How Liberalism Failed: A Conversation with Patrick J. Deneen

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Patrick Deneen is the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He holds a Baccalaureate in English Literature and a PhD in Political Science from Rutgers University. He has served as speech writer and special advisor to the Director of the United States Information Agency. He has taught government and Political science at Princeton University and at Georgetown University. He did that before joining the faculty of Notre Dame in the fall of 2012. He has written or edited many books. His most recent book is the topic of our conversation today, Why Liberalism Failed, published by Yale University Press.

Albert Mohler:   Professor Deneen, welcome to Thinking in Public. Professor Deneen, in your new book Why Liberalism Failed, you suggest that there have been three great ideologies and that would be liberalism and fascism and communism, but liberalism alone survives. Yet, you’re not presenting that as unalloyed good news.

Patrick Deneen: No. In fact, I think the news is rather somewhat grim. In the book, I argue that ideology is basically, as the word suggests, an idea or a theory of politics to which human beings and human, the human life in our political world must ultimately conform and that a kind of deformation occurs in that process. To the extent that I think we see extraordinary deformation taking place around the western world today in those places where liberalism has been victorious, I suggest that it’s in fact because this ideological aspect of liberalism is really coming to the fore and it’s really … In a sense, its very success is generating its failure.

Albert Mohler:   You suggest that liberalism … We’re speaking here of the venerable ideology of liberalism that has so shaped the western world, that it was actually the world’s first great comprehensive political ideology.

Patrick Deneen: Yes. In fact, it’s based upon … In my view, it’s based upon the first entirely theoretical construct about how human life should be ordered in the sense that it begins with a vision of human beings in a kind of pre-political state of nature. As such, imagine as human beings without a culture, without a history, without a place, de-historicized, de-natured in some kind of profound sense, sort of pulled out of the natural world. As such, it does present a kind of image of a human being that’s everywhere and nowhere, that’s everywhere true and nowhere true. In this sense, it seems to me to be precisely to sort of begin this great modern project of presenting an ideological view of politics, that is to say a view of what politics ultimately has to look like.

Albert Mohler:   Now, if you’re thinking about communism especially as we’re thinking about the 20th century into the 21st century but the great Marxist dream of the 10th century that crashed on the reality of the 20th, you can have a before and an after, with fascism tragically especially in the 20th century before and an after. Give me the before liberalism just to place us in a context. What in the western trajectory was before liberalism such that everything thereafter is different?

Patrick Deneen: Well I think one kind of obvious example — I actually like to give this to my students — is think of how, think of very common names that you’re likely to encounter in your life, a name like Smith or Weaver or Taylor or Cooper. These of course, these names weren’t just names. These were professions. These were all skills or trades. To be a smith was to be a worker with metal and tailor a worker with cloth and so forth. That your name in some ways was a reflection not just of some accidental way of designating you but actually in a way described who you were and what you were going to be.

Patrick Deneen: In a kind of deep sense, I think liberalism was in some ways a very understandable effort to say that we shouldn’t simply have our life’s destiny defined by the people we came from or the place that we happen to be born to. These are just sort of accidental and circumstantial. They don’t define who we are. So in many ways, the vision of that liberal human being, that free human being in a state of nature is very much to say our nature is such that we’re not defined by any relationship. So I would say that in some ways you could say an understandable effort to liberate people from these kind of contingent relationships ends up kind of in an opposite extreme which I think we find ourselves increasingly today which is to see this thoroughly liberated autonomous individual as the ideal to which we ought to orient society such that increasingly families and communities and the kinds of natural relationships that which seem otherwise to rightly define a significant part of who we are now increasingly find themselves in a kind of state of crisis in the wake of this transformation.

Albert Mohler:   You and I have never had a conversation before in person or in voice, but I’ve had a conversation with you for some time and we have many common friends who’ve been in conversation for a very long time. I would identify myself as a classical conservative because I don’t know a better way to put it. Almost anything you can put other than that in front of conservative is going to be a problem, but I identify myself more than anything else as a Christian and an Augustinian.

Albert Mohler:   So I exalt in the argument you just made, but let me throw it back at you as if I’m just going to be an unalloyed liberal responding to you in that statement. That would simply be it’s very convenient for Patrick J. Deneen to make that argument today, but if the world he just described as before still existed, no one would actually know who Patrick J. Deneen is nor for that matter I would say Albert Mohler. The likelihood is given our own placement in that hierarchical world before liberalism would mean that I would be milling grain and you would be doing something else.

Patrick Deneen: Oh, I’d probably be picking potatoes if my forebearers’ activity were any indication. That’s absolutely right. There’s no doubt about it. Really what I’m arguing is that in some ways in an effort to … I did begin by saying one can rightly understand the desire for people to have far greater liberty in kind of defining their life paths, but in that effort and in that ambition, it seems we’ve sort of gone now to almost the opposite extreme. I think this is the ideological nature of liberalism coming to the fore where the idea of what constitutes the sort of ideal of human life, this free by nature individual self that chooses every aspect of life and unless one does so, one’s not suitably free, that increasingly this actually is now creating a kind of whole set of pathologies and deformations in our society.

Patrick Deneen: I actually think in many ways we have to recognize the achievement of liberalism in a very, in precisely the terms which you just said, allowing many of us to pursue life courses that otherwise might not have been possible to us, but also recognize that there’s a need now increasingly to think of what, in certain levels, are sort of non-liberal forms of life that are essential to liberal society. Right? That liberalism is built on, you could say, aliberal or non-liberal or even il-liberal forms. Liberalism itself needs to understand that it can only thrive and flourish if it in some ways allows for it and indeed is constituted by the existence of strong families and strong communities and religious people and so forth, increasingly those institutions and ways of life that are coming under great duress in our society.

Albert Mohler:   So the impact of your book and what makes it, I think, most compelling and timely is that you dare to put an ax at the very base of the tree. Whereas classical conservatism in the United States and in the English-speaking world, also in some other European context, has basically prized a kind of classic liberty or a classic liberalism. That has been put in contrast to a more progressive kind of liberalism.

Albert Mohler:   In American conservative discourse, you’ve got the statement that we want to be a part of a liberal tradition as in the liberal arts, the kind of liberal vision of classic liberalism that gave birth to everything from the Glorious Revolution to the American Revolution to you name it and the world as we know it with capitalism and free markets and nation states and liberty and all the rest, but that’s put over against a toxic form of liberalism that conservatives have identified as ideological as if liberalism itself is non-ideological. You really deny that distinction that has been very comfortable to American conservatives for decades.

Patrick Deneen: Yes. This is obviously a key distinction that distinguishes between the right and the left, the political right and the left and often the Republicans from the Democrats. There’s a sort of long-standing argument that classical liberalism was sort of at the root of the sound founding of America. It informed our founding fathers and the constitution. Then there was a kind of contagion that was brought in particularly from Germany that spoiled the work of the founders, and this was in the form of progressivism and progressive liberalism.

Patrick Deneen: The story that we typically are told is that these are two antithetical worldviews. You can certainly see deep differences between the two, but at the same time what I really try to draw out in the book is the ways in which there’s a kind of deep continuity between what we typically differentiate between classical liberalism and progressive liberalism. I would point to … I would point in some ways to they share the feature of being anti, to a certain extent anti-traditional in just the way that I described, the effort to sort of liberate people from these unchosen relationships. If, in classical liberalism, the way that that is largely established is by a relatively limited state and a fairly encompassing market that allows for us to make the fullest extent of our choices so that you have an individual initiative as a kind of driver of that, in progressive liberalism, that’s increasingly achieved with the assistance of the state and that, in particular, a stress upon equal liberty, not really the abstract possibility and right to pursue one’s own life course but active support in achieving this form of equal liberty.

Patrick Deneen: A good example of this was the advertisement that President Obama ran during his reelection campaign of the Life of Julia that you may be familiar with which portrays the life of a woman from birth to death that sort of achieves complete individual autonomy as a result of a series of government programs. She is, in a way, living the life sort of envisioned in the state of nature, completely autonomous and not relying on any other person except that now it’s the abstract, kind of the abstract relationship with the state that allows her to live that life as opposed to the kind of free choices pursued in the marketplace. So I think there’s a deeper continuity between these two iterations of liberalism that we tend to overlook in our kind of day-to-day battle that takes place in Washington DC.

Albert Mohler:   If I could make your argument a bit differently than you make it, let me try this. So ideological liberalism, the western liberalism that so shaped the modern world, took for granted many traditions, practices, disciplines, ways of life that it turns out liberalism cannot survive without, but now … And I haven’t seen you make the argument quite this way, but I think it’s consistent with your argument. But now, many in the United States and elsewhere who call themselves conservative in the contemporary political climate are actually trying to build a conservatism upon a basically liberal ideology. So it turns out that borrowing has gone both ways and pretty neither way.

Patrick Deneen: Yeah. Actually that’s entirely consistent with the argument. In fact, I have made that in other places. I don’t really want to draw it into quite that level of specificity in the book, but I think that’s exactly right. The way that you put that, I think, is really … It really does, I think, get to the heart of the matter which is the idea that, for many of the architects of the liberal project, while the ideology was in some ways a kind of distant, a kind of normative belief system, the world was so filled with these kinds of relationships and these kinds of communal bonds that I don’t think its architects could have ever imagined them being sort of eviscerated and evaporating in quite the way that we’ve seen.

Patrick Deneen: But now having done so, I think you’re right, that we see sort of both sides of the liberal coin sort of increasingly embracing the more liberal side of their particular agenda. So in the case of conservative liberals, the kind of advance of the market as, the rise of the global market as a central part of the mission of the contemporary political right that often can work at odds with the arguments for family values. On the political left, the arguments for kind of moral economy, the need for moral economy, that seems to run completely at odds with the idea of the autonomous and free-choosing person in the world of the sexual revolution. Those two sides of the respective arguments of the left and the right are the two that tend to advance at the expense of the things that they otherwise claim to value.

Albert Mohler:   Now, in your book, you make this argument. “Both classical and progressive liberalism ground the advance of liberalism in individual liberation from the limitations of place, tradition, culture, and any unchosen relationship. Both traditions, for all their differences over means, can be counted as liberal because of this fundamental commitment to liberation of the individual and to the use of natural science aided by the state as a primary means for achieving practical liberation from nature’s limitations.” I agree with you in that statement, but I’m curious to know how have powerful conservative influential conservative voices in America responded to that argument.

Patrick Deneen: Well we’ve seen a few of those responses, I think, particularly in some of the pages of the New York Times where you don’t typically see conservative voices, but the two conservative columnists in the New York Times both addressed the book and its claims in the first week of its publication, the book’s publication, and both of them while I think deeply appreciating the argument and both of them, Ross Douthat and David Brooks, gave a very fair and I think sympathetic summary of the concerns of the book, both argued and concluded that the radicalness of the book should not be accepted and that liberalism was in fact a redeemable project.

Patrick Deneen: David Brooks argued that there were resources within liberalism itself that could correct its course. So he recognized that there’s been a kind of excess, but he believed that, within liberal philosophy and liberal practice, there were resources that could act as a corrective. I think we would have a difference that could be, in many ways, maybe a difference of definition because I think the things I would define as correctives would include things like religion and Christianity. It think David might say “Well that’s something that’s protected under religious liberty.”

Patrick Deneen: I tend to think that ultimately the liberal project of this idea of liberation among other things, it seeks our liberation from the divine. It seeks our liberation from God. That’s one unchosen relationship. That’s the defining unchosen relationship. So it’s not a coincidence that our society becomes evermore secular and indeed is organized in some ways in a kind of direct rejection of the idea that we are governed by a power beyond our own. I just finished reading a book called Homo Deus which, written by a fellow named Yuval Noah Harari, the title of that book means Human God.

Albert Mohler:   Yes.

Patrick Deneen: The claim is that we are on the verge of making ourselves into gods. He claims this is, in fact, the trajectory of liberalism. I agree with him completely. So I would simply say to someone like David Brooks who I think, again, shares many of my concerns, I think there’s reason for deep concern of whether or not the resources that he would rely upon, in fact, are going to be strong enough and substantial enough to press back against these very, very deep currents that I think we see unfolding.

Albert Mohler:   I have read Harari’s two major books very closely. By the way, hope to have this kind of conversation with him. The book is exactly as you describe it. The most shocking thing about the book to me is nothing in the book; it’s what’s on the cover. That’s a blurb by Barack Obama. Just given the radical nature of the book, I would think that someone who has been, even as a progressive liberal, a rather careful person like Barack Obama, I was just shocked that his name appeared as a blurb on that book, Homo Deus. That was admittedly a surprise.

Albert Mohler:   When it comes to David Brooks, someone I followed closely for so many years, I think you’re looking at someone who is a conservative of a sort and who clearly laments the loss of tradition and structure, those unchosen relationships, but I think he sees us as helpless to resist that now. So he’s even gone so far as to argue for the legalization of same-sex marriage. Yet, I think he does that with something of a wistfulness, just recognizing those were really important, but we can’t have that now. But he really has staked his life on the fact that liberalism can be a self-correcting, well let’s say, experiment. I think a lot of American conservatives perhaps looking at the founding era of the United States and the English enlightenment of that period, I think they’ve invested an unusual hope, an unrealistic hope in the self-correcting power of liberalism.

Patrick Deneen: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right, what you say about David Brooks. It’s interesting. He claims, he points to Edmund Burke as kind of one of the first figures that he reads in school who really turns him in a conservative direction. I think the idea in some ways that there’s an inevitability to these kinds of processes that we’ve created whether it’s the political processes or the market forces or the technological forces that we’ve unleashed, is in a certain way deeply un-Burkian. It suggests that we are the subject of forces rather than in some ways that we are actors who contribute our part in the world and are not simply subject to these forces.

Patrick Deneen: It’s striking. It’s just striking how many people today whether on the right or the left … We can again invoke Harari or we can invoke what you just said about David Brooks as who view a whole set of phenomena and I would call these often the tools of liberalism itself — so the creation of the modern state that exists to secure individual rights; the economic system, increasingly globalized economic system that we create in order to make global the capacity to move goods, services, and human beings without any boundaries or borders established to stop that flow; the creation of modern forms of technology that liberate us increasingly from nature itself including technologies that are intended to liberate us from human nature itself — that when these processes, these tools are increasingly described, they’re described in terms of forces that we can’t control anymore, that we can’t stop their basic trajectories.

Patrick Deneen: The question comes to my mind that if these are the tools of our liberation, how is it that we can now in good conscience and without further reflection describe these as inevitable? Is this the ground condition of our liberty?

Albert Mohler:   Well I think that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing a rather widespread argument on the part of many who certainly do not want to identify wholesale with this progressive liberalism and all of the social causes and ideological consequences that come with it, but they say “Look, we’re going to have to surrender all this terrain in order to try to protect this other terrain.” Again, as a Christian theologian, I don’t think that’s possible. I don’t think you can have … I believe in subsidiarity for example. I don’t believe the government ever can actually come in and resolve all the social problems that come from the breakup of a family or the failure of marriage. I don’t think you can surrender the ground that I see so many just ready to surrender — we can go name after name — because I don’t think you can preserve anything for long without that territory.

Patrick Deneen: Right. I think what you just said is really so essentially important. In your previous question, you noted how deeply many contemporary American conservatives have identified in particular the project of sort of saving America as a political project, have invested enormous energies and time and treasure into capturing the American political system, winning its elections, nominating justices for the Supreme Court, and so forth and yet have seen the ongoing collapse of the culture around us, sort of unceasing sort of collapse.

Albert Mohler:   Absolutely.

Patrick Deneen: So even as elections have been won, I mean Republicans have held more offices today than perhaps at any time in American history and yet we see around us, the shattering of the family and confusion over the nature of human sexuality and marriage and the collapse of childbearing and reproduction as an end of one of the joyful ends of human ends. This, in a way, you could say that there almost seems to be a kind of commensurate relationship to the extent that we’ve seen these as political problems and not more deeply as a kind of set of cultural challenges that seem to require especially Christians increasingly to assume that kind of psychic distance that Augustine cautions and urges upon Christians not to identify wholly or even too extensively with any particular political regime.

Patrick Deneen: It does seem to me that we’re at a time and we’re at a moment when increasingly I do think that this Augustinian caution is becoming more audible to us as Christians, not as a matter of a lack of patriotism but as an understanding that our first and deepest allegiance is as Christians. This calls for living now increasingly differently from the broader society, to be a kind of what I call a counter-anti-culture, that we’re not an anti-culture. We seek to be a culture and to live lives increasingly in distinction from that of the broader society.

Albert Mohler:   The essentially political argument that Professor Deneen is making right there has been heard before. It’s been heard from Christians in western societies. it’s been reflected in political arguments that are older and newer, but most importantly, we’ve heard that argument before in the New Testament. It’s an argument that was addressed to the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s an argument that has been addressed to Christians living under virtually any political circumstance about the most fundamental political reality which, for the Christian, is always the Kingdom of God. That means that we’re looking now at the church as in the main, this alternative polis.

Albert Mohler:   There is an, for good reason, oral portrait of George Washington in my home library, and I find a great deal of identity in the particular strains of even enlightenment thought that were mixed with preexisting Christian commitments and a biblical worldview in what became the experiment of American constitutional democracy, but as I go back and I read certain of the conversations — by the way, you do this effectively, mentioning the actual text that some of the Federalist Papers — it’s really clear that modern conservatives haven’t read all of that because it’s clear that many of the founders of this country had invested almost messianic expectations in the kind of political experiment they were beginning.

Patrick Deneen: Yeah. I mean in fact of course that ringing phrase on our dollar bill, Novus Ordo Seclorum, the idea that we are a new order for the ages, that’s something transformative that happened in the world. From the very start, there was a kind of Messianism that informed the American project. There was certainly a kind of hope that was bound up in it. Part of it, you could say, was maybe this was the place where Christians could live and breathe free after-

Albert Mohler:   Right.

Patrick Deneen: … so long being various forms of persecution in Europe and many escaping here from those forms of persecution, but at the same time, I think you’re right, that there was a mixture of strains of thinking at the time of the American founding and those were often seen as sort of deeply compatible. We think of the biblical, the Christian, and the enlightenment tradition. I think what we have increasingly seen is that there were some forms of overlapping consensus in those traditions, but as liberalism as a political, philosophical, economic, social, technological project has unfolded, I think its deep differences with a biblical and Christian worldview have become far more evident to us.

Patrick Deneen: They’re not the same things. This requires a kind of level of deep introspection especially among Christians, I think, for whom for so long identification with the American project has been a deep part of their, almost of their Christian belief. Even today, I think there’s a hope of simply recovering something that existed in the past. I suspect that we are past that now, that what we saw and what we often valorize and in some ways feel nostalgic about was this kind of providential mixture that was able to exist sometime, but now as the kind of cauldron of history as those strains are being separated, I think it’s going to be much more to live the life of a pilgrim as a Christian in America as opposed to thinking of one’s self solely-

Albert Mohler:   Yes.

Patrick Deneen: … as a kind of citizen living in one city. We are destined to live in one city, but it’s not necessary this city.

Albert Mohler:   No, indeed it will not be this city in that very important biblical sense. Just a specific footnote, I really appreciated that you cited Federalist 17 because I hear many American conservatives say “Look, the American experiment was always to put restraints on government so that the federal government would always be a lesser allegiance and would be a lesser power to the states,” but as you show, that was not at all the intention of at least many of the founders and framers such as Alexander Hamilton.

Albert Mohler:   But I want to go back earlier in your book. That comes late. I want to go back earlier in your book. I think you detonate a certain landmine early in your book, and you don’t trace this explicitly further throughout the book but instead more general terms. Earlier in the book, you argue that the achievement of liberalism was not simply a wholesale rejection of its precedents but in many cases attained its ends by redefining shared words and concepts and, through that redefinition, colonizing existing institutions with fundamentally different anthropological assumptions. That sentence is, I think, just gold: colonizing existing institutions with fundamentally different anthropological assumptions. I would just ask you to make that your next book, but before that, play that out just a little bit here.

Patrick Deneen: Sure. I’m grateful that you call attention to that. I don’t think anyone I’ve talked to yet about the book has called attention to that. I think it’s one of the most important observations that I try to make in the book. It’s not that we find ourselves as a kind of political society arguing we have a party for liberty and we have a party against liberty. That’s really not kind of how America works. Really what we have is, as I think I try to draw out there, two very different conceptions of liberty, one of which is a far older conception of liberty and one of which is the more modern and enlightenment understanding or liberal understanding of liberty.

Patrick Deneen: The modern understanding of liberty, again to go back to the idea of the state of nature, liberty is the absence of obstacle to the achievement of whatever desired end I might wish to achieve. So in the state of nature, we are in a natural condition when we are in a condition where there is no obstacle to the attainment of my goal. There’s no law. There’s no custom. There’s no sovereign. I can simply do as I want. As Thomas Hobbs describes, this is the condition of complete warfare. As John Locke describes, it’s a condition of some degree of cooperation although that will break down and eventually you’re going to need a state to step in, but nevertheless both share the same definition of liberty.

Patrick Deneen: This is of course a radical redefinition and, in fact, you could say the complete opposite of what was the classical and Christian understanding of liberty in which it’s understood that liberty is the condition in which we do have a free choice but in which we make the right choice, in which we choose rightly, in which, in the classical understanding, we choose the life of virtue and in which, in the Christian understanding, we choose that life in the imitation of Christ. The condition of simply choosing or pursuing one’s desires is actually described as a condition of slavery in the classical tradition, simply being subject to the lower and baser parts of your nature.

Patrick Deneen: So it’s not simply that you had a kind of revolution that completely rejected a kind of older tradition and replaced it with something new. You actually, as I suggest, had a kind of colonization of existing language and often existing institutions, forms of government for example that had long existed, but for rather different reasons. I think in many ways this very deep profound, often unseen process underlies just how, in some ways, insidious the eventual rise of liberalism was that went for a long time undetected as almost a kind of parasite upon an older tradition.

Albert Mohler:   So we have talked about one great ideological movement still existing even as Marxism and communism have fallen, that is Marxism and fascism. Then we have two supposedly different branches of this liberalism, a classic liberalism now associated with American conservatives and a progressive liberalism now associated with American political liberals. You’re putting an ax to the base of the tree that holds them both, at least in arguing that we’re going to be and can now see that collapse of that great liberal experiment.

Albert Mohler:   Then just in terms of our political moment, you make another statement in the book that I think bears a great deal of attention. So you put it this way. You say no person can aspire to a position of political leadership by calling for limits and self-command. Yes, I think that’s absolutely so. So much so that I don’t think any major conservative Republican would possibly make it a part of his or her political platform to recover marriage as the dignity of a life-long commitment between a man and a woman. I don’t think even conservatives in this country are willing to take on the responsibility of saying what life-long means and making that stick. They gave that up in the ’60s and ’70s.

Patrick Deneen: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely right. We saw … Actually in the last election, we saw certainly a wing of the Republican Party essentially saying that we should just simply stop talking about what are called social issues, that it’s too divisive and that we’re losing those culture wars and we simply … just much more libertarian set of arrangements, people will do what they do, and there’s really nothing to be said about that and that what we can do is really just forge economic and tax policy. That’s really what a political society ends up being. That, to me, is just an extraordinary concession.

Patrick Deneen: One of the things that has struck me … I’ve been teaching in universities for a long time, and every university … I’m at a Catholic university right now, but secular universities too talk constantly about social justice. That’s the language of the day. We see the same thing on the left in a sense which says that basically social justice consists in a certain set of economic relationships, but if the right or the left cared about social justice or if we cared about a good society, we would have to be deeply attentive to and call for, in whatever way possible and reasonable, call for restoration of the idea and ideal of marriage. That’s not something the government is going to solve. It’s not something that I think a policy can solve.

Patrick Deneen: One could imagine there might be indirect things one could do, but if you care about justice and if you care about equality, it seems to be absolutely clear that those parts of our population that are suffering often deep economic and social dislocation, that the independent variable that tends to contribute to extraordinary degrees of comparative success is stable and long-term marriages and stable and long-term families. Now, I don’t think this is the ultimate reason and justification for marriage. I think it’s built into our nature and we were created to be man and woman, husband and wife, but if just on the level of policy which is what politicians want to talk about, it would seem to me that it would be incumbent upon political leaders of the left or the right to insist upon the importance of marriage as a social and even economic-

Albert Mohler:   Yes.

Patrick Deneen: … matter. The fact that they won’t even touch that shows just how deeply and pervasively what I would argue this vision and ideal of liberalism has infected how we even think about what politics or even a good society looks like.

Albert Mohler:   Our vocabulary reflects this, and you kind of spoil some words intentionally in your book, at least as many use them in a more self-consciously value neutral way. You spoil that experiment. Three words I would put out for this to spoiling were citizen, consent, and consumer. Those three words are rather indispensable to the American experience, and I think most American conservatives would say “Yes, we’re all for the word citizen, consent, and consumer,” but you’re pretty ruthless on all three, especially consent and consumer.

Patrick Deneen: Yeah. In fact, well I actually have a much higher esteem for the language of citizenship and I think the language of citizenship has been corroded in particular by the language of consumers. When you see Americans typically described in a newspaper, we’re often described as consumers first and relatively rarely as citizens except in as much as when we vote perhaps or arguments about immigration, but it doesn’t seem to include a more comprehensive idea of what it is to be a citizen which is to be a kind of invested member of a community that entails, among other things, a kind of form of public comportment.

Patrick Deneen: The word citizen and civility or polis or politics and politeness are of course more than just etymologically related. They speak to how we relate to each other. So it seems to me that the degradation of the language of citizenship is a deep, very deep, again revelatory problems and condition of our current situation.

Patrick Deneen: Let me just speak briefly about the language of consent. Of course, consent lies at the heart of the liberal tradition. When we started talking, we talked about what is liberalism and I said well liberalism is essentially the idea that every aspect of our lives that we take on can only be deemed to be legitimate if it’s the subject of our consent, if we have agreed to it. All of our relationships, all of our … The form of work that we do, every … The religion that we join and so forth. I think, again, I would not want to argue that we should eliminate consent. Everyone should simply do some form of, some condition of bondage.

Patrick Deneen: But it is worth pointing out that when you remake a world in which the default condition is that everything is subject to consent and to the revision of consent, that what you do is you create a human being that’s always looking for revision of the things that they have agreed to because there’s always the possibility that there’s something better out there. We’re always in a condition in which consent is capable of being revised and indeed, I would say that default is for us to be reconsidering and revising the consent that we may have initially been given. So there’s not only … Of course, there’s implications politically, but of course it has deep implications in terms of our social lives, the kinds of-

Albert Mohler:   Yes.

Patrick Deneen: … commitments that we make. Here again, we can talk about marriage. We can talk about the commitments that we make to the work that we do and whether or not we’ll see through the work that we do even when things get difficult and challenging. Increasingly in our society, we are not very good at allowing people and indeed in some ways encouraging people to be in conditions where they fail. My students can often drop a class if they don’t feel that they’re doing well enough even to the point of the very end of the semester. So I, if I want to keep students in my class, have to make sure that I’m not grading them too tough. So that, this condition of always revising our choices leads to a kind of, we could say, a predisposition to exit.

Albert Mohler:   One of the lectures I give when I teach systematic theology comes down to the fact that autonomy is trumped by ontology. That, to me, is just one of the most important insights that helps us to understand the world. There’s this idolization of autonomy, but ontology trumps autonomy every time, being truth, reality trumps autonomy. Consent can only go so far. Consent’s not going to change the world. Consent is not going to change metaphysics. I find one of the most puzzling parts of contemporary progressive liberalism, the idea that consent taken now far beyond just how the term is used politically in the founding era, that consent is now the only moral principle that seems to remain. It’s not nearly enough.

Patrick Deneen: Of course, we’re seeing that very visibly on college campuses-

Albert Mohler:   Yes.

Patrick Deneen: … in which of course the sort of hook-up culture and the relationship between the sexes has completely now been redefined by this very minimal form of what we think about as consent. As we see, even to understand what constitutes consent is often completely unavailable to the participants in that encounter because they simply don’t … They simply … A) They’re often in a condition, inebriation, that leads them to the point where they’re even going to consider to do what they’re going to do, but I think more deeply than that, as you put it, ontologically-informed idea of consent has to be governed by the reality in the realm of courtship, in the realm of the relationship between the sexes.

Patrick Deneen: Consent is a … You could say it’s the end of a very long process, a very long building of a relationship. It’s not something that happens over a phone app after a couple of beers together. So the idea that somehow consent, a raw and naked consent can function as simply either socially, politically, or otherwise is obviated by the deeper ontological fact that human relationships are built up over time in place with memory and with some understanding of the deepest motivations of the person with whom we’re dealing with. So it seems to me it’s absolutely right, but we do increasingly simply reduce everything to this very core idea of liberalism which is that consent is the sole basis of any human relationship or assumption of any kind of position or status in the world.

Albert Mohler:   I think just to take that argument further and we’ve got to shift the ground here, but I think people now see this autonomous consent as the only moral criteria. You mentioned that that comes only, that any kind of meaningful consent comes only after our relationship is established, but in going to argue it only continues because the relationship continues and that within the covenant of marriage, given in the structures of creation. You’ve got people coming now bringing charges saying “I may have given consent then, but I don’t mean it now. I don’t feel that … Looking back at that now, I don’t feel like that was consent.” Well that’s what makes marriage different, fundamentally different, but again, this is the moral train we’re dealing with.

Albert Mohler:   You also raise the issue of technology. I don’t want to leave that out of the conversation because if you look at the liberalism that gave birth to the American experiment, you’re still looking at many of the structures of everyday life being so given that, as you say, they really were not up for debate: family, neighborhood, village, marriage, family. All that was just given, but technology is what has now allowed persons to believe that we can and must transcend all of that. You would make the argument, I believe, that modern progressive liberalism and even the modern conservative who doesn’t recognize he or she is so liberal, this would be impossible without technology.

Patrick Deneen: Well that’s true. I think, as I said earlier, technology, what we call technology which is things that human beings make, literally means from the Greek things that are made, technology is certainly one of the tools of liberalism. In particular, it’s the tool that has allowed us to liberate ourselves from nature. I think that’s one of its key purposes in the liberal project. So we have, we could say, the political project and the economic project allows us to liberate ourselves from other human beings, from the kind of deep embedded relationships with other human beings.

Patrick Deneen: What we think about as particularly science and technology allows us to be liberated from that other limitation on our freedom which is the limitations that are imposed by sort of the natural world. We see, of course, the embrace of technology and of science on the classical conservative side, and this goes way back to John Locke and Francis Bacon and others, as the effort to conquer nature in its sort of, we could say its external form. When we think about the natural world, to remake the world and to manipulate the things of the world.

Patrick Deneen: In its progressive liberal form, what we see interestingly is we have people out who are decrying the technological domination of the natural world, but who nevertheless have no problem with the technological domination of the human nature of the recreation or the manipulation of the human body increasingly not only in its reproductive capacities but even to redefine what it is to be human through such things as trans humanism, overcoming mortality, to make ourselves into gods again.

Patrick Deneen: My point in that chapter of the book is to point out that what we talk about as technology is itself informed by the deeper political technology of liberalism itself. That is to say the deeper philosophical commitments that envision this liberated autonomous human being as the end of what we hope to achieve-

Albert Mohler:   Yes.

Patrick Deneen: … through human society through our efforts. So the kind of technology and the uses that we will put technology to will conform to the underlying in some ways political, philosophical, metaphysical technology of liberalism itself.

Patrick Deneen: I would simply point out that … In the book itself, I point out that we typically tend to think of the Amish, for example, as people who don’t embrace technology. In fact, they do embrace technology. They embrace all kinds of technologies. Farming is a technology, but the question that they put to their technology, to the use of their technology is always “Will this technology support our community? Will it support the relationships of our community? Or will it prove destructive of the relationships of our community?” You could say we have the opposite question in the adoption of technology which is “Will this technology liberate us?” To that extent, you could say our deeper technology shapes the kind of technology that we typically think of and how we typically use it.

Albert Mohler:   You would admit; you concede in the book that liberalism has brought many goods. Well and technology has as well. Therefore, we can have this conversation even though I’m not in South Bend, Indiana, you’re not in Louisville. For any number of reasons down to antibiotics and anesthetics, I’m thankful for many of the goods of the world that was shaped by liberalism and that includes all that technology. In your book in the conclusion, you say there’s no going back. There is only going forward. The hardest question, I think, that comes at conclusion is “So what now, Professor Deneen?”

Patrick Deneen: Yeah. That’s always the question I get, and it’s admittedly the hardest one I have, the hardest one to answer, but it is important first of all to put on the table that often it’s … Even think of the word conservative. I’m often described of and I would self-describe in many ways as a conservative, but to be a conservative often means to conserve and you’re trying to preserve something from the past or even in many cases you envision a kind of return to the past as the optimal option, so if we could only go back to 1789 when the constitution was established or if we could go back to the 1950s when America seemed to be a better place and so forth.

Patrick Deneen: I think this kind of longing, while it’s certainly understandable, it seems to be deeply embedded in the human condition to look back to an earlier age as a better time. I do think that there really is no going back. I think this is a simple matter. We have experience. This liberal project, it has, as you put it, as you rightly say, it has contributed enormous goods and benefits to the human condition. Maybe now, we have a consciousness too of its excesses and its deficiencies. I disagree with someone like Francis Fukuyama who says liberalism is the end of history. This is to sort of say we’re not free anymore. We’re not free to conceive and think and ponder new and different forms.

Patrick Deneen: So I think the task we have at hand is in some ways twofold. The more immediate task is the one that I think we’re all struggling with. What do we do in the condition of this cultural wasteland we live in? Here, I propose very modestly and I echo some of the writings of Rod Dreher in his book The Benedict Option, but basically I think one of the great tasks we have as Christians or as secular people, for those who are concerned about our current condition to build forms of culture from ground up and to live a kind of counter-anti-culture. That is to say be against the current anti-culture by building a culture with and through families and communities, churches, and so forth.

Patrick Deneen: This means a new level of consciousness and conscientiousness and awareness that this is kind of against the grain of the contemporary regime, but the long-term project and this is of course the one that’s harder for me to answer because I don’t expect to be around this long which is thinking through and often engaging in practices and attempts of what life would look like after liberalism without seeking simply to just go back but to build something anew which will certainly involve, it seems to me, the rebuilding of families and the rebuilding of some form of real self-governance, both at the individual level and at the political level, but to recognize that the liberal project itself was a 500-year project and to build something new can’t simply be a kind of revolution-

Albert Mohler:   Yes.

Patrick Deneen: … we’re going to have tomorrow in which we’ll replace this system with something else. We’ve seen that before. That’s called either the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. Those were catastrophes. I wouldn’t counsel that for a single moment.

Albert Mohler:   In one of your earlier books published just a couple years ago, Conserving America, subtitled Essays on Present Discontent, you wrote a sentence that I think bears going back to as we come to a close. You said we live in a thoroughgoing liberal society. You go onto explain what that means, but that thoroughgoing nature of what it means to be a liberal society, I think it would be shocking to many people as your most recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, the main topic of our conversation is also I think, to many people, a very surprising book. Yet, it’s a book for which I am just very, very thankful as I am very thankful for this conversation. Professor Deneen, we’re in debt to you for this book, and I want to thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Patrick Deneen: Thank you for having me.

Albert Mohler:   In writing this book, Why Liberalism Failed, Professor Patrick J. Deneen has started a conversation and, to some extent, a controversy. You see that in major American newspapers. You see prominent conservative thinkers in the United States far more than liberals, we should note, responding to the book and, in some cases, arguing against it, making the primary argument that liberalism does have the powers and energies within itself to self-correct, but looking at the larger argument, one thing is clear. This is the kind of argument we ought to be having.

The issues and arguments made in this book are precisely the kinds of correctives we need to the contemporary assumptions that, when we’re looking at today’s conservative and liberal, we’re looking at two absolutely separated, always opposed, and apparently unrelated political positions. Placing both of them on the larger trunk of the tree of classic liberalism and then looking closely at that classic liberalism itself, pointing out the fact that it was the world’s first comprehensive political ideology, pointing out that it was one of only three comprehensive political ideologies yet to mark the modern world — liberalism, Marxism, and fascism — it is the only one to survive.

Yet even as there were calls with the fall of the Soviet Union that history had ended liberalism was triumphant, it is now clear, as Patrick Deneen makes very evident in this book, that liberalism is collapsing upon itself. Not defeated by fascism, not defeated by Marxism, but defeated in a very important sense by its own anthropological assumptions.

Every chapter in this new book, Why Liberalism Failed, is important unto itself, but of course we look to the end and ask that question I ask of the professor. So what now? Many critics of his book will say that that is truncated and short to the point of extreme, but the book is really strong on analysis and in some sense the implications are rather evident within the book, pressing back over against the atomistic autonomy-mindedness of liberalism and understanding that the disrespect of liberalism for those unchosen relationships and obligations, that’s a place to start trying to reweave what liberalism has torn about, what Walter Lippmann called the acids of modernity have burned away.

But I think what’s most important is to recognize that secular readers of this book are going to have a very difficult time coming to any understanding of how exactly to do that or to do that for long, to do that in a way that lasts. I think that’s where Christian readers of the book will have a fundamentally different lens through which we read and a fundamentally different hope. This book is a good chastening reminder that, if we ever were tempted to place our ultimate hopes in any ideology or political experiment, then we should be embarrassed and should simply remind ourselves that no earthly power can ever deliver.

Oddly enough though Christianity is referenced in many points in this book and certainly stands as the great background reality of western civilization, there isn’t much about the church in the book. It’s written for a secular audience, but this is where a Christian readership has to understand there are some fundamental answers that come to us that will not come to anyone else and that most fundamental answer that must come to the Christian mind is the answer that this points to the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. If the alternative polis is to be found on earth, we shouldn’t expect to find it in any earthly kingdom but rather in the visible expression of the Kingdom of Christ on earth. This book is being read, discussed, and debated in many secular conversations and that’s important. It ought to lead to even more urgent and lasting conversations about Christians.

Again, many thanks to my guest, Professor Patrick J. Deneen, for joining with me today. Before I close, I want to invite you to join us on the campus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on April 20th for preview day. Southern Seminary exists to train ministers to serve faithfully. Listeners of the briefing and Thinking in Public can register for no cost for Southern’s preview day. You’ll have the chance to tour the campus, meet our nationally recognized faculty, and learn about academic programs. Hotel lodging is provided for those who attend. Register online at and use the code TIP for Thinking in Public. Just TIP to register for free.

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.