Patrick J. Deneen’s ,Why Liberalism Failed, is a challenging book because it explores some of what hides behind the curtain of liberal democratic ideals that have formed and guided our history as a nation. In withering language he prophecies liberalism’s imminent demise, but offers no clear idea of what might come next. Underlying his printed word is the subtext of a Catholic mind that misses the ordered life and values of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, and sees in American history glimpses of what might have been that come from early New England colonies and contemporary Amish culture. It’s the idea that self control, commitment to the local community and its ways, a sense of one’s proper place in society, and an emphasis on household economics is what may save the U.S. from an authoritarian alternative. They’re only glimpses, and he never spells out what a possible future might hold, only that the one we have is eroding away.
Liberalism, for him, comes in a variety of flavors that extend from right wing libertarians to left wing socialists. My tea party friends would be horrified to read that they, and other right wing conservatives, are merely a different kind of liberal. In like manner, Deneen observes a deeply conservative bent in most left wing liberals. It’s because liberalism’s core values, drawn from the Age of Enlightenment, are centered on the freedom of the individual to become whatever they are able to become, unrestricted by society’s rules or government interference. Left and right have different ways of expressing what that means, but they agree on the centrality of individual autonomy from external controls.
For him, it means that liberalism slowly erodes the essential functions of community and family as the sources of stability and true freedom, replacing them with “radically autonomous individuals” who, demanding governmental protection for their autonomy, open the door to authoritarian rule of one kind or another.
I think he overstates his case by a huge margin, but also believe that he raised an important weakness in our society that must be addressed: the importance of family and community as bedrock values. The current obstacle to restoring a broad understanding of their importance is idealistic commitment to an obsolete view of what a proper community or family should look like: it’s unworkable.
There is nothing wrong with a married mom and dad with three children as a symbol of what a family is, but it falls short. They’re mere tokens on a game board. What’s more important is what needs to go on in a family like setting for healthy relationships and learning to develop. Family is important, its value should be celebrated, but the definition of what family is needs to be modified. Not by adding additional characters to the approved cast of family members, but by emphasizing the roles and functions families need to excel in to be successful. What are the dynamics of family life needed for each family member to have fullness of life, both in the family and as persons engaged in community? My sociologist friend Michelle Janning spends a lot of time thinking and writing about what that means, so pay attention, she knows whereof she speaks.
In like manner is the question of community. Deneen appears to have a romantic attachment to self governing communities that he believes epitomize the best in liberal democracy. The early colonial New England towns are long gone, but, for him, today’s Amish society could be an example worth considering. He would like there to be less surrender of governing authority to federal and state governments, because they are relentless accumulators of power in defense of the autonomy of free individuals that, paradoxically, leads toward authoritarianism. Small, self governing communities in which there are no “radically autonomous individuals” represent what democratic freedom should be about. I imagine he would say that’s an over simplification, but it’s what seems to emerge from the book
Communities never exist in worlds where their self governance is isolated from the effects of other self governing communities. To paraphrase St. Paul, they are like parts of a body, each in need of the other parts to be a healthy whole. As different as each may be, they depend on each other for their well being. It means there have to be systems to link and govern relationships between body members, and norms by which to measure how well they work together. That interconnectedness and interdependence is true for communities and the individuals who live in them.
Increases in population and population mobility, ease of transportation, developments in communication technology, and environmental impacts that know no border, mean that communities can’t self govern as if local decisions are not important to other communities, even distant ones. Even today’s Amish communities couldn’t exist but for the presence of the surrounding society from whom they seek to remain aloof. If community self government is what will save liberal representative democracy, then there must be ways to broaden the definition of community to include the federal government, as well as state, regional, and local governments. If true freedom can never be the product of “radically autonomous individualism," but can only be achieved through community membership in which individuals define themselves by their relationships in and to the community, then there must be national norms to protect individuals from being treated unjustly by the community. Indeed, there must be standards that each community, and all communities have to meet to justify their existence.
Deneen hints at what they might be, but never says, and my guess is that I wouldn’t like what he says, if he said it. But I agree with him in one way. The myth of rugged individualism on the right, and the myth of the unrestricted freedom of the individual on the left lead to either autocracy or chaos, and chaos leads to autocracy, so there you are.
The self can never be defined in isolation. It can only be defined in terms of its relationship to others, so community, one way or the other, is essential to our existence. The silliness of believing we should be free to do whatever we want as long as it doesn’t hurt others needs to die. Whatever we do always has an effect on others, and that effect will either help build up relationships, and thus community, or tear them down. But building up can strengthen injustice and oppression, while tearing down can destroy the good, so it’s not a simple question, and it begs for standards. What standards? Deneen inserts an occasional appeal to Christianity for answers, which is where I also would look. I can’t be sure about what he would find, but here’s my take drawn from Hebrew and Christian scripture. It’s a short list not intended to be comprehensive. It’s intended to demonstrate that such standards do not have to dictate who people should be, what roles they should play, or how their behavior should adhere to secular social standards of questionable validity.
Persons are taught to be fully confident in all that they are capable of becoming, and communities organized to facilitate that happening.
Persons are taught to be fully aware of how what they do and say affects the environment around them for good or for ill, and communities are organized to take communal responsibility for the same.
Persons are taught to be merciful, and communities value restorative justice higher than retributive justice.
Persons are taught that peacemaking is greater than war making, and communities are organized to pursue peace over war. Persons and communities commit to confront violence in radically peaceful ways.
Persons are taught that the Ten Commandment are about integrity, and communities are organized to value integrity over self serving.
Christians are taught to worship God only, subordinating all other loyalties to God first. As Jim Wallis has said, “If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.” They are also taught to respect others doing the same according to their own traditions, while feeling comfortable about sharing the good news of God in Christ Jesus when other ears are willing and desire to listen.
Persons are taught, and communities organized to be generous in providing for the needs of the poor, and the shared needs of the community.
Deneen’s closing remarks are curious for a book about liberalism’s failures. He expresses high regard for what liberalism has achieved, and will continue to achieve. He rejects what he says are claims that liberalism is the end of political development, a claim I think few would take seriously. There was a time in the early 20th century when political and social thinkers believed human progress might be like Darwin's evolution, and humanity was in the process of evolving to a higher moral plane. Liberalism was the evolutionary pathway. It was not to be. But liberalism has shown that the environmental conditions of human life, indeed of all life, can be changed – for better or worse. The choices are up to us, living and working in community. Putting more effort into understanding the necessity and value of community, and perhaps less emphasis on individual autonomy from community, can be where liberalism leads.