Why Liberalism Failed… and Can’t Be Fixed

WHY-LIBERALISM-FAILED-book-cover-201x300 Why Liberalism Failed… and Can’t Be Fixed

“Dr. Deneen says that “Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short but because it was true to itself.”

Many commentators have observed that liberalism is coming apart.[1] The classical liberal order no longer provides the security and happiness that it always promised. Some link the cause of liberalism’s decline to the decay of the culture or the rise of big government. Others think it can be fixed by adapting or tweaking the system. Few if any, however, attribute its failure to its success. Such is the intriguing thesis of Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen in his most recent book, Why Liberalism Failed.

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His affirmation explains much. It shows why those searching for ways to nurse liberalism back to health seem to stall and cannot find traction. This thesis explains the fragmentation and polarization that is destroying the nation. Dr. Deneen says that “Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short but because it was true to itself.” As liberalism progresses, it is the victim of the success of its internal contradictions. It creates its own conditions to fail. There is no “fix.”

This is a shocking statement because liberalism has been the dominant ideology of the West for centuries. Under this regime, the West has prospered and produced unimaginable material abundance. It is the foundation of the democratic secular state that has dominated the political scene.

However, liberalism also produced a cultural wasteland that only grows greater with time. The liberal period has been far from peaceful. It has been regularly punctuated with grand conflicts, social upheaval, and spiritual desolation.

Looking at Internal Contradictions

Perhaps the best way to explain what has happened to liberalism is to look at its internal contradictions. They also help explain why its failure is only happening now.

Dr. Deneen cites two of these contradictions: the “achieving of complete and supreme freedom,” and the liberation of an autonomous individual from “places, relationships, memberships and even identities.” He shows how radical autonomy and supreme freedom undermine the unifying principles around which society might gather.

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As people self-identify as almost anything, personal autonomy is making life impossible in society. Supreme freedom is erasing the social capital balance amassed over centuries. The result is an accelerated deterioration of society that is reaching its apex in the present state of disillusionment and fragmentation.

That’s why liberalism now has problems. It really has wildly succeeded beyond all expectations.

Failure on Many Fronts

Liberalism succeeded in the beginning because much of what worked in liberalism was not liberalism. Liberalism frequently advanced by living upon the accomplishments of pre-liberal times, especially that of Christendom.[2] The institutions of family and faith provided much of the stability that offset the liberal tempest. Liberalism, like today’s governments, has written blank checks against diminishing social capital, has taken out mortgages against the future, and has lived (and spent) only for the moment.

Thus, Dr. Deneen explores the decay of liberalism in many fields: economy, education, technology and the liberal arts. He shows its necessary connection to statism. He exposes conservatism and progressivism as two sides of the same liberal coin.

Liberalism’s Crowning Achievement—An Anticulture

However, his description of liberalism as an “anticulture” deserves special mention since it explains so well today’s postmodern wasteland.

“The fundamental premise of liberalism is that the natural condition of man is defined above all by the absence of culture.” Liberalism targeted generational customs, practices, and rituals set in time and place that traditionally make up a culture. The organic community is replaced with a collection of autonomous individuals all pursuing their own interests. They are united by nothing save a “uniform and homogenized governance of promulgated law.”

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The result is an unanchored, unpoetic society, which is everywhere and nowhere, living in the eternal present. Dr. Deneen calls this “ubiquitous and uniform anticulture” a crowning achievement, once again the product of liberalism’s success—not its failure.

Discussing a Post-Liberal Order

Of course, America is more than just the liberal order. No one can survive in a purely liberal climate. America is a complex and fascinating mixture of orders involving lingering customs, traditions, and religious convictions. However, liberalism does play an important role in society, and that is why it is important to understand its failure. People can avoid the frustration of trying to repair something that cannot, and should not, be fixed.

Dr. Deneen’s masterful study provides a compelling, clear, and scholarly analysis that helps people understand the failure of liberalism. He starts a much-needed conversation about America’s post-liberal future.

While his examination of the problem is complete, his suggestions for solutions are deliberately sketchy (lest he becomes an ideologue). He starts the conversation with general observations. He points to the need for organic bottom-up solutions, briefly mentioning the very questionable Benedict Option.[3] One senses that a full treatment of possible solutions would call for another book rather than a short concluding chapter.

Curiously absent from this beginning conversation is mention of the specific role of religion and the Church. It would appear that as the Church is the guardian of culture, she should have a major role in seeking out solutions. A post-liberal future without the Church seems… a bit liberal. Again, such a discussion is beyond the scope of the book.

The central focus of Dr. Deneen’s book is to explain why liberalism failed, and this he does brilliantly.

As seen on The Imaginative Conservative.


[1] Gaus, Gerald, Courtland, Shane D. and Schmidtz, David, “Liberalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

[2] Urquhart, Francis. “Christendom.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908).

[3] Horvat, John “The Dangers of the Benedict Option.” The Imaginative Conservative. (May 15, 2017).

13 thoughts on “Why Liberalism Failed… and Can’t Be Fixed

  1. Satan was unleashed on October 13, 1884, exactly 33 years (the length of Jesus’s life) prior to the Miracle of the Sun in Fatima in 1917. Pope Leo XIII heard Jesus and satan debating whether he could destroy the Catholic Church. Jesus gave him 75 to 100 years to accomplish it. 75 years brought us to the convocation of Vatican II by John XIII in 1959. Its fruits were (a) the exchange of the universal use of Latin in the Mass and Church correspondence into local vernacular; (b) over 75 prayers stricken from the Mass; and (c) a vocational crisis almost unheard of in Church history.
    100 years brings us to the date of the title of George Orwell’s book, “1984,” which gave us the concept of Big Brother. In 1984 I was working for a Wall Street law firm using brand new 286 IBM clones. What do we have today but algorithms invading our every word on the Internet (recall Oroverbs, ” They have cast a net for my soul.”) Christ said if we look at a woman with lust, we commit adultery, a mortal sin. Does internet porn ring a bell? Lastly, the sole survivor of the 3 shepherd children from Fatima said satan’s final battle against the Church will be against the family. Abortion, birth control, divorce, homosexuality, shacking up, friends with benefits, do these and all the rest of the sins of the flesh we engage in with impunity and self satisfying license add up to anything??? Archbishop Fulton Sheen stated that the entire world is in the hands of satan, but the prime target of his malice is the Catholic, because we have all the Sacraments necessary for salvation. In short, unless you eat My Body and drink My Blood, there is no life in you. Nobody else has the Eucharist. The priesthood is decimated and fewer and fewer answer the call. Entire congregations gave no oriest. No confession, no Eucharist. Satan knows what he is doing. And no one suspects a thing. For this reason entire races are seething against each other, and the Muslims have literally walked over the borders to successfully invade and destroy the culture of Europe, which is in demographic suicide mode, unable to mount an effective armed resistance to the unbridled assault by western civilization’s arch enemy for over 1,400 years. Pray the Rosary.


  2. It sounds like Deneen might be conflating two different liberalisms. The US was founded upon the liberalism of the Enlightenment. But today’s “liberals” – more accurately called progressives – are rooted in the anti-American and anti-Enlightenment ideas of Hegel. While Enlightenment liberalism makes culture optional, it is progressivism that makes anti-culture de rigueur.

  3. Violent School Shootings MAINLY And ONLY Occur In Liberal GodLess Public School’s.,Where God [AND] His GoodNess Are BANNED!, Along With His Holy Virtues.!-And Where Thou Shalt NOT Kill!-[IS]-Just A Pun.!!! PRAY THE Rosary For THE U.S.A.,People!,-And Bring Godliness Back InTo Public Education,[AND] SAY!-GoodBye To Public School Violence.!!!

  4. Dear sir,

    Are you talking about liberalism as it is understood in post-modern societies or are you reffering to classical liberalism ?
    Because it seems to me that liberalism does not promote any particular culture indeed, as its main claim is small government or even none at all, but it does not hinder the expression of cultures either.
    In fact, many classical liberal authors in the XIXth Century understood that in order to work, liberalism had to rely on christian or natural law based institutions like family and perhaps religion (which is of course my opinion as a cartholic).

    If order does not come from the State, it should come from smaller institutions like the family cell (traditional in my opinion, again) and morality should again not be dictated by the State, but by the Church (the well-know principle of separation of the spiritual and temporal powers, which was a given in medieval times). Of course separation does not mean that those do not penetrate eachother in society, but that the authority of these powers comes from different seats so to speak.

    I don’t know if I was very clear, but I would be interested in hearing your opinion on the matter.

    • Many above are referring to “classical” liberalism and modern liberalism (or progressivism to use the currently fashionable term) as if they are entirely unconnected phenomena. This is a myth of the modern conservative movement. However, both have their roots in the disordered thinking of the French “Enlightenment” ideas of men like Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau. Obviously, it has moved through phases over the last two-and-a-half centuries, but it is still very much the same beast.

  5. I think there is a chance for success. The knowledge and application of the virtues can redeem the culture. Young people are hungry for spiritual challenges. They sense something is missing from their lives and character – and they just love their super heroes.

    Courses designed to teach the virtues, not as a criticism of character, but a way to build character and find true happiness could easily take off, especially as it is now counter-cultural. Perhaps this is why Scientology so easily recruits young idealistic people – it offers a pretense of character building by offering psychotherapy as a way to “discharge” trauma. I can testify that discharging trauma doesn’t even come close to building character. It leaves the person’s character exactly the same. In fact the person is more free to be greedy and selfish than he was before.

    Knowledge and training in the four natural virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance will open the person’t eyes and bring him the joy which is inherent in doing God’s work as a human being.

    I believe that psychologists could instantly heal many of their clients by simply asking them “OK, so what do you think is the right thing to do?” This question is a direct appeal to the four virtues.

    Anybody want to start such a course for the public?

  6. Prudence, Justice, fortitude and temperance are, to my mind, values of today’s conservatism. Why then try to reform the corrupted liberalism? Let conservatism flourish.

  7. We are living in a very fragile time. Especially here in US, we have majority liberal politicians supporting abortion, euthanasia and transgenderism. And Liberals providing open border for illegals and terrorists to walk right up to our land. Thru history God choses the prophets to warn the mankind and few listen and followed God’s will. Protestant reformation, prophesy of Fatima and Bolshevik revelation is all on the hand now in 2017. The Book Of Truth. Beginning 2010 to 2015. God, Jesus and Mary has prophesied to reveal false Pope in Catholic Church and coming of Antichrist. Please pray the Rosary. And honor God in Holy Eucharist.

  8. Liberalism self destructs when freedom becomes an end in itself. Fanatical false freedom personally and socially promotes chaos and crisis. When liberalism reaches this stage it becomes just another failed human political ideology.

  9. has so many different aspects, it cannot be define completely. It would be like trying to empty Lake Michigan with a gallon jug. But those who promote it are sure they’re right but they cannot verify where it will lead once everyone subscribes to its destructive force.

  10. While we all should be concerned about the degradation of society, we forget that the society of the past had significant problems. Not too long ago it was fashionable to be a racist. The KKK had open rallies and marched unfettered down public streets. Segregation was the law of the land. Women couldn’t vote. Blacks were slaves. When were we such a superior moral society? I don’t think we ever were. Since Adam and Eve, humans have been immoral sinners. That’s why we need the Divine Mercy of Christ. Perhaps the only thing that has changed in society is that now people don’t believe in God and are unrepentant sinners rather than previously being Christian and being repentant sinners. We are all still sinners and pretty bad ones. We need to have faith in God and trust that He is in control. We still must be disciples of Christ and spread the Gospel but remind ourselves that God is in control.

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