Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen is a political theorist currently teaching at Notre Dame. His perspective is that liberalism has failed and we are suffering precisely because it has succeeded. It is no longer the goal but the reality and its essential ideas have so thoroughly infiltrated into every aspect of our modern lives that we hardly can note the depth of its influence. Liberalism sought to liberate individual desire and to make self-consciousness the ultimate goal. Autonomous choice, uninhibited by outside constraint -- even the constraint of conscience or morality -- is the chief goal and purpose of liberalism. In other words, man is only fully human when he is absolutely free to chart his own course and to determine his own destiny, without the constraint of history or morality or even individual restraint. These obligations are considered the enemy of such autonomous choice and it matters not to liberalism where these constraints come from but only that they prevent the unrestrained choice. The only religion that is allowed is moralistic therapeutic deism -- in other words, the religion that enshrines as deity the very goals and purposes of liberalism! Religion that is allowed must exist to emancipate man from these constraints and refrain from judgment or evaluation on that free choice of the autonomous self.
Liberalism has failed because it has succeeded. It has succeeded in enticing even conservative religions into believing that certain tenets and doctrines are not to be tolerated because they infringe upon this individual liberty of self-expression. The very wars being fought in those conservative churches are on this very issue. From Rome to Wittenberg to Constantinople, churches that should stand unequivocally against this understanding of liberalism find themselves in a battle with their own members -- people whose ideas and values have been shaped at least as much by the secular ideals of moralistic deism and a secular understanding of the primacy of personal autonomy as by the Scriptures and religious tradition.
We look at surveys of what our people actually believe about same sex marriage or the fuller GLBTQ agenda, to name but two, and we see that increasing numbers break with their church's position on these issues. It may tilt more toward younger members but it is across the board. It is the same in Rome and with the Orthodox. We struggle not simply against outside influences but by the way our people have adopted as the most basic positions and values the whole idea of personal autonomy and the primacy of choice within the fabric of liberty.
The problem with this is that once liberalism succeeded in raising personal autonomy to the forefront of human progress and the unconstrained choice of the individual as supreme among the values it both fosters and must preserve, we find ourselves without a common unity of truth and values in which to govern and even to exist. Our morality is no longer a thread within the fabric of our unity but exists within an individual framework that works against community. Our lack of any sense of history except to condemn the errors of the past leaves us adrift on the sea of the moment without anchor or tether. Our lives, so wedded to the moment, no longer need or want a future and therefore have made peace with death and justified a life lived for today, for whim, and for personal choice.
Political parties that once were somewhat homogeneous find their very identity threatened by an individualism among their leaders that prevents them from governing. What worked in opposition, does not work in governance. Republicans are finding that out in spades. It is not simply that we have people disagreeing but we have a party in which there are few commonly held values. If we might think that the Democrats are in better shape, we can only look to the age of their current leaders and the lack of a back bench of people who have the stature to unite a party of so many diverse and varied opinions and causes.
Think only of this, the great push of liberalism has not born the universal fruit of globalism and its diminishment of ethnicity, race, and nationality. For every success (the European Union), there are failues -- once united nations of different ethnicity or race are breaking apart with great speed (the Spanish and the Catalan). Churches which once were well united in their history, doctrine, and tradition find themselves at war with that identity and struggling to find ways of being fully united amid this chorus of voices proclaiming individual autonomy.
Liberalism only worked when it had an enemy to wage war against. Once it has succeeded in becoming the greater influence, it has found that personal autonomy does not translate well into governance and community. Perhaps the churches will awaken to this cost. Perhaps not. The faith will surely survive even if the churches and their structures will not. In the end, it was a fast and fleeting dream that faith found allies in politics and could depend upon them to impress morality and create community instead of real catechesis, Biblical identity, and life as a Kingdom not of this world. I grew up in a time in which we presumed faith and citizenship were friends and working toward the same cause. It was never the case but now at least we can no longer hold the lie. If this is the Benedict Option, then this is what the shape of our future will and must be.