In Why Liberalism Failed¸ the political philosopher Patrick Deneen takes aim not merely at the ideology of the mainstream of the Democratic party, but at the entire liberal tradition from Francis Bacon and John Locke through John Stuart Mill, which he rightly understands as the shared inheritance of both the American right and left. Eric Cohen finds “much to admire” in the book but concludes that it is nevertheless “deeply flawed.”
Deneen . . . believes that the liberal idea of human nature—and especially the liberal idea of freedom—is a perversion of the real truth about who we are as human beings. We are not simply autonomous individuals; we are members of distinctive families, communities, and nations. We are not simply free to choose who we are and how we live; our identities are limited by webs of inherited obligations that give life meaning and purpose. . . [Now] human nature is finally getting its revenge, as evidenced by the cultural depravations all around us, from collapsing birthrates to ecological deterioration, from broken communities plagued by opioid addiction to massive governmental and personal debt, from tween sexting to the collapse of liberal education. . . .
[But] Deneen [himself] treats American society as if it is simply a Lockean (or Madisonian) abstraction. For a book that celebrates the importance of particular peoples—with histories and heroes, stories and songs, rituals and traditions—it is remarkable how little attention Deneen pays to the real American story. Yes, liberal ideas informed the American founding; and yes, modern American culture evinces many of the degradations of advanced liberal society that Deneen so ably observes. But Deneen’s cold abstraction is not the American story. We are a nation that remembers (or could be reminded of) the cracked bell in Philadelphia emblazoned with a passage from Leviticus; Washington’s heroic crossing of the Delaware; Hawthorne’s mythic house of the seven gables on the waters of Salem; Lincoln’s log-cabin origins and soul-shaping rhetoric; the huddled masses entering through Ellis Island; the Jewish woman whose poetry adorns our Statue of Liberty and the rabbi who arrived as an American chaplain when Hitler’s extermination camps were finally liberated by American force of arms. To reduce America to mere liberalism is a crime against memory being committed by a thinker whose aim is to elevate our memories and our attachments.
And to reduce modern Americans to small and selfish men is to ignore the selfless citizens—especially in the American military—who see America as a story of freedom, not simply an abstract idea of freedom. And that distinction, entirely missed by Deneen, makes quite a difference.