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Patrick Deneen’s Fantasy of Power
‘Regime Change’ is a bizarre, overgeneralized and un-American fantasy of a “conservative” revolution
The new conservative opponents of “liberalism”—which they define, correctly, to include not just the old center-left but also the “classical liberalism” of the pro-free-market right—have been very clear about what they’re against, but less clear about what they’re for. One of the leaders of this movement is Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen, and his new book “Regime Change” is a much-anticipated attempt to fill this gap by offering some positive substance to the anti-liberal program.
It does not in fact do so, offering only a few, surprisingly small-ball specifics. For example, a section on breaking down the separation of church and state in favor of “integration”—seemingly the most dramatic idea in the book—contains only one semi-concrete proposal: more public prayer. There is no discussion of how this would be different from what grandstanding politicians already do. One suspects, from the general principles he espouses, that Deneen wants a lot more. After all, he laments the loss of religion’s “political status as a governing authority.” But it remains a generality.
That captures the approach of the whole book. It offers a lot of vague generalities in what is essentially a 50-page pamphlet padded out to about 250 pages through constant repetition. Yet this lack of specific detail reveals Deneen’s actual theme. It is not about what we should do. It’s about who should do it, who should be in charge. “Regime Change” is not Deneen’s agenda for reform, but a fantasy about seizing power on behalf of his own faction.
The question of who rules, in Deneen’s outlook, is a question of the class struggle. He is as dogmatic as the most fervent Marxist in seeing everything in terms of class—as “the few” versus “the many”—and refusing to see any issue in any other terms. Like a Marxist, his view of the economy is also somewhat antique, leading him to describe “the many” as a blue-collar “working class,” as opposed to an elite “managerial class.”
Deneen’s twist on Marxism is to declare that the working class is not “revolutionary” but conservative, both in its values and in its attitude toward change. Thus, a movement that champions the working class should champion traditional religious beliefs and small-town values.
But take all this “common man” stuff with a grain of salt because Deneen talks about the “ordinary” person with a kind of lofty reserve, referring to them as “commoners” or even as “peasants.” He lauds the simple folk in terms dripping with condescension:
Because they lived in more straitened circumstances, they would develop certain virtues that came of necessity, such as frugality, inventiveness, craft, common sense, gratitude for small blessings, and, often, stoic cheerfulness even in the face of penury and suffering.
Isn’t it good to see that the little people accept their lot in life? Deneen presents the American common man as incapable of understanding the wider world and helpless without the stern guidance of his betters. He assures us that “ordinary people drown amid a world without boundaries.”
This often comes across as a kind of nostalgia for medieval aristocracy, but it’s not too far from the Marxist approach either. The title of the final section of the book—“What Is To Be Done?”—is consciously copying Lenin, who despaired that the working people would never make a revolution on their own and called for an elite “vanguard” of intellectuals to make it on their behalf. Similarly, Deneen calls for a “people’s party,” but one led by “an elite cadre skilled at directing and elevating popular resentments.”
He does not champion “the people” against “the elites,” but instead calls for a new elite that will rule in the people’s name—a sort of “Conservatism-Leninism” in place of Marxism-Leninism. The difference is that this alleged elite will be conspicuously religious. One of Deneen’s main concerns is that “we have the freedom to practice religion, but people abandon the faiths of their fathers and mothers.” We can gather that the main task of this new elite will be to reverse the long-term decline of religious belief in America.
Given that our holy rollers—both Protestant and Catholic—cannot even reform themselves, this project is doomed on its stated terms. But here’s what Deneen hopes it can achieve: to elevate him and people like him to positions of authority as the new elite class, while suppressing their ideological opponents. In that regard, Deneen’s most ominous assertion is his candid admission that this new elite would be enforced by fear:
Only the fear of not conforming to the regnant ethos will sufficiently move and shape elites…. The power sought is not merely to balance the current elite, but to replace it. If fear is to have a salutary effect, those who seek to remain in the ruling class must be forced to adopt a fundamentally different ethos.
Hence, the creation of this new elite “must begin with the raw assertion of political power by a new generation of political actors.” Deneen is cagey about exactly what this means; he hints at defunding universities and taxing their endowments. But occasional references to Hungary and to Viktor Orban indicate the authoritarian model that clearly beckons: control the media to suppress unapproved views, shut down ideologically hostile academic institutions and lavish government subsidies on ideological supporters of the regime.
I won’t call Deneen’s book a blueprint for authoritarian populism because it is not that specific. It is a wish for authoritarian populism, a fantasy in which he and people like him will be granted power by a strongman.
The American Counterrevolution
For all of Deneen’s talk about the value of “stability, order, continuity,” you may notice that in an American context, this longing for authoritarianism makes him a wild-eyed radical. He explicitly comes out against every foundational American idea and institution. The English philosopher John Locke and the Declaration of Independence, which reflects Locke’s ideas, are all dismissed as part of “the progressive liberalism of America’s Founding Fathers.” Deneen champions the Anti-Federalists and regards the U.S. Constitution as a mistake. While somewhat cursorily forswearing racism—despite defending every other “peculiar institution”—he rejects Martin Luther King Jr. because he cites Locke’s ideas and the Declaration of Independence.
In short, Deneen is against what any of us would recognize as the “conservatism” that has actually existed in America since the 20th century, denouncing it all as hidden liberalism. He is even against nationalism because he finds it too cosmopolitan. He prefers, instead, “the authoritative claims of the village,” which is to say, small-town conformism.
Deneen proposes to achieve stability through revolution. “In order to reset the political conditions in which conservation can be a suitable aim,” he writes, “the current ruling order must be fundamentally changed.” To grasp how much of a radical counterrevolution Deneen is proposing, consider his frequent abuse of quotations from Alexis de Tocqueville.
The French observer of early 19th-century America held a somewhat glamorized and nostalgic view of the Middle Ages and the old system of church and aristocracy, and Deneen quotes seemingly every one of his expressions of support for this old kind of European conservatism. What he does not quote are Tocqueville’s insightful observations about the nature and character of the actual American common man.
What was the American’s view of tradition? Here is Tocqueville:
To escape from imposed systems, the yoke of habit, family maxims, class prejudices, and to a certain extent national prejudices as well; to treat tradition as valuable for information only and to accept existing facts as no more than a useful sketch to show how things could be done differently and better; to seek by themselves and in themselves for the only reason of things … such is the principal characteristic of what I would call the American philosophical method…. I should say that in most mental operations each American relies on individual effort and judgment.
Were Americans riven by a class divide? Its absence was precisely what struck Tocqueville most, particularly so in the American approach to morality. The “doctrine of self-interest properly understood”—a kind of enlightened individualism—“has come to be universally accepted…. You hear it as much from the poor as from the rich.”
Deneen has a special contempt for mobility, for the “anywheres” who pick up and move in search of opportunity. But Tocqueville famously recounts finding an island in a remote lake and thinking that he had reached a spot completely untouched by man, only to discover the remains of a log cabin. Restless Americans, moving ever farther into the frontier, had already been there and moved on.
What would Tocqueville’s American have thought of Deneen’s call for stability over change and mobility? Tocqueville doesn’t leave any doubt:
The American lives in a land of wonders; everything around him is in constant movement, and every movement seems an advance. Consequently, in his mind the idea of newness is closely linked with that of improvement…; in his eyes, something which does not exist is just something that has not been tried yet….
For an American, the whole of life is treated like a game of chance, a time of revolution, or the day of a battle…. Choose any American at random, and he should be a man of burning desires, enterprising, adventurous, and, above all, an innovator.
These passages are well known, and there are many more like them. I don’t know who this sad sack homebody is who, in Deneen’s imagination, can’t handle change and longs for the guidance of an aristocrat. But he is not the American common man.
In contradiction to Tocqueville, Deneen regards all change in American society as somehow foisted on us from above by elites, as “the forced imposition of radical expressivism.” It’s like a stolen election theory, but for the culture wars: People did not really choose change because the vote was rigged.
But this violates a key principle of conservatism. The concept of “Chesterton’s Fence” is a cautionary tale about reforming zeal told by the Catholic intellectual G.K. Chesterton in his 1929 book, “The Thing.” He writes:
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
Yet on one issue after another—from mobility to religious freedom to checks and balances—Deneen is precisely the “more modern type of reformer” Chesterton warned about. He does not ask how our liberal system was built, does not inquire after the contentious battles and painful experiences that led our forebears to adopt it.
Call this the principle of Chesterton’s Freeway. If you are wandering through the countryside and suddenly come across a bustling eight-lane thoroughfare, do not immediately dismiss it as a violation of the pristine woods or an unnecessary modern invention. First, ask why it was built: why the forest was cleared, why the road was made smooth with great effort, why people found it necessary to have freedom of motion at this location.
Find that out before you go building fences across it. Many of the freedoms that the nationalists like to criticize—for example, a secular, religiously neutral government—are actually the hard-won solutions to centuries of conflict. It would be a shame to block them up.
Fortunately, Deneen’s book is a fantasy of power, not a specific plan for obtaining it. I was reminded of this as I was finishing the book—while also getting a stream of last Tuesday’s election results, in which “the many” rejected the vision Deneen has been offering in their name. Let us hope that Deneen and his ilk will not succeed in slapping up many fences before they give up on this fantasy.