An Incurable Virus
Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded. As it becomes fully itself, it generates endemic pathologies more rapidly and pervasively than it is able to produce Band-aids and veils to cover them. The result is the system rolling blackouts in electoral politics, governance, and economics, the loss of confidence and even belief in legitimacy among the citizenry, that accumulate not liberal frame but as deeply interconnected crises of legitimacy and a portent of liberalism’s end times.
Patrick Deneen, the author of Why Liberalism Failed, is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. Having completed the book three weeks prior to the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, this book has served as a prophetic voice to speak to the divisiveness that exists not only politically in our nation, but also socially. As introduced in the foreword, the series editors Hunter and Owen IV don’t mince words as they summarize Deneen’s cutting claim: liberalism doesn’t need reform, but retirement. The author claims that liberalism is a loss of civic virtue  and equates it to a virus that destroys the good of human society and culture. Specifically, Deneen claims that liberalism has impacted four primary areas: politics and government, economics, education, and science and technology. I will highlight a few key claims in the text:
- Liberalism is unsustainable. Liberalism “is ultimately self-contradictory and… culminates in the twin depletion of moral and material reservoirs upon which it has relied… Take to its logical conclusion, liberalism’s end game is unsustainable in every respect: it cannot perpetually enforce order upon a collection of autonomous individuals increasingly shorn of the constitutive social norms, nor can it provide endless material growth in a world of limits.” Accordingly, liberalism is reaping its reward. We are not better off because of liberalism, but rather have eroded the fabric of society and culture. There is no restoration of this broken system.
- It results in loss of culture, or in his words, anticulture. Deneen defines culture as “a kind of collective trust.” In his opinion, liberalism has destroyed this trust and replaced it with an ideology that is entirely destructive. He states, “The dual expansion of the state and personal autonomy rests extensively on the weakening and eventual loss of particular cultures, and their replacement not by a single liberal culture but by a pervasive and encompassing ”
- The technological age is leading to our demise. “We are certainly right to congratulate ourselves for the successes of our technology, but we are also right to worry about the costs of our technological society. Our ‘culture of technology’ was premised, from the very start, on a false definition of liberty, and it now seems to be leading us ineluctably into a condition of bondage to the consequences of our own fantasy.” I can’t help but hear echoes throughout the book of what sounds like a longing to return to the good ‘ol days. The reality is, that ship has sailed. As Jeffrey Sachs observes in The Age of Globalization, without question, we are in the digital age; there is no turning back.
- Liberalism has compromised education. “Before the advance of liberalism, culture was the most pervasive human technology and the fundamental locus of education.” He states, “But if liberalism ultimately replaces all forms of culture with a pervasive anticulture, then it must undermine education as well.” According to Deneen, liberalism has abandoned the liberal arts to focus more on STEM studies. In my new role as a consultant, I have witnessed this shift as 40% of our clients represent classical Christian schools and Christian Universities that focus on the liberal arts. It gives me pause, what are these ideologies trying to retain? And do they really have Kingdom-value, or is it mere preservation of archaic ideologies?
- The author suggests that we need to imagine a human alternative. I certainly concur with this consideration. However, it is my impression that Deneen is not seeking a “third way” as much as trying to resurrect a rhetoric that clearly did not work for perpetuity in the first place. The author makes three suggestions near the end of the book: 1) acknowledge where we are and return to a preliberal age, 2) “outgrow the age of ideology,” and 3) by means of experience and practice, be hopeful that a better theory will emerge.
- The book gives mention to the following: Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 commencement at Hale University, “A World Split Apart”; and Robert Putman’s Bowling Alone.
I find it ironic how polarizing this text reads, especially at a time in which we are so divided as a nation. As Christ followers, I believe we are to seek a third way, the way of the Kingdom, as it is the path that restores, rebuilds, and unites for God’s cosmic purpose. Without question, we live in a marred world built upon broken systems, but as His called out ones, He has tasked us to fulfill His commandment to love God and love others as the salt and light of the earth. Not only are we His image bearers, but also, we embody hope that stands the test of time; a hope that He intends for us to share with the world as His hands and feet. Let us go, therefore, into every sector, confident in the coming of His Kingdom, as we share the light and life of Christ with everyone we encounter, even (or shall I say, especially) our enemies. For if we love only those who are like us, are we not like the ungodly of this world? “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 John 3:11, ESV).
 Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, Politics and culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 179.
 Ibid., viii.
 Ibid., xvi.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 40–41.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 64.
 Ibid., 109.
 Ibid., 110.
 Ibid., 182–183.
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Eric, thank you for distilling the “big ideas” from this book. I agree that there needs to a third way. I know that’s too much to write in a blog answer, so hopefully one day we discuss what our ideas might be about that third way. I would enjoy that.