How liberal democracy has betrayed its promises

It was supposed to foster equality, but it has led to great inequality and a new aristocracy. It was supposed to give average people control over government, but average people feel alienated from government.

Everybody agrees society is in a bad way, but what exactly is the main cause of the badness? Some people emphasize economic issues: The simultaneous concentration of wealth at the top and the stagnation in the middle has delegitimized the system. People like me emphasize cultural issues: If you have 60 years of radical individualism and ruthless meritocracy, you’re going to end up with a society that is atomized, distrustful and divided.

But some emphasize the intellectual. The people who designed our liberal democratic system made fundamental errors, which are now coming home to roost. Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen falls into this camp. His new book, “Why Liberalism Failed,” is a challenge to those of us who want to revive the liberal democratic order. It will attract a cult following among those who are losing faith in the whole project.

Deneen argues that liberal democracy has betrayed its promises. It was supposed to foster equality, but it has led to great inequality and a new aristocracy. It was supposed to give average people control over government, but average people feel alienated from government. It was supposed to foster liberty, but it creates a degraded popular culture in which consumers become slave to their appetites.

Many young people feel trapped in a system they have no faith in. Deneen quotes one of his students: “Because we view humanity — and thus its institutions — as corrupt and selfish, the only person we can rely upon is our self. The only way we can avoid failure, being let down, and ultimately succumbing to the chaotic world around us, therefore, is to have the means (financial security) to rely only upon ourselves.”

The problem, Deneen argues, started at the beginning. Greek and medieval philosophies valued liberty, but they understood that before a person could help govern society, he had to be able to govern himself. People had to be habituated in virtue by institutions they didn’t choose — family, religion, community, social norms.

But under the influence of Machiavelli and Locke, the men who founded our system made two fateful errors. First, they came to reject the classical and religious idea that people are political and relational…

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