Liberalism, Postliberalism, and Localism: A Review of Justice By Means of Democracy


Last month, Patrick Deneen came to bury liberalism; Danielle Allen comes now to save it. Deneen’s Regime Change aims for the heart of our ruling idea. Allen’s Justice By Means of Democracy tries to absorb that blow and make liberalism stronger. At times, I think she almost succeeds. But I have some questions.

I hope you’ll forgive a theorist for theorizing at some length. I think the current debate about liberalism is important, because it gathers in one basket so many of the issues that localists tend to care about. But I think localists can do more to engage in the debate directly, as localists, and I want to do a little of that work here. I invite you to sit and think with me for a while. At the end I’ll pose five specific questions that localists can ask of both liberals and postliberals.

The heart of liberalism is its promise of equal political liberty—the freedom to act politically, to share in the making of decisions about public life. To some that may sound more like the promise of democracy, which need not be “liberal,” but the liberal claim is that non-liberal democracies cannot keep that promise. Majority rule, unrestrained by rights which are not up for a vote, will always lead to political inequality. Rights restrict the political liberty of some in order to protect it for all. To be liberal is to accept this tension and support the institutional forms needed to maintain it.

The postliberal complaint is that this promise is a ruse. Postliberals believe not only that liberalism has failed to secure political equality, but that it is intended to fail. For postliberals, liberalism is an ideology in the Marxist sense: pretty words that serve the ugly interests of a ruling class (it is no accident that postliberals can sound a lot like Marxists). On the postliberal view, rights restrict the political liberty of all in order to protect it for a few. To be a liberal is to entrench this dynamic in political forms that save the appearance of political equality while preserving its opposite.

The postliberal argument is not reformist. It is supposed to be radical; it aims for the root. In my review of Regime Change I wondered first whether the argument was radical enough, but here let us assume that it is, and that the changes proposed would produce a meaningfully different regime. The second question I posed in that review was whether that different regime, if it were genuinely postliberal, would also be necessarily undemocratic.

Deneen’s postliberal case against liberalism is not that it produces an elite, but that it produces a bad elite. As a conservative, Deneen believes that there will always be an elite, and that the question is how to constitute a regime that produces a good one rather than a bad one. He believes, in other words, that some kind of political inequality is inevitable and that the challenge is to make it work for the common good of all rather than the private interests of a few. Careless critics will jump to the conclusion that Deneen is just peddling another ideology, one designed to serve the interests of a rising counter-elite. More careful critics, of which I hope I am one, will avoid that easy cynicism and point out that Deneen’s proposal for the “mixed regime” defines a “good elite” in ostensibly democratic terms. For him, a good elite is one that shares the values and supports the interests of the people, and whose power is checked by the people, even as the people are guided by the elite. In this sense, a good elite is a “democratic elite.”

On some definitions of “democracy,” this is an oxymoron. But it is certainly not an oxymoron if we accept the rival liberal definition. The liberal defines democracy as something that cannot secure political equality without the enforcement—perhaps even the creation—of rights which limit democratic action. But the enforcement and creation of rights cannot just happen; rights can be institutionalized, but they must be institutionalized by people, people who are acting politically. Are not these people the liberal’s version of a “democratic elite”—an elite that rules to serve the people themselves?

The real difference is that the liberal wants an elite that is “democratic” because it instantiates the rights that protect the people from any of its members who want to “impose their values” by using their political liberty to shape public decisions; while the postliberal wants an elite that is “democratic” because it instantiates the values that “the people” already hold, and protects them from any of its members who want to “impose rights” in ways that vitiate those values (values which Deneen deftly describes as a “public good.”) But in my view, both believe that the political inequality between few and many which such instantiation unavoidably requires can serve the interests of all. And neither believes in “democracy,” if democracy just means “no elites” (but that is a facile conception of democracy).

The contrasting emphases on “rights” and “values” is a crucial disagreement; I am not suggesting that liberalism and postliberalism can be synthesized. But with regard to the question of political (in)equality, the liberal should be able to recognize herself in the postliberal mirror. A genuinely postliberal regime might not be undemocratic, but it would no more be a simple “democracy” than our current regime. Bad motives and unintended consequences aside, the choice between liberalism and postliberalism is best understood not as “friends versus enemies of democracy,” but as a choice between two suitors for the hand of the people. We are familiar with the old marriage called “liberal democracy.” The rival would make a new marriage called “postliberal democracy.” In theory, then, both liberalism and postliberalism offer “mixed regimes.”

Deneen’s argument, however, is not only about liberal theory; it is about the reality of the liberal regime today. And his observation is that this regime is poorly mixed. Nor is this an accident; it is in the interest of the regime. The liberal ruling class has segregated itself from the demos, not just in the heads of the rulers but in the real world of daily life. The plain fact is that the two classes are separated socially, economically, and geographically, and this fact has fatal implications for the political equality that liberal theory promises. The people have less and less freedom to act politically, while the elite have more and more. Of course, they remain formally equal, and “the people” can put their candidates in office. But the postliberal is not the kind of “conservative” who pretends that material circumstances do not matter. She is the kind of conservative who agrees with the kind of leftist who says that our material circumstances are now revealing the liberal promise for the trick it always was. The increasingly stark reality of the regime supports the postliberal argument about the intellectual underpinnings of the regime. It shows that the theory was always an ideology.

Deneen comes to bury liberalism, and Allen comes to save it; she does not exactly come to praise it. Allen defends liberalism by accepting the core of these charges against it. She admits, or rather she insists, that contemporary liberalism does in fact have a democracy problem. Having promised political equality, it now delivers the opposite. It has become in fact what critics on right and left say it always was: an “anti-politics,” a method for producing an outcome called “justice” by bypassing the democratic process, on the grounds that the unwashed masses might produce a different outcome called “injustice.” But for Allen this is not the essence of liberalism, as Deneen believes; it is just a wrong turn. The ambition of Allen’s book is to redeem liberalism from a mistake, one that has provoked a populism which could be salutary but is also dangerous. She aims to repair the broken marriage between liberalism and democracy, to return political equality to the center of liberal theory and to draw out the concrete implications of that restoration for public policy.

But political equality for Allen is not only about politics. She too denies that political equality can be real if it is merely formal or measured simply by electoral results. She is not talking about voting rights or campaign finance reform (or not only those). She is talking about the social and economic realities that make political equality either genuine or illusory, realities which in our day have led to the populist revolt on the streets and the postliberal critique in the academy (or its online hinterland). While her argument rests on interventions at the level of foundational ideas in political philosophy (the source of our standards of justice, the relationship between negative and positive liberties), and while the first third of her book is devoted to these interventions, her emphasis from page one is on concrete questions of governmental institutions, political economy, and civil society. As any postliberal will insist, this is where mistakes in political philosophy always show up; it is where our ideological promises are tested. Allen is a theorist and takes abstract concepts (like “liberty” or “equality” ) very seriously, but she does not hide behind them to avoid that test. And it is her policy proposals, especially for social and economic policy, that I find most fruitful as a test of her attempt to save liberalism from its postliberal critics.

As her title makes plain, justice for Allen is achieved not by circumventing but by establishing democratic government. But a government is not democratic simply by virtue of majority rule. It is democratic only if the whole people rule. A majority, like a minority, is only a part of the people, and democracy means popular sovereignty. Only the whole people is “popular.” Allen does not mention “populism” in this context, but she is clearly rebuking the common populist tendency to conflate “the people” with some of the people, and to take power by excluding the others. (This is a logical fallacy—the error of “synecdoche”—which leads to injustice.) The question is, what mechanisms of governance can protect “the steering function of the people taken as a whole.” Real democracy requires not only institutions through which the people as a whole govern, but “institutions that counter and check the emergence of concentrations of power, whether wealth holders, social majorities, social minorities, technocratic elites, or demagogues.” Real democracy is what she terms “egalitarian participatory constitutional democracy.” This means that real democracy is liberal democracy, so long as “liberalism” is centered on enhancing political equality instead of on the achievement of an abstract “justice” by diminishing that equality.

Allen notes that in ancient political thought, “the people” or demos referred not to the whole but to one part of the whole political community, namely the poor. The question of regime analysis or prescription was the question of which part actually ruled or ought to rule on behalf of the whole. Regimes were distinguished by their ruling class: democracies were ruled by the poor many, oligarchies by the wealthy few, aristocracies by the virtuous few, and so on. The ideal of the “mixed regime” became the favored option among these possibilities: the best regime was one that synthesized the class divisions, so that no one part could be said to rule. The many ruled in some areas, the few in others, via institutions that allowed for checking and balancing. Thus the aim of a mixed regime was to “depersonalize power”—which is the first of Allen’s four “design principles” for builders of liberal democracies. Democratic government must not be impersonal (“[t]o the contrary, democracies depend on . . . a high volume of personal, human interaction”), but “identifying where power finally resides in a democracy is and should be a challenge.” It is “the people,” who rule—not “Steve.” If Steve rules, it’s not a democracy.

While Deneen draws on the ancient thinkers for his own attempt to revive the “mixed regime” for a postliberal America, Allen draws on the Founders, who “did not neglect the ancient preoccupation with the division of any given population into classes . . . they also designed their institutions to achieve a balancing of powers among the different kinds of demographically specific interests in the polity.” The seeming agreement here extends from principles to the concrete proposals that follow from them. For example, in order to rebalance the mixture, which currently favors minorities (via the Senate and the Electoral College), both Allen and Deneen recommend expanding the size of the House. Of course, Allen wants a larger House because she thinks that will help fix a regime that is insufficiently democratic because it is insufficiently liberal, while Deneen wants it because he thinks it will help transform a radically liberal and therefore deeply undemocratic regime into a postliberal and therefore more genuinely democratic one.

In general I found Allen’s proposals for government congenial to my sensibilities, and convergent with many of Deneen’s, even if their reasons for recommending such changes diverge. But her interventions in social and economic policy give me more pause.

It is hard to understate the importance of Allen’s insistence that political equality is diminished or enhanced not only or even primarily by the proper design of governmental institutions, but also and maybe more importantly in the realms of civil society and political economy. It is not enough to have “egalitarian participatory constitutional democracy” if the social and economic conditions under which people must participate are not themselves structured with political equality in mind.

Allen requires that liberalism secure what she calls “difference without domination.” She is referring to a familiar “paradox,” which is that liberalism’s “protection of the basic liberties—for instance, the right to association—is likely to generate social differences that might easily come to be attached to patterns of domination.” We must therefore find ways to “protect the basic liberties . . . in such a way as to protect the emergence of difference—which is an expression of freedom—while also blocking the conversion of that difference into domination.”

Threading this needle in practice means building what Allen calls a “connected society.” She draws here on the idea that social ties include three types, termed “bonding,” “bridging,” and “linking.” Bonding ties bind family, friends, and other close relations, and are usually strong. Linking ties connect people at different levels of a hierarchy (like in a workplace). Bonding and linking ties are crucial to social and psychological health, but Allen says they also tend to take care of themselves. It is bridging ties—connections across demographic differences—that are often weaker and harder to establish or maintain. A connected society maximizes bridging ties, without weakening bonding ties. “The question,” she says, “is how to cultivate the kinds of bonding relationships that also facilitate bridging relationships.”

Bridging relationships are mainly the fruit of good institutions, and Allen recommends several policy reforms. Most broadly, she argues that building a connected society “first of all requires focusing on all of the policies that impact the use of land and space: transportation, housing, zoning, districting (including for both political representation and education), public accommodations, and education.” It is these policies that encourage or discourage people to connect across differences of class, culture, race, and the like. She specifically recommends finding ways to make college campuses, especially elite campuses, more conducive to connection, by emphasizing “geographic diversity at the level of zip codes.” Economic policies like local minimum wages can increase social connectedness too: “This localism lifts wages without reducing jobs and refocuses employers on their obligations to people across class lines within their own communities.”

But institutions cannot do everything, and a connected society is also a cultural project. Here Allen emphasizes, as a correction to Robert Putnam’s theory, that “‘social capital’ emerges not from any given activity itself [like bowling] but instead from capacities, skills, and knowledge applied to interaction in the contexts of particular activities.” The policy question here is what these skills are, and how to build them. She notes that certain professions “routinely build valuable bridging ties: translators, interpreters, mediators, patient advocates, community organizers engaged with diverse populations, and members of global business teams. Each of these . . . has a tacit body of knowledge that might be tapped” and translated into educational programs that try to explicitly cultivate the capacity to “bridge.”

Once again we see how Allen is in her way concerned with the same problem as Deneen: the insufficient “mixing” of our current regime, and how to mix different groups more evenly. Both are keen to get specific, to connect their theoretical interventions with policy prescriptions. But here is where Allen’s liberal response to the challenge of political inequality starts to leave me cold—though I am still not sure if Deneen’s postliberalism leaves me any warmer.

As Allen puts it, “The critical question for a democratic society is how we can bond with those who are like us so as to help us bridge even with those who differ from us.” I agree that this is the question. But there are several hints in Allen’s answer that tells me she and I are on a very different page, and that I am not sure it’s possible to fully bridge our differences. For example, she asks: “If our families and our therapists help us learn how to bond, who helps us learn how to bridge?” Do our therapists help us learn how to bond? Or do they, as Christopher Lasch or Ivan Illich would have it, subvert those bonds by transforming them into the purview of experts? To put families and therapists together in this sentence seems telling. And when Allen says that while bridging ties are difficult and fragile, “[b]onding ties take care of themselves, really,” I think immediately of Deneen, who would say that it is precisely in a liberal society that bonding ties do not take care of themselves, because liberalism is constantly undermining them in the name of “liberation.” Allen seems reasonable when she reminds us that “to say we need an art of bridging is not at all to say that we can ignore the art of bonding.” But it is revealing that when she talks about who will teach us this art in a way that makes it possible to “bond with those who are like us so as to help us bridge even with those who differ from us,” she mentions all kinds of research in various academic disciplines, including “management literature.” Allen talks frequently in this book about the need to build a liberal democracy in which expertise is made into a tool of the people rather than their master. But when it comes to making “the people” capable of handling their political equality, the experts in her vision seem to settle back into the tutelary positions to which they have grown so accustomed under contemporary liberalism.

I think, then, that Allen’s updated liberalism may find itself in the same ambiguous relation with “the people” as I argued Deneen’s postliberalism does. In the final analysis, both seem to entrust the advance of democracy and the creation of a more properly “mixed” regime to an elite. Deneen does it openly, while Allen—true to liberal form, Deneen would say—does it covertly. Deneen’s elites are those who share the people’s commonly held values, while Allen’s are those who can teach people with different values how to interact in ways that respect each others’ rights. Deneen’s elites have the right values; Allen’s have the right method (or should we say “best practices”).

Allen would argue at this point that Deneen’s mistake is to think of “the people” in terms of commonly held values. In fact, she says this is precisely what led Rawls to take liberalism down the wrong path: writing at a time of relative social homogeneity, he took common values for granted and built a theory that justified a focus on just outcomes over democratic process, and thus downplayed the need for political equality between people who hold different values and want different outcomes. Her “power-sharing liberalism” is liberalism for an increasingly heterogeneous society—one in which a “postliberalism” based explicitly on common values is as impossible as a liberalism based implicitly on such values. Deneen would respond that liberalism, including and especially contemporary “woke” liberalism, is always an attempt to impose a certain set of values on everyone, and that these values—derived from the ideal of “progress”—are bad ones, not only because they are wrong on moral grounds but because they materially benefit the few at the expense of the many. He would say that Allen, even if she wants to update liberalism in light of complaints like his, certainly does not escape this problem, and that her deference to expertise even in the realm of culture, which is by definition not the product of “management,” makes this clear. Families impose values; so do therapists.

Allen’s economic proposals stem from the same principle of “difference without domination” that informs her proposals for civil society. As with civil society, the goal is to build an economy that supports rather than undermines political equality. Just as “bridging relationships” are seen as the key to building a “connected society” that supports political equality, so bridging relationships are also important to building what she terms an “empowering economy” that has political equality as the measure of its success. Here, the bridges cross differences that emerge from market competition and entail “productive collaborations among the public sector, market organizations, and nonprofit concerns (including universities), avoiding domination by any one of those sectors.”

It is telling to note that many critics of contemporary liberalism will read a passage like this and think immediately of “The Cathedral”—the amalgam of private and public, state and market, for-profit and nonprofit, economic and cultural organizations that in the critics’ view add up to “the regime,” the one that Deneen wants to change. From Allen’s perspective, harmony between all these sectors indicates a balance of power that redounds to the benefit of the people: it supports political equality. From Deneen’s perspective, it indicates an imbalance of power, where the Cathedral has it all and the people always lose, even (perhaps especially) when their tribunes win elections.

There are other, similar red flags. Besides such economic “bridging relationships,” Allen also emphasizes the importance of building “democracy-supporting firms.” At first, especially when she is drawing on Elizabeth Anderson’s argument about the threat posed to democracy by “private government” within corporations, Allen strikes notes that ring true to my ear. She rightly notes that “domination” can appear within a firm, disguised by the formal fact that no one is forced to work there. Seemingly small issues like the assignment of hours are highly relevant to the question of political equality. How many people don’t are forced out of a job because their hours are controlled by an algorithm, with a view only to what is profitable for the shareholders and not what is good for people, who are not only mothers and fathers but also citizens? Amen to this.

But listen a little longer, and Allen starts talking about “stakeholder capitalism” and cites “environmental impact statements” as “an example of how innovative forms of accounting can help redirect capitalist behavior.” One thinks immediately of Blackrock, which seems well on its way to domination at global scale, and is famous for pushing such statements. Allen seems painfully naive, or painfully Progressive, at such points. If I want to hear paeans to “stakeholder capitalism,” I can go to Davos. (Actually I can’t. Which is the point.) Allen quotes Rebecca Henderson, who is (of course) a professor at Harvard Business School, who argues that “reimagining capitalism requires embracing the idea that while firms must be profitable if they are to thrive, their purpose must be not only to make money but also to build prosperity and freedom in the context of a livable planet and a healthy society,” and that corporations that have “authentic purpose” can also be more profitable. Such “arguments” sound a lot like ad copy for Pfizer.

And yet, at other points in this section, Allen makes proposals, or at least uses language, that I can appreciate. She wants a “paradigm shift” in economics itself, a change in focus from “transactions” to “relations,” because no real humans are the “rational calculators” who live in the models of economics. Amen. She says that out of the three economic policy domains—preproduction (the acquisition of education and social capital), production (the making of goods and services), and postproduction (the distribution of those goods and services)—the shift in focus from transactions to relations will be most consequential in the domain of production, and that this is where we ought to start. Here she can almost sound like a Producerist, with her call for “good jobs,” not just “fair distribution.” Indeed, she opens her section on political economy by citing Jefferson’s argument that “preserving political equality required organizing land and capital in ways that worked against the concentrated accumulation of wealth by a small elite . . . to secure the famous middling-class economy that Aristotle . . . thought necessary for a stable polity capable of securing conditions for human flourishing and the emergence of free institutions.” This is promising. The question is whether “stakeholder capitalism” has shown itself to be anything but a clever way for a small elite to accumulate and concentrate wealth. The same questions can be asked about other proposals. For example, she emphasizes the principle of “free labor,” and the need to recover “labor mobility.” Her aim here is to break the dominion of corporations over people’s lives, including their political lives as citizens. But localists, who otherwise share this aim, may pause at the celebration of “mobility,” and they may wonder how the corporate stranglehold can be broken without simply making people beholden to the state, instead.

Localists have other questions besides that one—unique questions that may be lost in the liberal/postliberal debate. I think that in general we localists need to enter this debate in a more sustained and systematic way. Deneen’s ties to and sympathies with localism notwithstanding, he has not communicated his postliberal arguments in especially localist language, to say the least. I am still sitting with the question I asked in my review of Trevor Latimer’s Small Isn’t Beautiful: “to what extent are we localists, and to what extent are we postliberals, and to what extent are these positions compatible?”

I will not try to do any of that systematic work here at the end of an overlong essay. In closing, I only want to offer five questions which may help to guide new localist interventions in the arguments about liberalism and its discontents.

1. The essentially localist question is always about scale, and we must continue to press this question. When Allen talks about liberalism as the cultivation of liberalizing “social practices and organizations that permit individualized explorations by each person of their own happiness,” we ought to ask about the size of those organizations and the location of those practices. Can local communities permit such exploration? Or do Millian “experiments in living” inevitably undermine local communities? When she talks about “democratic conversations that permit the cohabitants of a community, of a nation, of the globe to seek solutions,” we ought to ask whether such conversation is really possible for the “globe” (the word makes it seem so small and manageable, doesn’t it?), or even for a nation the size of the United States. And when Deneen talks conversely about reorienting the American nation toward common values, we ought to ask whether values shared at that scale are compatible with the increasingly necessary experiments in shared living that might only be possible in small places.

2. If the essentially localist question is always about scale, the definitive challenge to localists in the mass age (as the FPR manifesto puts it) is technology. It was easy to be a localist before Progress brought planes, trains, and automobiles, let alone the new internet-enabled Machine for the mass production of disembodied souls. I found little attention in Deneen’s book to what Heidegger called “the question concerning technology.” Allen too gives it short shrift, and when her arguments touch on it, they evince a typically progressive optimism: “what land was to the nineteenth century, technology is to the twenty-first century: a new frontier, a source of innovation and fresh productive possibilities.” What is less localist than the idea that land can be reduced to its function, and that its function can be filled by technology? Localists should challenge liberals and postliberals alike to make the question concerning technology not peripheral but central to their political theories—just as we should challenge ourselves to do the same with our arguments.

3. The question concerning technology is not about the calculable economic results of technology; it is about the moral consequences of those results for the way we live, and live together. It is, in a word, a question about culture. Deneen does not talk much about technology, but he does talk a great deal about culture. It is not wrong to call him a “culture warrior,” so long as we do not presume anything disparaging by the phrase. Allen, by contrast, is curiously silent about the culturekampf. She wants a liberalism that works in an increasingly diverse polity, where Rawlsian assumptions about cultural homogeneity no longer make sense, if they ever did. But she does not address any of the particular issues that now divide us. One might argue that this is not her aim and not the level at which she is working, and that to do so would distract from her arguments. But I wonder: if she were to get specific about her own views concerning what kinds of “experiments in living” deserve to be shielded from “democratic conversations”—transgenderism, for example?—would her updated liberalism be up to the task of keeping the peace? Or has “heterogeneity” gone too far for the liberal dream of a modus vivendi? In the culture-war aspect of the debate, where postliberals rush in where liberals fear to tread, localists ought once more to emphasize the necessity of scale and approach the question from a different angle. Perhaps it is not whether to fight or not, but rather how to fight. I think postliberals are right to see in liberal insistence on “rights” and “tolerance”—which Allen retains, even as she tries to balance it with democratically deliberated “values” and publicly-enforced “decisions”—a covert attempt to impose values by accusing others of doing so. Deneen is right: there is no avoiding questions about the good. But where should we raise those questions, and where should we insist that there are answers, and that somethings are beyond tolerating—perhaps even beyond deliberating about? Should the fight not be as face-to-face as possible—rather than always unfolding via the (social) media, that medium which is always the real message, no matter what “content” we are generating for our side? Localists should consider withdrawing, not from debates about cultural issues, but from certain venues where those debates are more likely to diminish all the participants than to result in one side or the other being persuaded.

4. If localists, or porcher-type localists at least, are keenly and rightly interested in cultural issues, they should not (and do not necessarily) ignore questions about institutions, which may be less exciting but are just as important. As Allen says, democratic conversations are about “organizations” as well as practices. But here again is an interesting point of convergence between Deneen and Allen, and perhaps a point of divergence between them and us localists—or some of us localists. The essentially localist question, again, is the question about scale. This leads localists to view institutions of a certain size with suspicion. From the localist perspective, the key characteristic of the institutions that have come to play a role in the culture war—and fewer and fewer institutions seem capable of escaping this role—is not so much the position they take (“woke” or “anti-woke”) as it is the fact that they are large. If the great divide in America today is between those who believe the institutions are all broken beyond repair and those who believe they are salvageable, localists are probably going to be drawn toward the first position, if only because “the institutions” in question are so big, and localists think institutions that get that big are already “broken,” even and especially if they are working perfectly. Both Deneen and Allen—but especially Allen—seem by contrast to believe the institutions—political, social, and economic—are basically salvageable, if only we can infuse them with the right personnel and values (Deneen) or make them more inclusive and participatory (Allen). As I read Allen’s book, I often found myself wondering how her otherwise inspiring arguments would land if she had started with a frank and comprehensive account of the astonishing corruption that hides everywhere in plain sight. Two thirds of the FDA’s budget comes from pharmaceutical companies. Should we not begin with that amazing fact (and the thousand others like it) rather than with the “surprises” of Brexit and Trump (which is how she opens Justice By Means of Democracy?) But of course such corruption will exist when corporations are larger than nation-states.

5. Finally, localists ought to more forcefully emphasize localism in light of its clear opposite, which is not the nation-state but the empire. And then we ought to insist on the obvious truth, which is that our nation-state is an empire, in everything but name (which is why Deneen, to his credit, is skeptical about nationalism). It was a continental empire, first of all: and as localists we will probably grapple with this history in different ways, some of us accepting the present borders as a gift, others suggesting that Manifest Destiny was already an assault on “the local” (it was certainly an assault on the native locals, which must somehow be faithfully remembered even as we seek for an honorable patriotism). But all that is prologue to the truly global empire that we built after World War Two, the “rules-based international order” that American liberals love to defend with one hand while they peddle postcolonial theories with the other, and which is being vigorously challenged by regimes which are definitely not liberal, but are not for that reason more attractive to me as a critic of liberalism. Contemporary liberalism, I think, has nothing useful to say about the American empire because it is the voice of that empire, whether it knows it or not. If liberals wish to “unwind the empire” with RFK Jr, or “dismantle” it, with Cornell West, let them say so instead of writing hit pieces. But let postliberals say so, too. And let us localists, who can be brought together across many political divides by precisely this anti-imperial sentiment—which is above all a stubborn refusal to be attracted to the alluring abstractions on which all empires depend—be the ones who challenge them to do it.

Image credit: “Women’s March” via Wikimedia Commons


  1. A real tour de force, Adam. Dense at times, but very thorough (and apparently fair, but I haven’t read either book so I can’t judge that) in comparing the two writers.

    I’ll respond in more detail later, but first I want to address “we’re a republic, not a democracy” which was a cliche among conservatives for many years.

    So what? Sun Yat Sen established a republic where each occupation had representatives (doctors, farmers, etc.) — some of that persists in various countries today, where clergy and/or military are assigned unelected seats in parliament. And the People’s Republic of China is in fact a republic: they have representative government, even though they lack free elections. The best decriptor of the USA is that we have a “democratic republic” with representatives who are elected.

    Second, I don’t really understand “postliberal” as distinct from conservative. And I certainly don’t accept contrasting it with “liberal” because all of the public voices of the latter are actually neoliberals: they are no longer anti-war, pro-union, and supporters of meaningful wage increases (wages have been flat vs cost-of-living for something like the past 40 years despite flip flops of the party controlling the presidency and/or congress); now they favor humanitarian intervention (dog whistle for pre-emptive war), globalization of labor (you mentioned Allen’s push for “labor mobility”, and praise of the gig economy due to equating hitech with being progressive. Add to that constraining speech and excommunicating their own members who vary from the catechism on a single point.

    • re: republic vs democracy, that’s just a semantic cul-de-sac arguing about how important “majority rules” is supposed to be, unless it deals with the fact that the US Constitution set up system based on separation of powers that was really based not on dividing powers between parts of the government, but between segments of society, that those different parts were supposed to represent. At this point that’s (almost) all been completely thrust into the garbage by a series of “reforms”, some of which were done via democratic means and some via judicial fiat, so the system is completely unrecognizable. There’s lots of discussion of this in various Anti-Federalist writings, in the long run they were extremely prescient.

  2. Thank you for writing. Lots of great stuff.
    I have to disagree with this:
    “our nation-state is an empire”
    Not because the USA is not an empire–it most assuredly is–but because it’s not a nation-state. Never has been, and certainly is not now.

    “the truly global empire that we built after World War Two”
    Conservatives need to begin to embrace more openly the fact that WWII was “the good war” but that it and its aftermath led to our current totalitarian bureaucratic nightmare. We must embrace Eisenhower’s Farewell Address and begin to tear the system down.

    “Contemporary liberalism, I think, has nothing useful to say about the American empire because it is the voice of that empire, whether it knows it or not.”
    Oh, it knows it, it positively revels in it, that’s why “liberals” love the CIA and FBI now, the tools of the empire are theirs and they brook absolutely no dissent. When Chuck Schumer warned Trump (who wasn’t even president yet!) not to take on the “intelligence community” or they’d destroy him, he was reveling in that fact! He thought it was hilarious, and wonderful!

    “And let us localists, who can be brought together across many political divides by precisely this anti-imperial sentiment—which is above all a stubborn refusal to be attracted to the alluring abstractions on which all empires depend—be the ones who challenge them to do it.”
    I don’t understand the subservient role you seem to place “localists” in, as if it’s “liberals” jobs to dismantle the nightmare system, and we have to just hope that they’ll do so. Nonsense. Why on earth would they do that?

  3. Adam, your explanation of the Allen/Deneen complementarity of rights and values (protected vs limited) is very insightful. But nowadays we are seeing certain values (freedom of choice, safety from trigger events) transformed into “inherent” rights that somehow previous generations were too ignorant to recognize.

    Allen’s concept that a government is “democratic only if the whole people rule” sounds like an exaggeration of the push for inclusivity. Should immigrants vote? (They already do in local elections in some of the more “enlightened” parts of the west coast.) Or should they be counted in the general population (as 5/5 of a person, not merely 3/5) when determining a state’s congressional representation? Clearly basic public services like fire dept, police dept, hospitals, roads, schools, need to match the total number of residents, not only the number of citizens.

    What about kids? Well, they grow up, don’t they? In fact, one big obstacle to simple majority decisions in the legislature is the recognition that a law passed today might not serve the majority of the population 10 years hence. If some issues are that ephemeral, why pass the law in the first place? This idea influenced the concept of a senate with a longer term of office, as well as the filibuster rule.

    Bridging/linking/bonding — another clever analysis that makes sense until the idealist tries to explain it in practice. Deneen correctly points out how traditional bonds are now dismissed in the name of “liberation” thus they do *not* take care of themselves via presumed stability.

    And the examples of “routinely” bridging professions that you cite from Allen’s book clearly correlate with social skills. What about working class people whose job involves a trade skill? Or people who work in scientific fields that are based on objective evidence such as experimentation and calculation? Of course, chatting with people in other professions is a kind of social skill, so “naturally” those occupations she identifies will network with each other, bridging minor differences without being challenged much.

    IMO, the biggest failure/hypocrisy of neoliberalism is the pretense that the USA is showing the rest of the world a shining example of diversity and inclusivity. A lot of anthropologists and linguists wring their hands over endangered cultures and languages, which is the antithesis of imposing “universal rights” the way progressives do. The latter approach to international relaions is indeed the mindset of empire.

    • Those who say that values come before rights — that questions of the good precede questions about which procedures we should use to adjudicate competing answers to those questions – are making precisely this point: “values” get laundered into “rights” as a way of short-circuiting debate, making certain values undebatable.

      The question of how to determine who is the “whole people” is a perennially tricky one, and Allen does deal with it pretty extensively, with her theory of “polypolitanism.” Basically, she thinks the nation is not the only context in which political equality can and should be sought, and she has lots of ideas for how to build political equality not only between citizens but between citizens and non-citizens, including some interesting proposals for how individual citizens could sponsor immigrants. I couldn’t go into it in the piece; it’s worth reading.

      I think you’re onto something with your point about bridging. It makes me think of an objection that could be raised against her “correction” of Putnam’s theory. She says that bridging skills are built not by participation in certain activities, but by participating in them in certain contexts that allow the skills to develop, and that we need to not only “get people bowling together again,” but restore the context, which basically means teaching them how to bowl together – this being where those professions come in. The objection would be that people in those professions themselves are not actually good at “bridging” real difference. They’re just good at doing what they do, which is to talk about how to bridge differences. Is a member of a “global business team” (one of her examples) actually very good at shooting the breeze with the plumber? Or is he good at shooting the breeze with people from other “global business teams”? Kind of like how people who travel a lot are often less interested in actual diversity than they are interested in hanging around other people who are “interested in diversity,” other people who travel a lot. (I speak with the experience of someone who has traveled a lot, and has been guilty of precisely this.)

    • ~~A lot of anthropologists and linguists wring their hands over endangered cultures and languages, which is the antithesis of imposing “universal rights” the way progressives do.~~

      This seems to be a liberal/progressive version of the blindness that many on the right have to the culturally destructive nature of capitalism. It’s as if one side of your “project” sets up speedbumps and warning signs while the other side comes behind and flattens the bumps and takes down the signs. Yet you cannot admit this because it would call the whole project into question.

      The blogger Jeff Martin, who used to post under the name “Maximos” but now seems to have disappeared from view once wrote a very concise summary of this observation: “The right wants economic liberty and cultural traditionalism but the former undermines the latter. The left wants cultural liberation and economic solidarity but the former undermines the latter. The end.”

      It’s been about 10 years since he wrote that, but one thing that has been amply demonstrated in the interim, to me at least, is that both right and left rebel against this observation, in that in both cases they reject the self-sabotaging nature of the pertinent half of their “project.” In fact, one of the telling things was that on the blog to which he contributed, commenters from both sides often said exactly the same thing: “Well, that may be true for the other side but not for my side. Here are some statistics……”

  4. Adam,

    This is a superb, thoughtful and thorough examination of the issues you see in Allen’s and Deneen’s books; it helps me understand your reviews (and your responses to questions about those reviews) of Latimer’s and Deneen’s books much better. I haven’t read Allen’s book, so I can’t judge your specific comments on it, but let me throw out one broad observation to contribute to the discussion. (And as for your five concluding questions, they’re all vital ones–though I take issue with a couple of ways you phrase certain points within them–I may have to write a whole FPR essay to formulate my thoughts in response.)

    Your whole paragraph on the elites which liberals want (those that will “protect the people from any of its members who want to ‘impose their values’ by using their political liberty to shape public decisions”) versus the elites which postliberals want (those that “instantiate the values that ‘the people’ already hold” by protecting them from “any of its members who want to ‘impose rights’ in ways that vitiate those values”), and the paragraph which follows describing the conflict between rights and values in terms of the sorts of elites which arguably play a role in a democratic order, are both wonderful, challenging arguments. To engage in that argument, though, I think one has to struggle with the position you dismiss as facile at the end of the second one: the idea of democracy as a system of ruling that does not have, or at least does not depend upon or make use of, elites.

    The history of liberalism over the past 350 years or more can be construed in many ways, but I think it is hard to deny that one important reason why liberal democracy emerged as a valid mixing in a world that was slowly but surely because more egalitarian and massified–and thus was complicating the role which elites had played in diverse societies for millennia–is simply that the elite function you insightfully identify in liberal philosophy generally is, or is supposed to be, procedural. That is, the role of elected or juridical elites was to do a job, to play a function, not dictate or presume a result. Whereas the elites of postliberalism, at least as Deneen presents them, are exactly concerned with results, with content. In other words, Deneen’s supposedly (but I would argue not remotely) “democratic” elites are elites who are tasked with discerning what the demos “truly” wants, but also with instructing and correcting–and therefore also denying–the demos when it or some portion of it says it wants something that is not compatible with what the elite holds to be that demos‘s best truth, its public good. Or, in short, Deneen’s elite must condescend to the demos; it can never, actually, fully trust them to rule themselves.

    Of course, liberal proceduralism also condescends; insisting upon equal rights-protecting functions (pertaining to speech, to property, to association, to religious expression, to legal due process, etc.) regularly runs up against values (sometimes ancient and foundational, sometime rapidly evolving) held by one or another portion of the people. But I would be curious to hear your argument as to why those two distinct forms of elite condescension are equally compatible with the notion of the people ruling themselves. The former contains within it, on my reading, a bottom-line assumption that, in regards to certain matters, no portion of the population, from a single individual to a complete unanimity, should be ever be presumed to posses the capacity to rule themselves; that capacity would always have to be demonstrated through the practice of virtue (which obviously would mean the tacit or formal demonstrating of correct value-appreciation and norm behavior, through education or long association or both). It is, in the end, essentially pedagogical and hierarchical. Whereas the latter, though surely capable of producing self-protecting hierarchies through its own types of education and institutional molding, nonetheless does not present itself as essentially concerned with forms, and thus doesn’t not present itself–or at least, throughout the history of liberalism, has not consistently presented itself as–essentially defining of the demos before the demos, or any portion of it, has exercised any kind of self-rule whatsoever: whether we’re talking about the decision to leave the feudal estate and move to the city despite being a serf who has ancestral ties to the local lord, or the decision to choose for oneself who to marry despite being a woman who is obligated to honor her father, or the decision to leave one’s community and study art in France despite being the oldest son, or anything else.

    Looking back at this comment, I’m bothered by the Rawlsianism which might arguably be teased out of it–the idea that the right is, in a pluralistic society wherein (thanks to Martin Luther, thanks to technology, thanks to many things) egalitarian individualism has a foothold, philosophically superior to the good. Communitarian that I am, I’m bothered by this implication. But then again, I’m a left communitarian, someone who thinks Bernie Sanders, though not theorist, understands something about making a practical response to the limits of liberalism that Deneen is too wedded to the dream of ancient hierarchies to really engage with. Yes, pluralism plus equality is going to mandate thinking about democratic rule in light of procedural and individual protections; outside of the dreams of some integralists, rights cannot and should not be dismissed with entirely. But strengthening the economic sovereignty of local communities, as the preferred–and, with the support of properly implemented democratic socialist policies, the privileged–embodiments of that pluralism, would allow rights (and the elites who would presumably emerge to define and defend them) to descend to a second-order place in democratic governing; Rawls’s overarching consensus–which both you and Allen recognize as weak sauce at best–wouldn’t have to take the lead in defining the parameters in democratic communities rule themselves. Do I know how such a decentralized, producerist, democratic socialism could be institutionalized? Not at all–but such a non-hierarchical lodestar is a better guide for our theorizing about democratic governance in the 21st century than either thinking what you see as Allen’s recommended managerial democratization of elites, or what Deneen proposes about a demos that hasn’t existed in 400 years, if that.

    Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking this morning, Adam; hope the conversation can continue!

    • Tricky issues here, perennially tricky.

      One way to engage the right-v-good question is to distinguish “levels” of values, something not often done in the more casual discussions we have about it. So, for example, a too-easy objection to the liberal ideal of a neutral procedure is to say that it’s not really neutral because, of course, it values procedure itself, as opposed to all sorts of alternatives that might be valued instead (divine revelation, etc). That sort of gotcha-style contradiction-catching doesn’t get us very far. Of course, we “value” procedure, so in that sense it’s not “value-neutral,” and there’s no procedure for determining that we ought to value procedure over revelation. But there are arguments in favor of doing so, and they are compelling, and most of us actually buy into those arguments. They appeal to fairness, which most people value intuitively. What we ought to do is to proceed to the next level: grant that procedure itself is a “liberal value.” The real question is whether that proceduralism really can, in real life, deal fairly with specific disputes about values, or whether it inherently favors and more importantly inculcates some values over others, where a non-proceduralist regime would inculcate other values. This objection to liberal proceduralism, where it protects the oldest son’s right to choose to leave his family and study art, is that it _encourages_ the son to do so. This, I think, is the objection that persuades Deneen and others in his vein, and me too in many of my moods, to reject liberalism itself. The freedom to choose can be protected by procedures, and quite fairly protected – we don’t need to imagine the elite rights-enforces scheming behind closed doors to impose their own values under the guise of protecting rights. It’s more that the fairness, and the procedure, under modern economic and technological conditions, tends to produce people who value certain things over others, precisely because liberal rights-based proceduralism teaches them to _fundametnally_ value their own freedom of choice — which freedom somehow gets associated in their mind with certain options, not others. E.g., liberals want to give women the “free choice” of whether to work or stay home – but everyone knows that those who go to work are “exercising their right to choose,” while those who stay home are “having patriarchal values imposed on them.”

      But I think that the emphasis here, in explaining all this, should be precisely on those “economic and technological conditions” – not so much on liberalism as an ideology. It’s liberalism _under modern conditions_ that leads to situations where “rights” are actually imposing or inculcating “values.” Maybe liberalism played a role in creating those conditions, maybe the conditions led to liberalism – that Marxist chicken-egg / base-superstructure question gets weedy fast, but it’s not less important, because it’s the really practical question of where to start. One interesting thing about Deneen’s book is that, while he’s inveighing against liberal ideas, he’s really determined to keep the material conditions (though not so much the actual specific technologies, an oversight I mentioned in my piece) in view. He’s a conservative thinking like a Marxist, or trying to, and I think this is a really promising direction to take.

      For this reason I’m really intrigued and inspired by your last paragraph, about moving the emphasis to economically strengthening local communities – localism as the better solution to this big problem. Your vision of a “decentralized, producerist, democratic socialism” that is “non-hierarchical” is compelling and worth hearing more about. (I think some of the disagreements we seem to have about “hierarchy” are semantic, or maybe just the result of me not thinking through the question of hierarchy enough.) Is it that common values can emerge in local communities without having to be “imposed” by the kind of value-inculcating elite Deneen has in mind, AND without having to be restricted by the kind of rights-protecting elite that Allen has in mind? This is worth talking a lot more about. Write that FPR piece!

  5. Wow, Russell, that’s even more of an earful than my comments. I think you’re onto something but the long paragraph about “defining of the demos before the demos, or any portion of it, has exercised any kind of self-rule” lost me. I hope you do write an article, outlining theory cogently and providing examples.

    One aspect not considered, or at least not expressed clearly, in these discussions is the fluidity of the elite, a kind of intellectual-social-moral-economic mobility. This cry for “new blood” has been recognized through the centuries (SAT exams were backed by Harvard’s president 3/4 century ago because he wanted to diversify the student body, which then meant getting white guys from places other than east coast prep schools), and is perhaps the link between “equity” and “merit”.

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