BY: Patrick J. Deneen
PEJOURNAL – Most people agree that a defining feature of America is that it is a liberal nation. In a way, that is not true of any other country—most of which have known different forms of political governance and political self-understanding. From its political inception, America has oftentimes been defined by its adherence to liberal philosophy. Conservatives such as George Will and Jonah Goldberg, and liberals such as Yascha Mounk and Barack Obama—for all their differences—believe that America is liberal, and that the way out of our current political brokenness is to restore its liberal foundations.
While people differ about how to define American liberalism, there is a broad consensus to begin with the Declaration of Independence. Human beings are endowed with rights—or certain spheres of liberty that can be neither “alienated” nor abridged. These include “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Governments are founded to “secure” these rights. Echoing the Enlightenment-era arguments of the Englishman John Locke, humans are by nature “free and independent”; think of them in a “state of nature,” able to do and choose what they wish. According to such a view of the social contract, we create governments that limit some rights so that we may fully enjoy others. It is a philosophy that stresses our individual freedom, and it defines the purpose of any public life as advancing our individuality.
This philosophy sought especially to overthrow an older system that defined humans by their birthright—noble or serf, aristocrat or commoner, king or subject. It was a world in which your name was who you would be (Smith, Weaver, Taylor) or defined you by whom or where you came from (O’Connor, Johansson, von Trapp). Liberalism was, perhaps above all, a declaration of independence from any identity that we did not ourselves choose—the embrace of a frontier in which who we were was simply who we wished to become. One of the reasons Americans have fixated on The Great Gatsby is because Jay Gatsby embodies the dream of becoming a completely new person—no longer the Midwest provincial, but now the swank and sophisticated New York financier whose abandoned past is a thing of speculation and mystery, and whose future can only be imagined.
I agree with the likes of George Will and Jonah Goldberg that this framing captures the philosophy of at least some ideas of some of the Founding Fathers some of the time, and that this notion of self-definition has become deeply embedded in America’s collective psyche. However, America and its Founding was never reducible to this philosophy, and had many other inheritances, practices and self-understandings that complicated and even contradicted this liberal philosophy. This includes, above all, America’s religious inheritance, including the Puritanism that was present before the Founding; the various Protestant sects that settled in different parts of the country; the waves of Catholics who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries; the Jews who arrived around that same time and, later, escaped fascism; and, more recently, Muslims settling in new communities throughout the land. These Abrahamic traditions, in their various ways, taught radically different lessons about ourselves: including the belief that “independence” from others and from nature is not the true form of freedom, but the longing that drove Lucifer from heaven; that rights are merely aggressions against others without more fundamental duties and obligations; that human society and government is rightly ordered and directed by natural and eternal laws, and not infinitely malleable according to human caprice.
Moreover, living in a federated political system and governing ourselves close to home, we also developed practices that emphasized not merely our individual rights, but also our civic duties and responsibilities. Visiting the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville lauded Americans for their active civic participation in local self-rule, rooted in townships and often oblivious to events in far-off Washington, D.C. Practicing the “arts of association,” Americans learned to govern themselves while expanding their sense of self to include the concerns and positions of others. Through a democracy conceived as the ongoing practice of self-government, and not the mere assertion of individual rights, Tocqueville observed that “the heart is enlarged.” America found a unique way of combining “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty,” one that moderated the excesses to which each might otherwise be inclined.
Yet Tocqueville noted, even then, that Americans tended to justify their actions in terms of self-interest—even when those actions were public-spirited and altruistic. As he remarked, “they do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves”: more honor to the liberal philosophy of some of our Founders than the fuller and more complex humans that we are. Tocqueville’s long text, Democracy in America, contains a warning that if Americans conform themselves wholly to that liberal philosophy, they will lose those vital inheritances that correct the self-interested, individualistic, materialistic and privatistic tendencies to which liberalism—left to its own devices—would tend over time.
American liberalism was feasible only because America wasn’t fully liberal. But today, we have become what our liberal philosophy imagined us to be: free of obligation and responsibility to each other, free of duties to past and future generations, masters of nature that we regard as our possession to use and abuse, consumers rather than citizens. With the weakening of religion, the centralization of our politics, a globe-straddling market and the loss of civic responsibility, we have willfully created the conditions of the state Hobbesian of nature, a war of all against all. The tools of the liberal order that were intended to free us from interpersonal obligations—the state and a market—seem no longer under our control; in poll after poll, and expressed in film and song, Americans express the anxiety and fear that they no longer feel free. Rather, they feel as if they are subjects to the impersonal forces of our liberation: state, market and technology. Paradoxically, as liberalism became fully itself, it undermined the conditions that made a modest liberalism possible. We faintly recall that Gatsby died alone, his funeral almost devoid of friends and family.
Moreover, this system that came into being to overthrow the arbitrary rule of the old aristocracy has given rise to a new powerful elite. A system that promised freedom by liberating people from others—from place, family, traditions and history—has proven ideal for a small subset of people who thrive in a borderless world of unbounded choice, amid the weakening of traditional institutions that once instructed us to be public-spirited and generous with those choices. So-called “conservatives” advanced the liberal free market while claiming to support “family values” that unfettered capitalism undermines; while so-called progressives dominate the elite institutions, such as the academy, where they spout egalitarian bromides and limit admission to a tiny fraction of the well-heeled subpopulation. Today’s elites congregate in a narrow band of wealthy and expensive urban areas of the country, no longer living alongside the working class, and increasingly viewing the more traditional views of those in the heartland with contempt and derision. Tocqueville’s praise of “the arts of association” has been replaced by the virtue-signaling of an elite that professes its ferocious egalitarianism.
Meanwhile, local institutions corroded and collapsed, damaging especially the prospects for decent lives among the working classes of all races, which have experienced a breakdown in economic and social stability and a massive increases in deaths of despair. Washington, D.C. has been ruled by an alternating succession of parties that advanced different sides of the same liberal coin, expanding the global market while damaging the religious, familial and civic institutions and practices that are the most vital sources of education in true liberty and egalitarian opportunity. They are told that all is well because GDP and stock indices are higher, while unseen fellow citizens die in droves through suicide or self-medication amidst inexpressible loneliness.
Defenders of “classical liberalism”—those who have often claimed the label of “conservative” since the end of World War II, but would be called “liberal” in most European nations today—point to measures of economic and material success as proof of liberalism’s moral superiority. What Jonah Goldberg calls “the Miracle”—the rapid ascent of wealth and prosperity that especially began with the period of industrialization in the 19th century—suffices, for some, to prove that no other system has been so successful at combating human misery. This “conservatism” comes to resemble core aspects of Marxism, claiming that the success or failure, and the morality or immorality, of a political system rests on its economic basis. An older—and truer—conservatism recognized that economic health was essential to human flourishing, but was as wary of too much wealth and too much inequality as it was of too little prosperity. John Adams, for instance, wrote of the need for “sumptuary laws”—bans on “luxury”—because excessive wealth was as dangerous to the virtue of republican citizens as was too little prosperity. “Whether our countrymen have wisdom and virtue enough to submit to them, I know not; but the happiness of the people might be greatly promoted by them. …Frugality is a great revenue…, curing us of vanities, levities, and fopperies.” Many of the members of the Founding generation, whom authors like Goldberg and George Will are ever-eager to cite and, expressed grave concerns about the corrupting effects of wealth and the need to balance commerce with the cultivation of civic virtue. They discussed how an economy must be governed by concerns for the common good—especially to support the modest and frugal habits, avoidance of debt, and the predominance of “middling” circumstances of most people.
“The Miracle” describes an aggregate accumulation of global wealth, but it ignores its concentration: the increasing, and even obscene, differentiation of wealth generated by the American economy and sanctioned by our political order. Classical liberalism defends to its final breath the legitimacy of this inequality, but the classical and biblical traditions regarded such inequality as unjust, oligarchic and deeply destabilizing. Conservatives of an older tradition measured the health of society not based upon a purely material basis—such as Marx or Goldberg, in their differing ways—but upon the overall health of its institutions and readily available shared decencies, especially to ordinary people. Amid the ongoing concentration of wealth in the households of elites, we have witnessed a stunning rise of deaths of despair in the working class, including the epidemic of opioid deaths and rising rates of suicide. The more straitened your economic circumstance, the less likely you will marry, avoid divorce if you do marry, have children in wedlock and enjoy membership in the thick webs of civil society through churches and voluntary associations. By these measures, even as a diminishing number of people enjoy the fruits of “the Miracle,” the least among us are left with “the Devastation.” If you don’t succeed by the lights of modern liberalism, you are literally on your own. Liberalism envisions that we achieve happiness when we can become “independent”—self-making selves—but what most people need and desire are the deep bonds of community and mutual care that have become luxury goods in our liberal society.
Our politics today has become so unsettled and ferocious because liberalism has failed. It failed not because it fell short of its vision of the isolated and autonomous human person, and the effort to construct a society indifferent to questions of the common good—but because it succeeded in doing so. Like the aristocrats of old, some will fight ferociously to maintain this system against growing discontents by insisting—against the evidence of the senses of the powerless and dispossessed—that they benefit from its corruptions. But like the liberals of old—who several centuries ago called for a fundamental change, but today have become the corrupt oligarchic establishment—the energy and most vital debates are taking place among those looking to construct the foundations of a post-liberal future, and not those telling us all is well if you just limit your gaze to the tony neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.