessons of the Marxism from which they had fled, Deneen lacks what that philosophy offered to them: a serviceable theory of political change and a sense of historical development. Deneen is overly coy about the means of political action, and when it comes to his historical aim — the often-cited “good that is common to all” — he is maddeningly indistinct, settling on something approximating Christian democracy: a social safety net plus state-sanctioned homophobia.

That is, if one takes Deneen straight-on. But there is an unresolved tension in Regime Change. If one follows Deneen’s professed commitments to their obvious, arch-reactionary ends, one finds them at odds with Deneen’s own lukewarm, explicit conclusions. He either seems to be dressing up a staid center-right position in the shock-inducing language of the counterliberal tradition, or he is a genuine aristocratic theocrat who has loaded his book with the requisite pro-modern pieties, so that he can be part of a public conversation. Even if this facade is but the byproduct of an ingrained liberalism Deneen is unable to shed, the essential liberal promise of equality before the law is at odds with the central assumptions of much of Deneen’s argument.

Liberalism Without History

The confusion here primarily stems from Deneen’s inability to offer a compelling picture of why America went wrong, who the elites (the “aristo” bit of “aristopulism,” Deneen’s neologism for the political ideal he thinks can cure our ills) meant to save us are, and what historically gives rise to them.

Even if Deneen’s etiology is confusing, his diagnosis is grim: America is “woke” and trending worse. This wokeness, in his telling, is near foundational: the Constitution itself was ratified by the progenitors of wokeness, themselves the offspring of the proto-woke John Locke.

Liberalism, according to Deneen, comes in three varieties. First there is the Classical, now masquerading as Conservatism, which believes that by liberating markets from oversight and people from the superstitions of custom and place, we could foster an elite capable of rationalizing economy and society. However, Classical liberals view the broader population — in Deneen’s parlance, “the many” — with suspicion, and believe in a social order that will coerce and restrain their destructive, revolutionary behavior.

Then there is the Progressive variety, which believes “the many” to be a progress-impeding cultural force — Progressives are even less democratic than the Classical liberals.

Finally, there is the Marxist, the viewpoint that comes closest to winning Deneen’s favor in its opposition to the elite — in Deneen’s helpful four-square diagram, Marxists are marked as “Favor People (Nonliberal).” Marxism is, however, ultimately doomed because it fundamentally misunderstands what “the many” want: “stability, tradition, and custom — in short, their conservatism.”

Even if we were to grant the dubious premise of the Common Man’s conservatism, we should want to know why these successive forms of liberalism arose. Given Deneen’s hospitality to a pseudomaterialist critique of capitalism, we might expect him to identify the rise of liberalism with certain economic structures that liberalism responded to, shaped, and sought to comprehend.

If the world did at some point switch from the harmonious world of tradition and custom — of prudent political stewardship by the elite and the cooperation of the many, governed by a “mixed constitution” that balanced elite and popular interests — to the destructive world of liberalism, we need to know how it did that. The answer, per Deneen, is:

The demise of “mixed constitution” theory resulted from the rise and eventual dominance of the philosophy of progress. The aspiration for “mixed constitution” rests on an ideal of relative stability and balance, undergirded by a social order that is wary of upsetting the hard-won equilibrium of otherwise divisive forces in society. The philosophy of progress inevitably unleashes these divisions in a particularly destabilizing form, leading inevitably and directly to the civilization-threatening political enmity that exists throughout the Western world today.

If this were the case — if liberals could just create and impose the division of labor, a sense of increasing forward momentum, and a crushing need for wealth accumulation — what would stop them from doing it again? And, even more importantly, why did they do it? The answer remains opaque.

What Are Elites For?

There is, however, some internal consistency in Deneen’s idealist view of history: the only way to fix the problem of elites is better elites.

For Deneen, the elites and the many each have their ordained place in the system; one is not technically superior to the other, but the supposed natural fact of human difference will inevitably lead to hierarchy. The failure of the elite, then, is in their abdication of authority: their position requires their paternalistic stewardship of those below.

Today’s elite fails that supposed demand, engaging only in self-enrichment. Hypocritical accusations of privilege by today’s elites obscure “an age-old contestation between mass and elite in which the elite is generally advantaged by power and wealth, but called either by a portion of its own, or forced by the populace, to act on behalf of the common good — in both sense a good that is both shared as well as especially necessary to ‘commoners.’” The elite serve as an articulating organ for the mute masses.

It is important to note that the many and the few, for Deneen, are not economic designations. Rather, Deneen subscribes to a warped perception that, for instance, a well-off business owner who didn’t go to college is part of the silently suffering many by virtue of living in middle America and being socially conservative, whereas a wage-earning, debt-saddled college graduate is part of the indomitable elite by virtue of living in a coastal city and being socially liberal. One wonders how the elite won, or, more accurately, how the many continue to lose, in such a formulation.

But even in this skewed vision, the question remains: Who should replace our current bad elites? Deneen offers the UK’s Tories, and more specifically the one-nation conservatism propounded by Victorian-era prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, as a model to which we should turn. There is some coherence here. The British aristocracy whose interests the Tories represented were tied to place and custom by the land that they owned, passed down, and built their power upon. (Presumably, their tenants might also have had a custom-inducing attachment to the land to which they were tied.)

It is easy enough to reject Deneen on the basis of the obviously objectionable nature of rule by a hereditary aristocracy. But, even if we were to grant Deneen’s argument out of intellectual charity, the thing still would not stand on its own. There is little historical or practical valence to Deneen’s proposal in a US context: there is not much of a historically analogous class to the British gentry (as Deneen himself admits), and there is no precedent to create one. It is unclear who the American landed gentry would be, and why their power should be any more legitimate than the now-woke industrialist or financier.

There was once a class in America, known for its attachment to land and custom, fierce conservatism, and self-appointment as paternalistic authority: the planters of the antebellum South. That loathsome group seems to best fit Deneen’s definition, though it is indicative of his own inconsistent coyness — his toeing the inescapable line of liberal respectability — that he does not suggest it as a model.

Uncommon Sense

While America does not have a traditional aristocracy, it does have a working class. Deneen’s treatment of this class within his idea of aristopulism brings us back to the incongruity between Deneen’s explicit and implicit conclusions. Deneen’s working class is the repository of so-called common sense — about one-half homespun wisdom and the other half naturalized mid-century homophobia. While Deneen is quick to condemn racism, it is unclear how he is able to separate common sense from some prejudices and not others.

Common sense is, of course, anything but. Popular attitudes and behaviors are far from static. And even if we were to take common sense as we found it today, it would contain things that Deneen finds totally unconscionable — the overwhelming acceptance of gay marriage or the favorable views of no-fault divorce, for example. Common sense in Regime Change, however, is not actually a reference to general beliefs of the people: it is an attempt to pass off a rather punitive and regressive from of Christian morality as the natural moral sentiments of most citizens.

Deneen has thus invented his own reactionary Rousseauism, wherein the perceptive few rule not based on the concretely expressed will of the people, but rather in accordance with what they intuit the people’s general will, or common sense, to be. Why should Deneen support (as he putatively does) democracy as currently understood: the universal suffrage won by the popular movements he so detests?

The elite will always be outnumbered by the many; if the inclinations of the many go against what Deneen considers a good that is common to all, then why should he encourage the enfranchisement of a polity that overwhelmingly holds socially liberal views? But then, is this not an elitism that disdains folk wisdom, the kind of elitism that Deneen himself deplores?

Regime Change ultimately undermines itself: it wants to preserve many of the fruits of liberalism while doing away with the structure from which they grow. A democratic socialist political system meant to make good on liberalism’s more foundational promises would be one response to this type of conflicted dissatisfaction, but for Deneen only political reaction will serve.

Democracy for Pragmatists

An instructive counterexample to Deneen’s superficial communitarianism can be found in the late work of Christopher Lasch. Deneen positions himself, toward the end of the book, as an heir to Lasch, suggesting that Lasch, too, “wrote admiringly about populism as the antidote to the liberal tendency toward fragmentation, intuiting the ideal of mixed constitution in which a proud and accomplished working class sets a tone for the vigor and decencies of society.”

But with the absence of the usual “aristo” that Deneen places before “populism,” we can see that Lasch’s vision diverges quite sharply from Deneen’s. In The Revolt of the Elites, Lasch offers interdependence and more traditional modes of communal social organization not as transcendent truths, but as the pragmatic base without which American democracy would supposedly be impossible.

Not only did Lasch reject the equating of the public good with a divine order, but pragmatism and support for an evolving democratic experiment was central to his later thought. While pragmatist philosopher John Dewey comes in for regular beatings in Regime Change, he is an integral part of Lasch’s thinking, a figure who “understood that democracy has to stand for something more demanding than enlightened self-interest.” Rather than seeking ideal ethical norms and commitments to which American democracy must tie itself, Lasch sought what would work for American democracy in practice.

Although Lasch believed that “the privatization of morality is one more indication of the collapse of community,” his answer to this issue was not the construction of a clerical state à la Deneen, but rather a strong democracy of bonded individuals: democracy, for Lasch, was “the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgement.”

Now, Lasch, like Deneen, had his own backward-facing political foundations, though of a different sort; for him, populism was “rooted in the defense of small proprietorship, which was widely regarded in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as the necessary basis of civic virtue.” In theory, there is not room here for the ennobled few, nor for the ignorant many — but such an ideal does not necessarily account for the vast majority of the population in reality excluded from property ownership in the antebellum period, nor does it offer a particularly workable course of action for today.

Indeed, Lasch’s vision remains fatally flawed. For one, it is punitively restrictive, and like Deneen’s theory, it fails to offer a sustained account of historical change, in that it cannot explain how a nation of small proprietors would collapse into a nation of wage-laborers, or how we would reverse and then forever freeze the process of capitalist development. But it does show us how Deneen’s prescriptions come much closer to fulfilling Vermeule’s wish for a more proactive and explicitly Christian form of coercive rule.

For Lasch, unlike Vermeule and Deneen, the common good is not absolute, but rather something that we, as a nation, democratically progress toward, changing definitions along the way. It seems all parties agree on the liberalism’s sickness, but the Common Good that serves as postliberalism’s solution is no adequate cure.