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Patrick Deneen On Ending The Liberal Order

Patrick Deneen On Ending The Liberal Order

A debate with a political theorist over "regime change vs. regime adjustment."

Deneen is a writer and academic. Based at the University of Notre Dame, he is Professor of Political Science and holds the David Potenziani Memorial College Chair of Constitutional Studies. His books include The Odyssey of Political Theory and Why Liberalism Failed, and his new one is Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app — though Spotify sadly doesn’t accept the paid feed). For two clips of our convo — on his book using Marxist analysis in defense of conservatism, and whether the government should give you money to stay home with kids — pop over to our YouTube page.

Other topics: Patrick’s Irish-Catholic upbringing in the oldest town in CT — “an idyllic New England town” that became a “shell of itself”; his unexpected route to academia; working-class Rutgers vs elite Princeton; how society needs meritocracy — but it’s irrelevant when it comes to morality; Disraeli and noblesse oblige in the UK; migration and Brexit; “woke capitalism’s patina of social commitment”; the tribal wars of the Reformation; the Hobbes/Lockean settlement; how Locke shifted property from inheritance to a set of skills; the cruelty of the growth economy; usury; the absence of any common good in Succession; the donor class of both major parties; the geographic and class sorting of Americans into separate bubbles; Michael Sandel and “thickness”; Uganda’s anti-gay laws; and whether we should bring back Sabbath laws.

Browse the Dishcast archive for another conversation you might enjoy (the first 102 episodes are free in their entirety — subscribe to get everything else). Coming up: Tabia Lee on her firing as a DEI director, David Grann on an 18th-century mutiny that’s a “parable for our own turbulent time,” and Matt Lewis on ruling-class elites. Please send your guest recs and pod dissent to

A reader recommends a book that covers many of the themes in the Deneen pod:

You might find it interesting to engage with Ritchie Robertson of Oxford. His recent book, The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness 1680-1790, gives much more nuance to the American founding than anything I’ve come across. Not only was he able to distill the Revolutionary War to a paragraph (in a tome of almost 800 pages), his insights have been widely and positively reviewed (the exception being that of the WSJ, hmmmmm).

I’ve grown increasingly curious about the rather twisted version of the Constitution that the right continues to harbor, with its myopic focus entirely on personal liberty and capitalism. Robertson presents a fascinating view of the period leading to the revolution and the drafting of the “founding documents.” He makes the persuasive argument that the Founding Fathers were in fact capable of considering a political structure that was a type of dichotomy — on the one hand based upon individual rights and liberties (to secure “legal and property rights”), and on the other, an emphasis on “civic virtue and demands the participation of all its citizens” to seek best for all.

Robertson goes on to suggest that the drafting of the Constitution was done in such a way as to make “constructive use of self-interest by encouraging people to work both for their own good and for the ultimate good of the whole community.” He points out that there has always been a certain tension built into the construct.

Unfortunately, the left is tortured by how best to communicate the paradox of governing everyone — by putting a lot of focus these days on the “others” — while the right just discards the “community” aspect of it all and elevates personal liberties to a religion.

Here’s a reader on my review of The Banshees of Inisherin:

That’s some adorable but deluded romanticism you’re drunk on when you rhapsodize about the charm of premodern life. Those “thick communities” and shared meanings (assuming they’re not just postmodern over-readings or outright anachronisms) came with a high price tag in daily life that I doubt was compensated for by colorful characters and regular churchgoing.  

The film made me wonder about boredom itself. Was it even possible for anyone prior to the 20th century to be bored? Aside from the very wealthy, do we think medieval peasants or ordinary ancient Roman or Greek citizens, or 90 percent of people anywhere on earth, had the time or even notion to be bored, or worried that they were boring? Weren’t their lives pretty full of just getting by? The very small amount of time they’d have for a festival now and then, or the occasional play or gossip, was far outweighed by dawn-to-dusk work to get them to the next day.  

From a longtime reader:

I’m a lefty, but a sane one, I think, and I spend most of my podcast hours and dollars on you, Sam Harris and Bari Weiss. I’m near the end of your conversation with Matthew Rose on the reactionary right, and it’s fascinating.

You said the elite left terrifies you because of their “willingness to use coercion, shaming, and ostracism” to enforce their agenda. You spoke of the “absolute moral righteousness.” This is how I feel about Christianity. In its lack of understanding that there might be good people in the strangest places, in its crusades to convert everyone in the world to the point of eradicating the histories, languages and family structures of native people around the world. Coercion, ostracism, shame. Absolute righteousness!

I am a Jewish woman — not religiously, but culturally. My father is a typical intellectual Jew, an atheist, and my mother was raised by a non-practicing Jew and a Catholic mother in NYC. My mom was raised with no religion other than a Christmas tree once a year and the knowledge that both of her parents’ families disowned their child for marrying a different faith. Yet she would bring me to homeless shelters as a little girl to have me give away some of my stuffed animals, and she always spoke up when others were being hurt. Her pain at others’ suffering shaped my sisters and I in a deep way. (I’m now a social worker.) She is the most “Christian” woman I have come across.

Yet she was raised with no religion. Zilch. She was occasionally beat up by the Irish Catholics in her neighborhood once they found out she was a Jew, or a Brit. My father was raised by Russian Jewish immigrants who would refuse to speak Russian because of what they fled. He, too, spent his childhood being beat up because he was Jewish. These two people raised three girls who have devoted themselves to lives of service. Not because religion dictated it; my dad “hated all that crap.” But because it’s the right thing to do. 

Conservatism and the right have never in my lifetime spoken the language of religion the way I understand Christ did. They execute prisoners (even innocent or disabled ones); they deny assistance to the poor; they cram their religion in our faces as though only Christianity is righteous. It’s been such a stark contrast for me my whole life. It made me a lefty.

So while I also dislike the woke cancel-culture mobs, they are just acting like Christians. Years ago the talk was of a War on Christmas because people were asked to say “Happy Holidays” instead. I grew up celebrating Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays, and still I loved signing Christmas carols in choir and being told “Merry Christmas.” I never corrected anyone. It’s a sweet gesture.

Generally speaking, Jews don’t try to make everyone else Jewish. The same cannot be said for Christianity.

Also, I bristle when the “liberal left” is lumped together. I am as left as you get, but I am not woke, and I believe in biological sex and due process, etc. The “woke left” is an embarrassment, even if I ultimately think it’s less dangerous than the far right.

You spoke with empathy about the emotional reaction from the right — the poor, lost white people. (In Matthew Rose’s little idyllic town, I’m sure there were people who felt shamed, ostracized, coerced into conformity due to any differences.) But what of the emotional reaction of the groups fighting for equality and support — still, decade after decade being left in the margins to suffer and be shamed? Theirs is also an understandable emotional reaction. 

Of course I understand that. But it’s a view so prevalent it’s worth occasionally offering an alternative. I’m a Pope Francis Catholic so I both share my reader’s dismay at the way Christians have often abused power, while seeing much goodness alongside it.

Another listener got around to our episode last year with Louise Perry — a post-liberal from the left — on her case against the sexual revolution:

Marriage is “stressful and oppressive” for men? Then why is it that the more patriarchal a society is, the more monogamous marriage is encouraged or enforced? Stop painting women as conspirators who entrap and oppress poor men in a monogamous marriage. Men are the ones who created marriage and have used it throughout history as a means to entrap and oppress women.

Married men are happier and live longer than single men. The opposite is true for women. You really think women don’t lose attraction to their husbands when the men let themselves go or don’t pull their own weight?

It’s laughable to criticize women as a group for expecting their man to be faithful or to be bothered by the man lusting after other women when the large majority of men have zero tolerance for sharing his wife/girlfriend. Many even resort to violence when they have been betrayed.

As to the sentiment that a man is “sacrificing” the experience of tons of sex partners when he gets married, please join reality. Women are a lot more selective in who they will sleep with. Most men don’t have a line of women wanting to jump on their jock. Men can spend all their time chasing women around and may get lucky once in a blue moon, but the best bet for having a regular active sex life is to form a committed relationship.

Here’s a guest rec:

Please consider having philosopher/motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford on the Dishcast. He has written a couple of books like Shop Class as Soulcraft and The World Outside Your Head that consider contemporary life in original and interesting ways and I would love to hear him talk to you.

I loved The World Outside Your Head. Thanks for the suggestion.

Last week’s discussion of immigration in the US and UK continues with readers below. Here’s a view from Canada:

Our immigration situation is the same (in some ways) and different (in others) than in the United States. Canada, like Australia, has a high proportion of foreign born residents — 23 percent. Current targets are for an increased rate of immigration for the foreseeable future, which amounts to one percent of the population per year. For 2023, this will add 400,000 to a population now approaching 40 million.

Most people, myself included, have no problem with this policy, but for the consequences. Immigrants generally want to move to urban areas and face the squeeze of scarce and very expensive housing, especially in places like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. The medical systems in every province are getting very creaky as well; family doctors are hard to find, hospital emergency rooms are crowded and the existing population is getting older and will further strain resources.

It will take a while to solve either problem: improvements taken today will show little payoff for 5-10 years at a minimum. First-world problems indeed.

A reader dissents:

I do think you miss the point by focusing on “reactionary” backlash as the only — or even the principal — risk of mass migration. Here’s the reality:

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