Why Liberalism Failed – Patrick J. Deneen


Dear Partners in thought,

I wanted to share briefly with you a book close to a topic I often write about, “liberalism” but this time taken from the other side (which I have not called “dark” as the beauty of Western liberal values is that there is nothing like a good and respectful debate regardless of the strength of opposing beliefs). There is thus a book called “Why Liberalism Failed” which is a good capture of its theme written by Patrick J. Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame, the famed Indiana university, not only glorious for its football team but also the alma mater of President Joshua Bartlett in “The West Wing” (whom by the way would never have followed PD in his stance). PD is a Rutgers graduate, having being an Associate Professor at Princeton and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative blog. The American edition has a nice cover with the image of an antique Greek pillar showing its age and probably, let’s wager, uselessness in PD’s mind, though this is good communication and fair game. This is not a light book and it is much focused on concepts inherent to liberalism and its opposites, even if PD gives us many live examples, mainly from the American landscape, to make his case.

It is interesting to note that PD was published as part of the politics and culture series at Yale University Press (YUP), that is not the kind of place where one would think he would be but then it is not surprising they would adopt a fair-minded approach. YUP believes that self-government, what is the West including of course the U.S., is increasingly ailing globally and has entered a crisis of legitimacy, with no agreement on the best treatment. It has failed a growing number of people, not delivering its historical promises, with various key symptoms being noticed such as unequal wealth distribution, institutional decay, loss of trust in authority at all levels and among citizens, polarisation among those wanting open and closed societies with new political tribes and a redefinition of political landscapes arising. This premise led to PD’s book that puts the blame of the legitimacy crisis on liberalism itself, something that runs contrary to those of us who believe that we should keep promoting liberal values that made us “who we are” in order to relaunch our democratic system. His approach is scholarly and much focused on the philosophical foundations of liberalism and the developments that according to him make them failed. PD argues that liberalism needs retirement and cannot be reformed as its original sin, centred on the Kantian elevation of individual autonomy, was inherently wrong, something that the passing of time has shown. PD’s radical and disruptive critique of liberalism comes after Marx and Foucault on the “left” and Nietzsche or the Catholic Church on the “right”, among others. It is obviously coming at a turning point in the West with the rise of populism and major developments such as the election of Donald Trump or Brexit.

PD believes that the demise of liberalism started ten years before Trump or Brexit, creating a ripe environment for these developments. He felt that the “inherited civilised order” derived by family and community values and crafted through religious and cultural norms, would gradually vanish through the influence of the liberal social and political state in spite of a rising opposition of the people, who are no longer benefitting from a liberal system, in turn potentially leading to authoritarian illiberalism. PD adds that the people want increasingly a strong leader to take back control over cultural norms, political habits over a bureaucratised government and a globalised economy that have now grown remote from them. He stresses the energy spent on mass protests rather than self-legislation and deliberation faulting liberalism to have created its own nightmare and not being able to correct its course. He quotes my once neighbour, Vaclav Havel, who stated that the remedy can only be found first in the polis – lives shared with a common purpose and not the system first (“A better system will not automatically create a better life. Only the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed” as stated in The Power of the Powerless).

PD takes a 500 year historical journey into liberalism starting with the Enlightenment, making it clear that all really started 250 years ago with the American liberal experiment that is now coming to an end. He explains the historical bases of liberalism represented by a limited government devoted to securing individual rights within a free-market economic system. Political legitimacy is based on a social contract ratified by fair and free elections. Key words are limited but efficient government, rule of law, independent judiciary, responsive public officials and again fair and free elections. However he stresses that 70% of Americans (his book is focused on the U.S. and its “experiment”) believe that their country is going in the wrong direction with 50% of them believing that the past is best. Public trust in institutions has markedly declined. Future generations for the first time will be less prosperous than the previous ones. Cynicism is running amok. Elections are seen as evidence of a rigged system. The political system is broken. The social fabrique is fraying with the widening gap between the “wealthy haves” and the “left out have nots”, this being enhanced by geographic divides (the two coasts and the heartland in the U.S. and London vs. the Rest in England). The hostile divide between the faithful and the secular people (religion seems key to PD in terms of providing societal norms). The promises of liberalism have been shattered as the liberal state expands to control many aspects of life while citizens feel powerless in front of a rootless globalisation. Rights can only be secured by wealth and status, the liberal system favouring a new meritocracy based on generational succession.

For PD liberalism has failed not because it fell short but because it was in fact true to itself, achieving not its stated objectives but what was always in store, producing ruins as being its very successes. In other words, instead of promoting greater equity, multiplicity of cultures and beliefs, human dignity and expanding liberty, PD feels that liberalism fostered inequality, uniformity and homogeneity, material and (again) spiritual degradation while undermining freedom. PD believes that America is at the end of the natural cycle of corruption and decay that limits the lifespans of all human creations, including its biggest one which is liberalism (in other words, all things come to an end). Liberalism is one of three “isms” (with Fascism and Communism) that took center stage and the only one left standing after 1989, while the one with the claim to legitimacy is in fact insidious as it does not sell itself as an ideology but as an invitation more than a coercion to enjoy freedom, pleasure and wealth.

The failures of liberalism are exemplified in four distinct yet connected areas which are i) politics and government; ii) economics; iii) education; and science and technology. Looking at these four sectors, PD makes the main points as follows:

  • Politics: Citizens revolt against their own governments which they elected, the “establishment” and the political class, feeling too much distance from them. Government is deemed to be an entity separate from the will of the people and constraining the very rights of conscience, religion and association. Government is too big and Orwellian in nature for PD with unsurpassed capacities for surveillance and control of movement, finances, deeds and thoughts, while the people, being actually lost, ironically and perversely demand more intervention from the government.


  • Economics: Civic unhappiness is mirrored in economic discontent as citizens are reduced to being “consumers”. They can buy everything and increasingly so but consumerism does not erase economic angst and unhappiness of over-anxiety. All the while PD recognises that there will likely always be inequality in society, especially at the geographic level and this, increasingly, globally (with a gap between metropolitan elites and rural populists, very much as described by Gideon Rachman in the 1st August issue of the FT). Similarly PD believes globalisation will not stop and is an inevitable process as “the wages of freedom are bondage to economic inevitability”. 


  • Education: The rising generation feels forced to adopt an economic and political model they fear, making them cynics about their future and being part of an order they despise. They play the game, but without joy or love, as they have no choice, feeling (en)trapped. They have to become “meritocrats out of a survivalist instinct”. Advanced liberalism and elite universities are eliminating liberal education and    reducing students, citizens in the making, as followers of a system “sifting the        economically viable from those who will be mocked for their backward views on trade, immigration, nationhood and religious beliefs”. Universities focus on practical learning outcomes with the only goal to make students immediately employable.


  • Science and technology: Students are encouraged today to study a STEM discipline (science, tech, engineering and maths) as the greatest tools of liberation from various forms of bondage and effectively to “control or master nature” finding its roots in Francis Bacon arguing that “knowledge is power”. PD believes we hold the  incoherent view that science can liberate us from some human limits. He feels that we are too used to follow science on issues like climate change, ignoring that “the crisis is the result of longstanding triumphs of science and technology”. PD believes that tech and its multiple tools make us prisoners instead of liberating us, foregoing  long simple reading and meditation that we can no longer afford due to tech addiction. Connecting tech de facto makes us alone together.

PD goes in more details in these four areas in six chapters which are: Unsustainable liberalism; Uniting liberalism and statism; Liberalism and anti-culture; Technology and the loss of liberty; The new aristocracy; and The degradation of citizenship.

These chapters are very rich in arguments about PD’s demise of liberalism and are indeed worth reading.

PD of course offers in his last chapter a raft of recipes to correct all the ills created by liberalism which I will let you read and fit his very conservative nature and tendency to go for “small is beautiful”.

Not so fast, Pat…

Clearly we are not on the same page, even if I feel PD is not wrong (for me) on all issues (like some of Trump’s policies could be agreed with, if never his style). While the point here is not to make a counter argument to PD’s, I would like to throw in some less sophisticated though fact-based realities to his well argued but somewhat dry academic postulate.

PD’s approach strikes as being very scholarly with the likely objective of giving credibility to his arguments, even if at times conveying a sense of artificiality to his reasoning, as if wanting to provide his captive audience, who badly needs a rational basis for their destructive stances, with some academic veneer of respectability. While well argued scholastically, PD’s book seems detached from reality today while claiming to be so close to the “real people” and what they feel, as if our world not upholding all the tenets of ancient Greece or all of the fundamentals of the Founding Fathers were proof enough that we were doomed and that liberalism should be sent to the dustbin of history. This feel-good populist tutorial as to why we are so wrong about the world we live in – a.k.a. liberalism – feels a bit easy even if well argued on the surface, though with too many self-evident truths lacking in depth evidence. “All things come to an end” is easy and again simple as a message. Who could argue? PD’s book is an answer to a rising scream of the left outs and discontents for change and a demand for alternatives, not knowing how to evaluate what they could be (he tries hard for them) and wanting simple answers to complex questions they at times don’t fully see nor grasp, so much the existential anger is a driver.

Liberalism to put it simply has been behind the massive historical rise in GDP we know especially in the West, the empowering of many, the lifting off poverty of millions if not billions, the best answer to tyranny, indeed the right of vote for all in many countries (sadly not all) but also the American civil rights achievements, and peace in Europe for 75 years…The list of achievements is too long here and you get the drift. It is very easy to forget these. We are all getting richer as a group and GDPs keep growing. That there are disparities (with the famed one percent getting richer) and some feel left out and forgotten by growth is undeniable. However, that liberalism can and will be perfected (like say the European Union to my British friends) is clear. While having been a bulwark against tyranny that is so easily forgotten, liberalism can be perfected as it is based on humanity that is imperfect (think of me) but can always redeem itself. Liberalism has always been a work in progress that is adaptable to ever-changing times as we, the citizens, shape through it, our destinies.

Elections should actually not be seen by liberalism’s haters as rigged given DT’s and the Brexit wins (a FT reader and Brexiter shared recently his belief that democratic decisions should be upheld, thus backing a very liberal concept even if one can argue in that case that democracy can also allow voters to change their minds two years and thousands of facts later). Democracy keeps producing unhappy voters as they are rarely happy as a state of being, with a gap between promises and reality even if the system works well incrementally (Macron, while bringing much needed improvements to the French Republic, is at a 32% satisfaction rate one year later). Big government which is the main target of PD is there to stay as it is hard to believe that national, not to mention regional issues or the Moon conquest could be dealt with by small Phalansterian communities, which if charming in nature, would have little clout to effect real and durable change on major issues.

PD’s views on education, while interesting, are a bit simplistic. Liberal education, which rightly needs to be fought for, is far from dead and still allows students to know “how to think” leading them to a vast choice of avenues in further education or the job market. PD should read Fareed Zakaria’s “In defence of a liberal education” as while they share the same view as to its importance, Fareed also focuses on why there is the world “liberal” in liberal education. The decline in liberal education may have been a temporary matter and clearly has been noticed with steps being taken even if there are great market needs for STEM graduates. I can only think of the many young college graduates with a History major I know and whom I struggle to debate with so much their thinking have been crafted by the best, and by the way many of them are also going into and much desired by strategy consulting (the “investment banking” of today for grads) in what would be an upside down way for PD. Meritocracy, another enemy, is also about hard work, not sheer money or roots – or “generational succession” and even today, regardless of financial considerations, allowing more or less all to succeed particularly in well-endowed elite U.S. universities if they work for it. And yes, one’s background matters. And yes, parents want their kids to succeed and if they come from good universities, they will be more likely than not to wish their offsprings to follow their paths (which does not mean that so-called “legacy” is great and it should not be left out, which in practical terms it is by and large the case judging from many irate parents I know). And let’s be clear, as Churchill could have said, selection is the fairest of all the unfair tools at our disposal. There are less slots in elite institutions than they are talented candidates and admission committees often follow their “reason that reason can ignore”, making it like a black box as to why Julie is in and not Max. And even looking more broadly at the whole spectrum of higher education, not everybody is gifted for it so trade schools should be re-emphasised, also as there is a great need for special tradecraft and many people would reach a satisfied professional existence if following that path. Finally not everybody in the world can make it to and at university as there are circumstances that fate gives us that one cannot overcome – but again the nice idea in some quarters that university should be for all actually means it would be for no one (lowering standards, like what may have happened with the French “Bac” at the end of high school some years ago made for happiness with a piece of paper but frustration later as both universities and the job market naturally reacted, showing for the former a staggering percentage of first year students not being able to go further and being lost on an unclear path). We live in an imperfect world though one where liberalism has allowed a large number of students to learn how to think as well as, if they chose to, to learn a practical trade and contribute to a growing society. At the end of the day, education, even in a competitive liberal world, is the single most important passport that parents, if they can, should focus on early on for their children, this at every level and regardless of socio-economic conditions, so they are best prepared for what is life.

PD’s views on science and education can resonate in part. Tech can indeed bring a sense of efficiency while it does destroy many things that makes our lives, some of which many of us would argue should likely not be sacrificed on the altar of progress and evolution. Amazon comes to mind. While it is hard to negate science and the advancements it has given the world at large, it is true that some aspects of the tech revolution can be of concern in terms of lesser interaction and thinking, focusing on the medium and not the substance. One does not need to hate liberalism to agree with the “Alone Together” as Sherry Turkle, the Harvard-trained and MIT professor did a few years back. However it is hard to follow PD on science and climate change as if something called fact-based rationality was in the way. If we cannot use science to assess climate change, would the tea leaves do?

I was not sure Yale should play that “fair” in pushing forward such an articulate yet quite dangerous piece of thinking that unwittingly or not lends credibility to populism, something it is dead set against value-wise. However once again, the approach of liberalism in its opening the debate to its would be destroyers is its inherent strength and guarantor of success, if citizens can understand fully the stakes of the game.

To be fair, PD does not attack everything linked to the Western liberal world and liberalism as we know it. One can agree with him on many of the ills but not on his views that liberalism needs to go to the graveyard. Liberalism can be constantly improved, which many if not all of the other applied philosophies and programmes of easy answers to complex problematics, however attractive and soothing, cannot provide.

I wish you an enjoyable and focused read (as it can be arduous at times), believing that the opponents to liberalism should be heard (and they certainly are today) and their philosophy known also so it can be fought equally fiercely with facts and not just scholarly tenets.

I dedicate this book note to Michael and my dear friends who felt that “whom should govern us” was the key issue, with their heads saying “yes” and hearts “out” on that key June question, hoping that all goes as well as it can (for all) next year and beyond, though hoping even more that the sovereign people can indeed revisit the matter given the “facts” they now should know better.

Warmest regards,



Serge Desprat- 9th August, 2018 (La Bernerie en Retz)