Toward the end of his life, John Adams wrote his grandson that John Locke and his disciples “have done more to overturn tyranny civil, ecclesiastical and political, and to bring into credit & reputation principles of toleration, humanity, civilization, private judgment and free inquiry, than all the writers who preceded them.” In doing so, Locke infuriated many people. Patrick Deneen is one of them.
This Notre Dame professor became a minor celebrity with the release of his previous book, Why Liberalism Failed. In it, he argued that the Founding Fathers’ liberalism was fundamentally flawed and had combined with progressivism to destroy Western civilization. The best plan he could conjure up to own these libs was a variety of twee “household economics” hobbies, such as composting, that by miraculous happenstance were fashionable on campus at the time of his writing. In Regime Change, he offers his pitch to Trump voters: What “most ordinary people” want is a “ruling class responsive and responsible to protection of the common good.” In short, you need to be ruled by him.
He justifies his claim to rule by analyzing modern political thought through the lens of “the many” and “the few.” He charges that both economically oriented classical liberals, which include most American conservatives, and social-activist progressive liberals idolize progress and fear the common man as an impediment. Real conservatives, by contrast, value stability and tradition, and they are the champions of “the many.” This is an unusual claim; historically, when people have asked for more self-government, they have been greeted by the champions of liberty with ballots and by traditionalists with bullets.
Deneen twists some of Locke’s words, but he often fails to find words to twist. Instead, he fills his diatribe against classical liberalism with long passages full of mysterious, unnamed people making decisions in undefined times and places: “The members of the new ruling class were to be elevated … property was to be dynamic … primary was a belief in self-making,” and so on and so forth. Competent writers deploy this passive voice sentence construction sparingly for emphasis — for instance, “Deneen’s pervasive use of passive voice should have been drilled out of him by his 10th grade English teacher” — but its frequent usage is, like all muddled writing, a product of muddled thought.
Unfortunately, his diagnosis of the progressive Left is no more insightful than his passages about classical liberals. To Deneen, “the intellectual progenitor of progressive liberalism was John Stuart Mill.” Mill, who came into the world three decades after the Declaration of Independence, must have created a time machine in addition to his intellectual tradition, since Deneen also refers to “the progressive liberalism of America’s Founding Fathers.” This astonishingly inventive fellow argued that custom was a “despot” that prevented people from conducting “experiments in living.” As he saw it, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Deneen draws a direct line from Mill to today’s woke scolds. After all, transgenderism is an “experiment in living,” and since woke activists claim that they are being “harmed” by critics, they are “in keeping with the Millian ethos” when they wield “the full force of and power of the state and its semipublic, semiprivate agents” against their opponents.
This attempt at argument is even less convincing than the hysterical shrieks that Donald Trump was a Nazi because he and Adolf Hitler both said mean words about the news media. Mill asserted that “over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” but the woke movement opposes freedom of thought and of speech. They are not fulfilling Mill’s vision, they oppose it. While there is a socially libertine strain in left-of-center American politics, progressives have always demanded compliance to their various moral crusades. Once again, Deneen must torture a passage to wring out of it his desired meaning.
Speaking of torturers, there is a fourth political category in Deneen’s book: Marxism. As Deneen admits, “while at first glance conservatism would seem to have little in common with Marxism, in fact, we can see clearly that they share a deep hostility to the arrangements of modern liberalism.” He claims that Marxism and his version of conservatism both champion “the many” against “the few.” More discerning minds will notice another similarity between how Marxists and Deneenite conservatives treat members of “the many” who step out of line.
Deneen attempts to create a new history for his kind of conservatism. For decades after the American founding, Catholic reactionaries championed the “tyranny civil, ecclesiastical and political” that Adams denounced. To sidestep this doleful history, Deneen cites as inspiration Edmund Burke, the foremost British critic of the French Revolution (Adams was his American counterpart), and 19th century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, along with various American populist movements such as the anti-Federalists. (This is a stretch.)
Incidentally, if Deneen had read Burke’s writings about America, he would have avoided a glaring factual error. In the British context, Dissenters are not “those of a liberal philosophical bent” or adherents of a “deracinated socialism,” they are conservative Protestants much like today’s evangelicals. This is like confusing the Tea Party and the Bernie Bros.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Deneen’s pretend conservatism is how non-American it is. He cites Adams as a “classical thinker,” but Adams loathed Locke’s critics. He favorably cites the anti-Federalists as the original American populists, but the Bill of Rights that the anti-Federalists demanded is thoroughly Lockean. There is only one American tradition that he depicts accurately and unabashedly adores: Puritanism. He extols New England’s “beautiful definition of freedom,” which is “a liberty for that only which is just and good.” To get there, he wishes to replace “’religious liberty,’ ‘academic freedom,’ ‘free markets,’ ‘checks and balances,’ etc.,” since they are “no substitutes for piety, truth, equitable prosperity, and just government.”
He proposes Aristopopulism, a newly empowered aristocracy who “are worthy of emulation and, in turn, elevate the lives, aspirations, and vision of ordinary people.” He will fill his new aristocracy with lawyers, fulfilling every American’s dream of having to deal with lawyers even more.
Deneen is right that the American founding has helped usher in a profoundly disruptive period in human history, and the country needs thoughtful social conservatives to identify these problems and help navigate the ship of state. This need will grow more acute as new technologies allow us to alter biology and raise new questions about humanness and identity that could make today’s culture wars look like a summer picnic. Fortunately, there are some rising stars, such as Grove City College’s Carl Trueman, who are up to the task.
Deneen also correctly notes that our elite class has largely failed to perform adequately in these turbulent times. And if Regime Change demonstrates the caliber of thought available in our elite institutions, it is no wonder why.