I met Patrick Deneen almost twenty years ago at Georgetown University, where he was instrumental in launching the Tocqueville Forum for Political Understanding. It was obvious then that he was a very serious and engaging public intellectual with a gift for hospitality. I have been happy to meet with him at his new home at Notre Dame where he is flourishing more than ever and writing important and much noticed books. He is a welcome laborer in that interminable field called the meaning of America, where the acreage is immense and the threshers few.
Some thirty years ago, Louis Menand wrote about Christopher Lasch:
He is (or he gives, in his work, the impression of being) a man who believes he has caught ‘the modern project’ – his phrase for the group of social and political tendencies he has analyzed – in an enormous lie, and who cannot rest until the lie has been exposed. There is an invasion-of-the-body-snatchers urgency about his writing; and this has given it, over the years, an increasingly aggrieved, and sometimes paranoid, tone.1
Deneen’s Regime Change is not nearly as long as Lasch’s masterwork, The True and Only Heaven, which is over 500 pages, but he refers to it favorably and shares Lasch’s perception that the social fabric of America and the West in general is coming undone without the major political parties being able to do much about it, or even trying. He believes that the liberal order does not protect the nation from the excesses of progressive, personal expression rights or the excesses of conservative employer and property rights, leaving vast numbers of working people bereft of the moral restraint that gave them dignity, which were the labor unions that kept them employed and the communities that educated and supported them. Progressive leftist “expressive individualists” – as Robert Bellah puts it in his Habits of the Heart – and conservative right-wing “economic individualists” have brought our liberal order to its logical and decadent conclusion.
The elites of the right and the left have somehow multiplied and snatched – the old leftist term was “co-opted” – enough bodies to control the government, large corporations, the entertainment industry, the education system, and the culture at large. With this control, they have imposed a corrosively anti-traditional, anti-communal, anti-conservative regime that, despite making all the requisite noises against hierarchy and for liberation and equality, is in fact as enslaving, domineering, and destructive of culture as any previous regime.
Deenen’s vision is bleak but not unique. Many of his paragraphs sound like they could have been taken from Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address of 2017, Pat Buchanan’s speech to the Republican Convention in 1992, Barry Goldwater’s speech to Republican Convention in 1964, Mario Cuomo’s speech to the Democratic Convention in 1984, or Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address of 1937. Americans have been preaching Jeremiads since the Pilgrims landed and yet our order endures. Why should we believe things are particularly worse now?
Providence‘s own Walter Russell Mead, in God and Gold and elsewhere, argues for the rumbustious, individualistic Anglo-American way of running an economy and a government. While the more egalitarian and communitarian Germany and Scandinavia are a lot tidier, the gap between their rich and their poor not so vast, and their cities in much better shape, America has a way of recovering from its sins and excesses and lo, the American economy continues to do pretty well. At least, The Economist agrees.2
Yet Mead, a generous and big-hearted man, did suggest towards the end of Special Providence that the Jeffersonians are the domestic and foreign policy school that we need to hear more from. Now comes Patrick Deneen to plead, Jefferson-like, for a more conservative, egalitarian common-good America, as if he conjured him up some twenty years ago. He advocates for the restoration of the power of labor unions while encouraging and protecting domestic manufacturing; turning a lot of the power and money of government over to states and municipalities; moving federal offices and employees out of the Washington area to encourage local control; reducing the number of students in college while increasing the number in vocational schools; and encouraging and supporting families with children.
These proposals are not impossible and have been employed with some success by various European countries, including contemporary conservative darlings Hungary and Poland. The Scandinavian countries – the liberal darlings – Germany and the Netherlands also have powerful labor unions and a minimum of labor strife. All of the above countries as well as France also encourage having children with tax incentives and free daycare, schooling, etc.
Call it an attempt to yoke the Main Street wing of the Republican Party with the working class of the Democratic Party. The old progressive movement in American put a coalition like this together and it had a pretty good run. Hiram Johnson of California, George Norris of Nebraska, and Bob LaFollette of Wisconsin had splendid careers in the Senate and that tradition was fully alive until relatively recently. I personally ran into one of the last living members of that moderate progressive era, Senator George Aiken of Vermont, at the Dartmouth Bookstore in the fall of 1978.
LaFollette’s brief and typical biography, courtesy of the Senate’s official site, reads: “independent and impassioned, La Follette championed such progressive reform measures as regulation of railroads, direct election of senators, and worker protection, while opposing American entry into World War I and condemning wartime restrictions on free speech. He initiated the investigation into the Teapot Dome scandal of the early 1920s and ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1924.” He won 16% of the popular vote in that election. Progressivism of that era crossed party lines and appealed to Americans of all classes and regions. There is no reason something like it could not do so again. The American Solidarity Party is giving it a try. Deneen sits on its board. I wish them luck.
For all that, there are a number of problems with this book. There is enough use of passive voice, along with a vast number of abstract nouns struggling for life assisted by action verbs to drive a freshman writing instructor crazy. It is long on critique and short on proposals, especially on how the proposals could be enacted in the present political moment. In places it sounds like he should be proposing a re-write of the First Amendment, if not a constitutional convention to re-write the whole thing.
Our liberal constitution, whether of Lockean or biblical or Reformational origin, or all of the above, is not seven articles of faith but seven articles and compromise, born of two violent revolutions that were also civil wars, American and British. It is neither a secular nor a religious constitution, one that most carefully does not institutionally support religion or irreligion. If living by articles of compromise are what is meant by a liberal order, I am not willing to exchange it in favor of something else, whatever we might call it. Life in any regime involves compromise.
We are classical liberals over here at Providence Magazine, liberals with a biblical core, which we believe is an integral and often overlooked part of the liberal operating system. Along with Reinhold Niebuhr we believe that you can be Augustinian and liberal at once; indeed, we consider it the best way to be genuinely liberal or Augustinian. As Niebuhr said, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Instead of discarding liberalism altogether, we think Deneen would be better off if he couched his proposals as part of the liberal – liberating, freeing – tradition stretching back through American colonial self-government, Locke, the English Civil Wars, Luther, Augustine, and the Bible. It’s a great tradition.
The title of the book is audacious. “Regime” may be a good translation of politeia, the Greek word usually translated as “republic,” as that of Plato. For someone wary of foreign interventions, “regime change” has difficult connotations, redolent as it must be now of American misadventures. “Regime change” was the exact phrase used to describe our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were ironically led by a president who sounded like a communitarian, common-sense, come-home-America Republican during his 2000 election campaign. The legal and moral justifications were not very sound in either case and the outcome has not been good. Some two years ago, an American president advocated regime change about a mile from where he was speaking on the Ellipse in Washington. That did not go well either. With the amount of weaponry in private hands growing constantly, not to mention relentless chatter among paramilitary groups, “regime change” is not a good term to use in contemporary America, even ironically, as the title of a book one wants taken seriously.
Lastly, this unfortunate choice of title pales in comparison with his apology for Russian President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which Deneen published about a year ago on Substack. In response to this defense of the enemy of his enemies, a friend should warn him of the dangers of letting one’s anger get the best of him. Americans do not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, neither do we go abroad in search of monsters to befriend.
- New York Review of Books, 1991.
- See “Riding High: The Lessons of America’s Astonishing Economy” April 15, 2023.