Reflection on Professor Patrick Deneen’s Seminar on the Mixed Constitution

The Buckley Program hosted Professor Patrick Deneen for a seminar series from March 12th to 26th. The seminar was titled “Reviving the Mixed Constitution: How to Overcome the Elite-Populist Divide.” Patrick Deneen is Professor of Political Science and holds the David A. Potenziani Memorial Chair of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He has written four books and edited three others. His books include The Odyssey of Political Theory, Democratic Faith, Conserving America?, and most recently, Why Liberalism Failed.

By: Pablo Trujillo

On March 12th, 19th, and 26th of 2021, I had the opportunity to participate in the Buckley Program’s March Seminar with Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen. 

In 2018, Professor Deneen released a thought-provoking book on political theory titled Why Liberalism Failed. In it, he posits that both the American left and right, while seemingly locked in a contentious battle, are really complementary forms of a larger liberal theory. Deneen impugns this liberalism for redefining liberty from its classical understanding as the condition of virtue which forestalls tyranny into the ever-expanding sphere in which an individual can exercise unfettered choice to overcome the accidents of birth, time, and place. 

This new kind of liberty, Deneen believes, was first endorsed by classical liberals (American conservatives) like John Locke and the American Founders in order to protect individual rights to commerce through the auspices of government. The anthropic individual and the centralized state thereby became the two fundamental entities composing societies. Building off of this framework, Deneen advances that later liberals (progressives) sought to realize individuality through liberation from human nature itself. He charges that the social and political changes wrought by these twin halves of liberalism are responsible for many of the modern age’s maladies (the withering of communities, the expansion of inequality, the degradation of the environment, and the loss of moral purpose to name a few).

In the book’s foreword, James Davison Hunter writes that for readers Deneen’s work “challenges not only their thinking but many of their most cherished assumptions about politics and our political order.” This challenge that Why Liberalism Failed posed to thinkers on both sides of the American political order gained the book a manifold cohort of critics. A common retort was that the book, while offering no shortage of criticisms, offered little in the form of solutions. 

Professor Deneen is currently working on a follow-up work to Why Liberalism Failed. In it, he hopes to offer a possible solution to the emerging problem of class tensions plaguing many Western societies. He made this subject the focus of the Buckley Program’s March seminar. We learned about and discussed his pioneering work on the mixed constitution as a solution to the class clash that we have seen in the past few years.

I was impressed by Professor Deneen’s ability to succinctly express how classical political theory differs from that of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment, particularly emphasizing what has been lost from the former. While classical thinkers acknowledged the class tensions inherent to any complex society and sought to balance the influence of all interests in government, thinkers on both the modern left and the modern right have lost this aspiration, entrusting a government elite to either represent the will of the people or impose what ought to be their will on them. While classical thinkers, especially after the rise of Christianity, believed in a flawed humanity with a noble purpose, modern thinkers have either rejected the former, replacing it with the fully rational homo economicus or the class-conscious proletarian, or rejected the latter, removing the possibility for any collective social aspirations. 

Among the most illuminating concepts he shared was the idea that conservatism, unlike both classical and progressive varieties of liberalism, is the successor to the mixed constitution of antiquity. He believes that such a tradition is rooted in a notion of majoritarian rule, supporting the popular proclivity for stability and pragmatism that utopian elites often lack. This certainly makes sense in light of modern American culture, where the allegedly regressive “deplorable” is so often despised as an agent of backlash and stagnation in progressive circles.

At the end of our last discussion, I was left with a deepened appreciation for the importance of looking to the past for solutions, even when our time seems so different from any age to have preceded it.