- - Sunday, June 24, 2018



By Patrick J. Deneen

Yale University Press, $30, 225 pages

What Dr. John Arbuthnot wrote three centuries ago is still true today: “All political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.” The same applies to political ideologies, as Notre Dame Professor Patrick J. Deneen makes abundantly clear in “Why Liberalism Failed,” a short but deep volume that makes a number of devastating critical points even if it sometimes comes up a bit short on solutions.

Frankly, I had not planned on reviewing “Why Liberalism Failed” until I heard Mr. Deneen deliver a spirited keynote address at The American Conservative magazine’s 15th Anniversary Gala a few weeks ago at one of my favorite Washington haunts, the venerable Cosmos Club (founded in 1878).

I was deeply impressed by the force and conviction of his critique of today’s liberal social and political order, and his analysis of its gradual evolution over time. But I was also struck by what seemed to me to be a disconnect between his precise diagnosis of ills and some of his tentative, rather nebulous nostrums. Both, I hasten to add, are definitely worth reading.

The liberalism in question is not the one-dimensional left-wing stance on individual issues that dominates the daily headlines, although that is a logical result of the larger, deeper liberal tradition in Western thought that can trace origins as far back as ancient Greece.

It is also — setting the “L Word” aside for a moment — really more of an indictment of the interventionist, statist tendency of government, usually led by a supposedly enlightened elite, to not only impose arbitrary social and economic interventions on the rest of us, but to actively undermine traditional moral values and historic truths that stand in its way. Indeed, a less provocative but more accurate title for his book might have been “Why Statism Failed.”

The kernel of Mr. Deneen’s message is neatly expressed in his preface: “Today’s widespread yearning for a strong leader, one with the will to take back popular control over liberalism’s forms of bureaucratized government and globalized economy, comes after decades of liberal dismantling of cultural norms and political habits essential to self-governance.”

But, and here’s the rub, the “breakdown of family, community, and religious norms and institutions, especially among those benefitting least from liberalism’s advance, has not led liberalism’s discontents to seek a restoration of those norms. That would take effort and sacrifice in a culture that now diminishes the value of both.”

To make matters worse, many of liberalism’s foes are more interested in occupying the swamp than in draining it.

In Mr. Deneen’s words, they “look to deploy the statist powers of liberalism against its own ruling class. Meanwhile huge energies are spent in mass protest rather than in self-legislation and deliberation, reflecting less a renewal of democratic governance than political fury and despair. Liberalism created the conditions, and the tools, for the ascent of its own worst nightmare, yet it lacks the self-knowledge to understand its own culpability.”

All of which is true. But having lucidly explained how liberalism has trapped itself in its own labyrinth — along with all of us who have to live with the consequences — Mr. Deneen is less effective in pointing to a way out.

Austerity, he rightly points out, begins at home, an essentially moral regeneration of individuals, families and communities gradually resulting in a morally renewed citizenry capable of choosing sound leaders who will lead a cleansed, considerably reduced national state.

Unfortunately, there are moments when his version of this brave new world totters on the edge of New Age absurdity. Rousseau’s naive ideal of the Noble Savage is replaced with the equally naive ideal of the Noble Hausfrau, a “counter-anticulture developing economic practices centered on ‘household economics’.”

The “ability to do and make things oneself — to provision one’s own household through the work of one’s own hands and one’s children’s hands — should be prized above consumption and waste,” we are told, since the “skills of building, fixing, cooking, planting, preserving, and composting not only undergird the independence and integrity of the home but develop practices and skills that are the basic sources of culture and a shared civic life.”

Alas, man does not live by compost alone. If each of us retreats into our own little house on the prairie, we leave the government, the churches, the entertainment and news industries, and the education system in the hands of liberalism in its most malignant form. Liberalism must be fought and vanquished on its own ground. If it isn’t, then it really won’t matter how well we — like Voltaire’s Candide — cultivate our own gardens.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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