Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Is the future postliberal?: Patrick Deneen on the problems with liberalism and what could replace it

00:00:00
Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with Patrick Deneen, a Notre Dame University political science professor and leading conservative intellectual, about his provocative, new book, Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Patrick Deneen, a Notre Dame University political science professor, influential public intellectual, and bestselling author. His latest book, Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, which builds on his highly influential 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed, has already generated a ton of attention and debate. I’m grateful to speak with him about the book, which is described as a “bold plan” for replacing the liberal assumptions that he believes is at the heart of modern society’s many challenges. Patrick, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

PATRICK DENEEN: Thanks very much, Sean. I’m really delighted to be with you.

SEAN SPEER: The new book has been described as something of a sequel to your highly influential book from 2018, which received critical praise from many different quarters, including former U.S. President Barack Obama. Talk a bit about the interrelationship between the two books. How does it build on Why Liberalism Failed? What are you aiming to achieve in the latest book?

PATRICK DENEEN: This book is published now, five years after Why Liberalism Failed, and it attempts, I think—I can’t say that it succeeds, but it certainly attempts to address one of the constant questions that I was getting over those past five years, which is, “Okay, so if it’s the case that liberalism has failed or that liberalism is an unsustainable project, what is the alternative? What else is there?”

So this book is an effort to answer that question in a way that I’m sure many people will find unsatisfactory or implausible, but what I really attempt to do is to draw on a very longstanding, very ancient, and rich tradition of thinking about, in particular, how one builds a good society in which the two constituent parties of any political society, the many and the few, the demos and the elites, are mutually improving each other; are making each other, in some senses, better. And that’s really the kind of project. Now, that doesn’t sound like postliberalism as such, fair enough.

But it begins with a premise that liberalism has been a project from the outset that has sought to elevate a certain kind of elite that, at its heart, is contrary and really seeks to thwart ultimately the flourishing of ordinary of the demos, the masses, the many. And that’s the premise of the book. And so it really is an effort to say, “To move beyond the liberal order that we see today, we need a different kind of both a ruling class that will help develop a different kind of a demos.”

SEAN SPEER: Let’s stay on your criticism of liberalism for a minute. Core to your argument and those who belong to your intellectual movement is that the purported protections of liberalism have not sustained themselves. That the guarantees of tolerance, broadly defined, for differing perspectives on morality, sexuality, and virtue have not granted protection as supposedly guaranteed in a basic liberal framework. Instead, those who oppose, for lack of a better term, a social conservative worldview have used their positions of power in mainstream institutions, including, but not limited to government, to effectively marginalize and even, at times, target those with views that they oppose. And, in that sense, the promise of liberalism has proven to be a failure.

Let me ask a two-part question. First, when do you think the Left gave up its commitment to liberalism and pluralism? And second, what has been the consequences for those like you who don’t subscribe to prevailing views about morality, sexuality, and all the rest?

PATRICK DENEEN: Well, I guess, to the first question, the Left gave up its commitments to liberalism as you describe it—let me take a step back. I actually don’t know that those commitments were actually ever really real. In other words, I think that the liberal, the stated commitments to a society of toleration and ‘live as let live’, and so forth, was, really, most fundamentally a kind of tool of replacing one way of life, one worldview, one regime, to use the term that I use in the book, a ‘regime change’: to replace one regime with another regime. And what maybe some people think of as the golden age of liberal toleration—and I’d like to know exactly when that was—but at any rate, whatever that time was, was actually more of a segue than a permanent state.

It was more of a transition from one regime to another regime. You can, in some ways, literally see this in—the example I would use is the transformation of universities, which is always so instructive since it’s the point of the spear of what a society’s commitments are. You go from institutions that were formed in various religious traditions in the main, at least in the United States, almost entirely formed to be, in some senses, extensions of churches or extensions of faith traditions to form people in those faith traditions. In other words, that had a substantive view of what the good was, what a good curriculum looked like, what the appropriate professor is, right? Literally, the person who professes the faith, who those people would be, and what the student body should look like, and so forth.

You go from that to roughly, beginning in the post-World War II period, even a little bit earlier, a moment of this transition of what we might think of as the liberal golden age of academic freedom and free speech; people can believe what they want to believe and say what they want to say. The main aim of which was to disassemble the predecessor condition; was to put aside that older tradition that had a set of substantive commitments and substantive beliefs and to say, “Okay, we’re no longer going to have any of those, and no one can claim those anymore because that’s now a suppression of academic freedom.” But notice that what has transpired is its replacement with a new faith system, a new belief system that has all of the same earmarks of that which are replaced, right?

You have to have a certain kind of faculty. We actually now have increasing numbers of schools that are requiring basically doctrinal commitments—statements of faith that I will be faithful to the DEI, diversity, equity, and inclusion, commitments of this institution. We now have hiring that takes place based on these faith commitments. Students are admitted based on their commitments to these faith commitments. The curriculum is now shaped by these faith commitments. So to those of us in this postliberal worldview, I think we really feel ourselves as having been shown—it’s been shown to be or proven—that the case that we had been making all along that liberalism was not a neutral, valueless system that had no particular point of view was always false. That it had a set of commitments and those have now come out in full force. It’s a kind of nostalgia, in a way, of those who think, “Well, we can just go back to the period of toleration and mutual indifference of worldviews,” because that’s never a stable position.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned in your first answer, Patrick, the relationship between—and possible tension between—the elites and the broader populace. It leads to the question: In your mind, how much of the problem with liberalism is inherent to its core ideas and values, and how much of it is that it’s dependent on a society comprised of virtuous individuals and institutions, and that modern society has come to spend down its moral and spiritual capital? Maybe, to put it differently, is the problem liberalism or is the problem us?

PATRICK DENEEN: I actually don’t see those as, in some ways, separate questions because ‘us’ is going to be a reflection of the dominant political order. Of course, this was the argument of my previous book, which is that every political order has a set of predominant commitments. Even liberalism, which many people would’ve claimed or have claimed again, has no dominant understanding of what constitutes the human good. But in fact, which shapes us, inexorably shapes human beings in the image and likeness that it imagines what we should be and how we should be.

Now, how we should be in a liberal order are people that are liberated from any ascribed understanding of that which constitutes the good and, to the greatest extent possible, free ourselves from the kinds of, let’s say, institutions and practices that in a previous regime, were designed to cultivate certain kinds of human beings, certain kinds of human character. For lack of better word, I would call it virtue, right? A more classical or Christian understanding of what virtue is.

Think about the thick network of institutions that have to exist, beginning, of course, with the family and the networks of families, of a neighbourhood, and a community, and churches, and civic life and political life, and a national life, and a global order, maybe more broadly. But all of those institutions and practices that develop those virtues, those come to be redescribed as institutions of oppression of our personal liberty. Those come to be under a liberal order. Those are necessarily obstacles to the fulfillment of my liberty and my vision of how I want to lead my life. And so it’s not just a matter of indifference of whether or not those institutions exist and are strong; they have to be disassembled, and maybe they’re reassembled or redescribed, or considered in a new way. A good example, again, would be a modern university, which is disassembled in its old form and then it’s reconstituted under the new regime.

But notice, really what the argument is is that the result is going to be precisely the creation and the formation of human beings; human types that do not have that—what you described as, ‘the well of certain kinds of virtues’ that allow a putatively liberal order to flourish. The more we become the kinds of humans that liberalism seeks to make us, the less well liberalism will work because the less we’re going to have the kinds of people that are going to be willing to engage in civic dialogue, right? They’re going to have the kinds of manners and the kinds of characters that allow for a kind of civil, decent political life that are motivated by forms of self-sacrifice that make us more than just market actors that maximize our individual utility, that are likely to cultivate us as citizens as opposed to consumers. We could just keep going down the list, but the kind of human being that liberalism produces actually makes liberalism itself unworkable.

SEAN SPEER: Building on that answer, a chief argument in the book is that the American public isn’t getting the politics it wants. That is to say, the political system has systematically served up political options that have failed to align with the broad political preferences of the majority of American voters. What explains this disconnect in your view, and what do those who talk about polarization in Washington get wrong?

PATRICK DENEEN: One of the more interesting political charts that was getting a lot of circulation after the 2016 election—you may know it if you want to throw it up on the, I don’t know, on the website or something—it was this four-quadrant chart of political preferences lined, aligned with liberal to conservative views on the social domain and liberal to conservative views in the economic domain. Now, the words liberal and conservative in the economic domain are confusing because, I think, probably in Canada, liberal means what we would think of as conservative. So maybe we should describe it as libertarian versus more interventionist. And at the very least, in the United States, our party system and our media system and our education system, and we could say the system as a whole is designed to produce electoral results that always ensure that one side of the libertarian spectrum will always be in charge.

So it’s either the economic side of the libertarian spectrum, which is when the Republicans win —at least through the 1980s, or at least, well, until the Trump election—that the libertarians in the economic domain win, or that the libertarians in the social domain win, which is the Democrats. One of the most fascinating things about that four-part chart is that there’s almost no voter that exists in the purely libertarian part of the spectrum. In other words, it has to be created in a laboratory in the basement of the Cato Institute, someone who would vote libertarian in both the social and economic domains. So a marvellous and almost, you have to think, conspiratorially planned effort to advance libertarian views through parties that, on the one hand, claim that libertarianism in its fullest form can’t win electorally.

And so we parse it up, we parcel it out so that the Republicans will manage and advance the libertarian economic program while the progressives will advance the libertarian social program of the sexual revolution unfolding. And the most fascinating thing of all, about this chart, was how many voters are up in the quadrant, which we might describe as the anti-libertarian quadrant. It’s the quadrant of people who are socially more conservative. And we would say in America, economically more liberal or economically more in favour of, we might describe as, social democracy.

SEAN SPEER: Sort of like a Christian Democrat perhaps—

PATRICK DENEEN: Exactly, yeah.

SEAN SPEER: —in the European setting.

PATRICK DENEEN: Yeah. I mean, it is kind of what the old Left was or the Social Democrats were back in the day. Yeah, it’s the beginnings of the European Union, post-World War II, Konrad Adenauer, and so forth. That part of the electoral distribution is not represented in the American electorate. It has no party. It’s a substantial number of votes. And actually, if you look at those quadrants from the 2016 election, that’s what threw the election to Donald Trump, where the number of people who ended up voting for Trump from that column, because they identified that he was someone for all of what we know to be his many imperfections, was someone who maybe for the first time in their lives seemed to express a non-liberal view in both the economic and the social domain; that various things he was signalling were sufficient to that part of the electorate that just typically didn’t get a candidate.

And I guess I would say that that is, to me, a hallmark of somehow an electoral system, or we could say a political system that is designed—again, we could say in here, this is really part of the argument. My book is designed, particularly through its leadership, its elite, to forestall or prevent that segment of the population, that segment of the electorate, from being able to have considerable sway in terms of policy and the direction of the political order; that it’s designed to make sure that those people never really get to have a substantial say when the dominant of the elites of each party want to ensure that the liberal orientation of the society is protected and advanced in all circumstances.

SEAN SPEER: An example of the small-L liberal consensus cited in the book is the rise of so-called ‘woke capitalism.’ Talk a bit about that, Patrick. How is the rise of a corporate politics of personal expression, including with respect to sexuality itself, an expression of elite consensus?

PATRICK DENEEN: Yeah, in some ways I see the—and part of the argument of the book is that the rise of what we now think of as the woke phenomenon, ‘woke capitalism,’ is, in fact, a really remarkable defence mechanism; exactly what I’ve been describing of this liberal elite that is actually a unit party, which has functioned as an apparently divided or oppositional set of forces. But has actually governed largely as a unit party, always advancing liberalism in one guise or another, right? So that the ratchet only seems to move in one direction, either economically toward more neoliberal ends or in the social domain toward the constantly ongoing, rolling, outworking of the sexual revolution. And the rise of ‘woke capitalism’ occurred almost simultaneous to the moment when that quadrant of the electorate actually began to have some say.

And so it is a remarkable kind of combination of, you could say, the neoliberal capitalist ethos of everything can be sold, everything can be packaged, everything can be turned into a market item, and that the ultimate market item, indicating our personal freedom, our personal liberty, is the marketing of ourselves as products, ourselves as things that can be, in a sense, processed; that we are the ultimate consumer of ourselves, and that we can package ourselves and remake ourselves as we wish. So wokeness is—it’s strange to me right now, but not surprising, that the Right is increasingly—or at least a certain element of the liberal Right, is describing it as Marxist. I just don’t think it’s Marxist at all. They call it ‘Cultural Marxism.’ It’s really kind of the ultimate extreme of a capitalist ethos of the thinking of ourselves as products that can be constantly reshaped, reformed, repackaged, and made into whatever it is we wish for those things to be. So ‘woke capitalism’ does seem to me as the perfect marriage of what I sometimes call the ‘two Johns’: John Dewey and John Locke. It’s the perfect marriage of the neoliberal economic and the socially progressive forces in our society.

SEAN SPEER: There’s a case that your own ideas represent something of a Left-Right synthesis. I read, for instance, you described your intellectual mentor, Carey McWilliams, as someone who “wasn’t easily definable by a Left-Right paradigm.” How does postliberalism, in your mind, draw on insights and ideas from the traditional class-based Left and the old communitarian Right?

PATRICK DENEEN: Well, yeah, that more or less perfectly describes what I see, and certainly my own intellectual formation, as what I have always seen as the deeper synthesis between what has, in some ways, often been seen as separate. And part of the effort of this current book is to put those back together again; is to put together a class-based understanding and an analysis of our current political moment, with what we might describe as a more traditionalist understanding of what the consequences of that analysis are. So in other words, to direct Marx in the direction that Marx should have gone, in some ways. Which many of Marx’s analyses of capitalism are really spot on. I mean, the opening pages of the Communist Manifesto, a conservative can read those and think, “Wow, this is the most powerful conservative critique of capitalism ever written,” because he describes exactly how capitalism operates to undo—to just liquefy all human relationships, all traditions, all customs, all places, right?

Anything that sort of exists through time gets just liquidated by the dynamics of capitalism. Now, Marx then takes this analysis and says, “What we need is a revolutionary order that will overthrow the elite and put into place dictatorship of the proletariat, and all will be a perfect utopian society.” But there’s a tradition which had a similar kind of critique of the market order taken to the extreme that it’s been taken and argued that the answer, and the solution in many ways, was a strong reassertion of the kinds of structures and practices of a more traditional society; that the only way, in some ways, to contain the way that the market would occupy all aspects of life, was to preserve aspects of life through forms of association, forms of identity, forms of development of who we are that limit how we think of ourselves merely as actors in the marketplace.

And if you don’t have those kinds of strong alternative understandings of yourself and your society in your order, the market will inhabit every crevice and cranny of a human psyche and, of course, human society. So the class-based critique and the critique of the market, in particular, really does lend itself to a traditionalist set of understandings. And this is the kind of tradition that you see—it was especially well articulated in England around the time of the Industrial Revolution and shortly thereafter; Carlisle, among others. But in the book, I mentioned some passages from Burke that are really relevant, as well as Benjamin Disraeli, who was really among the first thinkers to understand what was going on. But maybe the figure above all that kind of looms just in the back of my mind, and this was a much more contemporary thinker, which was Christopher Lasch, a man of the Left who I think maybe understood these aspects of the implications of the less critique of the market needing answers that came from the Right. And Lasch is someone, I think, who has rightfully been rediscovered, but really needs to be a guiding light in how we think about our politics much more than he has been in recent years.

SEAN SPEER: The book talks about two big ideas that stand in contrast with the prevailing ones over our politics in general and conservatism in particular. The first is what you call ‘aristo-populism’ and the second is what you describe as ‘common-good conservatism.’ Can you talk a bit about these concepts, what they mean, how they differ from the status quo, and how they may relate to one another?

PATRICK DENEEN: Yeah, so ‘aristo-populism’ is the title of one of the chapters. And it’s inspired by one line of thinking about this, something I talk about quite a bit in the book, which is the idea of a mixed constitution or mixed regime that I’ve already mentioned. In other words, how does one form the various elements of society, or how does one think about the relationship, especially of elites in a society, to the populace, to the ordinary people, in a way that the natural antipathy of those two doesn’t devolve into either a civil war or anarchy or tyranny, or just outright oppression? And we are not the first people to live through a time when the divide between the elites and the many has been a political problem. And it’s a very old issue that, for someone like me who teaches in this tradition, you see it constantly. It’s constantly reappearing.

And there are two basic answers that one encounters in this tradition, both of which are described as the theory of the mixed constitution, each of which approaches this in a different way. One of them, which is maybe more associated with the name of Machiavelli, argues that, basically in particular the populist side of the equation needs to be forceful against the incursions and efforts of the elites to dominate them. It needs to be really ardently forceful in resisting the domination of the elites, especially because it’s much easier for the elites to dominate the people than vice versa. The elites just have so many more tools: wealth, and institutions, and so forth. And so, this is a theory of, you could say—it’s one of the origins of the ideas of checks and balances; that the many would check the power of the few.

And it’s the chapter in ‘aristo-populism’ where I talk about this being a necessary mechanism, especially right now when I see the way I see things, the elites in our society really do possess most of the tools of, you could say, political power, economic power, social power, the power of forming opinion, the media, the universities, the NGOs, the bureaucracies. You could go down the list of all the various institutions that the Left controls today, or that the elite control today—the liberal elite in particular. And that what’s required; is a forceful push to say, “If you don’t change your ways, we will find ways to replace you. We will find—” So this is the origin of this idea of ‘aristo-populism’: that only through a forceful expression of populist power electorally, in particular, will the elites act more like aristocrats, will they act more like—in other words, aristocrats in the original sense of that word, meaning people of virtue; people who will behave and be more virtuous.

The other approach to the idea of mixed constitution comes more from the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions. And this is an argument, not that the one side should contest forcefully against the other side, but that ideally there should be a mixing to the point in which the two start to become more like one; more like a single party in society in which the, you could say, the interest of the one and the interests of the many begin to blend together; that what is good for some people is also good for the many. Now, of course, that’s always a complicated thing because they’re always going to be countervailing interests in society. But in the Aristotelian view, the hope and the aim is that the good of the political order, as a whole, redounds also to the good of individuals within that order. And only a flourishing political order will lead to the flourishing of individuals within that order.

So this is a less internally divisive society, and one in which the common good, conceived now not as limited to just some set of people, but rather one in which, again, the good of some also redounds the good of all in that society. And so common good conservatism is really an argument that a society that is able to be attentive to, especially, the needs and requirements for the flourishing of ordinary, non-elite citizens, right? What’s required for the flourishing of ordinary citizens in any given society? And the answer is not that everyone is going to be a finance banker in New York City or everyone is going to be a globetrotter. And again, if you spend enough time in universities, that implicitly tends to be the answer in some ways; “If everyone could just become like us, well-educated with something like an equivalent of an Ivy degree, then this will be the way that we can have a flourishing society.” Rather, what goes into the flourishing of human life tends to be very ordinary things. Of course, you need a financial base, you need an economic base, but you also need the kind of institutions of civil society that allow for the flourishing of individuals. Of course, you need good families. And just start there. How are families doing in America or in the West today? In particular, how are families doing the least among us in the rural parts of the country? In the working-class places of the country, they’re not doing well at all.

And what are the elites doing? Are they treating this as a kind of crisis? No, I mean, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist because to talk about family would no longer be a liberal thing, would no longer be praising the individual initiative of the individuated, monadic human being. So ‘common-good conservatism’ is really a way of saying that a society that fosters the kinds of institutions and practices and the development of virtues, doesn’t have to be one in which we eliminate the elite or we eliminate the ordinary people. It’s one in which the basic requirements of flourishing are available; almost a public utility to everyone. Everyone is able to flourish regardless of whether or not you’re in the elite class or whether you’re just a regular Joe or Joanna, who can lead a good and flourishing life without having to get the right kind of college degree.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve been so generous with your time, Patrick. I just want to put a few questions to you about how a postliberal politics manifests itself in public policy before I wrap up with a big-picture question about Canada. I should just say, though, in parentheses for listeners, the book sets out a number of different proposals and options with respect to a policy agenda informed by some of the ideas that we’ve been discussing, and we won’t be able to cover all of them here. Perhaps that’s an even greater reason to ultimately buy the book.

I want to ask, Patrick, about the welfare state. Libertarian politics has had something of an uneasy settlement with the welfare state, but your vision actually finds some common ground with the Left on a greater role for the state with regards to income security, industrial policy, and other more interventionist policy prescriptions. Why don’t you talk a bit about your vision of the state as set out in a postliberal agenda?

PATRICK DENEEN: I think, touching on something I said earlier about how one thinks about restraining and properly limiting the market forces in life, this needs to be done, not just in—so, for example, family life shouldn’t be run on market forces. I mean, that’d be a disaster for family life. Your kids will love you if you earn your way to their love: “You have to do this, that, and the other thing, and then I’ll give you X amount of ‘love-credits’ for the day.” But you know what? The market itself is prone to its own excesses. Every tool can only be used to the extent that that tool can produce the good and right outcomes it’s designed to do. And once it exceeds those or moves beyond what that tool can and rightly should do, then one needs to think about how that tool is being misused.

And I think this is true of the market. So people who criticize the market, such as myself, or are prone to criticize aspects of the market, are often seen—I’m constantly being accused of being a Marxist, and Leftist socialist, and so forth. These are just maybe silly and idiotic labels that, of course, are meant to scare people. I think, believe it or not, it’s entirely possible to be in favour of the tool of the market, which is a valuable and necessary tool, while recognizing that it has certain kinds of limits. And among those limits, I mean, among key of those limits, that the people have understood for a very long time, is the very thing that animates Right-liberals, or what we call neoliberals, when they think about political power. Neoliberals, Right-liberals are very concerned about the abuse of political power, political power, right? They’ll be the first on the rampart to say, “The state is a dangerous entity because it has so much power and it can just do what it wants and remove our freedom. It can treat us in ways that are undignified and inhuman.”

And yet, when it comes to the concentration of economic power, it’s almost as if that doesn’t exist. But of course, it’s simply just obviously the case that economic concentration of power is a fact that comes about through markets. And good basic economics 101 will say, “Okay, you can’t have monopolies because monopolies destroy the basic dynamics of a market economy.” But there are ways you can have less than a monopoly and still have these titanic concentrations of power, which end up being as potentially abusive, or at least comparably abusive, to human beings and human dignity as it would be as if it was held by public authority.

And what’s going to be the counterpoise to these kinds of dangers of concentration of economic power? Well, it’s going to have to be political power. It’s going to have to be public power. And this is where, again, the critiques of the excesses of the market or the ways in which the market can lead to these abusive kinds of relationships and activities. The way that this is described is that this is the government doing these interventions. The government. It’s like this alien force landed from another planet and started doing these terrible things. Well, ideally, what is the government? The government is, really, what represents us. It is the way that the public’s concern, the public wheel, is expressed. Now, is it always good? Is it always agile, and does it do it in a good way? Of course not. But that’s not to say, “Well, let’s just disassemble it or let’s have no exercise of public authority.

And this is a way in which it seems to me conservatism, again, as a liberal project, has been an abysmal failure. Because the claim that any exercise of public authority over market forces in order to trim or to tame or to rightly order the market; that these are inherently illegitimate, has meant that we’ve had at least two, if not three, generations of potential thinking about the ways that this needs to be done, that that’s been entirely undeveloped. So I think, just to begin with, it’s not that, on the one hand, the welfare state is illegitimate or that the welfare state is always a good thing. It’s that we have to really begin to think. And I think here, a new generation of conservatives are beginning to think about the ways that broad-based middle-class programs are actually a good thing. They provide the kind of decent order and security that ordinary people need to be able to lead the kinds of lives in which they can expect to flourish, right? And still, to have people out there on the notional Right saying that the aim is to disassemble social security and to have no medical care, no system of medical care, that this would be the good and right outcome of efforts on the so-called Right. This seems to me not only just irresponsible; it seems to me inhuman.

SEAN SPEER: Probably your most radical idea is a massive expansion of the House of Representatives. Talk about that. How would it change American politics in a direction that’s more amenable to your political vision?

PATRICK DENEEN: Yeah, it’s funny. I think I put that one first, which probably, people thought, “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever read.” The funny thing is—again, I’m a student of political philosophy and I’m a student of American political thought, among other things. This was one of the most hotly debated and regarded as one of the most important topics at the time of the American founding. So all the people who think they’re all about the American founding and how important the American founding is, no one ever talks about this, but the size of the House of Representatives was regarded as one of the most important topics that was dealt with at the time of the debates over the American constitution because it touches on a really key question, which is: what is representation? What does it mean to be represented, right?

So if in a political order such as ours, and we live in very large societies, right? Very massive scale, huge numbers of people. I think it’s fair to say that in no real way are we represented in our national political order. I mean, we’re maybe represented by certain kinds of organizations, right? So if you care about the environment, you probably are represented by the Sierra Club. If you care about abortion; you’re probably represented by either Planned Parenthood or a pro-life group. In other words, the people that we are electing, in what way—in the size of the districts that we have or even the states that we have, in what way can they represent us?

So, this was actually a topic of very hot debate and discussion at the time of the American founding. It’s one of the most interesting debates because, among other things, some of the most interesting of the Federalist Papers are written on this topic, in which the Federalists—in which the Founders thought that having a small House of Representatives was the key to the success of the Constitution because they didn’t want too much representation. They actually wanted representatives that would be relatively disconnected from the people that they would represent. In other words, would do what they would do since they constituted elite class. So that part of the book which I’m making these proposals, what I was thinking was, Do you get more ordinary views filtering up? How do you get the views of people who just don’t have the access that you have to have to get your views aired in Washington, D.C.? And it was the viewpoint of those who opposed the Constitution at the time, or at least were critical of the Constitution, that said, “Okay, we would be more likely to accept this if the House of Representatives would always be relatively linked to the size of the population so that districts wouldn’t get past a certain size.

Now, there was originally a proposal, one of the original amendments, in what became the Bill of Rights of the United States. One of those original amendments was actually to limit the size of a district to about 50,000 people. And if you do the math, that would mean our House of Representatives would be, I think it was like something in the order of close to 10,000 people. In the book actually, I revived a proposal that was made by George Will—back, then an old-fashioned conservative—who suggested we should expand the House of Representatives to 1,000 people. Which would be a lot smaller than what that original amendment would’ve led to be the case. But the thinking was, how do we get a greater connection between, again, people where they are up to the national scale? How do we get more of the ‘ordinary opinion’ moving up to the heights of power of American society?

And a second concern among those who are critical of the Constitution: how is it that we can possibly arrange that more ordinary people might serve in the government? That you don’t have to have a law degree; you don’t have to be someone of notoriety with a reality television show, for instance. In other words, only in relatively smaller districts is someone likely to be known because they have a good reputation; because they have done certain kinds of things in their communities, and not because they’re superstars, they have a lot of money, or they—whatever the reasons that make it more likely for people to be elected today. So I do say in this chapter that I’m not a policy person. These are just ideas, but I think part of the impetus for suggesting this is to say maybe we’re really stuck in a rut when we think about how we think about the nature of modern liberal democracy or modern representative democracy.

And one way to rethink this is to go back to some of what were once regarded as the really key debates over whether or not this system would function. And if it’s not functioning today in part for reasons that people no longer think their voices are being heard, that they actually have no say in this government. Well, it may not be that we want to expand the House of Representatives, but how do you make it so that people are more likely to think that their voices are being heard? And that really is the impetus of thinking about a proposal like that.

SEAN SPEER: A penultimate question: Another big idea is to reform post-secondary education such that absolute enrollment is actually reduced. Explain the case for a more constrained university sector. How would that positively affect culture and politics in America?

PATRICK DENEEN: I think it’s quite clear that we are today, and here’s one area where I think more traditional, we could say a more liberal conservative like myself, would have agreement, which is that a lot of what the universities are doing is producing people who are credentialed without a lot of ability or skills. It’s a credentialing machine that is significantly subverted by the public purse. Actually, let me rephrase that: it’s subverted by the public forms of loans that then rid down unfavourably on the students who take out those loans. So we have now, at least a generation, if not more, of students who have taken massive loans on the promise of having the kinds of jobs that would allow them to pay those loans back with ease, but which are not finding those kinds of jobs because we are really overproducing the numbers of credentials that can reasonably be thought to result in those that kind of work.

And at the same time, we are not producing the kinds of people with the kinds of skills that are desperately needed today. And in particular, the trades; where we have a real deficit of people who are able to do the kinds of work for the aging infrastructures that I think both of our countries, unfortunately, are suffering under, that are able to really just to keep the country going in many ways.

So why is it that we are directing so much of the public, let’s just say the, it’s not direct funds, but it’s the promise of what those funds are supposed to result in while circumventing the development of a workforce that’s more likely to be able to do the kinds of work that this country and other countries like this country are going to need in the coming years. So I think, probably, it’s against my own interest to make these arguments as somebody who works in a university. But I think it’s the case that many institutions are already beginning to retool, and they would retool faster if the public commitment were itself to change and reflect those realities.

SEAN SPEER: My final question is about Canada, though it has a universal dynamic to it. Let me just set it up, okay?

Canada, as you may know, already has a highly diverse population, and current immigration policy will only supercharge this trend. Our national statistical agency estimates that by the early 2040s, half of the national population will be first or second-generation immigrants. The truth is, because immigration is not equally distributed, some places could easily be in the 60 or 70 percent range. In countries and societies marked by growing heterogeneity and diversity and, in turn, a multiplicity of religions and worldviews and competing conceptions of ‘the good life,’ is there room for an alternative to liberalism, notwithstanding some of the flaws that we’ve discussed? Have we essentially locked ourselves into a liberal future to manage the level of diversity that government policy has essentially rot?

PATRICK DENEEN: Great question, and I don’t know if I have a satisfactory answer for it because it is precisely—you’re right that in many ways, it is the consequence of a liberal order to seek, in many ways, to foster the increase of diversity. Immigration is one of the ways it does this, but that’s just one of the ways it does this. It does this also by fostering and encouraging, as we were saying before, a society in which the institutions that were in many ways designed to form and foster a certain vision of what human virtue looks like, those are disassembled or reassembled in which the individual and the individual’s views become predominant. And therefore, diversity then becomes, again, de facto, even within the existing population.

So I guess I could see two really possible outcomes. One of them is a peaceful diversity, which is what we were describing earlier. In other words, all of these various immigrant communities—and it may not happen in the first generation, it’s probably the second or third generation—they do what many immigrant communities have done, which is to basically internalize the liberal mindset. And in other words, they become homogenized to liberalism. So what appears to be diversity, in fact, is really just a veneer. Really what underlies it is a homogeneous view of globalized indifferentism of who we are, who you are, what it is we do. And this, of course, becomes consonant with the market itself. It becomes consonant with the view of ourselves as basically individual sovereign choosers, especially in a marketplace. And so you could see a continuation of what we see today.

But this is not genuine diversity. What it really is, is a liberal monolith. It’s homogenized liberalism. Then we’re back to the problem that I described earlier, which is that it forms people that cannot sustain the liberal order itself; that do not have the kinds of characters and the certain kinds of virtues that are able to maintain the minimal form of common good that’s necessary for a political society to flourish. And so then, I think it only exacerbates the problems going forward. Maybe that’s the good form of liberalism that might result. And I’m not sure that that’s all that good.

The other one is what we’re seeing in some of the streets and neighbourhoods in Europe, which is the retention of the cultural diversity of different religious, ethnic national traditions not acclimating to the liberal order; resisting it. This is especially going to be religious traditions, probably outside of Christianity, that have, very self-consciously, developed themselves in contrast to the dominant societies. In this scenario, what you have is an increasingly divided and, potentially hostile, internal set of cultural political dynamics that could go in all kinds of various unpredictable ways, but in which liberal societies will find themselves in this kind of deeply self-conflicted state, on the one hand, committed to not being judgmental about another religious or faith or ethnic, or cultural tradition, but faced with a tradition that’s deeply antithetical to their own.

Again, if you watch closely what’s happening in Europe today, I think you’re seeing societies that do not know how to answer this question. Maybe that’s the ‘worser-case’ scenario, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily even all that better than the ‘better-case’ scenario.

SEAN SPEER: Well, one tool to help us answer those questions and more is the book Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future. Patrick Deneen, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

PATRICK DENEEN: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

00:00:00
00:00:00