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America Doesn’t Need Regime Change

Patrick Deneen has written a book that reproduces and encourages a form of self-deception that’s pervasive in the United States on the populist Right.

· 16 min read
America Doesn’t Need Regime Change

A review of Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future by Patrick J. Deneen, 288 pages, Sentinel/Penguin Random House (June 2023)

There are many ways to measure the ascendance of rightwing antiliberalism across the democratic world since the middle of the 2010s. In several countries, right-populists have displaced neoliberal politicians and center-right parties. In some of these places, they’ve won power. Even where they haven’t, their critiques of party establishments on immigration, free trade, crime, foreign policy, and social issues have shifted the terms of debate away from the consensus that prevailed over the past several decades. And then there’s what might be called the migration of utopian energies from the Left to the Right in recent years.

I wasn’t a conservative as a teenager, but I was in my 20s and early 30s. That was during the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was common for center-right intellectuals to define themselves in opposition to the utopian hopes associated with the counterculture of the 1960s and early ’70s. They were irresponsible and foolish radicals, willing to topple the imperfect but decent and hard-won institutions of liberal democracy in pursuit of an airy and ill-considered ideal. We were hard-nosed realists, keenly attuned to the fragility of these institutions and the need to defend and protect them against the reckless idealists.

What we didn’t perceive at the time is that, with the end of the Cold War, some of these utopian hopes had migrated to our own rightward-leaning precincts of the liberal center. What was talk of the universal triumph of liberal democracy—let alone an impulse to impose it onto a recalcitrant Middle East at the point of a gun—if not an expression of a longing to see the world conform to and be remade on the model of an abstract ideal?

But that utopian moment didn’t last. Like Hegel’s World Spirit, alighting from one form of social life to another down through the millennia, the utopianism of the liberal center faded, its energies moving on in search of a new patch of fertile ground in which to take root and flourish. What I couldn’t have imagined back during my conservative years is that, for the first time in nearly eight decades, the longing for revolutionary change would find a home a decade or so later on the antiliberal Right.

I first met Patrick J. Deneen 19 years ago. I was an unhappy editor at the conservative religious magazine First Things, close to quitting to write a book criticizing its influence on the American Right. Deneen was in the midst of a tenure fight with Princeton University that he would eventually lose, and he was eager to begin writing for more popular outlets. He was working on an essay about the antiliberal populism of Christopher Lasch. Might First Things be interested in publishing it? I took a look, liked what I read, worked on an edit, got it past the boss (founder and editor-in-chief Richard John Neuhaus), and the piece appeared in the December 2004 issue of the magazine, just a couple of months before I broke ranks.

A decade later, after seven years as a tenured professor at Georgetown University, Deneen had decamped to the department of political science at the University of Notre Dame, where he now held the David A. Potenziani Memorial Chair of Constitutional Studies. I, meanwhile, was writing a thrice-weekly column for the Week and acquiring books in political theory, intellectual history, and current affairs for the University of Pennsylvania Press. This time, I was the one with a pitch for Deneen: How would he like to serve as co-editor of a book series that would foster and promote “his” kind of conservative thinking and ideas?

These would be books that (to invoke a bit of trendy terminology) “de-centered” the right-leaning liberalism that had dominated conservative intellectual life in the English-speaking world since the time of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Building on the themes of Deneen’s own writing, we would aim to publish books that drew upon and promoted arguments found in an eclectic series of writers, including Lasch, Deneen’s teacher Wilson Carey McWilliams, the 18th-century Anti-Federalists who opposed adoption of the US Constitution, Alexis de Tocqueville, Wendell Berry, and various other dissenters from America’s prevailing cross-partisan liberal consensus. In a spirit of both provocation and forthrightness, we resolved to call our series “Radical Conservatisms.”

Not much came of the series, and that’s probably for the best. A couple of years after we launched it, Brexit prevailed in the UK and Donald Trump won the US presidency. Suddenly, what had seemed like an academic exercise fit for seminar rooms had become an active option in the political world. Deneen responded by writing a book (for Yale University Press, not our little series at Penn Press) that became a surprise bestseller and garnered praise from people across the political spectrum, including former President Barack Obama.

A bit like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind three decades earlier, Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed became a sensation by crystalizing something about the moment in which it was written by way of a paradoxically shocking argument. Bloom claimed that the American mind had been closed by an excess of openness; Deneen asserted that liberalism had failed by succeeding. That is, the fulfillment of liberalism’s aims had led to its own collapse because those aims, articulated centuries in the past, had been exposed as antithetical to human flourishing. (The past tense in Deneen’s title, which ensured potential readers on the center-Left would do a double-take, was an extra bit of marketing genius.)

I wrote an early, quite favorable review of Why Liberalism Failed, calling it “the most electrifying book of cultural criticism published in some time.” And so it was. But the context in which it appeared—two years into the Trump administration—also gave me pause. Was Trumpist populism a glimpse of the kind of postliberal politics that Deneen hoped would follow liberalism’s collapse? His book didn’t provide a clear answer, but his arguments strongly implied that it was much closer to the goal than any other live option on the political scene.

Over the next two years, as he began work on a follow-up volume for a major trade press (Sentinel, a conservative imprint of Penguin Random House), Deneen’s writing and public statements became more extreme. Now he talked about genuine conservatism being impossible within a liberal frame. What was needed, he claimed, was for conservatives to become “revolutionaries” who seek to “alter the current order, with the aim of making a genuine conservatism possible.” In July 2020, I wrote a column analyzing and criticizing this line of argument, quoting Deneen and several of his likeminded ideological compatriots on the populist Right. Deneen responded by blocking me on all platforms. We’ve had no contact since.

So let’s just say that I’ve been quite eager to see what Deneen’s next book would say. Once again, the title gives us a pretty accurate glimpse of the argument within: Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future. Politically informed Americans are familiar with the term in the main title from foreign policy. A “regime” is a dictatorial government. The Chinese regime. The Iranian regime. The regime of Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein. In those and other cases, the United States has sometimes pursued a policy of “regime change”: toppling the tyrant so the country’s population can democratically elect a representative government in its place.

But one of the influences on Deneen’s thinking is conservative philosopher Leo Strauss, who helped to revive a broader meaning of the term “regime” that traces back to Aristotle. Used in that sense, every political community has a regime, which includes its constitution (whether written or not) as well as the totality of its laws, customs, and conventions. To call for “regime change” in this sense is to advocate a total revolution—the overthrow of the people, classes, representatives, laws, and norms that rule or overwhelmingly dominate a country, regardless of whether it’s currently considered a democracy.

Blending both senses of the term, the new book’s title is intended to resonate with rightwing populists in the US who now regularly flirt with political extremism by referring to executive-branch bureaucrats, left-leaning media organizations, “woke” corporations, and progressive professors and activists as constituting a unified quasi-totalitarian “regime” that needs to be overthrown and replaced by a tough-minded, revolutionary-conservative one.

The book’s assumptions about the American present can be heard everywhere on the populist Right these days—in Donald Trump’s 2017 inaugural address about “American carnage,” on Tucker Carlson’s recently canceled prime-time show on Fox News, in speeches by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and newly minted Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, in Claremont Institute articles and podcasts, and in a million angry tweets and far-right threads on Reddit and 4Chan. All are united in claiming that life in the United States is bleak: Rising inequality and violent crime; declining birthrates and life expectancy; surging deaths of despair and spiking levels of debt; open talk of immanent dictatorship or civil war; a presumption that a Left dominated by cultural Marxism exercises tyrannical rule through its control of leading cultural (and increasingly economic) institutions.

There is some truth in this litany of maladies, grievances, and complaints. America does have problems, some of them serious. A few are unique to the US. Many others are showing up in various ways across the democratic world, fueling parallel forms of radicalism, usually on the political Right. When Deneen focuses on the present and recent past, drawing on the illuminating work of such authors as Charles Murray and Michael Lind and blending it with his own expertise in political theory, his book makes a worthwhile contribution to understanding how we got here, and sometimes suggests policy changes that could address aspects of our present-day ills.

But Deneen isn’t primarily interested in proposing piecemeal reforms and making pragmatic policy recommendations to alleviate American problems. His critique is far too sweeping for that—and therein lies the book’s novelty. Expanding on the arguments of his previous book, Deneen insists that in all cases, our problems can be traced back to the hegemonic influence of liberalism, which has been shaping and degrading our world for hundreds of years and must be extricated root and branch from our politics and culture in order to achieve dramatic and lasting improvements.

On Deneen’s telling, liberalism leads us to believe in individual rights and historical progress, both of which denigrate received tradition, authority, community, and place, while also requiring deference to a class of experts who take charge of guiding us forward in economic growth, scientific/technological advancement, and moral perfection. Some of us (“classical liberals”) emphasize open markets and other forms of economic liberty to increase capitalistic dynamism that issues in a rising tide of prosperity while undermining traditional ways of life. Others (“progressives”) combine support for social programs to soften the blows of capitalism’s “creative destruction” with hostility to widely held customs and conventions that stand in the way of elite rule and the achievement of ever-purer forms of moral betterment.

Though politics in liberal regimes is often divided between parties that prioritize one of these agendas over the other, Deneen insists that they grow out of the same set of liberal assumptions and ideas. The results of treating these right-liberal and left-liberal alternatives as the only legitimate political options can be seen in the economic, social, and cultural struggles and alienation of our time—and also in the growing populist rebellion against the liberal status quo. The bulk of Deneen’s book is devoted to sketching what a postliberal form of politics—one that rejects both right-liberal and left-liberal alternatives—would look like and then laying out how this “regime change” can be accomplished.

In place of various forms of liberalism, Deneen follows Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule in advocating for an alternative called “common-good conservatism.” (Vermeule calls his legal variant of the theory “common-good constitutionalism,” but the two lines of argument follow from nearly identical premises.) This form of postliberal politics combines economic protectionism, industrial policy, and tough restrictions on immigration; support for the social safety net and private-sector unions; a defense of “traditional” marriage over alternative forms of family life, including a rejection of identity politics, ideas about gender fluidity, and the “sexualization of modern culture”; funding for the kind of pro-natalist policies Viktor Orbán has pioneered in Hungary to encourage family formation and increased birthrates; and stringent opposition to cosmopolitanism and globalism in both its economic and cultural dimensions.

If enacted by the Republican Party in the United States, this agenda would mark a significant break from the recent past. Yet Deneen insists, at least in some passages, that it wouldn’t be radical at all. Rather, it would be a reassertion of political and moral moderation by way of the ancient ideal of the “mixed constitution” as it was first articulated in the writings of Aristotle and Polybius. In place of what we have now—an elite oligarchy that oppresses the people through politics, law, and culture—we would revert to a more balanced arrangement in which the elite actively defends the cultural traditions of the common people. That’s what the mixed constitution amounts to—not checks and balances among classes and competing factional interests but a synthesis of classes working for what’s best for the whole.

That sounds nice—and, frankly, better than what Aristotle, at least, expected from his “mixed regime,” a second-best political arrangement in which the defects of oligarchy (rule by the rich minority) and democracy (rule by the poor majority) were modestly mitigated through the fostering of a large middle class. Deneen’s hopes for his mixed constitution are higher, just as the gap between the present American reality and the ideal is greater than talk of a mixed constitution and balance might lead one to expect. As Deneen writes at the conclusion of the chapter in which he proposes his antiliberal vision of the common good: “to constitute a political and social order worth conserving, something revolutionary must first take place: the priority of the liberal progressive agenda must be displaced for one that seeks stability, order, and continuity.”

Here we encounter a paradox that inspired my criticism of Deneen’s evolving position back in 2020. As the name of their political disposition implies, conservatives seek to conserve what’s good in the present. But what if the conservative determines there’s nothing worth conserving in the present moment because corruption and decadence are already too far advanced? In that case, the conservative impulse can move in one of two directions. One option is to withdraw from politics altogether. And indeed, a decade ago, some on the American Right entertained thoughts of pursuing just such a “Benedict Option” in favor of preserving themselves against the influence of liberalism while giving up hopes for turning back the progressive tide.

That’s a response rooted in a sense of political futility. But what if defeat in the face of progressive liberalism isn’t inevitable? This is what Brexit, Trump’s shocking win in 2016, Orbán’s aggressive antiliberal agenda, and much else over the past several years have bequeathed to thinkers like Deneen: Hope for decisive victory over their enemies. But to accomplish that goal from the starting point of the present requires something radically unconservative. It requires that the conservative not conserve but destroy—breaking, perhaps violently, from the present, leveling its institutions and power structures in order to build anew on a fresh foundation. That’s how conservatives become rightwing revolutionaries.

This utopian dynamic is fully at work in the final section of the book, which Deneen aptly titles “What Is to Be Done?,” after Vladimir Lenin’s revolutionary pamphlet. It contains his case for what he calls “Aristopopulism,” which seeks to bring about “a better aristocracy” by way of “a muscular populism.” The first of two chapters in this section begins with this description of the still-liberal present:

No tyranny lasts forever. Despotic regimes can persist for a time, sometimes too long and against reason, but all despotisms eventually fall due to some combination of internal corruption and external opposition. While the current rise of a ‘soft,’ pervasive, and invasive progressive tyranny seems genuinely new and virtually insurmountable, recent events have shown it to be susceptible to that oldest form of resistance: an opposing political force.

That opposing political force is populism. It emerges as “the raw assertion of political power” with an eye to “the creation of a new elite that is aligned with the values and needs of ordinary working people.” Deneen’s pithiest summation of what populist politics amounts to is contained in a sentence that includes an italicized and bolded phrase to signal its crucial importance to his argument: “What is needed is the application of Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends.”

To help us understand the import of these words, Deneen helpfully quotes a (characteristically wry) passage from the Florentine political theorist’s Discourses on Livy on what such politics look like in concrete terms:

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 such things frighten only those who read about them.

In the contemporary United States, the sequence of events might look something like this: The corrupt and corrupting elites hold tyrannical power across American society through their perch within political and cultural institutions; ordinary Americans, fed up with enduring moral, cultural, and economic humiliation at the hands of these liberal elites, rise up (perhaps violently) to overthrow them or force them to shift their allegiance to the common people; new elites (or newly oriented members of the old elite) respond by at long last putting the common good (or rather, the good of the common people) first; which is to say that “under pressure from the people,” the elites “actually take on features of the aristoi and nobility—excellence, virtue, magnanimity, and a concern for the common good—and by means of which the people are elevated as a result.”

As in earlier chapters, the concluding section of Deneen’s book mixes perfectly reasonable (or at least debatable) proposals for what politics should look like after the revolution with much more radical rhetoric and ideas. Sometimes he suggests relocating executive branch departments of the federal government to cities around the country, advocates a program of national service, proposes instituting nationwide vocational education programs, and suggests that it would be preferable to nominate candidates for national office using caucuses instead of primaries.

But at other points he goes much further, to propose abolishing the division of labor on which even the most elementary forms of capitalism rest, dispensing entirely with the meritocratic ideal (which holds that it’s worthwhile to build a society in which excellence is rewarded), and fully integrating public life with conservative forms of Christianity so that politics can become “a place for prayer.” (Deneen calls the effort to separate church and state a “totalitarian undertaking.”)

By the end, Deneen is moved to offer a peroration for sympathetic readers. Here are the book’s final sentences:

The day is late, but a lighted shelter can be discerned amid the gloam. It is time to abandon the ruins we have made, seek shelter, and then build anew.

The present is a ruin-strewed wasteland, but Patrick Deneen is excited about the future—and he hopes you are, too. But is he right about either the state of the present or the likely shape of the future? We have reason to doubt both.

Reading Regime Change, one is led to believe that the rightwing populism Republicans have been offering since Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP is supported by a solid majority of Americans and only kept from fundamentally remaking the country by a tiny liberal elite whose members use a form of political and cultural totalitarianism to maintain rule over a nation of captive subjects. Hence the need for talk of overthrowing tyranny and cheery quotes from Machiavelli about “mobs running through the streets.”

You’d never know from Deneen’s book that, for example, the center-left Joe Biden received 51.3 percent of the vote in the 2020 presidential election to Donald Trump’s 46.8 percent. Any theory that describes just over half a country as its “elite” has a pretty serious (and pretty obvious) problem. Now this doesn’t mean that the US is overwhelmingly wedded to the center-left liberalism of the Democratic Party and the deposed pre-Trump Republican establishment. It isn’t. The country is very narrowly (and deeply) divided. But Deneen hasn’t written a book that begins from and continually returns to the fact of America’s dividedness. He’s written a book that pretends “the people” are overwhelmingly on his own side, arrayed in unity against its liberal-elite oppressors. He has therefore also written a book that reproduces and encourages a form of self-deception that’s pervasive in the United States on the populist Right, which would rather indulge in a fantasy of immense popularity than grapple with the reality of its own inability to command truly widespread support for its political aims.

But what about those Americans who really are, broadly speaking, on the side of rightwing populism? Does Deneen’s book at least speak for them, whatever their share of the population? We have reason to doubt that, too. Just as Orbán and his chorus of American propagandists love to portray Hungary as Europe’s great defender of Christian civilization when recent Pew Research Center surveys place the country firmly in the bottom half of the continent on rates of overall religiosity and percentage of respondents who say they believe in God, so Deneen appears not to be aware of (or to care about) the fact that the Republicans who swarmed to Trump in 2016 were among the party’s least religious voters lurching rightward at a moment of rapid secularization in the United States. Yes, the remnants of the old religious Right eventually came around to embracing Trump, and that faction of the party clearly enjoyed some long-sought policy victories as a result of his administration’s commitment to rewarding loyal members of Trump’s electoral coalition. But that shouldn’t distract us from the fact that the reality of the rightwing populism Deneen champions is pretty far removed from the exalted ideals he attributes to it.

This matters because it raises the distinct possibility that Deneen is projecting his own (mostly) high-minded hopes and expectations onto a volatile and dangerous political faction that has very different and far baser motives. That’s certainly how it looks to me after years of observing Trump rallies, with their coarseness and vulgarity, gleeful threats of violence toward the press and political opponents, casual encouragement of cruelty, indulgence of conspiracies and petty bigotries, and shameless flattery of ignorance. I, at least, have a hard time believing that those in attendance have any interest in or curiosity about the lovely ideational latticework that preoccupies the mind of the David A. Potenziani Memorial Chair of Constitutional Studies at Notre Dame. He and they might both be members of a movement of rightwing antiliberalism, but they speak a very different language and are motivated by quite different things. Trump voters would surely recognize the yawning divide if the author of Regime Change attempted to share his elegantly crafted theories with them. Yet Deneen seems oblivious to it.

America’s right-populist furies will either dissipate over the coming years or the country will spiral deeper into dysfunction, paralysis, and factional violence. There may not be anything those of us who care about ideas can do to ensure the US avoids the latter fate. But we sure can keep ourselves from encouraging it out of the utopian delusion that the resulting convulsions will magically transport us back to the life of a heavily Catholic factory town in the Midwest circa 1952. America doesn’t need regime change. It needs fewer rightwing ideologues penning books like Regime Change.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly linked to the wrong Pew survey regarding Hungarian religiosity. Apologies for the error.

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