Interview with Patrick Deneen

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.

Michael Samaritano: I want to get to this new manuscript you’re working on. But first, I do want to talk a little bit about Why Liberalism Failed. I’m actually taking the class here at Yale, which is loosely based upon it, with Ross Douthat, Bryan Garsten and Sam Moyn. One of the critiques that has come up is that perhaps, in your work, you define liberalism too concretely or too broadly. Throughout history, there have been many thinkers and groups that have claimed to be or have been designated as liberals. Between Locke and Biden there’s obviously considerable distance. So, can we confine them to a single school of thought? And if so, what kind of shared commitments or values bind them?

Professor Deneen: Right. I certainly agree that it’s a very big umbrella under which many different thinkers have included themselves. And it’s certainly the case that there are evident, if not outright, disagreements, and even contradictions among some number of that group. But, if we’re not to shrug our shoulders and conclude that there’s actually nothing called liberalism, then we have to reduce it to say that there was something that’s meant by this umbrella. 

I would return to thinking about it through the lens of the very title, or the label that liberals themselves endorse, which has something to do with liberty. I think the form of liberty that is largely shared among those in the liberal tradition is a liberty that is connected to or even defined by the modern understanding of liberty. That is freedom from as opposed to the more classical understanding of freedom to. It is freedom from arbitrary forms of government, for example, in the classical liberal tradition, or freedom from the power or despotism of custom in Mill’s understanding. It is freedom from domination in the kind of republican-liberal tradition that someone like Philip Pettit represents. 

So, there are different iterations of this. But, in the case of Locke and Biden, for example, I think there would be a lot in common in terms of the understanding that freedom is understood as the greatest ability and greatest capacity to enjoy freedom from any kind of external form of control or arbitrary limitation. The debate really becomes about the means to achieve that freedom. The left versus right divide tends to differ on the question of to what extent does one need the role of government and the activities of government, either as threats to individual liberty or as necessary supports for the enjoyment and equal enjoyment of this form of liberty. 

While recognizing there’s a lot of different ways of understanding liberalism, I think if it’s to mean anything, and not nothing, it would have to be this understanding of freedom that is shared by almost everyone in this in this tradition.

MS: Great. One of the areas in which you show how this framework of freedom from has gone wrong is the economic order. Some on the left have said that what you’re identifying might just be a crisis of capitalism, and not necessarily a crisis of liberalism. They believe that issues like income inequality, or sustainability questions like climate change, could simply be solved with more interventionist policies. Do you think that’s the case? And then, more broadly, can we separate liberalism from capitalism? Or are they necessarily intertwined?

PD: I think that there’s a very close linkage between classical liberalism and capitalism, the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, and the founding fathers. I think they all envisioned the marketplace as the primary realm in which that enjoyment of our freedom from and especially the need for a limited government to allow for the greatest expanse of that realm was necessary. 

But what we might characterize as the progressive liberal tradition saw the market as a kind of threat to the enjoyment of equal liberty, especially because of the things you just mentioned. Income inequality being primary among them. It’s not a new thing. The origins of progressive liberalism arise especially with the Industrial Revolution. We see a clear demarcation between a relatively small class of economic winners and a large class of those who are struggling at the margins of an otherwise prosperous economy. I think that the debate does tend to be one over means to the progressive liberals who typically want to reduce the problem and the challenge of liberalism to an economic question.

I think that one response would have to include recognition that even were we to reduce income inequality, it’s very likely that we’re not going to eliminate economic inequality. Even among those who support things like various forms of redistribution, or universal basic income, there’s a recognition that there’s always going to be those who are not going to enjoy the full fruits of the economic order. And then if that’s the case, what are the additional conditions, in addition to that of material conditions of life, that are necessary for human flourishing? 

I think any sensible person would agree you need some form of material support for a flourishing life. But then beyond that, we know that there are a host of other things that people seem to need. It’s just built into the fabric of what it is to be a human being. And those are things like a stable family. And this is one of the things in which, regardless of income levels, people who come from stable family homes generally do better. They have an easier time achieving the kinds of measures of flourishing. That is to say, the ability to have keep a job, the ability to form and shape stable families themselves, the ability to be contributors to their communities, the ability to stay out of jail, stay out of criminal activities, the likelihood of not becoming addicted to either alcohol or drugs, less likely to commit suicide as a result of some of these conditions that we’re seeing today.

I think people generally on the left believe that if we could solve the economic problem, all of those other issues would go away. And I think that’s simply a delusional belief. Because, first, the forms of economic inequality are not going to disappear. And then the question really needs to become, how do we lessen the consequences of what would persist as forms of economic equality? It seems to me that progressives generally have been silent to the point of negligence about these social questions. Because for a typical progressive, it’s the kinds of identity that arise in homes and households and communities and within religious traditions that they especially seek to overthrow. They seek a form of freedom that’s as destructive in the social sphere as the form of freedom that they criticize in the economic sphere. And that’s just a kind of fundamental disconnect that I think borders on irresponsibility.

MS: You’re familiar with that kind of left economic critique, and the same goes for the libertarian side. But, some in the center would say, “Yes, these are problems, but we can still reform while working within the liberal order.” Whereas, in your preface to the paperback edition of Why Liberalism Failed, you say the time for an epic theory has begun. So, why do you think we’re at a juncture where is necessary a kind of epic theorizing? And then, have you been doing some epic theorizing? 

PD: Ha, I don’t know if I have any Homer in me.

Well, to go back to the first part of the conversation that we had, if there is something that’s consistent and identifiable in the theory of liberalism, it boils down less to forms of government. It boils down less to theories of representation. It boils down less even to theories of rights than it does to a fundamental understanding of the nature of freedom. If that’s the case, if there’s something that’s consistent across all the various schools and ideas and debates within liberalism, then that’s what I think we need to move beyond or change or alter. 

So, I’m not such a revolutionary to say we need to overthrow the entire American system of government or replace the Constitution. I think the American political order, in many ways, already was a non-liberal society until relatively more recent times. It was a society that, in various ways, did not define liberty in the way that we increasingly define liberty. In other words, my argument is that we have become more liberal over time. This definition of freedom has inserted itself and manifested itself in more and more of our institutions, as well as just in informal interactions. So, in one sense, the idea of ceasing to be liberal is not as revolutionary as it sounds.

It would require a sort of redefining of a lot of ideas and words, beginning with the idea of liberty itself. And in that sense, it would require a real change in the way that we think about ourselves. To move beyond a liberal understanding would require a real rethinking, and as a consequence, a real change in how we manifest our behavior and our relationships and our institutions in the everyday world. That does require, at some level, a kind of rethinking that might border on epic theory. I’m not sure if I would characterize what I’m trying to do as a form of epic theory. 

This new book I’m working on is an effort to begin to recast the way that we think about modern politics and about what could be offered by an older tradition, in a new form, in a new time. In other words, we need epic theories to think outside of the grooves and ruts in which we typically think of the nature of politics. That’s a two-prong job. One of which is the big ideas. The other is maybe smaller, more incremental kinds of changes that would accumulate and, cumulatively, would constitute real significant change. 

MS: Great. So, let’s get into that new book you’re working on. There’s a lot of focus on elites and elitism. Certainly, we see it today. Whether it’s the resentment aimed towards a billionaire class or towards the universities of say Notre Dame or Yale, we see a lot of talk about what the elite get wrong. Do we need an elite? And then, if so, how would an elite get things right? What would an ideal elite class look like? What would their function be in society?

PD: So, the argument of the book is that one of the ways we could think about the nature of modern political philosophy and modern politics itself is that it is marked by a change in thinking about what the aim and purpose of politics and the social order is. Traditionally, there was this aim within the Western tradition, while it wasn’t always phrased in this way, of achieving a kind of stable equilibrium in the social political order. That stable equilibrium was defined through this trope of what I talked about as the mixed constitution or the mixed regime. And in particular, the stable equilibrium was achieved by a kind of mixing in various ways. 

There were debates over exactly how to do this. But in general, there was a mixing or a balancing of what were typically seen as the party of the few and the party of the many. And, as we’ve been discussing in the in the context of the seminar, we can debate and discuss what that means and who we include in that. Nevertheless, that is the characteristic way that I think classical philosophy saw the division of society. And I think we’re still seeing it, under what is now defined as populism or elitism. I think it’s as true today as it was at the time when Aristotle was writing.

The characteristic break and distinction of modern politics was to say that politics, the social order, and economics should not really be aimed at stable equilibrium but at progress. The language of progress really is introduced in the modern era and becomes more prevalent in the modern era, to the point in which it has almost entirely positive connotations. It’s almost unthinkable to say you would want a society that’s not progressing. And yet, this would be a problem if this progress entailed or even required disturbing the equilibrium in the view of a classical thinker. But that’s exactly the premise of, broadly speaking, modern political philosophy, the rejection of the idea that you would want to seek a stable equilibrium, and in its place is the pursuit of progress.

Now, there’s debate over how progress is defined. But leaving that aside for a second, in the pursuit of progress there is a party, there is a segment, there is an interest. There’s a class in society who advances progress and there is a class in society that obstructs progress. That’s the basic presupposition on which modern politics has been built. And, in the liberal tradition, the view is that the elite party, the party of the few, is the party that advances progress. It’s the many, it’s the party of the people, that stands as an obstacle to progress. So, classical liberalism views the people as a danger, especially to the progress of economics, and it needs to devise ways to restrict and restrain the potential of the popular party to disrupt economic progress.

Whereas, it’s the progressive liberal party that views the people as a kind of conservative force in society that needs, in various ways, to be restrained or have its political power curtailed so that the party of progress can govern. The party of progress can then dominate and project society in a progressive direction. One response to this is Marxism, which differs from progressive liberalism in arguing that the party of the people is the party of progress. It’s the revolutionary party. It needs to be installed. 

So, all of these propose a party that advances progress. We live in a liberal society with elements of Marxism present, but we live in a liberal society in which it’s been seen as the role of the elites to advance progress. And I think it’s fair to say that one of the things that defines our politics today is that the elites, whether the sort of classical liberal, economic elites or the progressive liberal, cultural elites, have actually both combined in American and broadly Western politics. 

We are now at a point in which the people’s party has concluded that those forms of progress have been destructive to them, that they have resulted in both their material as well as social and psychic collapse in various ways. What we’re seeing, I think, as a political response is a kind of uncut and unexamined response, without any real sort of elite formulation. There’s certainly not a really well-developed philosophical formulation. It’s really just a response saying, “Our leadership has been really bad. The direction you’ve taken us is really bad.” 

But it has been an occasion for the beginning of recovering a tradition that argues for the need for an elite that provides for the conditions of stability and order and continuity, for the purpose of supporting the less advantaged of society. 

So, this is a long way of answering the question that you asked which is, “Do you need an elite?” And I think the answer, even in the case of all of these four positions (classical liberal, progressive liberal, Marxist, and conservative) is that you need an elite. 

But the question is, what is the elite for? And what is its purpose? And what does it seek to do? And in the case of the last of these that I just mentioned, the conservative position, the elites’ purpose is to provide for the conditions for the flourishing of the many. And that’s a difference. That’s obviously a differentiation and distinction from the way in which the liberal elite has understood itself, and increasingly understands itself, as a force in opposition to the people, to the many. 

MS: I really love that graphic you made with the four boxes.

PD: I’m pleased. I mean, it’s a little reductionist, but I don’t think it’s entirely without relevance to politics.

MS: In the bottom right box, you identify conservatism as the way to renew the mixed regime. What would this kind of conservatism look like today? Would it look something like the proposal Mitt Romney was putting forth for childcare, to use the arms of welfare to sustain family and culturally conservative values?

PD: Yeah. So, I actually think that that’s right on the mark. The conservative elite would be especially interested in ways of providing for greater degrees of stability, especially in those realms of life that are most subject to the destructive forces of the globalized economic order. Although, the Suez Canal may just all by itself lead to its curtailment. But, yes. A conservative elite would sponsor various policies that would support formation and the ongoing stability of family life, especially for those who are less likely to be able to weather the challenges of the economic order. 

And I think we would have to avoid the tendency of progressives who want to think of ways to liberate people from the home. And this is, of course, part of the feminist project. I think we have lots of evidence that children flourish when they are raised in the home by at least one parent, if not both parents, instead of being farmed off to child daycare. I think a conservative set of policies would look for ways to make it possible for people who wanted to stay home and raise their own children to do so. It would not simply begin with the assumption of the professional class, that everybody wants to get out of the home. 

In other words, the elite really needs to put aside what’s contemporary and begin to be more sympathetic to the needs and demands of those who are not members of the professional credential classes. We can begin to think of a whole range of policies that could do so. We would begin to think about curtailing the power of media, curtailing the power of the tech companies. All of the kinds of things that a generation ago would have been unmentionable in classical liberal circles have to be on the table when thinking about the ways that the modern economy is destructive of the things that conservatives should care most about. 

And at the same time, we should begin to think about ways of curtailing aspects of the cultural devastation that people are experiencing, which is no less a result of economics as it is of popular media portrayals of family life and small towns. The kinds of things that once were admired by Americans and frankly, admired by American media, are now derided or insulted or condescended to. And obviously that’s a more difficult challenge to overcome. But it’s no less necessary to really begin to think about how an elite civilization and an elite culture is responsible for making it possible for ordinary people to flourish. One of the ways of doing that is by not mocking their values, and by not deriding the ways of life that are essential for those forms of flourishing.

MS: Alright, one last question. I know that Alexis de Tocqueville has had a huge influence on you. Besides him, what thinker has had the greatest influence on your political thinking? And also, who is one thinker that you recently discovered that you wish you would have discovered earlier on?

PD: Well, for the purposes of this project in particular, and someone whose name has begun to be circulated again in ways that I’m glad to see, it’s the social historian Christopher Lasch. He wrote a number of works throughout the 1980s and 1990s, maybe best known for his book The Culture of Narcissism which was a best-selling book in the 1980s. But I think his late works, especially a very long book called The true and only heaven, and then a collection of essays that he put together shortly before he passed away called The Revolt of the Elites, are really worth revisiting right now. He really had a kind of prophetic insight into the trajectories of the modern elite and its impact on everyday working-class people. Most people would describe him as someone who was a member of the old left, even more of the Marxist left. But it’s interesting how his critiques move from more economic to more social and cultural dimensions as he began to see a new left that was abandoning its interest in class. 

I think that now really defines people at institutions like Yale, who have really ceased to have any interest in analysis of class. They’ve really been focusing on identity, race, gender, sexual orientation, which, in fact, ends up leaving the class conditions more or less intact. I think Lasch really predicted how this would play itself out. As a result, you would get a kind of backlash from those in the in the working class. And, oddly enough, it would be a conservative backlash in ways that would surprise and catch the left off guard. 

The thinker that I have encountered in relatively more recent times that I wish I had known earlier is an Italian thinker named Augusto Del Noce. The main reason why I hadn’t read him is that he hadn’t been translated until recent times, and I don’t read Italian. I wish that I had encountered him earlier because I think Del Noce, maybe more than any other major 20th century political theorist, you could put in that category Leo Strauss, Eric Bogle, Herbert Marcuse, and Michel Foucault, foresaw the trajectory of Western liberalism. 

I think he, probably more than any of them, foresaw the way in which Marxism would move from a critique of economic phenomenon to one that would become very comfortable with what he called the affluent society. He predicted that it would move into much more of a form of revolutionary ideology that was directed instead at cultural and social forms of traditions, like the ideas of nation and religious belief. And that rather than supporting the working classes, these forms of critique would actually undermine the conditions of the flourishing of the working classes. 

So, Del Noce was really a revelation to me when I first began reading him once he’d been translated by a gentleman named Carlo Lancellotti. And if there were any books that I would recommend, it’s the two books of essays by Del Noce that Lancellotti has translated. One of them is called The Crisis of Modernity and the other is The Age of Secularization.

MS: Well, Professor, that’s all I have. Thanks so much.

PD: Excellent. Thank you.