When “Postliberalism” Means Reaction: On Patrick J. Deneen’s “Regime Change”
By Jeffrey C. IsaacOctober 7, 2023
Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future by Patrick J. Deneen
The cover of Patrick J. Deneen’s latest features its two-word title—Regime Change—in caps across the center. The word “Change” appears larger, bolded in red beneath “Regime.” Below lies the disembodied head of an ancient Roman statue, knocked on its side with half of its face eroded.
What does it mean that Deneen’s newest volume is crowned by a phrase widely associated with failed, Bush-era neoconservative efforts to bring democracy to Iraq at the point of a gun? Does the destroyed image at bottom signify a tragic discarding of ancient wisdom, or does it suggest that regime change can be necessary and ennobling even if it requires smashing some idols? Or both?
Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed was a much-discussed philippic; its 2018 publication led to the author being hailed by some and reviled by others as “The Anti-Democratic Thinker Inspiring America’s Conservative Elites.” In Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, Deneen expands on the themes of his earlier book while developing a more robustly political account focused on liberalism’s failings and how it can—and must—be defeated.
Decades ago, a number of “communitarian” writers—including Christopher Lasch, Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Bellah, Daniel Bell, Michael Sandel, Jean Elshtain, and Deneen’s revered mentor, Wilson Carey McWilliams—critiqued liberalism for its narcissism, possessive individualism, and animus toward traditions and moral limits. Read generously, Regime Change seeks to repurpose this critique for 21st-century America. Had this book appeared a decade ago, such a reading might at least seem tenable.
But the book appeared a few months ago, during a time in which a dark and authoritarian anti-liberalism has risen to prominence and power in many liberal democracies, including the United States. Read under the shadow of this new authoritarianism, the book registers as both insidious and dangerous.
It is dangerous because Deneen speaks out of both sides of his mouth, gesturing at some very radical and even violence-provoking ideas while issuing muted caveats that might afford him plausible deniability. Insisting that liberal democracy is a tyrannical and even totalitarian regime, Deneen—holder of an endowed chair at Notre Dame and star of a CPAC lecture circuit well funded by billionaires such as Peter Thiel and Rebekah Mercer—apparently considers himself a victim of liberal persecution compelled to practice the art of circumlocution in the name of his “truth.” And while the book has received a great deal of attention for its appeal to a new brand of right-wing politicians like Josh Hawley and J. D. Vance, it is particularly dangerous in the way that some of the most reactionary aspects of Deneen’s argument might appeal to people who don’t think of themselves as conservative. Antipathy to liberalism might lead some on the left to support the kind of “red-brown alliance” that Deneen seems to favor.
Put another way: Regime Change is an important and much-advertised public intervention whose ideas pose significant danger to liberal democracy in large part because they have the potential to be taken seriously by many people who should know better.
The opening pages of Deneen’s book paint a picture of social despair and liberal toxicity practically lifted from Donald Trump’s notorious 2017 inaugural address attacking “this American carnage.” Against this bleak backdrop, Deneen presents himself as a voice of calm and reason, purporting to defend some version of an ancient wisdom about a divide between “the few” and “the many” that is capable of a mutually beneficial resolution. He insists that by “regime change” he means “the peaceful but vigorous overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class […] in which existing political forms can remain in place, as long as a fundamentally different ethos informs those institutions.” And when he turns toward public policy, much of what he says—about promoting domestic industry and vocational education, reforming the House of Representatives—sounds anodyne, some of it even Bidenesque.
Don’t be fooled. Deneen’s book radically rejects liberal democracy and subtly—if not entirely coherently—defends reactionary ends achieved through Machiavellian means. Regime Change oscillates between delicate rationalization of the worst features of Trumpist thuggery dressed up as “aristopopulism” and a more reasonable-sounding discussion of “common-good conservatism.” This latter tack explicitly draws from the “illiberal democracy” pioneered by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán —a distinctly authoritarian form of politics.
In Part I, Deneen argues that American society is divided between a mass of desperate, alienated citizens and an arrogant and self-aggrandizing “power elite” that appeals to “woke” social radicalism, “meritocratic” careerism, and “neoliberal” economics while treating ordinary Americans as stupid, racist, sexist, homophobic, and dangerous. In Part II, Deneen moves from description to prescription, outlining a sunny vision of “common-good conservatism” that, he claims, can rescue society from the ruins of liberalism. Deneen disparages conventional conservatives as closet liberals hostile toward traditional family values surrounding sex, gender, reproduction, and religion. He further denigrates “progressive liberals” for promoting administrative statism and social engineering, culminating in the nefarious efforts of … Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Calling on Aristotle, Polybius, Thomas Aquinas, and Edmund Burke, Deneen supports “an elite for the people and against a progressive elite.” He concedes that establishing such a regime under current conditions requires that “something revolutionary must first take place,” that “the priority of the liberal progressive agenda must be displaced,” which, in turn, requires “the success of a confrontational stance of the people toward the elites.”
Such rhetoric signals what can only be described as conservative revolution. In Part III—provocatively titled “What Is to Be Done?”—Deneen outlines what such a revolution would entail. The book contends that while Americans are in thrall to “a ‘soft,’ pervasive, and invasive progressive tyranny,” this liberal tyranny, like all “despotisms,” is weakened by its “corruption” and the recent emergence of an oppositional right-wing populist movement. This, in turn, “has arisen in a nascent political form, largely percolating from the bottom up in the discontents of a recalcitrant working class.”
Deneen’s “aristopopulism” is a simplified, right-wing version of Gramscian hegemony. He envisions an oppressed “working class” whose “common sense” disposes it toward “regime change,” but which needs to be led by an enlightened elite possessing an ennobling vision of a better world. He concedes that the recent upsurge of right-wing populism “is untutored and ill led […] [by] a deeply flawed narcissist who at once appealed to the intuitions of the populace, but without offering clarifying articulation of their grievances and transforming their resentments into sustained policy and the development of a capable leadership class”—a clear, though disingenuously imprecise, reference to Trump.
His “clarifying articulation” is broadly consistent with the “national conservatism” extolled in the United States by public figures like Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon; intellectuals like Sohrab Ahmari, Gladden Pappin, Chad Pecknold, and Adrian Vermeule; Republican senators Josh Hawley and J. D. Vance; and above all by Florida governor Ron DeSantis. But the real inspiration for this vision is Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who Deneen praised in a 2019 visit to Budapest, and whose virtues he continues to extol.
With Regime Change, Deneen endorses recent moves by Hungary’s Ministry of Family Affairs that give “pride of place” to “[p]olicies rewarding marriage and family formation.” He supports protective tariffs, immigrant restriction, and the bolstering of the native working class. He favors the trust-busting of woke corporations; the rejection of identity politics in education; and “[r]enewed efforts to enforce a moral media” that repudiates “transgression and libertinism—sexual, drugs, and mockery of religious belief.” He defends so-called religious liberty against anti-discrimination laws, urges the “revitalization of a public Christian culture,” and outlines a vision close to the “integralism” promoted by right-wing Catholic intellectuals such as his soulmates Vermeule and Ahmari.
Deneen presents his brand of postliberalism as the only way to “avoid an outright civil war, whether hot or cold.” It might, thereby, be tempting to read Deneen as sincerely concerned with bridging current divides. To be sure, some of the book’s rhetoric strikes a tone of moderation (also evident in Deneen’s dialogue with Ezra Klein in The New York Times, and with Francis Fukuyama, Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, and Cornel West in Harper’s).
But Deneen is no moderate.
He completely whitewashes the very Machiavellian means by which Hungary’s Orbán has instituted his “postliberal agenda” over the past 10 years: by stoking fears of a Great Replacement of white Christian Europeans, crude antisemitic campaigns against the “globalist” and “anti-Hungarian” influence of George Soros, attacks on nefarious “gender ideologies” that license pedophilia and genital mutilation, and attacks on academic freedom symbolized (though not limited to) the 2019 banishment of Central European University from Hungary. Pursuing a strategy that Kim Lane Scheppele has described as “autocratic legalism,” Orbán has succeeded in transforming a fragile liberal democracy into a new, hybrid form of electoral autocracy centered on the authority of purported “family values,” “Christian heritage,” “Magyar identity” and himself. (See also Zsuzsanna Szelényi’s Tainted Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary, which I reviewed here back in April.) Orbán has, in short, successfully instituted a regime change, Making Hungary Great Again—at least so long as those many millions of citizens and residents of Hungary who disagree are considered outside the patrimony of the nation.
Deneen’s own talk about “peaceful but vigorous overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class” notwithstanding, there is reason to doubt his commitment to legality altogether. He notes that conservatism has been given a bad name by “political figures such as Donald Trump, who repulses at least half of the population.” The book does not offer a single direct criticism of Trumpism, however, nor does it once mention Trump’s efforts to overthrow the November 2020 election that culminated in the January 6, 2021, insurrection.
Yet, praising a regime-connected Chinese academic trolling Biden’s election victory in December 2020, Deneen tweeted that, “[n]ot infrequently, the view from outside gives you better insight into what is going on inside. The U.S. today is a unique form of liberal oligarchy that was disrupted by a momentary burst of democracy. The elite made sure to roll that back - amusingly, in the name of ‘democracy.’” It is not hard to read these words as an implicit endorsement of Trump’s “Stop the Steal” efforts that within a month eventuated in the January 6 attack. And, on the event’s one year anniversary, Deneen tweeted his disdain for “the lazy understanding of 1/6,” contending that “Trump wasn’t radical enough, and the events of a year ago were a manifestation of his failure to advance a genuinely populist revolution.” This led Damon Linker, a prominent conservative, not only to share the Tweet, but also to derisively ask what such a revolution “would look like.”
Regime Change’s discussion of “aristopopulism” furnishes a clue. Criticizing compromise and recommending “the raw assertion of political power by a new generation of political actors inspired by an ethos of common-good conservatism,” Deneen quotes Machiavelli’s tribute to popular “resistance” in his Discourses: “If someone were to argue the methods employed were extralegal and almost bestial—the people in a mob shouting abuse at the senate, the senate replying in kind, mobs running through the streets, shops boarded up, the entire populace of Rome leaving the city—I would reply [that] such things only frighten those who read about them.”
Deneen holds unadulterated disdain for liberal democracy. And, well-aware of widespread concerns about the weakening of liberal democracy’s “guardrails,” Deneen cynically accuses liberalism of attacking the “guardrails” of the premodern world by promoting “individual liberty”—as if the US Constitution were a trifle.
While he does not come right out and say it, Deneen thus consistently gives cover to the Trumpist assault on liberal democracy. He disparages “our shabby civil war” yet makes clear that there is nothing “shabby” about the Left, which he thinks tyrannizes the society at large. What makes today’s political conflict “shabby” for him, in other words, is that the Trumpist Right is too feckless, vulgar, “untutored,” and lacking in vision. It is insufficiently effective and insufficiently radical.
Did Deneen support the January 6 coup attempt? His book doesn’t say. Does Deneen support violence in the streets? His book doesn’t say. It only quotes Machiavelli about the virtues of “extralegal” and “almost bestial” mob “populism.” Does Deneen consider Trump the “ideal” tribune of “common-good conservatism”? Of course not. But he clearly considers Trumpism superior to the liberal alternative on offer. And by deliberately and provocatively calling for “regime change”—a term with very clear, violent implications—he is casting his lot with the Far Right, come what may.
Regime Change brings to mind “The Flight 93 Election,” a 2016 essay written by another disciple of ancient Roman populism, Publius Decius Mus (a.k.a. Michael Anton). Like Deneen, Anton considered Trump vulgar, and reserved most of his ire for the Republican party establishment who caved to “the Davos class.” But the metaphorical “plane” was controlled by the implied Democrat terrorists, and Trump alone was willing to “charge the cockpit,” the only thing standing between us—or at least those of us worth a damn—and figurative death.
Deneen is not so blunt. No rabble rouser, he rhapsodizes about an “ennobling of our elite,” quotes classics, and identifies real forms of social insecurity and existential humiliation that liberal democracy permits and often reinforces. Supposedly, Deneen thinks “big” and promises an alternative. In the end, though, he is simply an erudite reactionary—a conservative revolutionary willing to see the constitutional republic fall in the name of something more authentic, more controlling, and more controlled.
However vague Regime Change may be, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp is therefore wrong to say that while it “sounds like a radical book[,] [i]t isn’t.” For its radical rhetoric is an important part of its appeal to right-wing populist vanguardists, while its more “reasonable” policy discussion makes it dangerously palatable—even enticing—for some on the left whose antipathy to “liberalism” might lead them to sympathize with the partisans of conservative revolution. Consider, for instance, this blurb from Cornel West, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminar: “This creative and courageous book takes us to the core of the American impasse. Deneen’s common-good conservatism is a gallant effort to preserve crucial aspects of our desiccated democratic tradition.”
West, of course, is one of the best-known leftists in the United States. The longtime former honorary co-chair of Democratic Socialists of America, he is running for president as a Green Party candidate, his campaign being directed by Jill Stein, the 2016 Green candidate who insisted that there was little difference between Hillary and Trump. West’s message is similar. In 2020, he described the choice between Biden and Trump as a choice between “disaster” and “catastrophe.” Today, West declares that Biden has committed “crimes against humanity,” that both Biden and Trump are candidates of “Wall Street,” and that “truth,” “justice,” and “democracy” require him to oppose them both.
This “plague on both their houses” mentality has some traction on the left. In July, Current Affairs published a piece by Lily Sánchez contending that West’s campaign “deserves the Left’s solidarity.” (Eric Levitz soon followed with a powerful critique.) West’s candidacy has generated a real debate within DSA. The Nation just featured an interview—though not an endorsement—under the headline “Cornel West: The Christian Socialist Running for President.” While Nation columnist Joan Walsh has argued that “Cornel West Should Not Be Running for President,” editors D. D. Guttenplan and Bhaskar Sunkara argue that “Cornel West Should Run as a Democrat,” though mainly to push Biden further left. But it is worth noting that, back in 2018, The Nation also featured a sympathetic interview with Deneen entitled “The Problems of Liberalism: A Q&A with Patrick Deneen.” Its subtitle: “An effort to determine whether common ground can, or should, be found between factions of the left and right against liberalism.”
A similar receptivity to a new “common ground” is evident on the right. The journal American Affairs offers a highbrow version. Founded in 2017 by Julius Krein, the former editor of the now-defunct Trumpist Journal of American Greatness, the quarterly was conceived as a nationalist periodical taking its bearings from Trump’s “accomplishments.” Announcing that “revival and realignment are critically needed,” the first issue contained essays by Krein, Gladden Pappin, and Michael Anton himself. Since then, the journal has featured a broader range of writers, often publishing pro-labor articles. Nancy Fraser’s critique of liberal anti-Trumpism, “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump—and Beyond,” was published in its Winter 2017 issue. Its Summer 2023 issue published an essay on “the dignity of workers” centered on the work of neo-Marxist Wolfgang Streeck. The overall tenor of the journal is shaped by the “national conservatism” of its editors, who are interested less in bridging the divide between right and left than in giving space to some on the left who seek to execrate liberalism.
Compact offers a slightly less academic alternative. The self-described “radical American journal” was founded in 2022 by conservative writer-activists committed to a “desire for a strong social-democratic state that defends community—local and national, familial and religious—against a libertine left and a libertarian right.” Its principal editors, Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmitz, are hardcore right-populists. Ahmari’s inaugural essay, “The Return of the Hawks,” railed against liberal internationalism and human rights rhetoric, derisively noting that “This all sounds innocuous until you realize that by ‘democracy,’ Democracy, Inc. means the liberal imperium, at home and abroad. And ‘authoritarianism’ refers to Trumpism and similar ballot-box movements across the Atlantic channeling popular discontent with the imperium.
In September 2022, Ahmari and Schmitz published an endorsement of Donald Trump’s presidential run titled “He’s Still the One.” The right-wing cast of the piece, like the journal, is clear. Yet Compact’s editorial board includes two prominent leftists—the conspiracy-mongering, Tucker Carlson–admiring Glenn Greenwald and the anti-woke Lacanian provocateur Slavoj Žižek. In late March 2022, it published an open letter titled “Away From The Abyss,” which brought together a group of 33 critics of Western support for Ukraine that included Ahmari, Pappin, Anton, Christopher Rufo, and Deneen along with a number of people prominent on the left, including Greenwald, Vivek Chibber, Freddie deBoer, and Samuel Moyn, co-author of the widely discussed 2017 New York Times op-ed entitled “Trump Isn’t a Threat to Our Democracy. Hysteria Is.”
There is some real overlap here. The response of some on the left to Ahmari’s just-published Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty—and What To Do About It is emblematic. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, in “The Right-Winger Calling for Social Democracy,” observed that Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara participated in Ahmari’s New York book launch, where he noted that he found “surprisingly very little to criticize” about the book (Goldberg also praises Ahmari’s commitment to taking “material conditions seriously”). And Vox’s Sean Illing just published a very admiring interview titled “Is the Populist Right’s Future … Democratic Socialism?” with its tagline declaring, “Sohrab Ahmari explains why precarity is breaking our politics.”
Ahmari’s book of course deserves to be treated on its own terms (Jodi Dean recently delivered a strong critique from the left for LARB). But the ease with which some smart people on the left seem willing to incorporate him is incredibly troubling. For he is not a democratic socialist or a social democrat. He is not any kind of democrat. He is a national conservative who continues to praise Donald Trump even as he sometimes distances himself—by extolling the virtues of Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, and J. D. Vance, also heroes of Deneen.
In June 2023, Compact published Deneen’s “Regime Change for America.” Drawing from his book, Deneen contends that a “liberal ruling class […] today dominates the institutions of the West,” promoting the demise of “the basic norm of marriage between a man and a woman,” a “celebration of […] infanticide,” and the “denial of the basic biological reality of the human creature, commanding us all to adopt various pronouns to demonstrate our acquiescence to the orthodoxy that our ‘gender’ is merely yet another choice, one now guaranteed by optional surgical self-mutilation, even of children.” According to Deneen, this ruling class pursues an insidious strategy of domination: “Elites cover themselves in faux veils of egalitarianism, replacing the left’s historic commitment to class politics with identity politics [emphasis added].”
Deneen claims to speak for a new class politics beyond identity, all the while endorsing a “common-good conservatism” that is all about heterosexist and cisgender identity, patriarchal identity, and national popular identity. He criticizes neoliberalism, but does so in the name of social stability and traditional values rather than greater equality. And while he speaks the language of populism, he is hostile toward the pluralism necessary to any democracy worthy of the name—as his praise of Viktor Orbán makes clear.
Deneen concludes his Compact essay by reminding readers that while “regime change […] is often used to invoke violent overturning of an existing ruling class, more accurately it refers to a fundamental change in the core values of a social and political order.” Notice that Deneen does not say that he opposes “violent overturning.” He merely says that his regime change is less concerned with the means of overturning than with its ends: the defeat of liberal democracy itself. It may well be that he prefers the means of “autocratic legalism” to the means of violence, and a properly led and “ennobled” mob to an “untutored” one. Still, vague invocations of “the left’s historic commitment to class politics” and passing encomiums to “the demos” notwithstanding, what Deneen advocates is the replacement of a liberal democratic regime with an authoritarian regime that has little to offer to anyone serious about the social, economic, or political plight of ordinary Americans.
Liberal democracy is deeply flawed. It is also the most practical and normatively legitimate way of incorporating the very real differences that comprise modern society in a form of governance at the level of the nation-state. And the illiberal forces currently on the rise threaten to reverse every important achievement, however limited, of the past five decades, including reproductive, academic, and press freedoms; domestic violence legislation; environmental and workplace health and safety regulation; civil rights and voting rights enforcement; and protection against censorship.
Regime Change may speak of “a postliberal future.” But what it rationalizes is a reactionary present that deserves to be consigned to the past.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University.
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