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George Bailey Is Dead

Patrick Deneen on what traditionalists need to understand about American politics

Here’s a half-hour video First Things interview with Patrick Deneen, the Notre Dame political theorist, about religion in a fast-changing America. At nearly the 22-minute mark, Deneen begins to talk about how the kind of America we used to celebrate in films like It’s A Wonderful Life is dead. Watch: When Corporations Turned on Social Conservatives: The Indiana Affair from First Things.

The interview is based on Deneen’s piece in the magazine titled “The Power Elite” — a lengthy reflection on what it means for America that big business joined sexual progressives in overthrowing Indiana’s RFRA. Excerpts:

There is a deeper reason for corporate support [of gay rights laws], however. ­Today’s corporate ideology has a strong affinity with the lifestyles of those who are defined by mobility, ethical flexibility, liberalism (whether economic or social), a consumerist mentality in which choice is paramount, and a “progressive” outlook in which rapid change and “creative destruction” are the only certainties. The response to Indiana’s RFRA law shows very clearly that corporations have joined forces with Republicans on economic matters and Democrats on social ones. Corporate America is aligned with the ascendant ­libertarian portion of each party, ensuring a win for the political, economic, and ­social preferences of libertarianism. In effect, there is only one functional party in America today, seemingly parceled between the two notional parties but in reality unifying them in its backing by financial and cultural elites.


What this means is that today’s cultural power elite is entirely aligned with the economic power elite, and they’re ready to steamroll anyone in their way. In the case of Indiana’s RFRA, corporate and gay activists combined to bring to heel conservative Christians in a rural, Rust Belt state that struggles at the margins of America’s global economy. The threat to demolish Indiana’s economy is only a more explicit expression of a project that corporations like Apple and Walmart have been carrying out with the ­assistance mainly of Republicans (as well as free-trade Democrats) for a generation.

To see the glee with which ­liberals joined forces with corporations revealed the deepest fact about the American ruling class: politicians and corporations will join forces to effect the change preferred by corporations, change that too often damages the working class and benefits society’s elites. Corporate America is willing to join any coalition that advances its financial interests and ­deeper philosophic commitments, at the expense of Americans on the wrong side of history, especially those Americans living in places like Indiana who aren’t part of the meritocratic global elite.

One more bit:

Americans of both parties once believed that no center of power in America should become so concentrated that it could force its views on every other citizen. What we saw in Indiana was not just a “miscalculation” by Republicans. We saw fully unmasked just who runs America, and the kind of America that they are bringing more fully into reality every passing day. It will be an America where the powerful will govern completely over the powerless, where the rich dictate terms to the poor, where the strong are unleashed from the old restraints of culture and place, where libertarian indifference—whether in respect to economic inequality or morals—is inscribed into the national fabric, and where the unburdened, hedonic human will reign ascendant. No limits reflected in political, social, or religious norms can be permitted: All are allowed except those who would claim the legitimacy of restraint.

Read the whole thing. It’s superb And do watch that video interview. In it, Deneen talks at greater length about how the real losers in America today are Democrats who believe in the rights of labor and economic solidarity, and social and religious conservatives. He says that people like the owners of Memories Pizza, the small-town Indiana pizzeria that shut down temporarily when it became the target of a grotesque national hate campaign from progressive militants, are the kind of people who don’t vote anymore. They used to vote for Democrats, then, in 1980, they started voting Republican. Now, says Deneen, in the last two presidential elections, they have sat out.

Funny, I did exactly that, and for the same reasons: neither party represents me.

Nevertheless, Deneen, at 26:42, forecasting the next few years, says that as a matter of religious liberty, it is “very important” that Republicans return to the White House. Nevertheless, he says, we should not be fooled about the fact that the unwinding will continue, and “it will be an extraordinarily difficult time for people of ordinary virtue.” The long-term prospects for traditional Christians are especially pessimistic, because increasingly, the liberalizing logic of both the Left and the Right requires that they be seen as a threat to the new order.

Yet it will also be a “clarifying time,” says Deneen, because it will compel us to understand what it really means to live as a Christian — and may strengthen us in our faith, and make us “better Christians, if not necessarily better Americans.”

Of course I believe this too; the Benedict Option is a response to these conditions. What’s important — very important — for trads to understand is the political dimension of all this. The trite liberal response is that this is nothing more than pouty Christians taking their football and going home. Don’t you believe it. Here is an older First Things essay by Deneen on the topic of “unsustainable liberalism,” in which he explains the deep dynamics of this crisis. Here’s a taste:

The second revolution, and the second anthropological assumption that constitutes liberalism, is less visibly political. Premodern political thought—ancient and medieval, particularly that informed by an Aristotelian understanding of natural science—understood the human creature to be part of a comprehensive natural order. Man was understood to have a telos, a fixed end, given by nature and unalterable. Human nature was continuous with the order of the natural world, and so humanity was required to conform both to its own nature as well as, in a broader sense, to the natural order of which human beings were a part. Human beings could freely act against their own nature and the natural order, but such actions deformed them and harmed the good of human beings and the world. Aristotle’s Ethics and Aquinas’ Summa Theologica are alike efforts to delineate the limits that nature—thus, natural law—places upon human beings, and each seeks to educate man about how best to live within those limits, through the practice of virtues, in order to achieve a condition of human flourishing.

Liberal philosophy rejected this requirement of human self-limitation. It first displaced the idea of a natural order to which humanity is subject and thereafter the very notion of human nature itself. Liberalism inaugurated a transformation in the natural and human sciences, premised on the transformation of the view of human nature and on humanity’s relationship to the natural world.

The first wave of this revolution—inaugurated by early-modern thinkers dating back to the Renaissance—insisted that man should seek the mastery of nature by employing natural science and a transformed economic system supportive of such an undertaking. The second wave—developed largely by various historicist schools of thought, especially in the nineteenth century—replaced belief in the idea of a fixed human nature with a belief in human “plasticity” and capacity for moral progress and transformation. While these two iterations of liberalism—often labeled “conservative” and “progressive”—contend today for ascendance, we would do better to understand their deep interconnection.



If my analysis is fundamentally accurate, liberalism’s endgame is unsustainable in every respect: It cannot perpetually enforce order upon a collection of autonomous individuals increasingly shorn of constitutive social norms, nor can it continually provide endless material growth in a world of limits. We can either elect a future of self-limitation born of the practice and experience of self-governance in local communities, or we can back slowly but inexorably into a future in which extreme license invites extreme oppression.

The ancient claim that man is by nature a political animal and must in and through the exercise and practice of virtue learned in communities achieve a form of local and communal self-limitation—a condition properly understood as liberty—cannot be denied forever without cost. Currently we lament and attempt to treat the numerous social, economic, and political symptoms of liberalism’s idea of liberty but not the deeper sources of those symptoms deriving from the underlying pathology of liberalism’s philosophic commitments.

I don’t want to overquote the piece, so read the whole thing. Deneen says we had better start thinking about what comes after liberalism, because if his theory is correct, the system is not going to survive major shocks to it. In my own view, the Benedict Option is primarily about religious life and community, but it has an inescapable political component — which Deneen writes about in these essays.

We conservatives should note especially this point Deneen makes:

Contemporary “conservatism” does not offer an answer to liberalism, because it is itself a species of liberalism. While the elders on the political right continue to rail against “environmentalists,” they fail to detect how deeply conservative (conservationist) is the impulse among the young who see clearly the limits of the consumptive economy and the ravages it bequeaths to their generation. What these elders have generally lacked is a recognition that one cannot revise one of liberalism’s main commitments, today characterized as “progressivism,” while ignoring the other, particularly economic liberalism. A different paradigm is needed, one that intimately connects the cultivation of self-limitation and self-governance among constitutive associations and communities with a general ethic of thrift, frugality, saving, hard work, stewardship, and care. So long as the dominant narrative of individual choice aimed at the satisfaction of appetite and consumption dominates in the personal or economic realms, the ethic of liberalism will continue to dominate our society.

Finally, to complete our round up of Deneen Day, here’s an essay he just published in Ethika Politika, billed as “a warning to conservatives.” Excerpts:

Against the rising specter of engrossing statism, conservatives have grown accustomed to invoking liberty, especially liberty grounded in individual rights and autonomy. We should recognize that liberalism has an equal, if not greater, claim to provide liberty.

Conservatives, he says, need to stop falling back on the unqualified rhetoric of “freedom” and “liberty,” because it does not mean what they think it means:

Even as we are about to be buffeted by countless political slogans, we need to recognize that conservatives have not cornered the market in promoting “liberty,” and if that is their totem, the Progressives will win the debate, as on most fronts they already are. What distinguishes Conservatism historically is not that it believes in liberty understood as individual autonomy, but that it has always understood that liberty—understood as freedom from an over-imposing state—is the necessary but not sufficient condition for living a human life in families, communities, religious institutions, and a whole range of relationships that encourage us to practice the arts of responsible self-governance.

What conservatives like me long for is the emergence of political leaders among Democrats and Republicans who stand for an updated version of the virtues of the George Bailey world. It was not a paradise by any stretch, but neither was it a hellhole. If we are going to reclaim some of what was best about that time, we are also going to have to accept limitations on ourselves and our liberties. Alan Ehrenhalt has written about this in his book The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America, about the transformation of postwar Chicago:

There is no point in pretending that the 1950s were a happy time for everyone in America. For many, the price of the limited life was impossibly high. To have been an independent-minded alderman in the Daley machine, a professional baseball player treated unfairly by his team, a suburban housewife who yearned for a professional career, a black high school student dreaming of possibilities that were closed to him, a gay man or woman forced to conduct a charade in public — to have been any of these things in the 1950s was to live a life that was difficult at best, and tragic at worst. That is why so many of us still respond to the memory of those indignities by saying that nothing in the world could justify them.

It is a powerful indictment, but it is also a selective one … Our collective indignation makes little room for the millions of people who took the rules seriously and tried to live up to them, within the profound limits of human weakness. They are still around, the true believers of the 1950s, in small towns and suburbs and big-city neighborhoods all over the country, reading the papers, watching television, and wondering in old age what has happened to America in the last thirty years. If you visit middle-class American suburbs today, and talk to the elderly women who have lived out their adult years in these places, they do not tell you how constricted and demeaning their lives in the 1950s were. They tell you those were the best years they can remember. And if you visit a working-class Catholic parish in a big city, and ask the older parishioners what they think of the church in the days before Vatican II, they don’t tell you that it was tyrannical or that it destroyed their individuality. They tell you they wish they cold have it back. For them, the erosion of both community and authority in the last generation is not a matter of intellectual debate. It is something they can feel in their bones, and the feeling makes them shiver.




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