Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Weekend At The Bruderhof

A conversation between Patrick Deneen and Ross Douthat

Hidley-hey, neighbor, from Terminal B at the Philadelphia airport. I’m headed back to the Great State after a wonderful, if all too short, weekend at the Bruderhof settlement called Fox Hill, in the Hudson River Valley. You know how people will say “I was privileged to be part of _____”? I started to type that, but stopped, because it’s cheesy … however, I really was fortunate to have been part of a writer’s retreat at Fox Hill. I was one of the old guys. Most people there were Christians of one sort or the other, in their twenties and early thirties. They came from all over the country, and Canada. It was great finally to meet people I’d been reading for years. One of the other old guys who turned up was the great Chris Arnade, who lives nearby, and who came over to check things out. Having the opportunity to meet him was worth the trip.

The Bruderhof hosted a similar conference around the release of The Benedict Option last year. This year, they featured two talks by Patrick Deneen, built around his recent must-read book Why Liberalism Failed. The Bruderhof, a modern Anabaptist movement, is establishing itself as a great place for conservative (or conservative-ish) writers and intellectuals outside the neocon mainstream to come together to talk about ideas. I’m really grateful for them (and if you haven’t been reading their terrific magazine Plough, correct your mistake, please.)

I hope to write more about the conference later, but before I board the plane, I want to post a summary of the conversation Deneen had onstage with Ross Douthat, which closed the conference. If this seems somewhat disordered, please forgive me; I’m posting in haste from the notes I took during the talk.

Douthat began by acknowledging that today, there’s a real sense of systemic crisis that wasn’t present in the last decade or so. On the other hand, he said, much of our life, and many of our arguments, are “mediated through virtual reality” — social media, the Internet, etc.

“Sometimes I wonder to what extent is this a real crisis, or at least — at the moment — a virtual crisis,” Douthat said. “My experience is when I log onto Twitter, or go online, it feels like a dress rehearsal for the 1930s – screaming arguments, furious ideological clashes, etc. But then I step out of that world and go into everyday life, and it doesn’t feel to me like Weimar Germany. It feels to me like a place that has serious systemic problems, but everyday life at the center still seems comfortable.”

Douthat said he’s surprised by this, as he had been fearful of what a Trump presidency might bring. However, things have pretty much stayed normal. If this is true, he said, what does that say about our “crisis”?

Douthat made a second point. He acknowledged that Deneen’s critique of liberalism is very strong. It proposes that our liberal system is a “real threat” to humanity and the things that make life worth living (e.g., family, community), and “not just a soft threat.” Douthat said that there’s a real overlap between Deneen’s conclusion about what is to be done, and the Benedict Option (“A politics of rebuilding the local church, the family, the polis” — Douthat).

Douthat said there’s tension between that prescription and the description Deneen gives of a late modern civilization that has the power to roll over all resistance. He said that if Deneed is right in the first 9/10 of his book, “then we need a more capacious politics of resistance, not just ‘let a thousand Bruderhofs flower.'”

Deneen responded by crediting, in part, Douthat’s point about so much of this crisis being confined to Internet arguments. But to leave it at that is to miss the more serious point: that social forms that hold people together are dissolving, with nothing to take its place. Deneen said, “In the absence of meaning taken from participating in something larger than yourself, people will find meaning in lots of bad places.”

(I thought of something Chris Arnade had said to me earlier: that people find meaning in life from three places — race, place, and/or faith. If faith is denied to people, and they don’t feel any particular loyalty to their place for whatever reason, that leaves one thing … and that’s one reason why the future is so scary.)

“The thing that we think we are committed to – in hhis case liberal democracy – has within it the potential to become fully itself and fully its opposite,” explained Deneen. “This is what Tocqueville as writing about in Democracy in America. This is what he called ‘democratic despotism.’ The trajectory of this is to a kind of dissolution.”

The dissolution of civil society’s institutions will necessarily cause a rise in the power of the state, to keep things together.

Deneen talked about how he had earlier that day been given a tour of the Bruderhof’s furniture factory.

“What moved me the most is a section of the factory where they break down some of the processes to relatively less complex or difficult forms of work where some of their older members, or some of their infirm members, can continue to work and contribute to the community,” Deneen said.

In other words, human freedom, properly understood, tries to resist the forces of utility that devalue human beings.

Deneen said he lead at Notre Dame a class on the idea of utopia, from ancient days until now. At the end, he polled the class to ask them which society of those he presented would they least want to live in, and which they would most want to live in. They all said 1984 is the one they wouldn’t want to live in. But which would they choose? A handful chose the world Wendell Berry presents in Hannah Coulter. But about half the class said Brave New World.

“It was stunning that they saw it as a utopia,” Deneen said. “That’s liberalism succeeding, and that’s liberalism failing.”

Douthat said that since the mid-2000s or so, he spent a long time with policy wonks pushing modest incrementalism towards populism and Catholic social teaching. You take the GOP as it is, say it’s a mess but we can work with it. That kind of thing. But now, since Trump, he’s not sure what to make of that project, or of anything.

“I’m basically in the market for a national political vision these days,” he said, asking Deneen to give him one.

Deneen did not give a clear answer, no doubt because there’s not one to give. In terms of his own ideals, Deneen would like to see an economy that serves the citizens and not merely a few citizens, but a broad swath of citizens. He’s attracted to Distributist thinking. In foreign policy, he wants a very modest foreign policy that favors peaceful coexistence with the world, engagement with warfare only when immediately threatened, and a disposition to allow for a multicultural world — that is, not to interfere overmuch in the lives of other nations – that history does not dictate that there is only one legitimate form of political organization. And finally, he wants a social conservatism that strengthens the family.

He called this “a kind of TAC fusionism.” Trump touched on it in the campaign, he said. What worries Deneen now is “that remnant of that tradition, having backed that man – who clearly has no interest in governing in any coherent way – has now so deeply damaged the standing of what is left of that tradition, that in fact far from preserving, or giving hope for this tradition that I think is best described as a small-r republican tradition in America, it has in effect been severely damaged.”

He’s concerned that, “Whatever was left of this tradition is now dead and we are now in for a successor regime that will be profoundly and deeply punitive.”

Douthat added that the Bush presidency damaged conservatism and especially religious conservatism, and “led to the collapse of the Christian [political] position in America.” He doesn’t want to see it get even worse under Trump.

Douthat pointed out that “Trump’s coalition was a coalition of the old.” Young people do not support him. Douthat doubts that liberalism will be back in power in a “court-packing” way in 2020, even if it takes power. But long-term, it’s clear that we are headed for a more liberal era of governance.

“On the GOP and populism question, one thing I’ve wrestled with is that most Republicans are not TAC kind of Republicans,” Douthat said. “… My concern is that the Republic is just dead. We just an empire. We have a vestigial legislature, and an elected Emperor, and courts that serve as a kind of check on that Emperor. So maybe the path to localism and decentralization is through Empire. Maybe the US should become a kind of Austria-Hungary.”

He continued: “A lot of people involved in the Resistance think of themselves as defending the Republic. I’m just not convinced that the Republic they’re defending is ever coming back in any form.”

In the Q&A, Deneen spoke about one advantage we now have on the Right. He spoke of how studying the humanities in universities has not been about transmitting an inheritance but liberating us from the past. Once you understand that liberalism is a contending system of belief. Once you understand that, then you can have a real debate on which creates a better human society. He said that what we can see now is that there are a very deep set of substantive beliefs implicit in the liberal order – now we can see that, and we should say that, and stop allowing liberals to claim that liberalism is simply neutral proceduralism.

Douthat said that for Christians, this situation we’re in could go on for a long time without any persecution. “We could be having a conversation like this 40 years from now, with the church being weaker (as in Europe today), but without the catacombs,” he said. “In that world, just you have to try to live your faith.”

A decadent period can last for a long time in a nation’s life, he continues. You have to live the best life you can in it.

Douthat ended by explaining five ways that a decadent era can end:

1) from outside, via cataclysmic invasion or some rival, nondecadent civilization taking over. Closest we can imagine now is China, or mass immigration from Mideast and North Africa into weakened Europe.
2) A dramatic technological breakthrough that stresses society to breaking point
3) Religious revival or development of a new religion
4) A return of ideology intimated by these online debates. “Weimar Germany was kind of decadent, but the 1930s weren’t stagnant.” Rather, it was a time of great ideological conflict
5) Discovery of a new frontier or new horizon.

That’s all. Plane is boarding. ‘Bye!