The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Liberalism is loneliness

Political philosopher John Locke. (Library of Congress)

“Why Liberalism Failed” — the title suggests an abstract and academic treatise, and author Patrick Deneen does not disappoint. The Notre Dame professor discourses on modernity’s prevailing political philosophy and loftily pronounces it dead. His critique spans countries, centuries and fields of study from economics to the humanities. It’s not a small topic, when you think about it.

Yet for all that, the book has a much more personal message.

Here’s the gist: Deneen is speaking of liberalism in its traditional sense, as the political theory — and now orthodoxy — defined by Hobbes and Locke, taken up by Madison and Jefferson, written into the founding documents of the United States. Fundamentally, liberalism defines humans as autonomous and rights-bearing individuals who should be freed up as much as possible to pursue their own preferences, goals and dreams.

As you might have worked out, Deneen thinks this much-lauded model has proved itself a disaster — “not because it fell short,” in his assessment, “but because it was true to itself.”

On the right end of the ideological spectrum, Deneen notes, classical liberalism celebrated the free market, which facilitated the radical expansion of choice. On the left, liberalism celebrated the civil right to personal choice and self-definition, along with the state that secured this right by enforcing the law. But both approaches basically converge into the same thing: a headlong and depersonalized pursuit of individual freedom and security that demands no concern for the wants and needs of others, or for society as a whole.

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As liberalism has progressed, it has done so by ever more efficiently liberating each individual from “particular places, relationships, memberships, and even identities — unless they have been chosen, are worn lightly, and can be revised or abandoned at will.” In the process, it has scoured anything that could hold stable meaning and connection from our modern landscape — culture has been disintegrated, family bonds devalued, connections to the past cut off, an understanding of the common good all but disappeared.

And in the end, we’ve all been left terribly alone.

That’s the heart of it, really. Liberalism is loneliness. The state isn’t our sibling; the market won’t be our mate. And the more either the right or left’s solutions attempt to fill in the gaps — “more markets, for you to attempt to buy back what has been destroyed! More regulations, to protect you when you can’t!” — the more obvious it becomes that the entire concept is flawed. The institution of liberalism is caving in on itself, and we each individually feel the crush.

There’s an obvious rebuttal: “But wait, look — liberalism is working.” As the system’s champions never fail to remind us, liberal economies are the richest, their standards of living the highest. Innovation advances, and we can be who we want to be. And besides, communism and fascism, the only two pretenders to liberalism’s ideological throne, bloomed briefly but have since fallen away almost completely. Didn’t the best idea win?

But on a personal level, the gains don’t always seem so obvious. Over the past 15 years, the U.S. suicide rate has increased by 24 percent; the rise in so-called deaths of despair is constantly in the news. The most liberal nation in the world reports less happiness and more pain than its illiberal counterparts. We may have traveled to the “end of history,” but the majority of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track. And we’re desperately, desperately lonely.

But if liberalism has failed, what comes next? It’s hard to imagine a world without it, and Deneen on some level seems to agree. “The achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to ‘return’ to a preliberal age must be eschewed. . . . There can be no going back, only forward.”

Even so, his major recommendation is to stop trying to shore up the broken system and begin to build anew. He offers a vision of smaller and more personal communities, reanimating ideals of interconnectedness and civic duty and recognizing that no one can live alone. It’s a common recommendation these days (see Rod Dreher’s best-selling “The Benedict Option” for a reactionary take, and the burgeoning interest in “co-living” spaces for a more progressive angle), and not an infeasible one. After all, people have been opting out of the system, together, basically since it began.

Yet the deepest solution to the problem of liberalism is as personal in scale as its deepest quandary. To overhaul liberalism, we will have to overhaul ourselves, exchanging an easy drift toward selfish autonomy for a cultivated embrace of self-discipline and communal responsibility. As daunting a project as reforming a political order might seem, this internal shift may be just as hard.

Read more:

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Is America getting lonelier?

Sebastian Mallaby: Liberalism faces a crisis of confidence, but external threats are more severe

Christine Emba: A survival guide for our ‘post-Christian’ nation

Robert J. Samuelson: Everyone is mad at everyone