Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future was published in June, 2023, by Sentinel, a conservative imprint of the Penguin Group. The book is 269 pages, inclusive of end notes and index. Author Patrick J. Deneen received his BA and PhD from Rutgers. He has taught at Princeton and Georgetown. He has been at Notre Dame since 2012; his faculty bio reports that “his teaching and writing interests focus on the history of political thought … liberalism, conservatism, and constitutionalism.”
Deneen’s 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, made a big splash. It was praised by, among others, President Barack Obama, who wrote that the book, “offers cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel, issues that liberal democracies ignore at their own peril.” Reviewer Damon Linker called it “the most electrifying book of cultural criticism published in some time.” On the other hand, Christian Alejandro Gonzalez, in the National Review, wrote, “Patrick Deneen’s critique of liberalism exhibits an undue nostalgia for the past and ingratitude for the virtues of the present.” Perhaps given the attention that was paid to Why Liberalism Failed, Regime Change has also garnered a great deal of attention. That attention has spanned from the very positive to the very negative. The book has been covered in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, as well as by various think tanks and podcasts.
Foundational to Deneen’s project is a division of humanity into two groups. Deneen uses various words to label these two groups. A listing of Deneen’s labels will give the reader a sense of Deneen’s rhetoric, worldview, and agenda. Deneen’s two classes of persons are the few and the many. These same two classes he also labels oligarchy / demos; nobility / plebes; elite / populace; laptop class / working class; anywhere people / somewhere people; super zip code people / flyover country people; aristoi / popolo; strong / weak; grandi / popolo; aristocrats / peasants; rich / poor; white collar / blue collar; coasts / flyover; aristoi / demos; educated / uneducated; urban / rural; financiers / farmers; cosmopolitans / rooted; those who desire and benefit from the new, change, progress, and dynamism / those who benefit from stability and tradition; the bourgeoisie / the proletariat.
These two classes, which we can summarize as the few and the many, have their own distinct motivations, virtues, flaws, and abilities. The few are cultivated and have refined tastes. They are patrons of the arts. But they are also prone to being tyrannical, oppressive, and hypocritical. “Today’s elite is altogether new in the history of humanity,” Deneen insists, and yet he also insists that political theories from 2,400 years ago best serve to elucidate this elite. “Classical theory is superior to modern practice.”
The many are “grounded in the realities of the world … in tune with the cycle of life and rhythms of the seasons, tides, sun, and stars.” They also exhibit “frugality, inventiveness, craft, common sense, gratitude for small blessings, and stoic cheerfulness.” “They seek stability, predictability, and order.” The many possess “‘common sense'” – the scare quotes are Deneen’s. They draw on “a vast reservoir of traditional knowledge, the collective memory of ordinary people from the lessons drawn from daily life … a traditional society appears ignorant in the eyes of ‘experts’ but in fact is constituted by a deep well of experience and common sense wisdom.”
Deneen diagnoses America as a country in decline. Signs of decline include pornography, abortion, family breakdown, deaths of despair, drug addiction, decreasing life expectancy, increasing transgenderism, urban blight, lower birthrates, addiction to electronic stimuli, a large gap between the rich and the poor, Woke college campuses, the economic crisis of 2008, the Iraq war, trigger warnings, globalism in the form of a “universalized commercial ethos,” multiculturalism, diversity, and identity politics.
Deneen attributes America’s decline to a failure of liberalism. Liberalism required and valued continuous progress and creative destruction. It extended a false promise that everyone could be a member of the few. Liberalism and liberals have vitiated the institutions that support human life, namely, family, neighborhood, church, and religion. Liberalism’s many bad ideas include unquestioned acceptance of meritocracy, the concept of the individual as sovereign over himself, and the harm principle, that is, the concept of harm to others determining what is just or unjust. The harm principle was described by eighteenth-century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. Deneen writes that the harm principle has become “an aggressive tool of domination and even tyrannical power … the ultimate means of empowering the ‘experimental’ over those who believed there ought to be limits to the libertarian dismantling of all norms.” Tradition, custom, and Christianity, rather than the harm principle, should determine what is right and what is wrong.
Deneen blames, and defines, both the right and the left as liberals. Those on the right are economic liberals who are responsible for America’s manufacturing decline. Those on the left are social liberals responsible for lax sexual mores. “The two sides of liberalism … are revealed to be identical.” These liberals are in cahoots with each other to keep the commoners down. They work together to prevent the creation of a genuine people’s party. Neither kind of liberal can elevate America.
The answer is a conservatism that is “an inheritance of a premodern tradition.” The solution is what Deneen calls a “mixed constitution” representing the few and the many, the elite and the masses. Deneen also labels his program a “new right” and “common good conservatism.” For Deneen’s mixed constitution to succeed, the problem of the current elite must be solved. “The answer is not elimination of the elite (as Marx once envisioned) but its replacement with a better set of elites.”
To find role models for this better elite, Deneen turns to the past. In the past, Deneen writes, “elites were defined by long-standing relationships to geographic locations and the lower or working classes.” Deneen approvingly quotes Alexis De Tocqueville, “In aristocratic peoples, families remain in the same state for centuries … a man almost always knows his ancestors and respects them, he believes he already perceives his great grandsons and he loves them. He willingly does his duty by both.” The “territorial aristocracy” “was obliged by law or believed itself to be obliged by mores to come to the aid of its servants and to relieve their miseries.” Deneen quotes Edmund Burke who “lamented the replacement of a nation of ‘men of honor and cavaliers’ with ‘economists and calculators.'” He summarizes Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil as depicting “The Church” as a “democratic and democratizing institution, open and caring equally for all members, regardless of rank … the aristocracy motivated out of ‘noblesse oblige'” was moved “to afford ‘access to the humanizing arts of civilization.'”
Thanks to liberalism, today’s elite is no longer loyal to a place or a population. Deneen writes that today’s elite makes no real effort to communicate with or understand “the lower and working classes.” His better set of elites will be responsible for giving “voice to the nature of the good itself … they will be entrusted to be stewards and caretakers of the common good.” They “can and should be a defender of the cultural traditions that are mostly a development of bottom-up practices.” This new elite will elevate the many. In this mixed constitution, the two kinds of human, the few and the many, will suppress each others’ flaws, and enhance each others’ virtues. Both groups will become their best selves. People will feel gratitude toward the past and a sense of obligation toward the future. This is a mixed constitution.
“This ‘new’ conservatism is in fact quite old, it is a new manifestation of ‘original’ conservatism, the conservatism that arose especially as a response first to Enlightenment liberalism, to the French Revolution, and to Marxism.” As a demonstration of his dedication to the past, Deneen draws support from several writers from history. His team members include Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Polybius, Thomas Aquinas, Niccolo Machiavelli, Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, G.K. Chesterton, and, from the twentieth century, Charles Murray, James Burnham, Christopher Lasch, Wendell Berry, Michael Lind, JD Vance, and Tucker Carlson. In opposition to this pantheon, Deneen positions John Stuart Mill, John Locke, Francis Bacon, John Dewey, Ayn Rand, John F. Kennedy, Jonah Goldberg, George Will, Karl Marx, “some of the most prominent of America’s Founding Fathers,” Kevin D. Williamson, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and James Stimson.
In the America Deneen would like to see, Christian values will be supported by the state. The state will reward people for getting married, staying married, and producing multiple offspring. The state will make it harder to get a divorce. Deneen repeatedly uses the word “Christian.” In this book, he does not use the term “Judeo-Christian.” He does not address how America will manage non-Christian citizens in a country that privileges Christian identity. Deneen is a Catholic. He does not address how his idea of a Christian America will manage differences between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians. It was a better time when “Hollywood produced and lionized such films as The Song of Bernadette, Boys Town, and It’s a Wonderful Life” and when “religious figures like Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham, and Reinhold Niebuhr were widely admired.”
Porn will be “banned.” “Renewed efforts to enforce a moral media should be pursued.” “Legislation that promotes public morality … should be considered.” Abortion may be illegal. National service will be a requirement. Same-sex marriage will either disappear or simply not be supported by the government. Common good conservatism “opposes liberalism’s main commitment of liberty understood above all as individual choice … it begins with the primacy of the family.” “A foremost commitment” is a “Cabinet-level position” “a family czar” that will “support and shore up marriage and family.” There will be “financial incentives for families producing three or more children” and “relief from all future income taxes for working mothers of four or more children.” Sexualization of modern culture will decrease. Gender roles will be reinforced. National identity will be supported and cosmopolitanism will be resisted. Cultural and economic globalization will diminish. There will be “renewal of the Christian roots of our civilization.” “Only a Christian culture can recharge the West’s potential.”
America’s manufacturing and agriculture will be protected through tariffs. “Domestic manufacturing in certain areas should simply be mandated.” Workers will be protected by unions. There will be a “redistribution of social capital;” this will “break up the monopoly of social power.” Funding will be increased for public education.
At least one worker per family will receive a wage adequate to support a family. There will be a robust social safety net. Borders, both political and cultural, will be secure. Those who hire illegal immigrants will be punished. Cultural products that reflect the national culture will be supported by the government. Monopolies will be broken up. Corporations will not be able to use their economic might to punish states, as happened when North Carolina tried to protect woman and girls from men invading their bathrooms, and when Indiana protected the rights of businesses to decline commissions that violated their beliefs.
Deneen closes with five goals:
1.) Overcoming “Meritocracy”
Americans must overcome thinking of themselves as “self-making, striving individuals.” They must, rather, think of themselves as members of a collective, and as responsible to both the past and the future.
2.) Combating Racism
Racism is “pervasive” in America. “Preferential admissions, hiring, and other forms of affirmative action” are necessary.
3.) Moving Beyond Progress
We must value stability and balance.
4.) Situating the Nation
People will transfer their loyalties to the nation.
5.) Integrating Religion
America will become a land of piety, truth, equitable prosperity and just government.
How will these changes come about? There will be a “raw assertion of political power by a new generation of political actors inspired by an ethos of common-good conservatism.” “Control and effective application of political power will have to be directed especially at changing or at least circumventing current cultural as well as economic institutions from which progressive parties exercise their considerable power.” Means will include “people in a mob shouting abuse at the senate” and “mobs running through the streets, shops boarded up … the demands of a free people are rarely harmful to the cause of liberty” as described in quotes from Machiavelli.
Deneen supports “Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends.” “A main impetus should be … putting elites into greater contact with, and developing sympathies for, the values and commitments of ‘the many.'” PhDs should be directed to interact with the working class. University students should be required to take “trade” courses. College students should be required to wire a lamp. Graduates of elite schools will be encouraged to take on “lower-paid vocations” of a public service nature. “Economic institutions”‘ power should be “curtailed” or “dismantled” through “popular tumult” in the name of the common good.” “People should dispel any nostalgic views about free enterprise.”
Education will play a major role in remaking society. “A society formed around principles of justice, knowable through philosophic exploration of truth, can provide a genuine alternative to the tyrannical impulse … education will place heavy focus on the study of philosophy and theology.”
“Common good conservatism … rejects … the shrinking of government.” The House of Representatives could be increased to 6,000 members. Washington DC should be broken up, with agencies distributed throughout the US. Caucuses will replace primary elections. Suburbanites and commuters will be forced to bear “the actual costs associated” with “a transportation system that favors placelessness.”
I’ve done my best here to present Deneen’s views, as accurately as I am able. I say “as accurately as I am able,” because, repeatedly, while reading this book, my reaction was one of the following; “What is this man actually saying?” “Is he really saying what he is saying?” “Does he know what he is saying?” and “Does he know what he is not saying?”
Sometimes the most honest review is just four words. I hated this book. I looked forward to reading it. I am Catholic. I am one of those prototypical “many” Deneen adopts as his cause. I am from a poor, blue collar, immigrant family of coal miners and house cleaners. I wish I could eradicate porn and abortion, and I loved The Song of Bernadette and I wish we still had a culture that granted Academy Awards to such films. I also wish I could fly.
Before I address his substance, let’s talk about Deneen’s style. Regime Change is structured like a rambling rant. It is repetitive, and not just in redundancies an editor should have axed, like “support and shore up.” He makes the same observations over and over again. The book does not state a thesis, support that thesis, and then deliver a conclusion. On its final pages, he brings up racism and environmental degradation, topics he had not previously addressed. He tosses out one thesis statement after another: right and left elites conspire to suppress the masses; the government should subsidize childbirth; America should privilege Christianity; PhDs should wire lamps. He doesn’t support any of these theses with facts. He just issues diktats that one must accept because Christianity or because Polybius or because porn. Not a single idea in the book is fully developed. A self-indulgent rant is no way to argue against Woke and for the value of objective facts.
Deneen’s writing is excessively abstract rather than concrete. Abstract nouns are subjective. What constitutes love to me is not necessarily what constitutes love to you. What I think of as love changes from usage to usage. I use the same word, “love,” to talk about how I feel about peanut M&Ms, puppies, and Jesus. Concrete nouns are less elastic. The words “four-inch basalt rock” is less open to interpretation. Deneen repeatedly uses the phrase “the nature of” without supporting with concrete facts his declaration of the nature of an abstract concept. The most egregious example: in common good conservatism, the elite will exercise “their responsibility to give voice to the nature of the good itself.” Four abstract nouns in a row: “responsibility,” “voice,” “nature,” and “good.” Responsible writing uses concrete nouns to support abstract concepts. Deneen sidesteps that responsibility. An academic celebrity presumes to tell us what is good for us. He has followers. If his team ever gains power, I damn sure want to know how he defines the “good” for me.
He says he wants to eliminate porn. “Porn” is another abstract noun Deneen never defines with the concrete. Are we talking about snuff films? Great. They are and should be criminalized. Are we talking about Vargas girls, or even Tom of Finland? Where does porn stop and where does art, or historical significance, begin? Deneen never tells me why his elite should decide. And how will Deneen’s elite eliminate porn? House-to-house searches? Draconian measures have a way of turning ugly; see the Zimbardo prison experiment. How does Deneen’s Utopia sidestep mankind’s proven penchant for abuse in the name of eliminating evil?
In addition to over-use of abstract nouns, Deneen exhibits a couple of other writerly tics that struck this reader as ways to weasel out of taking responsibility for what he is saying. Deneen uses multiple scare quotes per page. Scare quotes inform the reader that what a word is meant to convey is different from the dictionary definition. “I” “was” “never” “sure” “what” “elusive” “meaning” “Deneen” “wanted” “me” “the” “reader” “to” “get” “from” “so” “many” “scare” “quoted” “terms.” Also, Deneen repeatedly uses the word “genuine.” His usage of this word reminded me of those who say that we can’t judge communism as a belief system because “genuine” communism has never been tried. These folks are wrong, of course; communism has been tried and it has failed catastrophically. Deneen is proposing Utopian ideas that defy human nature. Don’t worry, though. If one applies the “genuine” version of Deneen’s ideas, all will be well.
In a related tendency, Deneen is coy. He alludes to Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who has been persecuted for his refusal to custom design a cake for a same-sex wedding, but Deneen doesn’t name him. Deneen refers to a “deeply flawed narcissist.” From the passage, the reader can infer that Deneen is talking about Trump, without naming Trump. Deneen condemns the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. He doesn’t name the parties. Coy, abstract writing is evasive writing. It’s way to signal what you want to say without actually taking on the risk of saying it. Another interpretation is that Deneen’s coyness is a form of “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more” clubbiness. He and his followers understand; that’s enough. You outsiders don’t need to be let in on the full meaning of the sacred mysteries of Deneen.
Deneen offers a unitary explanation for all the bad things that Deneen doesn’t like. Liberalism is behind porn, environmental degradation, and deaths of despair. We should be wary of unitary explanations. They have a dark history; witness what happens when a powerful person says that all the things we don’t like are the fault of witches, or Jews, or immigrants.
Is “liberalism” really the best explanation for the decline of American manufacturing? What about history? World War II sparked American manufacturing. In the immediate post-war period, the American mainland was unscathed while Germany, the UK, China, and Japan were devastated. Slowly but surely these countries got back on their feet, or attained new manufacturing prowess, and presented America with competition it did not face in the immediate post-war era. Deneen supports unions. Unions drove textile manufacture out of Paterson, NJ. Does that make unions bad? No, unions wanted to protect workers from byssinosis and other work-related hazards. Life is too complicated to reduce to Deneen’s formula.
Liberalism is responsible for addiction to electronic stimuli? Why not blame Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, or Guglielmo Marconi? I was trekking in the Mount Everest area when some lodges began to electrify. Before electrification, trekkers and Nepalis alike huddled together around oil lanterns. We experienced deep communitas. Our interactions were warm, as if we were a temporary family. As the lodges electrified, there was no longer any need to huddle near a lantern. People scattered about the room, and communitas vanished. The Nepal I lived in had many features of a pre-modern, feudal setting. Manual labor wrested minimal calories out of harsh mountain landscapes. Travel was by foot. When foreign aid agencies gauged roads out of the mountainside, everything changed. Suddenly silence was broken by loud Hindi cinema music. Suddenly there was open prostitution. Suddenly paths were full of garbage. All these changes occurred in a theocracy ruled by a Hindu god king. The system didn’t change. Technology changed. Human behavior followed technology. A true new path for those of us who prefer a different kind of modern society will not sink under gratuitous references to ancient philosophers or blame everything one does not like about society on a single, omnipotent enemy. Rather, that new path will address how humans can successfully ride the technological horse without falling off and breaking our necks.
Deneen wants PhDs to abandon their study and get closer to the many. And yet he wants us to study theology and philosophy, the most esoteric of disciplines. Utopian regimes have an ugly history of targeting intellectuals and forcing them to perform manual labor. Think of the Khmer Rouge sending urbanites to rice paddies, or simply killing off anyone who even looked educated, like those who wear glasses. In America, not a few PhDs pay for their degrees with manual labor. I worked as a carpenter, landscaper, and domestic servant on my way to a PhD. Real PhDs do real work that contributes to everyone’s well being. Forcing scholars to abandon important research and fumble around with work they can’t do well doesn’t serve any positive end. My scholarly publications and teaching contribute to the world. When I was a carpenter, I almost killed my workmate, because I’m a lousy – and dangerous – carpenter.
There are two kinds of people in this world: people who divide the world into two kinds of people and people who don’t. Deneen never convinced me that there really are mutually exclusive populations called “the few” and “the many.” The characteristics he assigns to each population sound like descriptions of astrological signs. The many are ” in tune with the cycle of life and rhythms of the seasons, tides, sun, and stars”? Seriously? Yeah, and Scorpios are really sexy.
I thought of my own hometown: tiny, culturally remote, blue collar, largely poor. One of my classmates rose to become one of the few. This person is quoted in national news stories and has worked with world leaders. That trajectory would have been unlikely in Ancient Athens, where between a fourth and a third of the population was enslaved. Women had virtually no rights. Clearly Deneen’s major terms, “the few” and “the many” meant very different things in Ancient Athens than they mean today.
Deneen might take his own advice and get his PhD posterior out into the rice paddies. The solutions to our current dilemmas, he insists, is in the “premodern” era. Over forty years ago, I lived in tiny villages in two of the poorest countries on earth. In many ways, they were pre-modern. I saw children die of stomach aches, toothaches, and infections from scratching parasite bites. I almost died myself, oddly enough, of the same infection that killed Deneen’s nemesis, John Stuart Mill. If modern healthcare, or even just basic hygeine had been accessible, this infection would not have been an issue. No matter how hard we tried, we foreign aid workers could not convince the locals of the germ theory. Deneen needs to read Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The book is flawed, but it offers a compendium of folk beliefs from around the world. Pre-modern folk’s conceptions of sympathetic magic were simply wrong. They lead to really stupid ideas, millions of unnecessary deaths, and human suffering. Don’t romanticize the pre-modern world till you have lived there, and been affected by its deadly idiocy. And don’t trivialize the scientific method till you have watched a child die because someone took a dump upstream from the village water supply.
Similarly, bashing capitalism is a luxury of those living in a capitalist country. I’ve lived in countries where people captured and tortured members of the enemy tribe for no other reason than their identity. Capitalism encourages people to interact in a mutually beneficially fashion with members of the enemy tribe; it breaks down artificial identifications used to justify mass murder.
Deneen’s quote from Burke about feudal economies and their “cavaliers” calls to mind Ben Hecht’s opening titles for the movie Gone with the Wind. “There was a land of cavaliers and cotton fields … Here in this pretty world, gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of knights and their ladies fair … it is no more than a dream remembered, a civilization gone with the wind.” Sentimentality about past ages of cavaliers is a red flag, as photographs like this attest.
When I was a child, I heard my older relatives talk about life under the Romanovs and the Hapsburgs. Not a single one had anything good to say. Food? “We starved. Cabbage. Potatoes.” Homes? “Smoke. Cramped.” Authority? “They tortured you if you missed a day of work in the fields.” Education? “They burned our books. They destroyed our schools. They outlawed our language.”
Children in History provides a brief description of lives for Russian serfs. “From May through October serfs commonly worked barefoot … Some brutal landowners would put boys into iron collars … At night some serfs slept in special sheds, all together on straw. Frequently in these sheds stood heavy wooden fetters to ensure that they would not escape. When serf boys lay down to sleep, they put bare feet into these fetters.”
From Serfdom to Self-Government: Memoirs of a Polish Village Mayor 1842-1927 by Jan Slomka reports that, “People were treated worse than cattle are today. They were beaten both at work and at home for the merest trifle. Every farmer had first to do his dues at the manor house, whether with his team or on foot. Only then could he work his own land, sowing and reaping at night. No excuse as to pressing needs at home was of any use … No one dared go to the manor with any complaint … Running away would have done no good, for elsewhere it was no better – rather worse.”
I descend from these people. Any romanticized portrait of “noblesse oblige” and “cavaliers” will not wash.
One of the past thinkers Deneen recruits to his team is Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas stated that heretics “deserve … to be severed from the world by death.” Heresy is an abstract noun. One person’s heresy is another person’s orthodoxy. Who will decide, in our Catholic integralist Utopia, who is a heretic and who deserves capital punishment?
Deneen and his ideological fellows have inevitably run up against charges of anti-Semitism. I find the responses here and here to be unsatisfying. These responses play victim. “Oh, you bad guy liberals are picking on me the way you liberals always do.” Sorry, that response doesn’t begin to address how Jews, and every other non-Catholic, will be treated in a Catholic integralist Utopia.
The concept of the separation of church and state comes from Jesus Christ himself. Matthew 22:15-22 is a text of world historical importance. Other verses, like John 18:36 and Luke 12:13-14, reinforce it. The Catholic Church has had a changing relationship to the concept. A good summary of this changing relationship can be found here. Another article here discusses current Vatican teaching on the separation of church and state. In his December, 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II wrote, “The Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience.” American Catholics, according to a 2021 Pew poll, support separation of church and state. In short, Catholic integralism is not reflective of current church teaching, it is not reflective of Jesus’ teaching or the early church as described in the New Testament, nor is it a position favored by the majority of American Catholics. I can only hope that Deneen’s project remains a minority goal among Catholics and all others.
Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery