Winston Churchill once supposedly said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” We need Churchillian wisdom right now. A range of thinkers, like University of Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen, have recently advanced serious criticisms of classical liberalism, casting doubt on its ability to provide us a way out of our current political crisis and, in fact, blaming liberalism itself for the crisis. Liberalism, they say, leads to social and cultural atrophy, environmental collapse, and spiritual atomization. It teaches us to worship a cult of personal autonomy and statism with ruinous consequences to our civilization and ourselves. If the critics are right, liberalism is no longer a viable organizing principle for modern political and economic systems.

But what is liberalism? One problem with the critique is that it depends on a selective definition of liberalism. It is easy to bash the construct if you define it as the source of every bad thing in modern life. But there is a cornucopia of liberal options, some of which are specifically aimed at answering the postliberal critique. Critics usually fail to say what liberalism is not, and thus omit what they would prefer in its stead. In other words, they have failed to answer Churchill’s challenge. They have yet to advance a viable and attractive non-liberal alternative. The alternatives some have suggested sound quite similar to liberalism, especially to earlier or localized variants of it.

Liberalism, at least some version of it, remains the best option for organizing modern society. The real question is which version of liberalism is best. How can liberalism be adapted or improved to answer its best critics and stave off its worst challengers? In this symposium, a variety of authors take up the idea of Augustinian liberalism. Augustinian liberalism—with its humbler aspirations for the state, strong anti-utopian emphasis, and realistic approach to personhood and politics—precisely answers the challenges of the postliberal critique. It also, providentially, has resources to combat the increasingly illiberal progressive left and nationalist right, and refocus public discourse on the essential norms of an open society.

Broad Church Liberalism

All versions of liberalism begin with the belief that human beings possess inherent dignity and moral worth. Crucially, our moral worth resides in our essential humanity—which we share equally with everyone else. No one is inherently superior by virtue of birth, lineage, rank, wealth, or any other attribute to merit special treatment from the government or privileged access to power. If none of us merit political power by virtue of our birth, then we all deserve an equal say in how we are governed. Unless we live in a city-state small enough for participatory, direct democracy, this situation leads us to collectively entrust power to a subset of people who govern on our behalf. And so, we arrive at some form of representative rule, accountable governance, and majoritarian decision-making. At the same time, since even those in the minority are equal under law, there are limits to what the majority can do to them. We therefore also arrive at a concept of inviolable and individual rights that fundamentally limits the state’s jurisdiction.

This basic starting point is what distinguishes liberalism from monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, dictatorship, theocracy, and other forms of hierarchical, illiberal government. Interestingly, postliberal thinkers do not disagree with these arguments, which is why their complaints about liberalism are ultimately critiques from within the broad church of liberalism, not from without. Not even liberalism’s fiercest critics advocate for a legally hierarchical society in which unchosen, unaccountable, or unrepresentative rulers arbitrarily decide what we are allowed to say, think, write, or worship. If you believe in human equality and its political consequences, you end up supporting some notion of an open society and human liberty. We might call this the lowest common denominator of liberalism.

Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed

If postliberal thinkers agree with the most basic of liberal beliefs, what exactly is their critique? Patrick Deneen recently argues in Why Liberalism Failed that liberalism is responsible for a wide range of ills—everything from the sexual revolution to environmental damage, the erosion of civil society, and more. If Deneen is right, then liberalism—all forms of it—is fatally flawed and doomed to fail. Recovering and renewing liberal alternatives, like Augustinian liberalism, requires first responding to Deneen’s challenge and showing how and where it goes wrong.

Blaming the Summer of Love on John Locke may seem outlandish, but key to Deneen’s argument is the notion that liberalism failed “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself.” Liberalism unfolded according to its “inner logic,” which led to consequences that its earliest founders and advocates neither anticipated nor wanted, but for which they laid the necessary foundations. Locke didn’t argue for unrestricted sexual license, but Deneen argues that his philosophy evolved into a movement for “expressive individualism” and personal autonomy—which, translated into cultural practice, gave us the soaring rates of sexually transmitted disease, divorce, and out-of-wedlock births. By the same train of thought, Deneen argues that liberalism’s “inner logic” evolved from the staid classical liberalism of the American Founders to the progressive liberalism of twenty-first century social justice warriors and, simultaneously, to libertarianism and unrestricted global capitalism. He views today’s conservatives and progressives as merely different manifestations of a single, underlying liberalism.

That is what enables Deneen to blame everything on liberalism. Liberalism “encourages loose connections.” It creates “increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” Liberalism “sought to educate people to think differently about themselves and their relationships.” Liberalism leads to the inexorable growth of hyper-individualism—and also to the all-powerful “Leviathan” required to enforce our individual rights. Liberalism erodes culture by loosening our attachments to particular times, places, and practices both because of the progressive insistence that we be liberated from the tyranny of tradition and because of the power of unrestricted global capitalism that simply overwhelms and destroys the local and the particular. Liberalism redefined liberty: the ancients defined it as self-governance and control of one’s passions; liberalism defines it as license, the absence of constraints against the pursuit of desire. Liberalism entrenches and deepens class divisions and lies to the poor about their opportunities for upward mobility. And on and on. This does not exhaust the list of things that Deneen blames on an omnipresent and omni-malevolent liberalism.

Liberalism Is Not Progressivism

Deneen’s argument is an incisive and even definitive refutation not of liberalism as a whole but of progressivism (and, to a lesser extent, libertarianism). Deneen’s major fault is conflating the two. Progressivism and liberalism are, in fact, increasingly contradictory ideas. Progressivism started life in explicit opposition to key classically liberal ideas and has only grown more pronounced in its hostility to liberal norms. This is not merely a debate about terminology. This is about how far the rot in American politics goes. If Deneen is right, the rot precedes America’s founding and spans the past half millennium, encompassing the entire Enlightenment through the modern age. If he is wrong, the rot only started a century ago—not exactly a comforting thought, but better than the alternative.

Deneen rightly cites progressive thinkers like John Dewey and Herbert Croly as key in creating a “new liberalism” in the early twentieth century. They believed that “only by overcoming classical liberalism can true liberalism”—that is, progressivism—“emerge,” which suggests a deliberate break with the liberal past, not a continuation of it. At the time, progressive thinkers (especially Croly) were explicit about their hostility to liberal norms like individual rights, the separation of powers, and limited government. Only in later years did they mount a successful propaganda coup, stealing much of the rhetoric of liberalism to borrow its moral authority while hollowing out its concepts. Deneen seems to grasp this dynamic but once again blames all of liberalism for the sins of progressives. He argues that liberalism succeeded by “redefining shared words and concepts” and “colonizing existing institutions with fundamentally different anthropological assumptions.” That is exactly what progressivism did to liberalism, not what liberalism did to the pre-liberal world. Deneen is accepting at face value progressive propaganda that they are the inheritors of the liberal mantle, the heirs of Locke and Jefferson and Mill, that progressivism is the logical and natural extension of liberalism.

Deneen’s view about the relationship between progressivism and liberalism depends on ideas having agency, self-generated motion, or an organic life cycle. Ideas are not fixed, static, unchanging things to him; they evolve over time and—this is perhaps the unstated lynchpin of Deneen’s argument—how they eventually evolve is implicit in their original form. The original form (classical liberalism) is responsible for the later evolution (progressivism) and all its implications. “The logic of liberalism,” Deneen writes in a separate essay, “will inexorably continue to unfold, impelling the ship toward the inevitable iceberg.” Deneen likens this “inner logic” to the organic processes of living things, arguing that the liberal order may be “approaching the end of the natural cycle of corruption and decay that limits the lifespan of all human creations.” Liberalism naturally unfolded and evolved into progressivism and libertarianism because of premises implicit in its founding.

If Deneen is implicitly resting on a Hegelian notion about the unfolding of ideas through history, I’d like to borrow Jeremy Bentham for my reply: this is not only nonsense, it is nonsense upon stilts. Ideas do not have agency. They do not have motion. They do not formulate themselves, express themselves, or modify themselves. They do not evolve or grow or develop. Analogies to natural processes, organic life cycles, or “inner logic” do not work because ideas are neither living things nor mathematical problems. Ideas depend on thinkers to think them, and thinkers are not compelled by the nature of ideas to think novel things about them. Of course liberalism has evolved and changed, not because of its own inner nature but because specific thinkers deliberately and explicitly waged a campaign to change it. The change from liberalism to progressivism was planned, not organic; contested, not inevitable. Far from being logically necessary, it was highly dubious.

Social Conservatism

While some thinkers worked hard to change liberalism, others worked hard to keep it. The least persuasive part of Deneen’s critique is his conflation of “progressive” liberalism with “conservative” liberalism. The two have virtually nothing in common, yet in Deneen’s telling they are equally culpable for the sins of the liberal (progressive) state. He works hard to draw a moral equivalence between the sins of progressivism on the left and the sins of untrammeled libertarian capitalism on the right. This has the rhetorical effect of making him seem like a moderate “plague on both your houses” philosopher, but it is only persuasive if one believes that conservatism and libertarianism are synonymous or that conservatism is nothing more than a cover for unregulated capitalism. He may be right that libertarianism and capitalism are corrosive, but there are other forms of conservatism.

Most obviously, there is Deneen’s own social conservatism. Deneen disingenuously keeps this out of his definition of conservatism and, consequently, out of his definition of classical liberalism so that he can continue damning the latter movements without nuance. But Deneen’s own thought owes much to thinkers like Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and perhaps Russell Kirk, practically the founding fathers of social conservatism and all firmly within the older classical liberal mold. To say that these thinkers are not classically liberal, or that social conservatism is not liberal, is for language to lose all integrity.

The point is not that social conservatism can solve all our ills. The point is that the persistence of these thinkers’ old-fashioned classically liberal ideas disproves Deneen’s notion that liberalism evolves on its own. It doesn’t. Some people continue thinking the same ideas, unevolved, for decades and centuries. If so, then Deneen’s idea that liberalism naturally, logically, inexorably evolved into progressivism is bunk. And if that idea is bunk, then there is an identifiable set of ideas that existed before progressivism that were recognizably liberal and are not to blame for the havoc of the progressive state. We could call this set of ideas pre-progressive classical liberalism. More simply, we could call it Augustinian liberalism. To explore this proposal, we asked three scholars—Andrew Walker, John Owens, and Jonathan Leeman—to offer their analysis and response. Following their reflections, I will provide some concluding thoughts of my own.