The conservative thinker Patrick Deneen has published a book entitled Why Liberalism Failed. He’s not talking about liberalism in the sense of left-leaning Democrats, but in the sense of “liberal”meaning “freedom.” He talks about the failure of democracy, but not in the sense that Trump got elected, Congress is dysfunctional, and our politics is polarized. He is referring to “the liberal-democratic-capitalist matrix.”
His argument comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning that the American experiment in freedom and democracy relies on religion, the family, morality, and a sense of community. And yet untrammeled freedom and democracy undermine religion, the family, morality, and a sense of community. Thereby undermining its own existence.
Ross Douthat reviews Deneen’s book in his column “Is There Life After Liberalism?” published in the New York Times. A sample of what he says:
Deneen is a student of Alexis de Tocqueville, and part of his argument is classically Tocquevillian — that the liberal-democratic-capitalist matrix we all inhabit depends for its livability and sustainability and decency upon pre-liberal forces and habits, unchosen obligations and allegiances: the communities of tribe and family, the moralism and metaphysical horizons of religion, the aristocracy of philosophy and art.
But Deneen comes as a Jeremiah to announce that Tocqueville’s fear that liberalism would eventually dissolve all these inheritances, leaving only a selfish individualism and soft bureaucratic despotism locked in a strange embrace, may now fully be upon us. Where it once delivered equality, liberalism now offers plutocracy; instead of liberty, appetitiveness regulated by a surveillance state; instead of true intellectual and religious freedom, growing conformity and mediocrity. It has reduced rich cultures to consumer products, smashed social and familial relations, and left us all the isolated and mutually suspicious inhabitants of an “anticulture” from which many genuine human goods have fled.
Douthat complains that Deneen offers no real solutions or alternatives other than “localism” and building community. But just as a doctor can diagnose a disease without knowing how to cure it, a critic who sees cultural problems is not necessarily obliged to be able to solve them.
So if liberal democracy has failed, my question would be, “failed to do what”? It certainly hasn’t solved all of our problems, and it certainly has introduced new ones. But who says a political system has to resolve all of our difficulties and put our culture in order?
The zeal for perfection, in the sense of building a perfect social order, is the source of every tyrannical ideology.
Originally, the American Constitutional order had more modest goals. Yes, there will be conflicts and factions, so let’s check them and balance them so that they do as little harm as possible. Let’s limit the government so that it can’t really do all that much, leaving individuals the freedom to pursue their own lives as they please, with minimal state interference.
It is true that our limited government has become more or less unlimited in its ambitions. So that is a fault with American democracy, its failure to prevent that from happening. And it is true that our culture today is harming religion, the family, morality, community, etc. But what’s harming them is not just or even primarily the government.
For all of our political and cultural woes, most Americans are relatively secure and prosperous. That is a monumental achievement for our “liberal-democratic-capitalist matrix.”
Becoming more modest about our political goals and national aspirations would calm Americans down and, ironically, might make our institutions more workable.
Photo: Dying Regime from Maldives (Protest calling for Sharia in Maldives) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons