clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A black-and-white illustration of the US Capitol dome with red stripes above and behind it. Vox; Getty Images

Filed under:

What a new conservative call for “regime change” in America reveals about the culture war

“Regime Change” sounds like a radical book. It isn’t — and that’s telling.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Patrick Deneen hates liberals. But liberals don’t hate him back.

A political theorist at Notre Dame, his 2018 book How Liberalism Failed became a surprising phenomenon among liberal elites. Despite some flaws, including a tendency toward straw-manning liberal thinkers and an allergy to empirical evidence, the book presented a thought-provoking critique of our governing philosophy from the radical right. It was a kind of Trump-adjacent conservatism liberals could engage with; Barack Obama put Why Liberalism Failed on his 2018 list of favorite books.

Last week, Deneen came out with a sequel of sorts: Regime Change, a book promising not only criticism of liberalism but a blueprint for what a “postliberal order” might look like and how America can get there. It’s a promising idea: Attacks on philosophical liberalism are common on the intellectual right nowadays, but concrete attempts to sketch what might replace a regime founded on democracy and individual rights are conspicuously absent.

Regime Change fails to deliver on this promise. All of Why Liberalism Failed’s flaws are on display in the follow-up, but in ways even more damaging to the argument. What is arguably the book’s most important claim — that liberalism is beset by an insuperable tension between a conservative mass public and an insular liberal elite — is never established with a single empirical study or even a simple piece of polling data.

The titular “regime change” similarly proves to be paper-thin. Instead of revolution and a new system of government, Deneen merely proposes replacing liberal elites with more conservative ones. And his means for doing so are mostly quotidian: policies like a universal national service program that would effectively pose little threat to existing elites.

For the most part, Deneen’s book isn’t interesting enough to be dangerous.

But the book’s failures do not render it entirely without value. It tells us something important about the intellectual right and even the culture war more broadly.

In its central conceit that America would be saved if more people in power thought like Patrick Deneen, Regime Change reveals just how much certain aspects of the culture war are really struggles between competing elites and how little relevance they have for the actual problems ordinary Americans face.

History’s worst elite?

The principal problem with liberalism, according to Deneen, is that it strips people of things that provide them with a sense of order and meaning.

By elevating individualism and progress into guiding social values, liberalism destroys the traditions and norms that allow human beings to make sense of life and find their place in the world. American Christianity is on the decline, small-town America is hollowed out, drug abuse rates are rising — all symptoms of a spiritual crisis brought on by liberalism’s philosophical assault on what Deneen sees as the sources of social stability.

The people most responsible for this state of affairs, according to Deneen, are America’s liberal “elite.”

Deneen’s definition of “elite” is somewhat broad, referring not necessarily to people with wealth or high political office, but rather “those who possess social status because they possess the requisite social and educational skills to navigate a world shorn of stabilizing norms.” He’s a bit vague on who specifically this definition applies to, but it roughly appears to mean people with college degrees working in knowledge-sector jobs: the “laptop class,” as his fellow conservatives would say.

Deneen compares this new elite unfavorably to medieval aristocrats, and even the wealthy of Gilded Age America because of their disconnection from place and tradition. Unlike aristocrats, who ruled over specific land and a specific group of peasants, the modern elite is transient and cut off from the working people who surround them. The nature of this elite, he argues, reflects “the culminating realization of liberalism”: a system that theoretically opposes hierarchy but actually has given rise to new and veiled forms of stratification.

Today’s elite care about “inequality” and “oppression,” he concedes — but only in theory. Their definitions are so airy, so focused on insular discourses surrounding race and gender, that they foster a disconnect between urban elites and their Uber drivers — let alone the working class in the countryside with whom the laptop class barely interacts. Unlike previous elites, who ruled with a sense of self-conscious noblesse oblige for those lower in the social hierarchy, the liberal elite rules only for the benefit of itself.

“The educational program of the managerial class is today intentionally designed to ensure radical disconnection from a shared cultural inheritance that might link it to lower classes,” he writes.

There is something valuable in this critique. Elite disconnect from the reality of life for the working class can foster bad or even dangerous policy ideas (see policing or welfare work requirements). And more broadly, I think Deneen is right that “traditional” social structures like houses of worship provide a sense of community and place sorely lacking in much of modern life — benefits that liberals can be too quick to dismiss.

But most of his anti-liberal broadside is at once underbaked and overheated.

The critique is underbaked in the sense that it’s not clear from his account how exactly this rather large “elite” is responsible for the destruction of conservative norms and small-town America. How can we hold a graphic designer in Chicago or a Whole Foods supply chain specialist in Austin responsible for the decline of Christian morals and the hollowing out of small towns?

It’s overheated in the sense that Deneen turns his rivals into cartoon villains, arguing that “the current ruling class is uniquely ill-equipped for reform, having become one of the worst of its kind produced in history.”

Roman nobles were legally permitted to rape their slaves. The military elites of the Mongol Empire were constantly murdering civilians and each other. In France after the Black Plague, the impoverished aristocracy stole from their already-suffering peasants to continue funding their lavish lifestyles. The elite of the early American South centered their entire society around the racist brutality of chattel slavery.

Is the American elite out of touch with the working class in ways that have tangible and negative consequences for the country? Sure. But it’s not remotely comparable to the bad elites of previous centuries.

This loss of perspective tarnishes Deneen’s argument throughout the book — a problem most vividly on display in his treatment of the divide between “the many” and “the few.”

In Deneen’s thinking, it is axiomatic that the central divide in Western politics is between the villainous liberal elite (the “few”) and the culturally conservative mass public (“the many”). The liberal elites wish to impose their cultural vision on society and attack the customs and traditions of ordinary people; the many, who are instinctively culturally conservative, have risen under the banner of leaders like Trump to oppose them.

Except how do we know that liberals really are “the few?”

Deneen doesn’t cite election or polling data to support his theory of a natural conservative majority. Trump has never won the popular vote while on the ballot; his party performed historically poorly in two midterm elections since his rise to power. Polling on the cultural issues Deneen so cares about, like same-sex marriage, often finds majority support for liberal positions.

And even if you use the term “the many” as interchangeable with “non-college working class,” as Deneen seemingly does at times throughout the book, you need to seriously grapple with the significant partisan racial divide between white and non-white workers. Deneen does not, choosing instead to conspiratorially dismiss this gap as a product of elite manipulation rather than a reflection of deep and authentic political commitments among non-white voters.

When Machiavelli writes of the elite in Italian city-states, or Tocqueville about the French aristocracy, they are talking about conflict between an ocean of peasants and a single-digit percentage of the population with land and titles, not between two swaths of the mass public.

Deneen’s expansive definition of the “elite” requires him to treat grad students as if they were dukes. They are not — but there’s a reason Deneen seems to think they are.

The world’s tiniest regime change

Typically, when one hears a critique of “liberalism” as vehement as Deneen’s, you expect there to be some effort to establish an alternative set of political arrangements to the ones that characterize liberalism.

Deneen refuses to do that. Instead, he argues, things can be made better while keeping the political system mostly the same — so long as conservatives are in positions of power rather than liberals.

“What is needed, in short, is regime change — the peaceful but vigorous overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class and the creation of a postliberal order in which existing political forms can remain in place, as long as a fundamentally different ethos informs those institutions and the personnel who populate key offices and positions,” he writes.

In that passage and elsewhere, Deneen frequently works to make his ideas sound radical. He calls for an “aristopopulism” in which “the few consciously take on the role of aristoi” and begin regime change via “the raw assertion of political power.”

But a closer look at Deneen’s “Machiavellian means” for transforming America shows the rhetoric to be a touch overheated. Most of his ideas are already under consideration (in one form or another) by elements of the current American elite. Here’s a representative selection of Deneen’s proposals:

Some of the policies Deneen advocates, like putting wage earners on corporate boards, seem like good ideas. Others, like reimposing the draft, seem unwise. Some are silly (replacing primaries with caucuses) or even unconstitutional (a ban on pornography). But none are outside the realm of what’s talked about by mainstream liberals and conservatives — both of whom Deneen sees as philosophical liberals of slightly different stripes. In fact, versions of many of his policies already exist at the state and federal level.

There is no structural transformation proposed in the book, akin to the working class seizing the means of production, that marks a meaningful break with the existing order. If every single one of the above ideas were implemented across the country overnight, the same kinds of people would mostly be in charge of America’s core institutions. Even by his shrunken definition of what “regime change” means, this isn’t it.

There is one exception to this pattern: his proposals for higher education. In that realm, Deneen actually does call for a wholesale political attack.

The federal government, he argues, should work to ensure that university enrollment “be substantially reduced,” with more opportunities for vocational training and “a significant direction of public funds [away from] a higher education industry that has increasingly become a highly partisan and ideological program.”

Federal research funding should be contingent on “genuine socioeconomic variety” in the student body. State schools specifically should get more support, but conditioned on “expectations that faculty and administrators at public institutions respect the social and political commitment of the broader public.”

Here, broadly speaking, are our “Machiavellian” means: a comprehensive plan for using state power to replace the leftists and liberals in campus administration and faculty lounges with conservatives.

This book is not a comprehensive plan for remaking America. It is faculty politics by other means.

Elite-on-elite violence

In academia, Deneen is a religious conservative among secular liberals, and it’s clear that really bothers him.

In 2004, he was denied tenure at Princeton, a decision he blames in part on liberal bias. In 2012, he departed a position at Georgetown for Notre Dame on grounds that the former was too liberal and not Catholic enough.

“Georgetown increasingly and inevitably remakes itself in the image of its secular peers, ones that have no internal standard of what a university is for other than the aspiration of prestige for the sake of prestige, its ranking rather than its commitment to Truth,” he wrote in a letter to students. “I have felt isolated and often lonely at the institution where I have devoted so many of my hours and my passion.”

Throughout Regime Change, Deneen returns again and again to the university to illustrate the ills of liberal society. Whether it’s cancel culture at Middlebury College or the eclipse of theology courses by ethnic studies or the transformation of professors into “a version of ‘idiot-savants,’” much of Deneen’s brief against modernity centers on what happens in the university. He explicitly blames the political rise of “tyrannical liberalism” on universities.

“Universities ... are today in the forefront of advancing new principles of despotism,” he argues. “These educational institutions help shape the worldviews and expectations of the managerial ruling class, who then deploy to a variety of settings where those lessons come to shape most of the main organizations that govern daily life.”

Throughout the text, his desire to turn Christian conservatism into the faculty lounge’s lingua franca, to make liberal professors suffer in the minority the way he has, is palpable. “Only the fear of not conforming to the regnant ethos will sufficiently move and shape elites — just as it does today to an elite that enforces a progressivist worldview,” he writes.

Here, Deneen is far from alone. Conservative and center-left elites who panic about “wokeness” and “cancel culture” focus their fire disproportionately on elite institutions: top 20 colleges, the New York Times, prominent artistic institutions, and major book publishers. People respond to what they see in their personal life. It’s one thing to hear about someone getting laid off at a factory in a small town, and another thing altogether for a friend — or you personally — to be denied tenure for believing the wrong things.

This has led to a consistent overstatement of the scope of the problem of “wokeness” and “identity politics.” Deneen’s book is, on the whole, a striking example of this trend — a denunciation of the cloistered nature of the American elite that, ironically, falls victim to the very problem it identifies.

I wanted to ask Deneen about how he would respond to this line of criticism, among others, so I reached out to him over email partway through reading the book. He not-so-politely refused.

“I’m quite certain you’re unlikely to deviate from any conclusions you’ve already settled upon, regardless of what I might try to convey in response to any questions,” he told me. This was a shame. There’s something important to his critique of liberalism I would’ve liked to tease out more — even some more personal room for common ground, given my own increasing appreciation for religion and the need for community as I’ve aged.

But after finishing the book, I’m not sure I should have expected anything different. If he really believed what he was arguing, he would indeed have limited interest in engaging with members of the liberal laptop class “elite” such as myself. If liberals truly are the enemy, the people he aims to overthrow, why opt for conversation rather than conflict?

Policy

Biden has been bad for Palestinians. Trump would be worse.

Science

Why leap years exist, explained in one simple animation

Politics

The South Carolina primary was a joke. It tells us something deadly serious.

View all stories in The Latest

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.