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Patrick Deenen Strikes Again

June 16, 2023 | 760 words | Philosophy, Politics

Patrick Deenen’s new book, Regime Change, was just reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and got panned good and hard.  Reading that review reminded me how his previous book, Why Liberalism Failed (2018), received the same chilly reception, most notably in The New York Times.

Since Mr. Deenen traffics in social commentary and cultural anthropology, his not finding a home in either of these two established organs of political opinion is something of an anomaly.  As a serious scholar weighing in on issues of the day, you would expect him to be embraced by one or the other of these prestige media outlets.  That both camps have instead chosen to keep him at arm’s length is a measure of how his analysis defies easy categorization and cannot be consigned to a liberal or conservative silo.

For those who may be unfamiliar, Deenen is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN.  This new book apparently seeks to address the unanswered question at the heart of his previous book:  If not Liberalism, then what?  At first blush he may strike you as a conventional conservative, since he likes to reference tradition and the benefits of community life based on shared values.  

But then just when you think you have his number, he fools you by finding fault with the free market and the revered concept known as economic freedom.  Which just happen to be two pillars of the conservative movement for the last several hundred years.  He is not shy in pointing out what he sees as the havoc being wreaked on community life by the laissez-faire philosophy now uniformly employed throughout the First World.  Especially on the lives of those on the lower tiers of the economic ladder.

Patrick Deneen’s big-name reviewers on either side of the ideological aisle are not doing him justice, in my opinion.  As I read them, his critics tend to hone in on an isolated aspect of his message, then accuse him of such blatant faux pas as failing to appreciate the social mobility and freedom of expression universally understood as the crown jewels of Liberalism.  And just to be clear, Liberalism as Deneen defines the term is the sum of social and political conventions that arose in Western nations in the mid-17th century.  These same critics also routinely accuse him of “ignoring the advantages of prosperity” enjoyed since 1800, and denying the “moral virtues encouraged by markets.”  

But Mr. Deneen is doing none of those things, if you ask me.  I suppose I would characterize him as simply trying to help us see the forest, and not be blinded by the trees.  

His unique take does not lend itself to an easy thumbnail sketch or a bullet-point summary.  Deneen’s critics are stymied right out of the gate, it seems to me, by his opening assertion in Why Liberalism Failed that the American Left and the American Right both adhere to the same broad philosophy.  He sees a bipartisan consensus where others see partisan bickering.  In Deneen’s telling, it is this underlying consensus that is responsible for most of what ails us.

This quirky view may explain why neither The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal have claimed him as their own.  By expressing doubt about the continued efficacy of such bedrock principles as free markets, individual liberty, and religious neutrality, Mr. Deneen manages to raise everyone’s hackles, calling into question nothing less than modernity itself.

Recoiling in horror from this bold assessment is a natural reaction, I suppose, because it is so unlike anything we have heard before.  But Patrick Deneen is no anarchist.  He is a gentleman who is challenging our most cherished assumptions in a studious, respectful manner.  Instead of settling for reading his critics, and as a prelude to one day possibly reading the original work, why not start by checking out Mr. Deneen in conversation with others social commentators?

The February 2023 issue of Harper’s magazine features a Forum entitled “Is Liberalism Worth Saving?”  Deneen is joined by (in alphabetical order) Francis Fukuyama, Deidre McCloskey, and Cornel West.  It is a lively exchange and a fun read.  Having him respond to an oppositional point of view in real time is instructive.  I realize this back-and-forth was probably edited to some extent, but Mr. Deneen nonetheless comes across as being pretty good on his feet, and acquits himself quite well.  The coherence of his worldview is what impresses me the most.

The man is on to something, that’s all I’ll say.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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