Dubuque, IA. I suspect most critics will say that the problem with Patrick Deneen’s new book is that it’s just too radical. I suspect I myself would have said so, just a few years back. These days, I wonder if it’s not radical enough.

That’s the radical part of me talking. The radical part of me thinks the argument in Regime Change doesn’t add up to real change. My radical side wants more than the replacement of one elite by another, which is what Deneen wants. My radical side thinks the current elites and their bad ideas aren’t the real source of what ails us, and that to make real change, we’d have to get to the root, the radix, of our discontents.

But I am large; I contain multitudes. Which is obnoxious, I know (for you and me both!). Because in addition to my radical side I’ve got a conservative one, and my conservative side agrees that Deneen’s book is too radical. The conservative part of me thinks Deneen has chosen the Boromir Option, and I’m more of Frodo Guy. I don’t think you can use the ring for good. I think using the ring is what makes you bad.

Not that I think Deneen is one of the bad guys. A lot of the critics are going to say so—and again, I myself might have joined that chorus, back when I was a liberal in good standing. But things change, and so do people, along with their ideas. Other critics will complain about the way Deneen’s ideas seem to have changed, shifting from localism toward nationalism. I’m more of a localist than a nationalist, but I can see good arguments on both sides. And I don’t see Deneen ditching the local, exactly. I think he sees the nation as the context in which local communities can thrive. “‘Localism’ is easily destroyed in a globalized system but can flourish if protected under an umbrella of public policy,” as he puts it (182). Of course, that sounds good in theory—let a thousand flowers bloom—but seems a lot harder in practice. Anyway, I don’t begrudge Deneen for changing his mind in response to circumstances. The past few years have changed a lot of minds, in a lot of directions. Like I said, I used to be a good liberal.

Are the good liberals the bad guys now? Deneen thinks so, and the radical in me wants to agree. The good liberals seem pretty gung-ho for censorship, imperialism, Big Pharma, and Judith Butler, among other cartoonishly evil things. The radical in me also appreciates that Deneen includes among these good liberals not only the faux-radical Butlers but also the faux-conservative Friedmans. He thinks the wokesters and the free marketeers are two sides of the same counterfeit coin, fake enemies conspiring to disguise (from themselves, especially) the pincer movement (as Deneen puts it in this old FPR piece) by which they squeeze the common folk between the rock of the State and the hard place of the Market, all for the sake of progress, which is they god they both serve, despite their vaunted atheism or supposed Christianity. They serve this god because it rewards them with power: together, the good liberals of Right and Left comprise our ruling class, a revolting elite that believes in nothing but moving fast and breaking things, ostensibly because they want to produce a better world, but really because they want to produce the kind of world where they’re on top. And what an ingenious ideological sleight of hand keeps them on top. Whatever they break, they call “oppression,” which makes them the liberators! This is a “genuinely new form of elite governance,” in which “the powerless are denounced as oppressors and the powerful . . . in turn commend themselves as victims” (40).

So far, so good, in my view. I am willing to accept Deneen’s Laschian account of our ruling class, not least because recent events have made it so hard to dispute. We have all seen how “leading economic actors have increasingly exercised hard, direct power in order to advance and effect cultural change. The two sides of liberalism . . . . economic and social libertarianism—are revealed increasingly to be identical, monolithic, and eager to deploy power in the name of enforcing individual expressivism” (54). But now my radical side raises its question.

Regime Change has a simple structure. It lays out the problem, offers a solution, and (refreshingly) makes some concrete proposals for how to get from the problem to the solution. The problem is the current regime, and the solution is to replace it. But what does it mean, in practice, to “replace” it? Here is Deneen’s program: “a peaceful but vigorous overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class and the creation of a postliberal order in which existing political forms can remain in place, as long as a fundamentally different ethos informs those institutions and the personnel who populate key offices and positions. While superficially the same political order, the replacement of rule by a progressive elite by a regime ordered to the common good through a ‘mixed constitution’ will constitute a genuine regime change” (xiv).

Will it, though? Is our problem really just that people with bad ideas are in charge? I hope that’s not unfair to Deneen’s argument, but in the end it really did seem to come down to that. Maybe he’d say that’s what it comes down to in real life, too: who’s in charge, and what they care about. After all, the first and perhaps the only political question is: who rules? But I wonder if it’s really enough to inform the institutions with a “different ethos,” or whether we need a more radical reformation of the institutions themselves.

In the passage above, Deneen is talking about political institutions, and I am not suggesting that we need a “radical reformation” of the American system of government itself. Indeed, Deneen himself proposes serious reforms to government institutions, such as expanding the size of the House of Representatives. And obviously if there are different people in charge of the institutions, then presumably those people would make a lot of reforms, some of which might even be radical. So I’m not saying that Deneen’s argument would leave the structure of the institutions untouched, even if the phrasing in that passage seems to suggest it.

Rather, I want to draw attention to what Deneen himself correctly notes, which is that “[a]ctual control of political institutions is adjacent to this power [of the ruling class], and where democratic resistance is encountered, it meets this new hegemony on an uneven battlefield” (54). The ruling class—the problem—does not necessarily control the institutions of government. Rather, they control what New Right types like to call “the Cathedral”—the ideologically uniform combine of media, professions, bureaucracies, universities, agencies, NGOs, woke corporations, and the like. If the solution is to replace this ruling class with a better one, it would seem necessary to replace them not only or even primarily in the halls of official power, but also or maybe especially in the chancel. Do we need regime change not so much in D.C. as in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Harvard Yard?

Or maybe Deneen’s idea is that if the right people gain control of government, they can break up the Cathedral. Some of his proposals—such as instituting a mandatory year of military or civil service, or making admission into the Ivy’s dependent on a lottery—might at least shake the Cathedral. Or they might just be a matter of changing its drapes. It is not completely clear to me. But my sense is that Regime Change is calling for something like a Gramscian “long march through the institutions,” only with the New Right instead of the old New Left leading the charge and filling the posts (“While the postliberal order will cut across current political parties, its current best hope is the ‘new right’” (xiv).) If that is the case, if I am reading Deneen rightly, then the radical in me wants to point out what happened to the New Left. The institutions ate them. They marched in singing and they never came out. They’re still there now, collecting their salaries, circling their wagons, and pretending to advance their radical ideas while advancing mainly their institutional prerogatives.

The radical in me says that our problem is not so much the people as it is the institutions themselves. Alana Newhouse says that “the real debate today isn’t between the left and right. It’s between those invested in our current institutions, and those who want to build anew,” and I agree. When it comes to the big, mainstream institutions, the Cathedral institutions (as opposed to small local ones), I tend to take the side of the “brokenists,” the ones who say it’s too late (and maybe it always was). A lot of his readers are going to accuse Deneen of wanting to break things that are worth saving. I’m suggesting he might be making the opposite mistake: trying to save things that are broken by investing them with a new spirit. What reason do we have to think it can work?

But I’m willing to be convinced. Now, I want to move over to my conservative side. Of course, you’ll see by now that I am not so large and multitudinous after all: my “conservative” question is going to be pretty consistent with the “radical” question I just raised.

They say a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, while a liberal is a conservative who’s been to jail. I always wondered whether this had any tactical implications. If they want to win some hearts and minds, maybe conservatives should take to the streets and mug a few liberals. Although I guess if they get caught and sent to prison, they’d turn into liberals, and then we’d be right back where we started. If all the players switch teams, nothing really changes, does it?

Of course, most conservatives have never been mugged. After all, unless you live in one of those post-apocalyptic liberal-run cities I keep hearing about, mugging is pretty rare. So if you’re conservative it’s more likely for some other reason. I’ve tended to prefer Oakeshott’s explanation, which is that being conservative is more of a disposition than an ideology (an anti-ideological disposition, even). But I’ve lately come to reconsider a second explanation, one more often offered by conservativism’s enemies than by its friends. This is the idea that the essence of conservatism is an acceptance of hierarchy.

Corey Robin, for example, thinks that conservatism is always a defense of hierarchy against movements for equality. It is essentially and not accidentally reactionary. To be “conservative” is not to rest assured of the permanent things; it is to gesture irritably at anyone who shows that those “permanent things” are actually just some temporary arrangements that happen to benefit those at the top—impermanent things that can and should be changed. “Conservatism is about power besieged and power protected. It is an activist doctrine for an activist time. It waxes in response to movements from below and wanes in response to their disappearance” (Robin, The Reactionary Mind, p. 28).

Note that for Robin, conservatism is an acceptance not of “hierarchy” in the abstract but of the current hierarchy, or the one recently deposed. Now Robin is a socialist; he believes that “inequality and social hierarchy are not natural phenomena but human creations” (Reactionary Mind, p. 53), and that to grasp this truth is to understand that humans could also create an equal, non-hierarchical society. Crucially, Robin’s reactionary conservatives no longer believe that hierarchy is natural and therefore inevitable. They do not accept hierarchy as a “fact.” The revolution teaches them that hierarchy can be “uncreated,” which means it can and must be re-created. They know now that they must make it a fact. Of course they will say it is natural and inevitable, but that is rhetoric, not conviction. It is “ideology,” in the Marxist sense.

It is clear what Robin would say about Deneen’s argument in Regime Change. It is also clear what Deneen would say about Robin’s argument, or rather what he does say, on page 136: “The proper debate between Marxists and conservatives is not over which approach is genuinely egalitarian (since neither is), but to what popular end an elite will inevitably govern.” A Marxist revolutionary elite (temporary in theory, permanent in fact) will govern toward the end of “progress,” which the Marxist thinks the people want, and Deneen thinks they don’t want; a conservative elite will govern toward the end of stability, which is what the people actually want (even if they’re willing to destabilize things to get it).

This is an old and weary debate (one might even suggest it is “permanent”). But I think that at least for the FPR audience—which includes people of several different flavors—this debate invites us to grapple with the fundamental political questions Deneen’s book raises. I mean the questions that tell you straight up whether you’re a conservative or a liberal or a socialist or an anarchist or whatever. The questions that finally divide people who might otherwise agree: like us. So how about it, dear reader: do you believe (with Deneen) that some kind of elite is inevitable, and that the important thing is therefore to make them an elite that serves the common good rather than themselves, by providing the stability that benefits the common people? Or do you believe (with Robin) that this very belief in the inevitability of the elite, whether cynically preached or sincerely believed, is how any elite gains and keeps power, for their own benefit and not the people’s?

Of course Deneen’s claim is more sophisticated than “hierarchy happens, gotta live with it.” His argument is not just about who should rule; it’s also about who does rule, right now, and why they’re not the ones who should. And Deneen’s claim is that the current elite rule by inverting the subterfuge that conservatives are alleged to practice. Robin’s conservatives pretend hierarchy is natural, in order to hide the fact that they set it up to empower themselves. Deneen’s liberals pretend that hierarchy is unnatural, in order to hide the fact that they gain power from tearing it down. If hierarchy is socially constructed, and freedom comes from deconstructing it, then power flows to the deconstructors, and hierarchy is established by rejecting it. Of course, this shows that the conservatives were right all along.

For the conservative, the question is not whether there will be an elite, but whether it will be a good one. Deneen’s argument is that the current elite is a bad one precisely because they rule by promising “progress” (which is just the deconstruction of all natural limits). Deneen’s conservatism is not a response to movements from below; it is a response to movements from above. It is a populist response to a progressive elite. It is a revolt against the revolting elite.

Once again, so far so good. I tend to agree that some kind of hierarchy is inevitable, and that the question is how to make it a good one. I guess that makes me a conservative. But now let me raise my conservative objection.

Regime Change is about reallocating power. Deneen is very forthright about this: indeed, part of the argument is that the worst kind of elite (our elite) is the one that is not forthright about the power it has. Also, the most important contribution this book makes is its attempt to recover for contemporary use the classical theory of the “mixed regime,” one in which an elite “few” who share (and give voice to) the conservative values of the “many” governs with a view to the common good of all, by establishing the conditions of stability and continuity in which the people thrive, while the people hold the elite accountable and chasten their tendency toward self-aggrandizement. So Deneen is not after power for its own sake, or rather for the sake of the new ruling class he envisions (of course, revolutionaries never are!)

But he is after power: both the power to install the new elite, and the power that the new elite will wield. The power to install the new elite will come from the people, if their populist energies can be guided through the smashing of the current regime toward the creation of the new one. The power that the new elite will wield will come from the existing institutions, as we have seen. I have raised my radical question about the “long march” project. My conservative question is about the idea that the energy for the long march can and should come from “an elite cadre skilled at directing and elevating popular sentiments” (xvi).

Maybe I am just too much of an elitist—too much of a conservative!—but I worry about the “sentiments” in question. Can they really be “elevated”? I think Deneen sees the people as the repository of tradition—inarticulate and inconsistent, shaken and weakened by decades or centuries of “progress,” but sources of hope nonetheless. He acknowledges their vices and sometimes entertains a “both-sides” comparison with the liberal elite in which the people do not necessarily come out as the more virtuous party. But in the end, they are for Deneen where tradition survives. It is the people who actually want the stability and continuity that a better elite can provide.

Maybe. Or maybe Jon Askonas has it right. There is no more tradition. Technology killed it. Technology—what for Marx was “the true revolutionary principle,” and something Deneen barely mentions in Regime Change. As Askonas puts it: “When you descend from lofty rhetoric about ‘Traditions’ and ‘Values,’ it becomes apparent that a huge number of the actual practices and social institutions which built those virtues have disintegrated, not because of Progressivism or Socialism but because of the new environment and political economy generated by technology.” For Askonas, failing to realize this is “why conservatism failed.”

If there is no more tradition, if not only the liberal elites but the “conservative” people have had their souls hollowed out not by bad ideas but by bad technology and bad political economy, then the attempt to “direct and elevate popular sentiment” might have to be something closer to “manipulation.” But this is what the current elite do. The new elite would do it for good, of course, rather than for evil. But that’s the Boromir Option. And I’m a conservative—a conservative about means, as well as about ends. I think that’s what makes you a conservative. I don’t think you can use the ring. You’d just be switching teams.

So: the radical in me wonders if Deneen is too conservative: his otherwise radical argument seems to conserve the structures—the institutions and the technologies (and institutions are just “social technologies”)—that in my view are the deeper source of our troubles. And the conservative in me wonders if Deneen is too radical: his otherwise conservative argument embraces “Machiavellian means toward Aristotelian ends,” which seems to undermine the conservative disposition to value proper method as much as right aim.

Of course “radicals” and “conservatives,” just like wokesters and free marketeers, are two sides of the same coin. What is more radical, and more conservative, than to cast the ring into the fire? That would be a real “regime change,” would it not? Isn’t that what it would take to enable us to journey back toward the Shire?

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  1. I’ve always appreciated Wendell Berry’s articulation of the hierarchy problem, which appears in Standing by Words. if I remember correctly. He argues that hierarchies are inevitable: the problem lies in distinguishing between those that are just and those that aren’t, and working to remediate the latter.

    Liberalism tends to discount or reject all hierarchy (except, of course, that which it produces itself) while the right often ignores or downplays the “justice” angle due to its commitment to the concept of hierarchy overall. It’s like the old load-bearing wall analogy. Liberals will knock them out before checking, while conservatives worry that all old walls are load-bearing and leave them alone.

  2. “Corey Robin, for example, thinks that conservatism is always a defense of hierarchy against movements for equality”
    Yes, the “liberals” today are conservatives and “conservatives” are the radicals. The “liberals” are the ones cheering on the FBI, etc., as they smash their political opponents, and tut-tutting that their opponents dare to protest, and shrieking that their political opponents are “dangerous.”
    The “liberals” stole political power from “conservatives” 70 years ago, and they’ve been using our reverence for the constitution ever since to try to prevent us from changing anything.
    It’s all deck-chair-on-the-Titanic-rearranging, anyway, everyone knows things are falling apart, but that still doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
    There are some good quotes from Jefferson, Chesterton, etc., that apply here, but we’re not allowed to say such things anymore. Too dangerous.

  3. This is an excellent, thoughtful engagement with the book, Adam; great stuff here! Much more capacious than my own review, which touched on a lot but really only focused on Deneen’s, in my view, rhetorically powerful but fundamentally unpersuasive and philosophically flawed take on “democracy.” There’s a couple of points that I’d like to push you on though, if I may:

    “I am willing to accept Deneen’s Laschian account of our ruling class, not least because recent events have made it so hard to dispute.”

    But is it, in fact Laschian? Certainly Deneen makes good use of Lasch’s attacks on “progress” as an ideology, and Lasch’s identification of elite-manufacture in our late capitalist moment. But genuinely believed, as Deneen manifestly does not (or at least, doesn’t now), in the democratic potential of the producer class, of people in actually productive communities. Deneen’s reduction of such potential to the slow, routinized working out of norms which a new, better, aristocratic class would both draw upon and ratify through their wielding of actual rule-making authority doesn’t pass the Laschian smell test at all, I think; Lasch firmly argued that the people in those communities were capable of self-governance. So this actually rebounds to one of your larger observations: Deneen’s argument is fundamentally a Gramscian (or I would say Alinsky-ish) one–organizing people not to empower them in their places, but for the sake of capturing the places where power inheres.

    “Of course Deneen’s claim is more sophisticated than ‘hierarchy happens, gotta live with it.'”

    I strongly disagree. Where in Regime Change does Deneen ever make a justificatory case for hierarchy? On the basis of intelligence, perhaps, or God’s creation, or patterns of social behavior, or biological evolution, or psychological capacities, or education? I’ll admit he does have a few stray lines which gesture in the direction of a couple of these, but I saw no argument there; rather, what I saw was repeated affirmations that, of course, some select class of people are going to be capable of exercising the direct authority of rulership, and then everyone else–“the people,” “the working class,” etc.–are just going to go about their lives, longing for some elites to situate their routines into a regime ordered into the common good. It’s only natural, right? Well I say, make that argument Patrick, please. (And I guess I’d want to ask that of you as well, since you allow that you “tend to agree that some kind of hierarchy is inevitable.” Why?)

    “I worry about the ‘sentiments’ in question. Can they really be ‘elevated’?…If there is no more tradition, if not only the liberal elites but the ‘conservative’ people have had their souls hollowed out not by bad ideas but by bad technology and bad political economy, then the attempt to ‘direct and elevate popular sentiment’ might have to be something closer to ‘manipulation.’ But this is what the current elite do. The new elite would do it for good, of course, rather than for evil. But that’s the Boromir Option.”

    This, I think, is a tremendously important question that you’ve drawn out of Deneen’s book here. In the same way that you believe (and I agree) that Regime Change (a better book than Deneen’s previous Why Liberalism Failed, I think) invites us to “grapple with the fundamental political questions,” I think your point here invites us to grapple with fundamental social questions–specifically, questions pertaining to local society and local social virtues. It puts me in mind of what I’ve long felt was the best theoretical argument about community and liberty I’ve ever read: Michael Walzer’s “Communitarian Critique of Liberalism.” In essence, Walzer asks: is the communitarian (which, to my mind, is the most coherent way of expressing the point of a conservatism which is not merely Oakshottian dispositions, but rather an actual program critique of liberalism–and here I would include what you’re saying about technology–accurate? If it is, then where would be the sentiments and traditions that conservatives what to preserve and build upon–hasn’t everyone been atomized and deracinated? Might as well stick with trying to organize (or “manipulate,” as you correctly observe) all these random individuals then? Boromir all the way! But on the other hand, maybe the critique isn’t accurate? Maybe virtues and traditions and community-envincing collective practices nonetheless adhere, even in the midst of technology and contemporary liberty? In which case, the call has to be recognize and adapt to currently existing community forms, and do what one can to democratically empower people in their places? After all, the Shire wasn’t the same after Saruman’s disruption of it–they were integrated into the renewed empire of Gondor, among other things–but it was still the Shire, right?

    Anyway, for whatever its worth, this is what your review got me thinking about this morning. Many thanks!

    • “If it is, then where would be the sentiments and traditions that conservatives what to preserve and build upon….But on the other hand, maybe the critique isn’t accurate?”

      A form of this question came up recently in response to Paul Kingsnorth’s “What’s Left to Conserve?” talk. It’s always been a motif of conservatism that we should “strengthen the things that remain.” The question then arises as to what remaining things should receive our attention. But Kingsnorth’s question, and yours by implication, both seem to be asking “what things really remain?” a question that would obviously need answering before deciding upon which things to strengthen.

      One of the things I noticed in the responses to PK’s question was an inability or unwillingness to distinguish between “macro” and “micro” concerns. When Paul concludes that there’s nothing left to conserve, it seems obvious that he’s speaking on the macro, not the micro, level. Perhaps that’s a good place to begin a discussion of what actually “remains”?

  4. IMHO we can think Hamilton and his urban/industrial cronies (federalists I call them) for creating a strong centralized government that will be nearly impossible to shake off short of dividing the United States into 7-8 smaller countries.

    I also think term limits for the legislative branch are now in order. I didn’t used to think so due to “congress not getting anything done” argument. But, then the actual lawmakers don’t write or analyze proposed legislation, do they? Bills are written outside of members’ offices and reviewed by staff who likely aren’t old enough to remember anything prior to 1990. What does it matter if all the legislators are “junior” members due to term limits. The DNC and the RNC control them anyway. Even under term limits, the two committees will still wield power.

    If we are to really have regime change, we need to wrest power away from those two committees. The only possible way I see that happening is via a true plurality or multiplicity in our legislative branch with at least five to six real parties. The houses would have to form coalitions in order to pass legislation; and, I see that as a good thing. No one party, at least in the long run, can exercise perpetual control much in the same way the three-branch system was supposed to.

    Without real accountability, our government will work harder to keep regimes in place than it does in governing. People are too weak and ill prepared to rise up in recall elections or pressure for impeachment. So, the only regime change I can ever see realistically happening in the next 25 years is to form 3-4 more legitimate and empowered political parties.

    And, yes I was serious about breaking the current nation into 7-8 smaller sovereign nations, with a federal “coalition” for a common currency, a common defense and the current court structure.

    • Term limits are necessary but not sufficient. The centralization of power in DC has to be shattered. Forcing congresscretins to be replaced every decade or so would not keep the same sort of scumbag from occupying the seat. What if congresscretins were legally mandated to spend 90% of their time in their own districts (perfectly achievable with today’s technology), so that they were surrounded by their constituents rather than government bureaucrats, lobbyists, etc., and were massively fined if they moved out of their districts after leaving office, so they couldn’t enrich themselves and flee? That would take away a big chunk of the incentive to enrich yourself while keeping yourself completely physically removed from those who you are alleged to “represent.”

      • What if congresscretins were legally mandated to spend 90% of their time in their own districts (perfectly achievable with today’s technology), so that they were surrounded by their constituents rather than government bureaucrats, lobbyists, etc., and were massively fined if they moved out of their districts after leaving office, so they couldn’t enrich themselves and flee?

        I actually think that’s kind of a genius idea, Brian. Two thumbs up!

  5. This is an insightful comment, Rob. I haven’t read Kingsforth’s talk, so I don’t know how strong the parallel’s between it and Walzer’s decades-old essay may be, but as you present it, it does appear to cut to the heart of things, at least for those of a conservative/communitarian disposition: to “strengthen what remains” is to 1) make a judgment about what it is that actually “remains” and 2) make a judgment about what strengthens it. From my perspective, if one genuinely takes seriously the value of local, democratic communities, then one needs to treat them anthropologically in the first case, and not politically.

    So for example, as Susan McWilliams Brandt, daughter of Deneen’s mentor Wilson Carey McWilliams (and early FPR author!) recently commented in response to Deneen’s book, and its implied hostility to same-sex marriage and other non-traditional family arrangements, “democratic politics is best realized through ordinary acts of love and friendship…[and] we must encourage those wherever possible.” So to use your terms, on the macro level, the fact that most actually existing communities in America today appear to be pretty accepting of same-sex marriage certainly could be seen as massive loss of “marriage” as traditionally understood, meaning that there is nothing left to conserve in such a community, and so the person looking to strengthen marriage might assume that only radical, decidedly non-“conserving” political actions are appropriate. But what about the micro-level? Anthropologically speaking, do same-sex relationships involve people who express love and devotion? Model fraternity? Show community support? Support civic involvement? Make friendly neighbors? If so–and thus far, the evidence is not clear one way or another–then it might be the case that the proper communitarian/conservative response would be recognize that while the specifics of the tradition may have changed, the micro-virtues which that tradition supported in the first place nonetheless remain. In which case, supporting same-sex marriages with the proper social and political policies would be, in fact, the properly conservative and traditional action to take. Paging Andrew Sullivan!

    • I see what you’re saying here about SSM, but I think that the “specifics of the tradition” changed long before gay marriage was even a blip on the cultural radar. We went through a lengthy period in which the institution of marriage itself was changed (and not for the good, imo), and it’s notable that gays weren’t all that interested in the thing until it became something of a shell of its former self. So in that sense a “properly conservative and traditional action to take” would first be to accept/support the previous degradations of the institution which led to SSM being a true possibility in the first place, a thing which most conservatives are unlikely to do.

  6. Russel, that is a good point about Lasch v. Deneen. One thing I didn’t address directly in my review is the implication of Deneen’s argument for democratic practice. I think Deneen’s critique of liberalism is pretty persuasive – but I also think his critique of liberalism turns into a critique of democracy. This is something I plan to write more about – I’m planning to review Danielle Allen’s new book, Justice By Means of Democracy, for FPR soon. I think putting her defense and reworking of the old liberalism+democracy idea in conversation with Deneen’s post-liberalism will show how “post-liberal” can also shade into “post-democratic.” But I think the erstwhile progressive liberals (whether economic or conservative) – as opposed to the genuine liberals, like Allen herself – have made precisely the same move. They cry loudly about “defending democracy,” by I think they are “post-liberals” too, and that their post-liberalism is probably even more “post-democratic” than Deneen’s.

    Yes, I don’t see Deneen make an argument that justifies hierarchy, not in the sense you have in mind. That is, he doesn’t tell us what counts as a GOOD hierarchy, a justifiable one. Given that he’s trying to revive the idea of “aristocracy,” I assume his short answer would be that a hierarchy is justified when the morally excellent, the aristoi, are in charge.

    As for me, what I agree with is the claim that hierarchy is inevitable. I wasn’t necessarily agreeing with any particular theory of what makes a hierarchy a good one versus a bad one. The historical fact that hierarchy has always emerged, even and especially from the revolutionary attempts to destroy and prevent it, seems to me to be pretty good evidence. And I think there is also a structural logic behind it, which we can tease out. But to press any further in this discussion, we would need to be precise about what we mean by “hierarchy.” I certainly don’t think that the hierarchies of vast modern states are inevitable, because I don’t think vast modern states are inevitable. But there will be a “hierarchy” of some kind even in an egalitarian village: some will be more influential than others, some will be stronger, some smarter, etc. etc. If we say “but we could design a village structure counteracts these natural individual differences,” well then, I think the problem just probably re-emerges: the designers of the “egalitarian” system, or the ones who understand and can manipulate the design, will then be on top.

    I do not necessarily agree that “tradition is dead,” that technology killed all the virtues of individuals and small communities. I was offering it as something to think about, a decisive question for Deneen’s argument. Personally I go back and forth; I have my optimistic days and my pessimistic ones. Rob G., I think your distinction between macro and micro is pretty useful here. On the micro level, in my interactions with people, I certainly meet with lots of virtue. What that tells me about what I should think about the macro level – the level of Deneen’s argument, and of thinking about politics generally – is another question.

  7. If “liberals” got to destroy the political power of rural areas and small towns by court decree, why do “conservatives” have to feel guilty that trying to do anything about it is somehow “a critique of democracy”? We had a perfectly valid system that worked for centuries that was obliterated without anything to do with “democracy”, those trying to prevent anything being done now by concern-trolling can and should be ignored.

    • Brian,

      We had a perfectly valid system that worked for centuries that was obliterated without anything to do with “democracy”, those trying to prevent anything being done now by concern-trolling can and should be ignored.

      Your contempt for basically everything that has happened in America since Reynolds v. Sims is one of the great reliabilities of the Front Porch, and I hope you never change. Admittedly, being able to explain exactly who (County commissioners? Black farmers? Catholics? Unmarried women?) you think the previous system of allowing state democratic apportionment to ignore the principles enunciated in the Constitution itself when laying out the workings of the House of Representatives actually “worked for centuries” on behalf of, would be an improvement, but failing that, do keep on keeping on.

  8. I loved this part, Adam:

    point out what happened to the New Left. The institutions ate them. They marched in singing and they never came out. They’re still there now, collecting their salaries, circling their wagons, and pretending to advance their radical ideas while advancing mainly their institutional prerogatives.

    That harks to liberal Thomas Franks article in the Guardian after the “shocking” loss in 2016. He used some sharp language to criticize the Dem hubris that he saw as part of the problem: “it was her turn” (to be nominated) and if she had won, “everyone in Washington would have moved up a notch.”

    But you wonder:
    trying to save things that are broken by investing them with a new spirit. What reason do we have to think it can work?

    Answer: Ezekiel 37. Or if you want to look at history, reflect on various cultures throughout the world that have revived after collapse.

    • They marched in singing and they never came out. They’re still there now, collecting their salaries, circling their wagons, and pretending to advance their radical ideas while advancing mainly their institutional prerogatives.

      Painting with a pretty broad brush there, Adam and Martin. I don’t disagree with you in general, but as always, does the claim hold in the particular? For every Hillary Clinton there’s a John Lewis, after all.

        • Of course you’re correct, Martin, and I don’t mean to dismiss such a long discussion with my short response. I guess I would just want to insist that liberalism (like conservatism, like socialism, like every -ism) contains multitudes, and thus posing a generality about the “New Left” is poor way, I think, to makes ones case.

  9. Thanks. Most thought provoking. I also contain multitudes. You seemed embarrassed to use the phrase. Yet using it is a reminder that there is almost always more to the matter than a binary choice.

    My law Professor sees at least 5 dimensions in any disputed matter….
    The plaintiff
    The defendant
    The Judge
    The jury

    Further, as I read your piece I had trouble finding recognition of the presence of Private Economic Power. Multi national businesses seem to operate in a space beyond Law; almost as fugitives. They spot an opportunity to make big money, fly in, get control, make their bundle and leave a shell behind…

    There is an absence of a countervailing power!

    I am a bottom up thinker, but there is a lot of action up there that trumps the down here… our mutual interdependency is not easily overcome. Scale is important. Human scale is too often ignored. Yet… The Localism you and the journal espouse has flaws too.

    If you are interested I would happily send you a recent essay of mine arguing for a positive understanding of Populism. In the words of Carl Sandburg “The People, Yes”.

    In summary, I am proposing more countervailing power over private economic power
    More effective democracy over governmental power thru increased participation by the people affected. From School boards (more than just parents) to the highest levels of governance

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