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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

The barnacle on the hull of liberalism

As I was packing up my books after reading in the park, an older gentleman walked over in an unbalanced way, awkwardly carrying a gray suitcase oozing with overflowing items. Brown glasses surrounded the rims of his eyes, in a way that highlighted the creases of his face, which seemed like a map of every road he had traveled in his life.

The man spoke to me, “Have a good night boss.”

He paused, then, stared at my pile of books and asked, “Are you a student of religion?” 

This led to a conversation spanning topics like the relationship with the creator, loving your enemies and morality. I listened to some of his life stories. His suitcase held his life, the clothes and the home he needed so dearly. Eventually, he opened up to tell me his name. Lorenzo.

He spent time in the park to remind himself of his connection to others. In a somewhat embarrassed tone, he stated, “I feel like people don’t see me.” 

The book I was reading at the time depicted and spoke to the ills of Lorenzo’s life in eloquent ways: unchecked individualism, myths of meritocracy, the destruction of local communities and two political parties that essentially form one ruling cabal, leaving working-class people behind. Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen’s newest book “Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future” spoke, in part, to Lorenzo’s story. 

However, as I read, I realized the coalitions and potential alliances I might find in Deneen's book were not aimed at healing the troubles of Lorenzo, but at marginalizing people like me. The regime change Deneen would like to see would force a singular truth (Christianity) on the entire population and reverse the rights gains of the past half a century.

My life straddles the line between many of the truth claims that Deneen asserts from the truth claims he detests. As a queer activist on an elite college campus, I represent the elite that Deneen writes vitriolically against. But as the only sibling of three to go to college, I have seen firsthand the diploma division and discontent amongst the working class that Deneen attempts to analyze. As a Catholic, I empathize with frustrations with a political system that leaves no perfect options. But as a queer person, I find his rhetoric disturbing. Deneen is part of a larger ecosystem of hate that has stricken queer content from schools, denied health care to thousands and spurred violent attacks against innocent citizens. 

Deneen burst into academic and conservative stardom for his 2018 book “Why Liberalism Failed.” By liberalism, he’s not discussing the type of liberal versus conservative clash of contemporary American politics. Instead, he is discussing classical liberalism, the political philosophy that stretches back half a millennium and is “based on the rights of the individual, liberty, consent of the governed, political equality and equality before the law.”

In Deneen’s view, liberalism is a ship heading straight for an iceberg. In his book, he envisions himself building a ship strong enough to push right through the middle of the iceberg.

He described liberalism as a corrosive bi-partisan philosophy, arguing that the contemporary ills of our time arise from the way liberalism cannibalizes social institutions, such as religious life and family. In Deneen's view, liberalism has fully realized itself in the 21st century by advancing narrow metrics of success: seeking personal freedom on the left and free-market economic growth sowing the seeds of its own destruction on the right.

His ambitious claim that liberalism was killing itself lit up the pages of magazines, papers and academic journals for the way it helped to shine a light on the populist revolts of the 2016 elections. Some, like historian Sam Moyn, argued that it was Cold War liberalism that failed, not liberalism broadly. Others argued that Deneen was too liberal or too conservative or missing some other secret ingredient. 

Liberalism currently faces serious challenges. In liberal democracies around the world, fertility rates are on the decline and there is a lack of social trust in the system. These issues have helped in fomenting massive populist revolts. From Brexit to Trump to the resilience of Marine LePen, upheavals around the world imply a question: “What happens next?” 

Extending the argument of the previous book, Deneen claims he hopes not only to tear down the wall of liberalism but to create something new in its place. However, the “regime change” he proposes is far from a radical project. It merely seeks to substitute the liberal elite with a conservative one. 

Deneen offers many recommendations: implementing national service requirements, transferring federal agencies to rust belt towns, expanding vocational schools, offering carpentry classes in universities, increasing domestic manufacturing through tariffs and subsidies and many other minor tweaks to the bureaucratic state.

In total, these recommendations are not the regime change his book promises. His ”epic theory” shows how far removed many of these culture war debates between elites are from the lived realities of everyday Americans. He's shifting deck chairs on the Titanic, not re-designing the ship.

To Deneen, the elites of liberal hegemony self-replicate through higher education, creating an aristocracy that bemoans hierarchies while actively perpetuating them. Elite formation, to him, first disassembles traditional guardrails (marriage, families, gender, sex and more) by redefining them as systems of oppression. Second, elite formation cajoles cultural norms to force people to navigate the world without those guardrails. Third, colleges replace the guardrails they destroyed by creating enclaves of safety that are only available to those with the money or luck to go to a university. 

Elite formation creates a perverse structure where those who attend elite universities learn how to form the families and the philosophies necessary to survive life while the working class is led astray by a system that tells them to abandon such ties. The elite discuss their hatred for hierarchies, yet take part in excluding the working class. 

All of Deneen’s roads lead back to the family. He bemoans bad family structure among working-class whites and Black families 30 years ago as the roots of so many of the issues.

“Even if we solved the political and economic barriers,” he writes, any programs that don’t follow those of illiberal democracies like Hungary and Viktor Orbán are doomed to fail. 

But he is wrong.

Families are not being destroyed by liberal political rights like gay marriage, no-fault divorce, women in the workforce or reproductive health rights. The root of so many ills of individualism is actually neoliberal economics. Neo-liberalism is a strain of liberalism that believes society’s political and economic institutions should be robustly socially liberatory and free market capitalist but is supplemented by a constitutionally limited democracy and a modest welfare state. 

More simply, it is a perversion of political individualism where the rights of corporations supersede the rights of humans. It’s a farce for the original political liberalism through which the country was founded – a belief that all people are created equal and have political freedom based on that. Arguably, it is the corrosion that has made Lorenzo feel left out of the polis.

Families are being destroyed by neoliberal free-market economic policies. In “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” Anne Case and Angus Deaton discuss how the gulf between the less and the more has widened in marriage, religion, child-rearing and community participation. While working-class men's job prospects have fallen, so too has the supply of marriageable men “undermined by changes in the labor market” (299). Women from higher socioeconomic standing have also delayed marriage as a result of more reproductive choices, greater access to a college education and a sense they have more time to explore different options (301). 

Thus, there becomes a gap between those with and without options, as “those who are better off or better educated are usually more likely to be informed about and in a position to take advantage of new opportunities and to finish up among the gainers” (303). Deneen is right that college creates guardrails that provide more structure and options. He is dead wrong that the reason for marriage decline is because of ”oppressive” disassembling systems.

Though his conclusion is deeply aligned with Catholic Social Teaching, his argument that the roots of the ills lay with families is a grift. Statistics show the decline of family life is an accelerant for deaths of despair and rabid individualism in American life, but it is not the spark. Those advantages don’t come from a college education but from class. Women having freedoms they didn’t have a century ago isn't to blame. Neo-liberal economics coupled with pseudo-feminism around these freedoms and the brutal free market have caused the rise.

Deneen holds a martyr complex that baffles reality stating, “The ruling elite seeks to limit and even oppress or extirpate remnants of traditional belief and practice – those especially informing the worldview of the working class – while claiming that these views are those of the oppressors” (28).

This is absurd, especially considering a majority of those without a high school diploma view the legalization of same-sex marriage as a net good for the country, a majority of those with lower incomes voted for Joe Biden and even a slight majority of those who attend church every week believe divorce is morally acceptable. It’s not a hegemonic elite going against the working class and traditional beliefs. The majority actually believes in the expansion of certain rights.

Deneen’s hatred for woke capitalism pulls the mask off of the post-liberal project, a disdain for democracy as it regards the truth and rights claims of marginalized groups. In March, Biden vetoed his first piece of legislation, blocking the repeal of a Labor Department rule that permitted retirement investing tied to ESG — a type of corporate governing practice that takes into account the environmental and social issue histories of companies. Essentially, the free market, the choice tool of conservatives past, has decided to take into account the rights and needs of marginalized groups because it has become economically and politically possible to do so. 

Conservative Catholics of the past, to a certain extent, had the market and public to back up their racist or sexist ideals. Deneen does not. 

Implicit in it, his hatred of democratic pluralism, a desire for a type of Catholic communitarianism and the post-liberal order he would pursue, Deneen desires a rollback of individualism. A rollback, not for the working class, but to substitute the rights claims of marginalized groups for his own Christian oligarchy. 

Deneen desires to destroy liberalism because, “most importantly, aristo populism will advance in Western nations through forthright acknowledgment and renewal of the Christian roots of our civilization” (182). Deneen preys on a false and dishonest telling of the American and Western story as one of Christian roots because he fundamentally believes certain people don’t deserve rights. He hates liberalism and built ”epic theory” around its undoing, but not because it’s hurting the working class. Deneen is angry that certain groups have been given rights that they didn’t have a half-century ago. Deneen is angry the vast majority of the country (even Catholics) support such change and he seeks to revoke them. 

Democratic pluralism is a threat to some Catholics like Deneen because it accepts the reality that other people have just as seriously held truth claims that we must accept in a diverse society. Unless we choose a path of expulsion and execution, like the Puritans Deneen quoted, such a “regime change” to a singular truth claim would be a bloody, violent and disastrous event. No matter how much Deneen would like to assuage you or make you believe all these little tweaks (which show how ridiculously removed from everyday life the culture wars are), he does not desire a democracy.

In an America where significantly more people believe in angels than evolution, Deneen’s boogeyman of “democratic pluralism” and secular humanists’ skepticism of Deneen’s “religious truth” must find a way to more effectively acknowledge the truth claims of the other. Liberal democracies must figure out how to respond to the ways global economic processes are disrupting marriage, birth rates and lack of community. And, most importantly, liberalism must better acknowledge the plights of those who have been left behind by globalization like Lorenzo. 

The reactionary politics of Patrick Deneen are not currently driving the boat of American politics, but a barnacle on the hull of our ship. Do we let them metastasize and shipwreck liberal democracy? Or do we instead find a way to incorporate the truth and legitimate criticisms of liberalism into our experiment of self-governance?

Dane Sherman is a senior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, peace studies, philosophy, and gender studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS wants to chat and can be reached at @danesherm on twitter or

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.