Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future
By Patrick J. Deneen.
Sentinel, 2023.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $30.

Reviewed by John G. Grove. 

It’s difficult to decide whether Patrick Deneen’s Regime Change is to be faulted for being too ambitious or not ambitious enough. 

On the one hand, he is too ambitious in his expectations for what traditional conservatives can hope to accomplish through politics. The title and basic premise reflect a failure to appreciate the limits of the human ability to fundamentally redirect historical development toward a predetermined end.  All of recent Western history, as Deneen presents it, is the working out of ideas concocted by a cadre of liberal elites. And even though history has been marching systematically in their direction for at least four hundred years, he nevertheless believes we have it in our power to turn history on a dime with better ideas and “concerted political action.” Locke and Mill were able to impose their will on the world, so why can’t we?

Yet when it comes to the book’s program—the actual prescriptions meant to fundamentally shift human history—prepare to be underwhelmed. Critics have made much of Deneen’s embrace of “Machiavellian means for Aristotelian ends,” and this is indeed extremely problematic. But none of his proposals are Machiavellian at all. His “Aristopopulist” prescription for a supposedly new, mixed regime that orients its citizens toward the common good depends on proposals that sound an awful lot like standard populist partisan talking points: building a “multiracial, multiethnic working-class” coalition, “chang[ing] the agenda,” electing office-holders that have a different “ethos.” And the specifics likewise smack of the sort of promises a presidential candidate might make about his first hundred days in office. Some are reasonable (promoting trade schools, or relocating federal agencies around the country); some less so (increasing public school budgets, while saying nothing of school choice); some more ambitious ones, like expanding the House of Representatives to thousands of members, seem very unlikely. Most of them, however, are calls for government to incentivize good behavior and punish bad behavior, without much discussion of whether such policies are likely to work. 

Some of these ideas are worse than others, but none of them are Machiavellian in the usual sense of that word—and they are not the sort of thing that would usher in the new modes and orders that Deneen claims to be inaugurating. But his inadequate prescription is in part a result of his simplistic diagnosis of our modern malaise.

Deneen’s diagnosis begins and ends with liberal political theory. All forms of liberalism, he claims, are motivated by a fundamental drive for progress—either (for the classical liberal) economic progress or (for the progressive liberal) social/cultural progress. A politics aimed at promoting progress then intentionally undermines stability, order, morality, and religion, recognizing that such things serve to bridle our desire for wealth, or our rage for equality. 

There is no meaningful discussion of factors other than conscious philosophical choice. We hear endlessly about the “architects of liberalism,” the “objectives” that they “intentionally advanced,” and even the “complete social, economic, educational, and political order” that arose “in conformity with the ruling claims of the new elite.” But Deneen has little or nothing to say about technological advancement, exploration, expansion of the physical capacity for trade, the Reformation, the sudden opening up of vast amounts of land to be settled in the New World, or the gradual development of constitutionalism and popular government in response to specific crises and acts of tyranny. 

Perhaps most importantly of all, Deneen does not consider the possibility that centralized, administrative government paired with mass democracy has created a perverse incentive structure that helps propel both individualist materialism and identity politics—and empower those with sufficient wealth to manipulate the process. It could be that the narratives by which our politics operate emerged not as the working out of a conscious plan concocted by political philosophers and their acolytes, but as an ever-evolving response to the sort of politics we practice. 

But Deneen never includes government and the modern politics of mass democracy among the problems to be confronted. The regnant liberalism, he tells us, exerts its power through business and “nonpublic institutions.” The main problem of our current politics is that we retain too much of liberalism’s “original mistrust of oppressive government” and are therefore hesitant to bring liberal-dominated institutions in line with his preferred ideology.

This weak diagnosis leads to weak medicine. If bad ideas created a bad world, better ideas are all that is really needed to create a better world! “Existing political forms can remain in place, so long as a fundamentally different ethos informs those institutions.” Note that the “ethos” of rulers is independent of the context in which they operate. And this is indicative of Deneen’s general use of that term “ethos” to indicate belief in a particular vision of the human good. So, notably, even his more institutional prescriptions (such as expanding the House of Representatives or using party caucuses rather than primaries) are advanced not primarily because they will prepare a better field for political engagement, but because they will elevate a particular “voice” or advantage the right “commitments.” The problem is not so much in the substance of Deneen’s policy prescriptions (though some of them are questionable), but in his failure to see that political practices themselves exert significant influence on who we are as a people and what we choose to pursue. 

Deneen presents his vision as a form of conservatism, and the substantive outcomes he seeks can be described as “traditional” in the sense that they reject many elements of modern life. But the way he approaches and conceptualizes political life—separating the examination of political ends from actual, present political life and practice—is at its heart a revolutionary approach. He values philosophy over experience, as offering “a rational recourse to universal appeals to justice,” such that we can know what ought to be “in advance” and apart from what is. We should only conserve a social order that, in our detached, reasoned judgment, we have determined to be objectively good. And if that order is flawed, we should become revolutionaries. “To constitute a political and social order worth conserving,” Deneen says, “something revolutionary must first take place.”

As a common partisan brawler, then, Deneen is easily distinguished from a liberal. But with this higher-level understanding of the way political life operates, Deneen is merely the reverse mirror-image of the revolutionary liberals he critiques. He is quite at home with the modern, rationalist liberal described by Michael Oakeshott who 

reduces the tangle and variety of experience to a set of principles which he will then attack or defend only upon rational ground. … Much of his political activity consists in bringing the social, political, legal and intellectual inheritance of his society before the tribunal of his intellect. … And his disposition makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform.”

Most of Regime Change is devoted to clothing this revolutionary message in the garb of populism and mixed constitutionalism. But Deneen’s commitment to both of these seems skin-deep and appears to be an attempt to appeal to the present populist moment without giving up on his belief that the right kind of elites can impose a preconceived social order on the world. 

Deneen’s populism comes out in his claim that the fundamental division in any society is that between “the few” and “the many.” In America, the few are the “credentialed” elite—the products of America’s top-rated universities who benefit from the “managerial” economy; the many are the “working class.” Oversimplification abounds, most notably in the lack of any extended discussion of America’s middle and upper-middle class, a silence that is especially problematic when Deneen tries to take up the mantle of Aristotle’s mixed regime. 

For most of the book, the many seem unequivocally good—in possession of a “common sense” about common life that emerges from common experience. Here, Deneen would be on more solidly conservative ground, if his respect for this common sense translated to a social and political order that generally tracked the choices that common people, families, and communities make for their own lives. But he goes in a different direction. At the very end of his long encomium to the wisdom of the common man, he adds a rather important caveat—that the common man can’t actually make the right decision for himself: “A virtuous people can only be maintained through the energies and efforts of a virtuous elite” which is dedicated to supporting the basic decency of the many. And by the end of the book, the poor commoner is actually shown to be incapable of choosing the good, even when free to do so. The freedom to choose a good life, he suggests, is “functionally equivalent to its outright deprivation,” unless the broader political order is structured to “positively guide” him to the right life. 

Accordingly, Deneen argues that the common sense of the common man becomes helpful only if it is appreciated and synthesized by a virtuous ruling elite and then systematically imposed to create a comprehensive social order that “cultivates a certain set of attributes in the citizenry.” The chicken-and-egg problem here would be worse if it weren’t so clear that, for Deneen, the elites are in charge. He cannot give up on the idea that the political philosopher rules the world. And so even experiential, common wisdom must be transformed into a comprehensive governing ideology.

His “Aristopopulist” reforms, then, are designed to facilitate this “integration” so that the salutary worldview of the people can be abridged and wielded by the elites. Deneen puts the label “mixed regime” on this solution. But his presentation of the mixed regime is frankly bizarre—resulting in a polity that is utterly unified into one body with one purpose. He claims to be channeling an Aristotelian conception of the mixed constitution, in which (he says) the various parts of society are “blended” rather than merely mixed toss-salad style. But his iteration looks much more like Plato’s “perfectly just” city that shares all things in common. 

Deneen is not concerned with the kind of mixed constitution that distributes power in a way to mitigate the inevitable tensions and incongruities that will exist in any real political order. Rather, he wants to blend the elite and the many in a way that transforms them into one: “A well-mixed regime is…one thing composed of sympathetic and compatible elements” (emphasis added). This “mixed constitution” is no mixed constitution at all, but a dream that society can truly be one body, in which variety fades into “commonality.” “What appears private, individual, and ‘mine’ is actually understood to be more fundamentally in the domain of the public, common, and ‘ours.’”

Collectivism descends into utopianism when Deneen describes his sought-after polity with Saint Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 12 about the Church. He applies Paul’s famous body analogy to “all human communities,” attainable if they can generate “a strong ethos of solidarity.” Paul himself had a much more exclusive explanation: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (emphasis added). Paul is not describing a civil polity but a spiritual one. Indeed, just a few chapters earlier, Paul indicates that one marker of this body is that its members do not engage one another in that most civil of all institutions, the courts. The Church can truly be one body because it is not of this world. It’s hard enough to see the church on earth conforming to Paul’s depiction. It is foolish to expect our politics to do so.

Only very briefly does Deneen gesture toward anything like the historical tradition of mixed constitutionalism, when he discusses the “representation of estates” as one of his possible reforms. This idea that society ought to be represented not merely by numbers, but by its various parts is worthy of more consideration, though its prospects as an actual reform would likely be bleak. Moreover, this form of representation could be valuable not because it would blend society into one common body, but because it would protect the various parts from one another, and thereby establish a better framework for healthy civil interaction between them.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of today’s “postliberal” discourse is the tendency of its advocates to ignore the intellectual conservative tradition. Regime Change is no different. There are sweeping claims about conservatism—it is merely a subspecies of liberalism; it is merely an inclination to change more slowly; it is “relativistic.” And Deneen presents his vision as a more authentic conservatism. But don’t bother looking for Kirk, Nisbet, Carey, Oakeshott, Minogue, or Scruton in the index. To the extent that Deneen engages any conservatives, they are typically populizers, most of whom are neoconservatives, a category he never distinguishes from traditional conservatives. The extent of his oblique engagement with the latter is to label them relativists, and to dismiss without much argumentation the idea that the renewal of civil society might require a corresponding contraction of the state.

This silence is frustrating because what insights the postliberals do have into modern political life and the limitations of liberal philosophy have already been raised with greater depth and seriousness by many of the great conservative thinkers of the twentieth century. After the publication of Regime Change, Deneen has written a pair of essays attempting to appropriate Russell Kirk’s defense of “order” to his cause. We might hope that a fuller discussion may arise that brings to light how the traditional conservative commitment to ordered liberty and checked power compares to the various ideological options on offer from today’s right. 

Traditional conservatives in the mold of Kirk, I believe, offered a better diagnosis and better (if harder) recommendations for modern ailments than Deneen and his postliberal allies. They recognized that the deep corruption that was already visible in their own time would not be overcome simply by using “concerted political effort” to construct the society we already know to be good. Rather, it would require mitigating the destructive tendencies of modern politics, while preserving the valuable—indeed, essential—practices of “liberal” society that continue to make a conservative life possible. 

John G. Grove is the managing editor of Law & Liberty.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated