Zombie Deneenism

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Zombie Deneenism

Jun 29, 2023 12 min read

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies

Richard was Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
The Declaration is a moral and spiritual argument rooted in the enterprise of self-government, and not frivolous self-expression or a reckless “pursuit of happiness.”  Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Patrick Deneen has been arguing that the American constitutional order, animated by liberal ideology, has failed.

The verdict Deneen renders of the American Founding comes at the expense of rich engagement with its ideas, themselves rooted in natural law.

We remain free to govern ourselves with a liberalism that is built on the presence of God, liberty, justice, and duty to our families, communities, and country.

Ever since the publication of his 2012 First Things essay, “Unsustainable Liberalism,” Patrick Deneen has been arguing that the American constitutional order, animated by liberal ideology, has failed. In Why Liberalism Failed (2018), Deneen stated that America is dying because its liberal constitutional foundations are secularist, autonomist, and nominalist, giving rise to expressive individualism. We are an ill-founded country, incapable on the terms of our founding documents of properly engaging with religion, community, family, or other preliberal goods.

Accordingly, in Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, Deneen attempts to define the postliberal order that needs to be ushered in. His central argument in the book is an appeal to Aristotle’s Politics (in a chapter called “Aristopopulism”) to propose the mixing and blending of “the few” and “the many” in the American regime until they are one, or just “a constitution.” At one point Deneen calls for “Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends.” Machiavelli, mind you, calls for infinite moral flexibility in chapter 18 of The Prince. Now who is the deracinated modern?

Deneen elaborates on his vision, arguing that a select few, who have means and claim to rule on behalf of the whole country, must protect, embody, and enlist the beliefs and desires of the many, who make their own claims to rule based on equality. The two need to become a true political whole, which requires a Common Good Conservatism (CGC) fundamentally committed to order, stability, and continuity. CGC’s economic program will, it seems, uncritically reprise the social democratic program of the Progressive Left in the twentieth century. That is, “a great deal of the economic program of the ‘new right’ takes its cues from the older social democratic tradition of the left.” Centralization of power, nationalization of the economy, labor union revivals, and wage controls, would be merely a warmup to the common good vision of Deneen. But will I get a national uniform?

CGC will also embody socially conservative policies, and, more than this, a robust structure of families, communities, religious institutions, and various other intermediary institutions forming the human person in virtue and truth. Deneen’s combination of New Deal economic and regulatory policies and intense social conservatism sounds less like regime change, and rather more like the politics of realignment. These, in fact, are policies reminiscent of the old Democratic Party that both sets of my grandparents were thoroughly at home in. This has also become, to a large extent, the political program of the so-called New Right, which largely defines itself as a proponent of government action in markets on behalf of family, community, and order.

>>> Returning to Deliberation

Deneen argues that CGC will also oppose the vision of progress at the heart of our social and political order—progress, he says, supported by both Progressives and Classical Liberals. That is, the CGC regime will stand for continuity and tradition in citizens’ minds and practices. In Deneen’s regime, people will not strive for constant re-invention, or measure themselves by how much “creative destruction” they engage in, socially, economically, and politically.

This CGC and the postliberal order it will create and make flourish, Deneen continues, are necessary and good given the gaping failures of liberalism, right and left. Both the Progressive Left and Classical Liberals—existing American conservatives—per Deneen, support progress, change, growth, and disruption. Today, he believes, the woeful consequences of this worship of social and economic progress have created an opportunity for a new politics for a multi-ethnic, working-class party to emerge that could decisively change the political direction of the country if it’s developed and formed properly. Of course, we might ask the purported members of this party if they actually want to be represented and governed by social democratic policies. Perhaps they would prefer rip-roaring economic opportunities that can only be delivered when labor, production, and investment are not inhibited by taxes and regulations. Deneen does not consider this possibility because such freedom is anathema to his ideological regime change.

Likewise, Deneen offers only a partial definition of how his regime change might be realized: “The peaceful but vigorous overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class and the creation of a postliberal order” is amenable to “existing political forms,” he claims, “as long as a fundamentally different ethos informs those institutions and the personnel who populate key offices and positions.” That ethos will come, Deneen articulates, from the “mixed constitution,” which in his view constitutes a “genuine regime change.”

Deneen’s CGC is placed in the service of the common man, one who wants to inhabit a much more continuous order, without unending sexual liberation and market transformation. Apparently, today’s “right liberalism” couldn’t stop the former and has only delivered the latter because it believes in progress and individualism, not conservatism. One might wonder why political revolution is the cure for these evils, if many are, in fact, seekers of order, “a conservatism that conserves: a form of liberty no longer abstracted from our places and people.” But Deneen’s regime change seems mainly to be a matter of the spirit and “ethos,” not hard institutional redesignOr does it? 

His last chapter, “Toward Integration,” describes the spirit and ethos of the new regime. The Declaration of Independence will only lead us in the wrong direction, Deneen counsels. That document states that we establish the common (the nation) to serve our differences—our individual liberties. We need to return, he argues, to a better American tradition, where “our differences ‘serve’ (or direct us toward) our commonality.” Rather than seeing ourselves in a fragmenting, individualistic competition for wealth and honors in a liberal society, Deneen points to the Christian teaching of the Church as the body of Christ.

Deneen’s key piece of evidence here is John Winthrop’s sermon written and perhaps delivered on board the ship Arbella in 1630 titled “A Model of Christian Charity.” This sermon puts together a message of political community that is built on biblical communion that we, in Deneen’s view, should aspire to emulate. The sermon, which formed no real part of the American mind until President-Elect John F. Kennedy utilized it in a 1961 speech before entering the White House, and that President Reagan drew upon rhetorically for Cold War purposes, provides the basis for how our society should think and act. Winthrop’s sermon is a rich and stirring teaching on Christian communion and charity in the face of the inevitable temptations to disorder within the pilgrim community. He was speaking to his brothers and sisters desirous of establishing a biblical commonwealth in the new world, one that failed within a generation. Inspired by this sermon, Deneen argues that we are to place our gifts and talents in the service of others and seek the full integration and flourishing of the country as one body of citizens. After such a spiritual regime change, we will find the meaning of our souls and the truth about ourselves in a more integrated social order, with elites serving and uplifting the laboring classes on authentic terms of solidarity.

Freedom itself will be understood to be coextensive with the spirit of religion, which both authorizes and limits freedom. Our lives will be lived in greater religious communion, and we will inhabit space more integrated with family and neighbors. Deneen also appeals to Alexis de Tocqueville, who drew from the Puritans key truths on how American democracy would stave off its closely stalking, egalitarian-progressivist foe, an inevitable aspect of democratic equality. This equality throws us back upon ourselves, bereft of pride in our liberty and belief in our souls, rendering us alone and fearful of the power of opinion, seeking refuge in central authority. Deneen cites Tocqueville on the Puritans for similar reasons, but believes, apparently, this communion of neighbors and citizens will only be possible in the regime change he articulates.

While Tocqueville gathered certain truths from the Puritans, he also insisted that the American constitutional order was itself good, decent, and worthy of defense. And he recognized that many Puritan laws were “bizarre and tyrannical.” Rather than regime change, he was trying to build on the virtues of America. Tocqueville was certainly not uncritical of the cruel failings of the Puritans that resulted from their incapacity to separate public life from that of the church. He was also satisfied and unsurprised that their fervor for theocracy mellowed. Tocqueville considered that the establishment of democracy, which was just, was a perennial contest between freedom and egalitarian materialism. He never affirmatively answered which set of ideas would prevail. A friend and partisan of American liberty, Tocqueville wrote to make America better than it was. Can the same be said of our postliberal theorists, for whom the Founding was fundamentally ill-conceived?

Deneen’s account of the American Founding is a Charles Beard-tinged, Progressive articulation of its ideas and motivations. The mixed constitution variant of the classical political model that Deneen presents as aristopopulism represents the voice of the many, giving them the ability to contest the vision of progress in the founding. He states, “The American constitutional order is not actually designed with this classical model in mind. It represented belief in a ‘new science of politics,’ specifically, a system in which a designated elite would govern with an aim to advancing an ideal of progress while rendering tractable any recalcitrant popular resistance.” Elsewhere, we learn that “the constitutional design was originally created to allow the ascendance of an economic elite” that would keep down those who were economically discontented with this arrangement. Charles Beard and other leading progressive theorists, then and now, could not have said this any better in their own crude impugnment of the founding. Deneen’s assessment here adds little to the progressive denunciation of the founding—in effect, he is a progressive and should not pretend otherwise.

Rather than thinking in terms of class, Publius notes throughout The Federalist that the authority of the Constitution is built on the republican principle, which is ultimately beholden to the people. The concern, Publius says, is to create the conditions of deliberation, the means of reaching the deliberate sense of the community, so that the common good can actually be articulated. That process involves delay, refinement, and debate—not to prevent the people from being heard, but precisely to ensure that they are heard, rather than the froth of the mob, or the voice of will alone. Tyranny, per Publius, is holding the combination of legislative, executive, and judicial power in one set of hands, as in today’s massive administrative state. Deneen never engages this definition of tyranny precisely because he is thoroughly at home with this use of state power.

He also overlooks the fact that, given the equality of conditions in America, and the absence of formal aristocratic classes, we had the tremendous opportunity of erecting a constitutional order on behalf of the dignity of the human person. The precise challenge then became to ensure that the representation of the person as a citizen of both national and state governments would be balanced, limited, and effective in the different departments of government. These different spheres of government would be jealous of their powers while also capable of cooperation on proper terms of argument and deliberation. Our republican constitutional tradition is a moral and spiritual enterprise, one that requires tremendous virtue in both its elected representatives and its citizens. Our fundamental problem is that we have accepted the terms of a false set of arguments about reality, the human person, power, human sexuality, economics, and our history that have led us to this unhappy state.

Deneen refuses to consider the reasonable and justified rendering of a calibrated liberalism that is actually built on Christianity, natural law, and the thick understanding of the relational human person, whose familial, religious, and economic obligations are really duties and liberties that come before the state and cannot be defined by it. The Declaration of Independence, in the hands of Deneen, is a cheap document of deracinated Lockean individualism. The document’s openness to God and justice, indeed that the liberty of its signers to revolt against the English abuse of the law, was, as they said, built on the God of the philosophers and the God of the Bible, is never considered. Also left unaddressed is the fact that our liberties, our human nature, and our demands for justice under law as equal human beings created by God, as stated in the Declaration, were not made to serve a constructivist liberalism centered around our own subjectivist desires. The verdict Deneen renders of the American Founding comes at the expense of rich engagement with its ideas, themselves rooted in natural law and the larger tradition of the West. His is truly an embarrassing caricature.

As Father Richard Neuhaus once observed, “the flourishing of the human person,” a phrase Deneen uses multiple times, “is commensurable with the constituting ideas of the American experiment, in which the state is understood to be in the service of freedom, and freedom is understood as what the Founders called ‘ordered liberty’—liberty ordered to the truth.” And the Declaration “declares, ‘self-evident truths’ that ground such freedom and direct it to the transcendent ends of ‘Nature and Nature’s God.’” As Peter Lawler also argued, the references to God in the Declaration make it clear that the Declaration is a moral and spiritual argument rooted in the enterprise of self-government, and not frivolous self-expression or a reckless “pursuit of happiness.” 

But this finally is to strain for the scraps from liberalism’s table. A final argument in the book is that prayer is essential to the common good. Deneen observes that “common” has two meanings contained in the same word: “shared” and “ordinary.” And when “combined with the word ‘good,’ we can see that a common good consists in those needs and concerns that are identified in the ordinary requirements of ordinary people” (emphasis in the original). And, Deneen asks, “How are the ‘commoners’ doing today?” Rightfully, he points out that crime, unemployment, family breakdown, and despair mark the lives of some of them.

>>> Stuck With Freedom, Stuck With Virtue

We might ask, as Deneen does not, the extent to which this sort of social decay was caused or promoted by activist government or dysfunctional conceptions of what government should do. For example, is there no connection between entitlement spending and prime working-age male unemployment? Family breakdown stretches across decades at this point. Laying family and community problems at the feet of free markets in the post-Cold War order is a stretch, when the problem itself emerged decades prior, coterminous with the Great Society of President Lyndon Johnson. Locating these problems at the nexus of Great Society welfare programs coupled with sexual revolution and expressive individualism is on point, but how one recovers solid family structures through public programs is a question everyone would like to have answered. And those answers have not been forthcoming.

Deneen defines prayer as an integral aspect of the common good, and what the new mixed constitution must be in the business of supporting. Or is it coercing? The politics of the common good would seem to support vigorous government action in many realms, including the spiritual. This position is made even more ominous in the book by the seeming putdowns about conservatives who have taken up the cause of religious freedom, which Deneen dismisses as mostly done on behalf of private religious behavior, and of no real worth to Common Good Conservatism and the mixed constitution. That means that “a simple first step would be to publicly promote and protect a life of prayer.” Deneen states that politics is a place for prayer, “since politics is how we together we [sic] seek to realize the good that is common.” This last bit is chuckle-worthy, a post-liberal recapitulation of pious Obama rhetoric.

Deneen reads all efforts to limit the size of government as part of the false politics of classical liberals, and therefore not a part of CGC. Deneen’s common good invites the use of state power in seemingly unlimited directions, with power not being limited by the Constitution but by the goods that are common, a seemingly indefinite list. He ignores his own Church’s strong (if relatively recent) emphasis on religious liberty as the first and most indispensable of rights.

The Constitution moves in a different direction. We are not required to take on religion or a particular political ideology. Rather, the terms of the Declaration and the First Amendment are built on the knowledge that we are soulful, embodied beings who cannot be defined by the federal government, religiously or on behalf of any political ideology. We avoid the errors of religious and political despotism, and we remain free to govern ourselves with a liberalism that is built on the presence of God, liberty, justice, and duty to our families, communities, and country. Here awaits the most shocking enterprise itself, that of resecuring a fundamentally good Constitution in the face of recalcitrant opposition from misguided intellectuals of the Left and Right.

This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty

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