Deneen’s arguments are flushed out in his book Why Liberalism Failed. Like Burke and Kirk, he desires a return for Western Civilization to its traditional practices and institutions. In the introduction, he argues that the reason liberalism is appealing is because it builds off the longstanding Western belief in protecting liberty and human dignity from tyranny. He argues though that these ideas are not liberal in origin, but rather have their roots in the centuries long development of Greco-Roman and Christian ideas and practices.
So what do these ideas teach regarding liberty and tyranny? As he notes, the Greeks taught that only by living a life of virtue can one self-govern and prevent tyranny. He continues on by describing how Roman thinkers and later on Christian thinkers would build off these ideas especially with respect to how they checked the power of government. Some of these checks include constitutionalism, separation of powers and rule of law among others. With respect to liberty, he writes that liberty to these thinkers meant the ability to live in accordance with the virtues necessary for self government. They saw it as something that requires a good deal of learning and discipline as one had to be able to restrain their self interests and desires and order themselves in accordance with virtue. In essence, they saw liberty as the ability to free oneself from their corrupt nature and live a life of virtue. As to how liberty and virtue are fostered in society, he believes that they are fostered by living by societal practices and structures such as the government, family, church and so on and so forth.
In response to this, a modern conservative would rebut that classical liberalism is consistent with this as it believes in self-government and in protecting liberty from tyranny. Deneen however argues that this is not the case and in-fact that it operates against these principles of Western Civilization. His rationale for this is that not only does he see liberalism as rejecting the precedents needed for these values be strong, but that it also fundamentally redefines liberty itself. In discussing liberty, he notes how starting with Machiavelli, modern thinkers rejected the classical and Christian understanding of liberty. Rather than focusing on virtue, Machiavelli argued that society should embrace humanity’s inherent self interest and desire to acquire material goods as a means of building society. This line of thinking is similar to that of classical liberals who believe that maximizing the ability of individuals to live life according to their own desires will lead to a better more advanced society.
In order to accomplish this however, Deneen believes liberals needed to tear down what they perceived as chains to individual liberty. As he notes, Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes and Descartes came to see custom and tradition especially religious ones as being roadblocks to individual liberty. In its place, they desired a system based on individual rationality and where deviations would be handled by a centralized state. In essence, not only is liberalism’s definition a contradiction of what Deneen conceives as true liberty, but to build a society centered around it, liberalism attacks the foundations needed for a society based on true liberty. His arguments against liberalism reflect those of traditional conservatives. Both Deneen and traditional conservatives see humans as being innately prone to follow their selfish passions and desires. They also both as a result believe that for society to work, individuals needs to learn to live with morality and virtue and see traditions and institutions as playing a key role in shaping those. In addition, both see liberal definition of liberty as being toxic to society.
While some might be inclined to dismiss Deneen as a minority within the conservative movement, it would be foolish to do so. Since Donald Trump first ran for President, there has been a resurgence in right wing populism amongst the conservatives who make up the base of Trump’s support base. Like traditional conservatives, they see societal traditions and institutions as being the base of society. Also like traditional conservatives, they see liberalism as undermining society. This can best be seen in how Trump’s base supports policies like tariffs to protect American businesses from being driven out by foreign industry. This can be seen even more in how they are skeptical of big corporations like Walmart who they see as a threat to the small businesses that make up their local community.
While this all could just be a temporary thing, the nomination of more populist-minded candidates by the GOP suggests a potential shift in thinking. While right wing populists certainly are not traditional conservatives (as they would reject the elitism supported by Burke), their skepticism of liberal values and ideals would represent a shift back towards traditional conservative thinking. As Professor Deneen argues convincingly, this trend within American conservatism may very well continue to gain traction.
Patrick J. Deenen, Why Liberalism Failed, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018)