Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Book Reviews

The New Prince

A not so very different Machiavellianism.

Andrew Lynn

THR illustration (statue of Machiavelli/Adam Eastland Art+Architecture/Alamy Stock Photo).

Back in 1999, in the immediate wake of the US Senate’s rejection of impeachment measures against President Bill Clinton, conservative activist Paul Weyrich disseminated a consequential letter among DC elites. Recent electoral gains had delivered minimal cultural impact, Weyrich lamented. Whatever political success the New Right had experienced, it was outweighed by a profound cultural devastation. Weyrich even admitted that his own organization’s name—the Moral Majority—was likely misleading, given the values apparently held by the majority. What had caused this cultural devastation? Ideologues committed to political correctness and cultural Marxism, he argued, had captured and used media companies such as Disney, public school systems, and other cultural institutions to undermine traditional ways of life.

Weyrich’s diagnosis from 1999 sounds familiar today because it is scarcely distinguishable from a set of conservative ideas that have recently gained significant ground on the political right. Perceived levels of cultural disintegration and decay have caused many conservatives to revisit precisely what has been achieved by past electoral victories. And, since the 2010s, more and more conservatives have taken aim not just at progressive elites but at leaders within their own movement.

One bullet-riddled target is postwar conservative fusionism, an engineered marriage of social and economic conservatism generally attributed to the handiwork of National Review editors William F. Buckley Jr. and Frank Meyer. A 2019 open letter published in the magazine First Things, for example, condemned the “dead consensus” of fusionism, its authors arguing that affluence and individualism had proven irreconcilable with family stability and communal solidarity. Many signers of that letter have since forged a postfusionist conservatism within the pages of First Things and other right-of-center magazines while joining together in events sponsored by the newly founded Edmund Burke Foundation.

In Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, University of Notre Dame political scientist Patrick J. Deneen offers his contribution to this cause. His starting point is unmistakably Weyrichian: Battered and beaten by adversarial forces, traditional conservatism is in bad shape. The present state of cultural decay, Deneen argues, was hardly offset by post-Obama Republican gains in state offices, the record turnouts of Republican voters in the last two presidential elections, or recent court rulings favoring conservatives—nor will future electoral victories likely turn back the cultural tides. In this assessment, the conservative movement’s blueprint is deeply flawed.

The problems run deeper than policy and court rulings. Fewer people are pursuing traditional goods such as marriage, child rearing, religious participation, and caring for elders. They have instead been taken captive by, in Deneen’s words, the “increasing thralldom to addictions afforded by big tech, big finance, big porn, big weed, big pharma, and an impeding artificial Meta world.” American society has now become hostile to basic human flourishing.

Under such bleak conditions, standard conservative politics offer little hope of relief. Fusionism may be a “dead end,” but Deneen believes it maintains a grip on the right-wing imagination. Conservative party leadership, meanwhile, remains too committed to the fundamental tenets of personal liberty, unregulated markets, and consumerism. This is familiar ground to readers of Deneen, who indicted the corrosive influence of classical liberalism in his remarkably popular 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed. Continuing this line of argument, Deneen argues that conservatism bears the mark of liberalism’s undesirable legacy, including especially John Locke’s ideas about individual rights and acquisitive individualism. This has created a Janus-faced ideology that lauds marriage, family, religion, and tradition while at the same time celebrating forces that undermine those practices.

We can thus piece together a straightforward if ultimately incomplete read on Deneen’s project: It is an effort to recover a conservatism untainted by fusionist corruption. Many elements of the book champion reversion to an earlier traditional conservatism. At times echoing the ideas of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, Regime Change expresses concern about the preservation of fundamental human goods sustained by family, community, work, religious beliefs, and institutions. Deneen has made no secret of his general allegiance to traditional gender roles and family structures and the “renewal of the Christian roots of our civilization.” His variant of conservatism—what he calls “common good conservatism”—would protect and preserve these ends against the whims of markets or personal choice.

But there’s more going on here. Regime Change’s prognosis is intertwined with class analysis and its own political sociology. Deneen weaves together antimeritocratic critiques by Michael Sandel, Michael Lind, and Christopher Lasch to indict the “managerial class” for its cultivation of acquisitive individualism at the expense of the greater society. The “elites” who make up this class, he avers, embody a hostility to the very goods valorized and celebrated by common good conservatism, goods that make human flourishing possible. Even worse, commitments to identity politics serve as a faux egalitarianism that blinds elites to their aggressive preservation of their own status position and war on the working class. They serve no constituency other than themselves, providing little benefit to those delivery drivers, home health-care providers, childcare workers, and many other service sector employees who make life so convenient for those who are well off.

The common good conservatism advanced in Regime Change declares itself “aligned with the requirements and needs of the working classes” over and against the interests of these elites. Early reviewers of the book, particularly conservatives, recognized this leftward tilt. Deneen endorses labor unions and political movements such as Tory Socialism and Blue Labor. Other elements of Regime Change revive communitarian themes that concerned Deneen’s academic adviser, the political scientist Wilson Carey McWilliams. In interviews, Deneen takes pride in his own willingness to move left economically, which he contrasts with progressives’ entrenched resistance to moving to the right socially. Deneen deserves credit for decoupling modern conservatism from its badly dated Cold War political imaginary and for making incisive moral critiques of the self-focused careerism and meritocratic striving now common in contemporary culture. But in delivering its call to action—tellingly appearing in a chapter entitled “What is to Be Done”—Regime Change makes several unexplained turns.

Deneen argues that current elites must—by use of fear and enacted threat from the populace—be driven out and replaced by “genuine aristocrats,” that is, a new set of elites who embody the features of “aristoi and nobility—excellence, virtue, magnanimity, and a concern for the common good.” These new elites will then come to occupy a place of power within a regime that mixes aristocratic, juridical, and democratic loci of power. Deneen is careful to distinguish this “mixed constitution” approach—grounded in the political writing of Aristotle—from the more common notion of democratic pluralism or divided government. The new regime, we are told, would not exist in a productive stalemate of checks and balances but instead manifest an “internal harmony” structured around the interests of “ordinary citizens.”

The details of this redistribution are opaque. For one thing, terms such as “elites,” “the few,” “the many,” “rulers,” and “the demos” never acquire consistent referents in Regime Change, which oscillates among characteristics of class, lifestyle culture, and political partisanship. Who then takes charge? And who is relieved of power? In one bewildering passage, Deneen seems to infer the size and strength of his ennobled “masses” from the size and characteristics of the 2020 Republican presidential voting constituency. But by and large, the identities and characteristics of the new aristocrats waiting in the wings go undefined. The pages of Regime Change introduce us to not a single member of this cohort. Nor are we told how it acquires and preserves those virtues so rarely possessed by other ruling classes.

These omissions may not be accidental. Regime Change seems less concerned about who should lead institutions than about who should be removed. Deneen’s writing has for some time deployed character tropes of the meddling university administrator, the overzealous campus activist, and the rootless cosmopolitan professional. Zeal to expel such characters from their seats of power fills in for an underdeveloped account of cultural change. In Deneen’s hands, a political blueprint predicated on representation and the redistribution of power—ideas classically associated with the left—garners a “conservative” label. Incorporating such tactics is unapologetically instrumental: Deneen in several places calls for “the application of Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends.”

We might credit Regime Change for delivering on its subtitle: The book manifestly provides one vision of a “postliberal future.” But this is a postliberalism that inherits much from the political conservatism of Weyrich. We see the same guiding worries about cultural decay, here interpreted through more sophisticated historical lineages of thought. We see an almost identical set of political adversaries: leftist campus activists, university administrators, secularists, feminists, cultural Marxists, political correctness advocates, and proponents of identity politics, all intent on destroying our culture. And we see an uncritical pivot from cultural conditions to political responses, responses generally favoring a top-down approach—a “national conservatism” guided by inside-the-beltway think tanks—that places its faith in the righteous to nobly wield coercive forms of state power. As Rod Dreher, one of Deneen’s fellow conservative opinion leaders, put it when interviewed for a 2021 New York Times Magazine piece, postliberals admire regimes such as Viktor Orbán’s Hungary to the extent to they can serve as a “bulwark against cultural disintegration.”

This postliberalism thus proves to be less Burkean than Machiavellian. Its zero-sum view of power and its focus on elites closely align with the thinking of Italian theorists of power lauded by Trotskyist-turned-conservative James Burnham in his 1943 work The Machiavellians. Such a vision undoubtedly finds a receptive audience within today’s political landscape. But postliberals moving in this direction unfortunately stand to leave behind much of the substantive critiques of the modern liberal order.

Consider two thinkers long admired by Deneen and many of his colleagues: agrarian writer Wendell Berry and historian Christopher Lasch. Readers of Berry and Lasch encounter strikingly rich depictions of concrete communities, whether the traditional farming communities of Kentucky, trade union movements of the nineteenth century, or turn-of-the-twentieth-century populists rising in protest against industrialism. What Berry and Lasch skillfully flesh out in portraying such settings are the social practices and ways of life deeply interwoven in the preservation of certain human goods. We are introduced to particular virtues and forms of character, invited to weigh the goods achieved and not achieved, shown the forces of progress that come in conflict with such goods. In reflecting on these settings, we are ultimately thrust into a larger conversation about moral philosophy and the demands of a just and well-ordered society.

The political vision that might be derived from such writers could be characterized as a postliberal (or at times, preliberal) “politics of resistance.” They critique the political tradition of liberalism to the extent that it is seen to obstruct the achievement of particular communal goods. Berry and Lasch frequently pull back the curtain to show how such communities are plunged into various sorts of conflicts, whether with market forces, government interference, or shifting cultural values and social conditions. Understanding and addressing such struggles can often involve engaging thinkers far outside the conservative intellectual tradition. Berry engaged in ongoing dialogue with black feminist writer bell hooks over their shared appreciation for place and roots, while Lasch served as a respondent to Michel Foucault’s 1982 “Technologies of the Self” lecture at the University of Vermont. This engagement signals a refusal to subordinate moral goods to partisan loyalty or tribalism.

To be sure, Deneen’s larger postliberal project has at times embodied a politics of resistance. His deeper cultural diagnoses often harness the lessons of history to indict our muddled menu of partisan political options. The invocation of and praise for Marx are evidence of his own wide-ranging theoretical interests. And even as recently as 2018, Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed preaches “patient encouragement” for establishing “new forms of community that can serve as havens in our depersonalized political and economic order.” But with Regime Change we find that patience has worn thin. In contrast to Berry and Lasch’s politics of resistance we instead find a politics of resentment that primarily seeks to seize power from political enemies.

Such a politics grants far less priority and patience to philosophical or even ethnographic exploration of actual communities striving to achieve moral goods. With the gathering storm of a “single power elite” rushing to enact a “progressive tyranny” over society, we have little time for studying such communities, or for that matter weighing precisely “whose stability,” “which virtues,” or, more aptly to Deneen’s vision, “which Christian roots” seem capable of restoring a flourishing culture. Present conditions also seem to enforce a more tightly policed corpus of texts free of progressivism’s taint. (In a book faulting liberalism’s founders for denying common dignity and rights to vast portions of the human populations, why is there no discussion of postcolonial theory or critical history?) Indeed, in several passages in Regime Change, Deneen seems to be at pains to exclude sources that might otherwise prove entirely supportive of his central thesis.

What, then, are the prospects for a regime change driven by this politics of resentment? The sociologist Daniel Bell, in reflecting on the historical record of social movements, observed that those mesmerized by revolution often prove poorly prepared for the problems of “the day after the revolution.” At that point, abstract moral ideals make a poor match for the mundane world of material needs or simply the desire to pass on privilege to one’s children. It is hard to see how a regime change driven by a desire to seize power from political adversaries would, on finding itself standing above its slain opponent, be any more prepared.