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Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future

Patrick Deneen
Sentinel, pp. 288, $30.00


Patrick Deneen’s Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future is really three books sewn together. Together, they confront the discontents of our era, suggest a framework for how we should think about it, and propose what exactly should be done. The first book is a success, the second an interesting (if incomplete) account, and the third curiously lacking. Recognizing what is substantial in Regime Change helps us to understand where American postliberalism sits today. And paying attention to what remains absent or underexplored enlightens us to the full scope of the intellectual challenges—and, one hopes, opportunities—for generations of postliberals to come.

The first book of Regime Change is easily digestible, fluently summarizing the last six years of critical debate about modern American society and its politics through what we might call the postliberal critique of contemporary life in the modern West. That is, a mix of economic precarity, social atomization, societal disorder, political misrule, and ideological extremism under the nation’s current elite class. Deneen states the challenge in a striking way: “We are witness to the emergence of a perverse combination of the new and older forms of tyranny: neither the raw imposition of [the] power of [the] few resulting in the misery of many, nor the soft despotism of a paternalistic state that keeps its citizens in a state of permanent childishness, but the forced imposition of radical expressivism upon the population by the power elite.”

The second book sketches a highly abstracted theory of politics and the ideologies that shape it. He makes the argument that both classical and progressive liberalism are variations on a form of disembedded elitism in service to revolutionary social and economic agendas—which in either case leads to the perpetual undermining of order, tradition, continuity, and stability. Here, Deneen develops the case for returning to a classically-inspired regime format he terms the “mixed regime” or “mixed constitution,” wherein the honorable virtues of a well-formed elite are blended with the common-sense virtues of the masses to achieve a broad, common-good approach to political order. He also coins a neologism for his proposed movement to get there: “aristopopulism.”

The third book proposes a series of practical steps to implement such a postliberal regime. Deneen intends these proposals to help fix the problems identified in the first book and to put into effect the “mixed regime” structure drawn up in the second. Here we find mundane solutions, such as increasing the size of the House of Representatives to one thousand members and improving and expanding vocational training as an alternative to college education, as well as larger approaches to “integrate” religion, community, inter-ethnic comity, and other parts of American society back into a stable model of governance. This third book also contains the core, radical-revolutionary assertion of the work overall: that all this can only be accomplished through “the raw assertion of political power by a new generation of political actors inspired by an ethos of common-good conservatism,” and one that will be achieved by “Machiavellian means to Aristotelian ends.”

This is the reason for the book’s intentionally provocative title. Deneen is ultimately advocating for the reconstruction of the current political, economic, and social strata that form and govern our polity’s regime. “The answer is not the elimination of the elite,” Deneen writes, “but its replacement with a better set of elites.”

While Deneen’s case for discontent is quite strong, his marriage of the conceptually abstract to the politically practical is simultaneously too specific and not nearly fleshed out enough. We are faced with a vision in which a dominating “party of progress” must be defeated by an as-yet-unformed “party of conservatism,” in a no-holds barred contest for political supremacy, while leaving our institutions largely intact (just re-populated and re-oriented) and our form of government the same, yet somehow better. There is both a theory of the problem and a hopeful vista of the future settlement, but the theory of victory—the getting from point A to point B part—is left largely to the reader to divine.

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Julian G. Waller is a political scientist in Washington, D.C.