Among the Post-Liberals

Among the Post-Liberals

No one has the stomach to burn out the tongues of blasphemers anymore, even if some remain too ornery to admit it. Perhaps breaking free of liberalism is harder than it looks.

Patrick Deneen (center) meets with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán (left) in November 2019. (MTI/Miniszterelnöki Sajtóiroda/Fischer Zoltán)

Why Liberalism Failed
by Patrick J. Deneen
Yale University Press, 2018, 248 pp.

The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God
by Eric Nelson
Harvard University Press, 2019, 232 pp.

Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX
by Andrew Willard Jones
Emmaus Academic, 2017, 510 pp.


Few can agree what liberalism is, but everyone can agree that it’s on the rocks. A thousand think pieces have made the litany familiar: Trump, China, Brexit, Orbán, add whatever terms appear on your particular bingo card. Rival cottage industries pit liberal critics of “populism” against left and right critics of “liberalism.” These warring camps share a sense of liberalism’s evident decline.

The term itself is notoriously slippery. Originating in the nineteenth century, it is sometimes projected back two or more centuries earlier. Frequently linked to two other terms, democracy and capitalism, its precise relationship with them is nonetheless not obvious; liberals have not always been democrats and probably need not be capitalists. Liberalism can equally refer to a set of political principles (freedom and equality, for instance, or individual rights) or to a certain political style (conciliatory and consensus-driven, or gradualist and anti-utopian). There may be a broad affinity between the principles and the style, but they don’t always go together. The Jacobins used radical means in pursuit of what often look like liberal ends. Likewise, every society has contained consensus-seekers, but it would be odd to describe moderate Spartans or Aztecs as liberals absent any commitment to recognizably liberal principles.

Recent debates have tended to confuse rather than clarify matters. In left-of-center discourse, “liberalism” and “leftism” are often invoked as respective shorthand for neoliberalism and social democracy. Neither of these positions sits outside the boundaries of liberalism, broadly construed, and most of the positions currently marked as leftist have been supported in other times and places by those we’d describe as liberals. Still, even if this confrontation doesn’t signal a verdict on liberalism tout court, it does at least provide clear battle lines in a conflict with real stakes.

On the right, things are more of a mess. Many conservatives in the United States still portray themselves as the true liberals, heirs to a tradition that was hijacked by progressives, but a growing number have cast themselves in opposition to liberalism as such, perhaps even back through the American founding. For now, however, this trend remains more an impulse and a branding strategy than a coherent philosophy. One obvious reason is that critiques of liberalism on the right have coalesced around the figure of Donald Trump. The result...

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