The postwar liberal order is fast crumbling and with it the false binary that defined American politics for the past several decades.
While the ruling class turns increasingly to illiberal means to bolster its waning power, others who’ve read the writing on the wall are working diligently to forecast and program what happens next.
Fresh off autopsying liberalism , Patrick Deneen, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, has taken a closer look at the de facto populist-elite binary that managed to simultaneously displace the right-left liberal binary and collapse it into a unitary, oppositional front.
Rather than the populists overwhelming the elite, Deneen suggests in his latest piece “Regime Change” that they should instead replace the ruling class with conservatives of a preliberal mode inside a mixed constitution — an elite altogether committed to bolstering the common good for the benefit of the demos as opposed to vainly pursuing progress at the people’s expense .
"The answer is not the elimination of the elite (as Marx once envisioned), but its replacement with a better set of elites," wrote Deneen. “Most needful is an alignment of the elite and the people, not the domination of one by the other.”
Judging by recent criticisms of the book in liberal publications — Wall Street Journal editor Barton Swaim suggested there is "a cultivated perversity about the entire common-good, postliberal project" advanced in "Regime Change." Jennifer Szalai of the New York Times claimed there was something "chilling" about Deneen's suggestions — it would appear the Catholic professor has struck a nerve.
Even if Zack Beauchamp of Vox is right in
that "Regime Change" in its present form is "faculty politics by other means," any agent of change worth his salt would be able to elaborate then act upon on this political theory, assuming he thinks doing so worthwhile.
In the final decades of the 20 th century, classical liberals (libertarians) and traditional conservatives joined forces to confront the pinkos at home and the Reds abroad. While effective in the short run, this alliance between two political forces that shared little in common besides an antipathy for collectivism and totalitarianism became grossly asymmetrical.
The dominance of the former and the subalternation of the latter ensured that the right side of America’s postwar binary, though keen to sporadically make noise about the lost values of yesteryear and the beleaguered middle class, was in fact advancing the cause of liberalism.
Deneen indicated that the right side of the now-crumbling binary pursued economic deregulation while the left side pursued social deregulation.
The libertarian ethos, economic on the one side and social on the other – wedding the aspirations of Karl Popper and F.A. Hayek – was adopted and advanced by America’s elites, who saw their way to force open society and liberate the country from the bonds of nation, clan, and religion, all while prioritizing the promise of progress at all costs, according to R.R. Reno — the editor of First Things who, like Deneen, has similarly heard the death rattle of liberalism.
This effort to open and liberate was a means to both control and change the people, whom both types of liberal elites disdain and fear.
Progressive liberal elites, Deneen argued, do not believe the common people to share their revolutionary spirit. The " deplorables " who " cling to their guns or religion " must accordingly be disenchanted, deracinated, and carried along into the future. ESG, DEI, and other such measures have been used in conjunction with statist coercion to this end.
Deneen suggested that classical liberal elites harbor a Lockean fear of the people as a potentially radical, envy- and resentment-prone force that may jeopardize liberal rights of property, undermine progress, and possibly challenge a libertarian political, social, and economic order that would otherwise be dynamic and ever changing.
"An unholy alliance of progressive state and libertarian market today enforces the adoption of capitalist consumer choice over every aspect of life; radical individualism and expressivism as the marker of human liberation; and a constant revolutionary ethos that unsettles and destabilizes prospects for order and stability, particularly among working classes," wrote Deneen.
The ruling class (i.e., in politics, academia, media, and cultural institutions) that lords over this unholy alliance, superficially divided over their deregulatory priorities, is unprecedented, according Deneen. After all, the liberal elite not only despise the demos, but treat the powerless as oppressors and “in turn commend themselves as victims.”
Previous aristocracies — despised and denigrated by the present ruling class — were linked to the lower and working classes, to place, and to their respective nations, pragmatically, by happenstance, and/or intentionally (i.e., noblesse oblige ). This is not the case with the liberal laptop class.
"Because the contemporary managerial class achieves its status precisely through a detachment from place, generational connection, and its relationship to an enculturated lower and working class, it must reject these conditions as necessarily the sources of all previous injustices and inequality, while loudly expressing its commitment to equality," Deneen stated.
While liberals' rejection and loud expressions may have gone on indefinitely — especially after "Occupy" came and went, not with a bang but with a whimper — a red baseball hat appeared on the scene presaging regime change.
Brexit, then Trump’s election, signaled the realization of the liberal elites’ fears — that their days were numbered. In response, the elites panicked and lashed out with impeachments, soft-coups, intimidation campaigns, and statist overreach.
The populists' ability to withstand this rearguard action evidenced the liberal regime's weakness. However, their own deficit became clear as new opportunities for advancement arose: They had a better understanding of what the liberal elites had gotten wrong contra what they'd do better.
While it will not satisfy all populists, Deneen reckons common-good conservatism is the better way forward and “aristopopulism” is the means, writing, "The entrenched conditions of a dominant economic and cultural elite require a fundamental displacement of the ruling class ethos by a common-good conservatism, one that directs both economic goals and social values toward broadly shared material and social capital that will prove supportive especially of stability and security in economic, family, and community life."
This conservatism "stresses stability, generational continuity, and an economy and social condition that support traditional way of life over the primacy of 'creative destruction' advanced by its more progressive alternatives."
Deneen, who does not suffer a libertarian uneasiness when it comes to the wielding of state power to achieve conservative ends — to utilize "Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends” — believes conservative populists should seek to change or at least circumvent "current cultural as well as economic institutions from which progressive parties exercise their considerable power. … The aim should not be to achieve 'balance' or a form of 'democratic pluralism' that imagines a successful regime comprised of checks and balances, but rather, the creation of a new elite that is aligned with the values and needs of ordinary working people."
The resultant ruling class empowered by the people would ideally serve and not lose sight of the people. Under constant pressure from the people, the localized, enculturated, tradition-conscious and conservative elite might "actually take on features of aristoi and nobility—excellence, virtue, magnanimity, and a concern from the common good."
Unlike America’s present liberal elite – detached, hived in select cities, and prone to postnational fantasies along the lines of the postcitizens detailed in Victor Davis Hanson’s " The Dying Citizen " – the proposed artistopopulist elite would be better mixed into the broader population, not just geographically, but professionally and socially by design.
Although common-good conservatives must swap out the liberal elite from all institutions — a project Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has already embarked on with great success in his home state, particularly in the education sector — Deneen has given special attention to the political establishment, for which he offered a number of policy proposals.
Among his proposals:
- Break up the power centers by decentralizing all the various government departments, bureaus, and agencies based in Washington and moving them around the country to mix the elite and the working classes;
- Return to "retail" politics by increasing the number of representatives in Congress, thereby increasing the number of people participating, decreasing the need for either wealth or fame on the part of candidates, and depreciating the value of the political class;
- Revisit the question of a national service as a means, first, of making sure the army is not Washington’s army but "our army," and second, to serve as a check on the interventionist ambitions of the ruling class;
- Increase public funding to schools but tie it to "expectations that faculty and administrators at public institutions respect the social and political commitments of the broader public that funds these institutions";
- "End the default norm of college education as synonymous with professional success," boost the trades and vocational schools;
- Curtail any economic institution or semiprivate institution with sufficient power to bring financial ruin upon a sovereign political entity;
- Mandate domestic manufacturing in certain sectors, especially those linked to national security;
- Denounce media programming that "lionizes various forms of transgression and libertinism—sexual, drugs, and mockery of religious belief — … for perpetuating the class advantage of the elite, a form of propaganda that seeks to suppress the life prospects of the lower working class for whom "transgression" is not the safe play of sophomores on a college campus, but the difference between life and death; and
- Implement policies rewarding marriage and family formation.
Reno has noted that populism is presently antiestablishment because instead of “guiding and refining the populist calls for love and loyalty,” our leadership class “bears down on them with disenchantment and weakening.”
A leadership class that mixes with and recognizes its obligation to the population while also prioritizing the common good over the false promise of progress — one that doesn’t bear down on populists but bears them up, appreciative of their mutual obligation — might ensure that the elite-populist binary is neither asymmetrical nor destructive, but rather strengthening and corrective.
With liberalism one face-plant away from the long sleep, it is worthwhile seriously considering how best to stabilize, harmonize, or collapse the new binary, as Deneen has in "Regime Change."
In the meantime, we can look to microcosms of common-good conservatism around the nation and take note of what benefits a people when families, communities, continuity, decency, and tradition are given priority over utopian futures and the appetites of a remote and contemptuous liberal elite.
Patrick Deneen | America’s Pre-Liberal Past and Post-Liberal Future | National Conservatism Conf. II youtu.be
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