Towards a post-liberal political future

Hope without triumphalism and memory, without paralyzing nostalgia


Patrick J. Deneen is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana). In his book Why Has Liberalism Failed?(Rialp, 2018) he proposes the exhaustion of liberalism because it has achieved its purpose through unintended consequences, weakening the consistency of society. In his most recent book Regime Change: Towards a Postliberal Future (Homo Legens, 2024) he proposes a new, revamped paradigm to reconfigure society: the conservatism of the common good in a Mixed Constitution. A proposal that attempts to respond to the exhaustion of classical liberalism, progressive liberalism, and revolutionary Marxism.

Classical liberalism conceives society as an aggregate of individuals facing the State, where each person exercises their freedom in the pursuit of their goods without harming third parties. The State would guarantee these multiple life experiences that liberal progressivism takes to its maximum expression along the lines of the free development of personality, making room for every life project. This liberal way of conceiving politics, the market, and culture unleashes the links with lived history, customs, traditions, and even the essential condition of the human being itself. The political right demands more of the market, and the left asks for more intervention by the State and protection of the claims of the individual or groups that fly various ideological flags.

Deneen proposes a change in the way of conceiving society with what he calls conservatism of the common good, rescuing classical concepts. He maintains this anti-progressive alternative, based implicitly on the wisdom of the ancient theories of the “Mixed Constitution,” rejects both the commitment to the progress of liberalism promoted by the elite (whether classical or progressive) and the identification of Marxism with “the majority” as a fundamental revolutionary force. Rather, common good conservatism aligns in the first instance with the “common sense” of ordinary people, especially since they are the most instinctively conservative element of a social and political order. They seek stability, predictability and order in the context of a system that is broadly fair and, in particular, in an order in which prospects for success in life do not depend solely on wealth, education or status. His proposal affects a political form that takes into account the ordinary human being, the citizen whose occupations are his family, work, and the future of his loved ones.

“The wisdom of the people” and “the mixed Constitution,” Dennen continues, guarantee the common good in every sense of the word “common”: ordinary, shared, and especially necessary for ordinary people. Likewise, each of them seeks to guarantee the common “good” for all human beings—not just for a select elite—through concrete expressions of human happiness guaranteed through the accumulation of human experiences over time. This emphasis on ordinary people reminds me of Chesterton’s insistence on the common man, quite far removed from the super fantastic individual of John Stuart Mill.

Not to fly too far with the imagination, Deneen understands the common good as the sum of the needs that arise from the bottom up, and that can be more or less supplied, encouraged and fortified from the top down. In a good society, the “commons” are reinforced daily by the habits and practices of ordinary people. These habits and practices form the common culture, for example, through the virtues of thrift, honesty, and memory, which in turn foster gratitude and a general sense of mutual obligation. However, once this common culture is weakened or destroyed, the only hope is its renewal and revitalization by a responsible ruling class. A policy of the common good makes a good life for those at the bottom more likely, even by default. Thus, the political order always serves the common good or undermines it: there is no neutrality in this regard. Society requires good leaders who listen to the heartbeat of the common citizen. The opportunist politician, the oligarch of the day, the enlightened progressive, have very little listening capacity, since they are trapped in their caste interests or in the monsters of their reason.

Messianic outbursts are unnecessary, we already have enough with the storms of all kinds that continually shake us. I stick with Denenn’s proposal to go for a politics of continuity that interweaves past, present and future in a relationship of mutual influence and correction, that is, hope without triumphalism and memory without paralyzing nostalgia. Walk on what has already been done without trying to wipe the slate clean, amending courses in open dialogues. A difficult and slow task, of course, but the ideal of a good society deserves this effort.