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The Future of Liberalism: Patrick Deneen and Tucker Carlson

By Andrew Petiprin

Republican leaders will have to acknowledge that market capitalism is not a religion. Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society.

Who said it? Rachel Maddow on MSNBC? Paul Krugman in The New York Times? Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail in 2016? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018? Or maybe Pope Francis on a long flight back to Rome?

All would be reasonable guesses, but the answer is Tucker Carlson of Fox News, whom I’ve written about in this space before. Carlson began a new year of broadcasting on January 2 by laying out a passionate critiquethat he explores in more depth in his recent book, Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution. The imagined interlocutor of his broadcast rant was newly seated Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, but Carlson’s tirade, which quickly went viral, broadened in a few paragraphs into an indictment of the elite he targets in his new book.

“Our leaders don’t care,” he tells us. “They don’t even bother to understand our problems.” They tend to get married after college and before children, avoid drugs, and stay out of debt. Our best-educated influencers are well-suited for the ups and downs of the stock market and want no complicity in judging anyone else’s morality, except for those who presume to do so to others in the name of religion. They increasingly vote for the left but they’ve all chosen a pretty conservative course for their personal lives.

Carlson bangs on about the plight of working-class whites, and for understandable reasons; but I wonder if he could capture the depth of the problem facing many more people by steering a slightly different course. As I know from my life, once-white families are now much more diverse, and blessedly so. Not surprisingly (but not fairly), many dismiss anything Carlson says as racism, particularly because of his hardline view of illegal immigration.

But what if the most valuable thing Carlson has done lately is to diagnose, along with others, the deep spiritual sickness that underlies life in the West? What if Carlson’s preppy populism is a valuable voice in a conversation about the future of liberalism, the shared ideology of both Republicans and Democrats? And what if Christians really lived as if the gospel they believed was an alternative?

Consider an important argument of Carlson’s monologue, once you peel back any perceived partisan bias: We love the wrong things, and our society is simply set up for us to keep doing so. Happiness, a full-flourishing life for everyone, ought to be the goal of all the tools we use in government and the private sector. Carlson asks, “Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far.” How do we pursue the common good when we can’t see beyond our custom commercial and entertainment options that are always increasing and never satisfying?

Carlson may be a political pundit, but some of what he argues has long been on the minds the most influential Christian and classical thinkers. Its pedigree traces to ancient Israel and our Lord, to Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). Today, the Protestant Augustinian James K.A. Smith paints a startling picture of our secular liturgies in Desiring the Kingdom and other books. R.R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society(2016)makes many of the same points, including how reckless it is for people with a large personal safety net to advocate legal drug use and relaxed sexual mores for poorer, less powerful people with little room for error. Rod Dreher’s best-selling The Benedict Option proposes a much-debated alternative Christian lifestyle.

Best of all among these recent thinkers is the conservative Catholic political philosopher Patrick Deneen, whose concise and convincing manifesto, Why Liberalism Failed, has made quite a splash. Former president Barack Obama listed it as one of his favorite books of 2018. Among others on the left, Vox’s Ezra Klein expressed appreciation for much of Deneen’s argument, although he disagreed with aspects of the conclusion. Deneen’s book teaches us that Carlson’s concerns are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, it’s way too late to complain about what the elites have done to the forgotten people in middle America. The problem is part of the design rather than a bug, and its effects are not just on dying Rust Belt towns.

Carlson notes at the outset of Ship of Fools that “happy countries don’t elect Donald Trump president. Desperate ones do.” It’s not that the ideal of liberal democracy has gone wrong, Deneen argues, but that it has been “true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.” The very stuff that holds a society together, “norms learned in families, in communities, through religion and a supporting culture … inevitably erode under the influence of the liberal social and political state.” Carlson is brushing by the real issue. He writes provocatively in Ship of Fools that electing Trump “was a throbbing middle finger in the face of America’s ruling class.” Deneen goes instead all the way to the root, cutting across the right/left divide:

Today’s widespread yearning for a strong leader, one with the will to take back popular control over liberalism’s forms of bureaucratized government and globalized economy, comes after decades of liberal dismantling of cultural norms and political habits essential to self-governance.

On the matter of capitalism and free markets, Deneen again goes deeper than Carlson, echoing the danger of the current convergence of social progressivism and markets, and then turning an even brighter spotlight than Carlson’s on the so-called defenders of the moral high ground. Conservatives can’t complain about the results if they applaud the cause: “Those whom we today call ‘conservative’ have at best offered lip service to the defense of ‘traditional values’ while its leadership class unanimously supports the main instrument of practical individualism in our modern world, the global ‘free market.’”

Deneen also speaks about the collapse of sustainable local agriculture, the liberal arts in education, a common set of civic values shared across classes — the collapse of culture. Coming from Carlson, these kinds of claims are the stuff of culture warmongering. From Deneen, they sound like speaking the truth in love. Deneen summons Wendell Berry, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Kurt Vonnegut, and others in identifying not only our “legal and economic monoculture,” but “more correctly, a mono-anticulture.” The problem inherent to liberalism from the beginning cannot simply be solved by a reformed or improved version of it. We can’t just throw out the bums in power and expect things to improve.

I am reminded of the show Mr. Robot, which is almost unwittingly anti-liberal. When a band of misfit hackers think they’ve taken down the world’s economy for the sake of ordinary people, they discover the system simply cannot be rebooted to penalize the powerful. It’s designed to do a certain thing that cannot be overwritten.

Deneen does not lay out a specific program for dealing with the inevitable final failure of the liberalism. He welcomes localism that conservatives committed to a reformed liberalism would appreciate (Roger Scruton comes to mind). But he is more interested in the end in leaving space for imagination, a still unidentified means of “liberty after liberalism.” For the foreseeable future, there may be various “options” (pace Dreher) to explore within the ruins of liberalism. Some of Deneen’s admirers count themselves as Catholic Integralists — adherents to an anti-modernist movement with roots in the nineteenth century. The Josias, an influential integralist website, describes the project in this way:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

Carlson wasn’t quite saying this sort of thing in his January 2 monologue, but he wasn’t far off. Liberalism has so infused the waters of Western life that we’re not even aware of our gods and how we serve them. Carlson is right to say we’re all fools for worshiping what may not be the right tools for the good of all.

Carlson’s voice is more valuable than his critics think; but voices like Deneen’s speak much more profoundly and charitably to our condition. If there is a broader vision of human flourishing in this world, may the Lord show it to us. May Patrick Deneen and maybe even Tucker Carlson help us see.


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