Patrick Deneen, a Wolf in Wolin’s Clothing?

In Why Liberalism Failed, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen argues that the cultural and political pathologies of our present stem directly from the triumph of an idea. The crises of faith and spirituality, the decline of community, the destruction of the liberal arts, the cheapening of our aesthetic culture, the rise of social atomism and of the tutelary, administrative state—Deneen argues these all are the fruits of liberalism, the political philosophy first articulated half a millennium ago and perfected from Thomas Hobbes to Publius to John Rawls.

Here in the United States, all mainstream political ideologies are variations on a liberal Enlightenment theme, according to Deneen. “Classical liberal” Republicans and progressive Democrats appear to be engaged in ferocious political conflict, but in reality they agree on all the important points. After all, who among them denies America’s basic, self-evident creed: All men are created equal; they are endowed with natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and to protect these fundamental rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Most mainstream political commentators would likely agree with Deneen that Americans across the political spectrum share an abiding commitment to Enlightenment liberalism. This is the common philosophical ground from which a fragile political center tries to defend itself from populisms left and right, from the corrosive effects of identity politics, and from the dangers of xenophobic nationalism.

Against these illiberal threats a familiar set of thinkers periodically pipe up to defend the liberal center (and the acceptable bounds of liberal Left and liberal Right). Such writers as David Brooks, William Galston, and Mark Lilla acknowledge the limits of Enlightenment rationality and of liberalism as a political ideology even as they remain committed to the basic liberal project. The legacy of the Enlightenment, the primacy of reason, the principles of the American Founding—these are the liberal values around which we must rally.

For Deneen, this shared ground of liberal Left and liberal Right is itself the problem. I have little to add to the impressive collection of commentators who have discussed Deneen’s core thesis in detail, including at Law and Liberty (see the incisive review by Marc DeGirolami). My purpose here is to point out some striking similarities between Deneen’s thinking and that of Sheldon Wolin (1922-2015), a far-Left political philosopher who taught at Berkeley and Princeton for many years.

On the surface, the two could not be more different. Deneen is a leading voice in a movement of traditionalist Christian (typically Catholic) thinkers who often look for “integralist” alternatives to liberalism that orient the state toward human flourishing and grace. Wolin was a radical, participatory democrat who saw in the protests of the 1960s the promise of human emancipation. Where Deneen favors authority, Wolin clamors for liberation. Where Deneen demands a politics of virtue, Wolin theorizes a politics of self-actualization.

And yet their condemnations of modern liberal politics are remarkably similar. Both prefer human-scale localism to depersonalized concentrations of power. Both value active citizenship over managerial, bureaucratic governance. Both identify liberalism with a scientistic, technological rationality that destroys traditional humanistic education.

They are even drawn to the same Jeremiahs. Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, is their shared indispensable theorist of modern democracy. Wolin produced a masterful study of Tocqueville’s ambivalence between the disappearing aristocratic world of his ancestors and the unyielding democratic world of his descendants. Likewise, Deneen insists on virtually every page of Why Liberalism Failed that Tocqueville remains the one thinker we must study to understand the character of contemporary political life.

The Anti-Federalists are a second shared inspiration. To Wolin and Deneen, our Founding Federalists are villains in a story of political consolidation and managerial politics. Wolin stylizes the Anti-Federalist-versus-Federalist debate as a debate between “tending” and “intending.” Where Publius aims to intentionally construct a new political regime in the mold of modern science, the Anti-Federalists wish to tend to their evolved, traditional, democratic culture. Deneen is drawn to the same metaphor, contrasting the (faulty, to his mind) scientific presumptions of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton against the salutary localist preservationism of Wendell Berry. Not even Federalist 10 and Federalist 51—two of the most celebrated intellectual achievements of the Founding—are spared. Both writers blame  these texts specifically for legitimizing a selfish factionalism inconsistent with genuine, democratic self-rule.

Having replaced rich, active citizenship with the petty pursuit of self-interest, Publius goes on to replace local, participatory democracy with distant, consolidated managerial government. Here again the two political philosophers present the same interpretation. Federalist 17 laments the intense loyalty citizens feel for their states, and subversively suggests that this loyalty can be “destroyed” if the national government can provide “much better administration.” Federalist 27 gives up the game by observing that “the general government will be better administered than the particular governments.”

Deneen and Wolin alike identify “administration” as the dangerous, anti-democratic end state of modern liberalism. Bureaucratic administration is the antithesis of an engaged citizenry.

In Deneen’s telling, “Publius clearly believes and intends that better administration at the federal level will lead to the displacement of local loyalties and engagement, and the redirection of attachments to the central government.” Wolin likewise deprecates what he calls the “organizationalist ideology of the Founders,” which elevates efficiency and stability above the cathartic turbulence of democratic self-rule.[3] He writes that the two great demands of the Federalist Papers, “size and concentrated power,” are “the two natural enemies of democracy,” and were “invented by science to show how republics could control the excesses of democracy.”[4]

What should we make of the joint Wolin-Deneen critique of liberalism? We might want to say that the very fact that liberalism has parallel critics on Left and Right is a reason to favor liberalism. After all, the liberal project is designed to protect political life from totalizing ideologues of all stripes. But such a conclusion begs the question. Reflexive—one might say reactionary—liberal centrism is at least as likely to produce debilitating mediocrity as it is the golden mean.

These two political theorists have mounted a serious critique of liberalism’s penchant for scientific, technocratic managerialism. In so doing, they point us to the lamentably undemocratic character of modern political life. As Wolin puts it in assessing Rawls (and I suspect Deneen would agree), liberalism’s aspiration of “subordinating participatory possibilities in favor of administered benefits” is at the heart of our contemporary discontent.[5]

But Wolin and Deneen haven’t just reached many of the same conclusions, they’ve done so using the same method. Both wish to understand a pathology at the heart of modern political life. But rather than asking “What’s wrong?” in the style of the problem-solving engineer, they ask, “What went wrong?” In other words, how did we come to believe the things we believe? How can old ideas explain the character of contemporary life? Wolin and Deneen believe that a grand study of the history of ideas can yield a diagnosis and a prescription. Intellectual errors first made by canonical liberal thinkers—Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Publius, and others—are in some way responsible for contemporary problems.

Both men reject nostalgia as the basis of this method. There is no going back. But if not return, they write what Wolin calls “essays in retrieval.”[6] Political conflict produces winners and losers. Sometimes that conflict gives rise to enduring progress. But sometimes, as the losers exit, “things of value go out of the world.”[7] Studying the history of ideas helps us to locate what values we have lost and can inspire us to think about how we might restore them.

Here we see that in addition to liberal, managerial politics, Wolin and Deneen share another enemy: Whiggish pragmatism. Whig history insists that things, for the most part, are always getting better. Pragmatism generally agrees, and adds that what problems we face are technical difficulties in need of technical solutions.

What Wolin and Deneen reveal is the emptiness of the Whiggish, pragmatic outlook. Even amidst progress, things of tremendous value disappear. As Wolin sharply explains, Publius’ triumph represents “the subjugation of other forms of politics. The myth of the Founding belongs not to the archetype of Athena springing full-blown from the brow of Zeus, but is instead a muted version of the fratricidal story of Romulus.”[8] The history of ideas offers a way of meditating on the inadequacy of contemporary political categories. It’s a way of making clear that radical rethinking—not just technical tinkering—may be necessary. Ideological mistakes first made long in the past continue to dominate the way we live and think.

Even as we give serious consideration to the history of ideas, however, we should remember that a nation is not a philosophy seminar. Nor is a nation an idea unfolding through history, always tending toward totalizing purification. Instead, a country is a bundle of contradictions, a collection of peoples, habits, and cultures. As Samuel Goldman observes in a perceptive review of Deneen’s book, ideas certainly matter, but they are not all that matters. To be sure, our country is uniquely philosophical, uniquely “dedicated to a proposition.” But that proposition—that “all men are created equal”—is far from obvious in its meaning.

The character of equality, the nature of rights, the balance between liberty and license—these are questions that have generated heated debate for centuries, much of it within the liberal tradition. The mere fact that one proposed resolution or another has proved politically dominant for a time need not imply historic inevitability or authority. After all, one of the great lessons offered by Wolin and Deneen is that we should not mistake politically victorious ideas for intellectually successful ones—the Whigs were wrong to think of the march of history as a march toward moral perfection. We would be similarly blinkered, though, if we were to insist   that our tradition—even our liberal tradition—is altogether bereft of the resources needed to build a free and flourishing society.


[1] Sheldon S. Wolin, “What Revolutionary Action Means Today,” in Fugitive Democracy and Other Essays, edited by Nicholas Xenos (Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 371.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sheldon S. Wolin, “Tending and Intending a Constitution: Bicentennial Misgivings,” in The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution, Johns Hopkins Series in Constitutional Thought (Johns Hopkins University Press: 1989), pp. 92, 96.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, expanded edition with a new foreword by Wendy Brown (Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 531.

[6] From the Introduction to The Presence of the Past, p. 4.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Tending and Intending a Constitution,” p. 87.