A Paradigm Shifting Preview of the Future: Professor Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.

Ben Frogel '21

I came across Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen’s book in a search for work that could provide a background for the general chaos, upheaval, and lack of social trust that we have seen exposed every day on the news. Since Why Liberalism Failed featured blurbs by both President Barack Obama and conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, I decided that it would be a good choice. 

What is liberalism? As Professor Deneen of Notre Dame defines it, liberalism is the idea that individuals should be free to “fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life.” It is the last of the three major ideologies of the twentieth century along with fascism and communism that survives today. 

Contrary to the more common use of the word to define ideas and beliefs associated with the Democratic Party, liberalism is the predominant ideology of both major political parties as well as the philosophical underpinning of the United States. Today’s Democrats are liberal in that they generally believe government should not be involved in personal morality, while today’s Republicans are liberal in that they believe government should generally not interfere with the economy. 

So, why did liberalism fail? In Professor Deneen’s mind, because it succeeded in breaking down the bonds of family, religion, and community while orienting society around the individual. 

Professor Deneen begins with the ideas of French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville as a starting point for American liberalism. De Tocqueville, upon visiting the United States in its early days of independence, observed that the American system of individualism could only flourish with a virtuous populace, dedicated first to family and community. Through these unchosen yet critical bonds, de Tocqueville believed that Americans could overcome the individualistic nature of liberalism.

Deneen agrees with de Tocqueville’s assessment of early America, but asserts that we are a much different nation now. In furthering his claim, he cites broad systemic issues that Americans of all political affiliations identify with.

While Professor Deneen is a conservative, his views on the environment would make most modern Republicans bristle. Why Liberalism Failed takes aim at the destruction of the environment, citing “the use of tomorrow’s resources for today’s benefit.” Here, Professor Deneen sees individualism as causing environmental destruction, because society is damaging the environment to procure benefits today, without considering the implications for tomorrow.

Professor Deneen believes that these widespread societal ills have come as a result of a toxic combination of economic and social individualism, causing our society at large to maximize economic profit at all costs to existing social structures. He stops short of prescribing a comprehensive solution, but suggests that cultural and economic power should be brought closer to the local level, to reinvigorate communities and ground individualism in the common good. A staunch Catholic, Professor Deneen sees this common good as a society ordered to morality and a higher purpose. 

There is no doubt that Why Liberalism Failed poses a sharp contrast to the individualistic ethos that permeates almost every factor of American life today. In the end, one can take from Why Liberalism Failed a warning of growing social isolation and a public life devoid of any meaning beyond empty consumerism, a phenomenon that Professor Deneen dubs “the anti-culture.”

I am inclined to agree with Professor Deneen’s criticism of our current status quo. The economic system that brought prosperity has been left unchecked, leading Wall Street to completely eclipse Main Street in the hearts and minds of the public. We increasingly see de Tocqueville’s vision of a virtuous republic eroded in favor of corporate capitalism oriented away from the common good. If any reader wants to gain a deeper understanding of today’s politics and society at-large, I would highly recommend this book as a potent challenge to our current status quo.