Patrick Deneen’s recent work—notably Why Liberalism Failed, and to a lesser extent his latest book, Regime Change—has brought his “postliberal” thought to a very large audience. Regime Change was reviewed here at Public Discourse last spring by Nathan Schlueter, and Why Liberalism Failed was much discussed in these pages several years ago, with the author himself replying to commentators.

Knowing that my erstwhile colleague (we were visiting fellows together at Princeton’s James Madison Program fifteen years ago) has often expressed a high degree of filiopiety toward his Doktorvater, Wilson Carey McWilliams of Rutgers University, I was glad to see the University of Notre Dame Press last year republish the latter’s 1973 opus, The Idea of Fraternity in America. I already had on my shelf the University of California Press edition from fifty years ago, but the book’s republication spurred me finally to read it. Perhaps, I thought, I might understand more fully the genesis of Deneen’s ideas.

The Idea of Fraternity was McWilliams’s only book written as a book; it was a heavily revised version of his 1966 Berkeley dissertation. He also published a book of his essays on elections, edited some other useful volumes of readings, and co-authored a basic American government textbook with two Rutgers colleagues. But McWilliams was a prolific essayist, and six years after his death in 2005, his daughter Susan McWilliams Barndt and his student Deneen co-edited two volumes of his best essays, Redeeming Democracy in America and The Democratic Soul. Having embarked on a McWilliams binge with The Idea of Fraternity, I read each of these collections as well.

I use the word “binge” advisedly. The Idea of Fraternity in America is a sweeping work of more than six hundred pages, almost the first hundred of which are not about America at all, but provide an anthropological and philosophical tour of the human need for fraternity. Then McWilliams covers American thought on this theme—philosophical, political, and literary—from the Puritans of the seventeenth century to the black civil rights leaders and radicals of the 1960s. A work of such length is saved from being dense and forbidding by the fact that it is beautifully written, with many keen insights into a wide variety of sources. McWilliams seems to have read both widely and deeply in the works of such figures as Cotton, Winthrop, Mather, Edwards, Paine, Bancroft, Emerson, Thoreau, Rauschenbusch, and Dewey. But I found the most interesting chapters to be those in which McWilliams prefigured the emergence of the “literature and politics” field of study, writing with deep familiarity about Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Twain—not just their best-known works in the “canon” but many other works less widely read today.

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What does this hugely ambitious project add up to? It is hard to do justice to a work so rich and variegated. Has McWilliams described an “alternative tradition” in American thought? Perhaps so. But alternative to what? His daughter Susan, in her introduction to the fiftieth-anniversary edition, refers to it as an alternative to America’s “prevailing trajectory,” and her father is quite clear what that trajectory is. “A part of the argument of this book,” he writes, “is designed to show that the liberal Enlightenment understood men imperfectly at best, and fraternal relations among men little or not at all.”

If one defines and describes the “liberal Enlightenment” or “secular liberalism” as McWilliams does, he may well be right. Yet in more than six hundred pages there are not more than thirty or forty directly grappling with the thinkers that the author himself treats as representative of this dominant (and deficient) American philosophy—several pages each on Thomas Paine and James Wilson, a few pages on The Federalist. Abraham Lincoln barely makes an appearance, and Frederick Douglass is almost invisible. In this respect the teacher prefigured the student: Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed has remarkably little analysis of the arguments of the major thinkers to whom “liberalism” is attributed, least of all the Americans who might figure in the narrative, and does not even mention the United States Constitution until the book’s second half.

When we turn to McWilliams’s collected essays, the teacher’s influence on his student Deneen becomes clearer still. At least a half dozen times in these essays, a favorite assertion appears. Here is a representative version: “For human beings as the framers [of the American constitutional order] understood them, the really desirable regime is not democracy but a tyranny in which I am the tyrant, able to command the bodies and resources of others to ‘live as I like.’” Or, in another repeated variation, describing a view he attributes to the American founders, McWilliams writes: “for a self-regarding person, the truly desirable state would be the freedom to break one’s promises while others keep theirs.”

This view of human nature and desires—indeed, of the good life—is arguably held by Hobbes. Arguably—not obviously. One must argue, that is, for a certain reading of Hobbes, and McWilliams never does. And to attribute it to “liberalism” writ large, and to the American founding, is another matter. But it is fair to say that Deneen is the heir to this view, for this interpretation of classical liberalism and the American founding is a thread running through Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and Regime Change alike.

The McWilliams–Deneen thesis on liberalism, if I may so call it, is liable to critique for the commission of three related forms of reductionism, and this favorite assertion of the teacher indicates the first of them.

Hobbesian Liberalism?

Like the famous double play “Tinker to Evers to Chance,” the McWilliams–Deneen account of the American founding moves from “founders to Locke to Hobbes,” the idea being that the founders were in all essential respects followers of Locke, that Locke is on all fours with Hobbes, and that we may therefore truly understand America’s liberalism as founded in the spirit of Hobbes. The famous account that Hobbes gives of the “state of nature,” in which solitary individuals are engaged in “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death,” is the foundation on which George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and all their compatriots built our political life.

This simplistic account requires us to elide a multitude of historical facts about the influence on the founding of Montesquieu, of Coke and Blackstone on the common law, of the early modern revival of classical republican thought, of Plutarch and Cicero and even Aristotle, and—most importantly—of Christianity. Though McWilliams and Deneen are not of the Straussian school in political theory (McWilliams’s Berkeley mentors John Schaar and Sheldon Wolin memorably attacked Leo Strauss and his students for their critique of contemporary political science), there is a desiccated form of Straussian thought that holds a similar view of the founding, as though Natural Right and History’s chapter on Hobbes and Locke were all one needs to read to understand American life. But it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny against the luxuriant growth of American thought in the eighteenth century.

Faith vs. Enlightenment Reason?

This brings me to the second form of reductionism. McWilliams’s Idea of Fraternity includes close studies of religious thinkers, especially in the colonial Puritan tradition. But because the author denounces liberalism more than he examines it, he holds that “American culture is deeply dualistic,” with Enlightenment secularism constituting its “formal thought” and Christianity being responsible for its “informal tradition” more friendly to civic brotherhood. More bluntly, he states that “the Judaeo-Christian idea of fraternity . . . has perpetuated ideas that contravene” liberalism.

In his essays, McWilliams is still less equivocal. Of the “leading spirits of the founding generation” he writes: “most were at least skeptical about revealed religion.” That “most” would arguably gather in Jefferson and Franklin, but beyond them it is a highly dubious assertion. In another place he claims that the “framers hoped, as Locke had, to discipline Christianity, civilizing it down to a support for a liberal regime.” And, in a lecture given in 1981 to South Koreans, aspiring under an authoritarian regime to build a free society, McWilliams led with a claim that I can only call irresponsible before such an audience: “American culture is profoundly incoherent, composed of elements that are radically incompatible. America descends from Judaism and Christianity, on the one hand, and from Enlightenment rationalism on the other.”

This thesis of radical incompatibility between Christianity and liberalism is called into question by many scholars, from the late Michael Novak to Daniel Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, for starters. It is not, I think, the view of Tocqueville, a favorite authority for both McWilliams and Deneen. And, though the McWilliams–Deneen thesis attributes at least a quasi-affirmation of this incompatibility to the American founders, one would like to see evidence for the claim. But as with “founders to Locke to Hobbes,” the claim is more asserted than demonstrated.

Is there friction between the social proclivities generated by our liberal institutions and the demands of Christian faith and teaching? It is perfectly reasonable to argue that there is—though there may be fruitful interaction as well, in which the politics of freedom and the virtues of faith foster one another. Is liberalism, on the other hand, the implacable (and now largely victorious) enemy of religion, community, fraternity, and virtue? That is a much harder argument to sustain, and making it will take closer attention to the founders’ understanding of their own work than McWilliams and Deneen provide.

Is liberalism the implacable (and now largely victorious) enemy of religion, community, fraternity, and virtue? That is a much harder argument to sustain.


Progressivism Is Just Liberalism?

The third species of reductionism in the McWilliams–Deneen account of America is the collapsing of progressivism into liberalism, as merely the working out of liberalism’s internal logic. In Regime Change, Deneen goes so far as to say that “classical liberalism, progressive liberalism, and Marxism . . . divide not over the goal of politics, but over the means.” Leaving Marxism to one side, we may say that the progressives—Woodrow Wilson, Charles Beard, J. Allen Smith, Herbert Croly—did not view their ideas as continuous with the founding but as a distinct break with it. Wilson in particular was deeply critical of the political science of the Constitution’s framers, as he understood it, and when he found that fundamental structural change in our institutions was highly improbable, he proposed to reinterpret a “living Constitution” to bring about the changes he desired. Yet McWilliams too misses the progressive break with the founding almost entirely, saying that its leading figures “always remained liberals,” and “modified Enlightenment doctrine” only inasmuch as they advocated the rule of administrators over “legal control of the political order.” (No small thing, that.)

Liberalism as thoroughly Hobbesian, as fundamentally anti-Christian, and as eventuating more or less smoothly in progressivism—these are the three reductionist pillars of the McWilliams–Deneen thesis. The pillars can only be as sturdy as searching examinations of liberal thought—of the self-understanding of the founders and their influencers—can make them. But searching examinations of liberal source materials are conspicuously lacking in the works of both teacher and student. One comes to suspect that the authors think their own understanding of liberalism to be superior to that of its founders and exponents.

Both McWilliams and Deneen, in fact, have a propensity for reifying or anthropomorphizing “liberalism,” as a kind of independent actor doing things. Deneen is fond of referring to liberalism’s “inner logic,” which is an unobjectionable way to speak of a body of ideas, but then he attributes “ambition” to it, tells us it “describes itself” in certain ways, or “has aimed” at certain goals or “stressed” this or that, or that it “valorizes placelessness.” Similarly, McWilliams tells us that “liberalism tends to equate faith with the irrational.” This resembles nothing so much as a Freudian account of the unconscious basis of neuroses that motivate action, discovered by the interpretation of a patient’s dreams. Who is doing all this ambitious valorizing, equating, aiming, and stressing? We cannot say, but our psychoanalysts know.

I think that McWilliams, for all his considerable accomplishments in The Idea of Fraternity, was hindered by his own ideology. He tells us in his epilogue that he has a “lover’s-quarrel with the left,” and much of his impatience with his country’s constitutional order seems to stem from his failure to achieve what Leo Strauss called the true political scientist’s “attachment to detachment.” McWilliams’s student Deneen is a man of the right, but his problem is the same one, though to a still greater degree: the passion of the critic triumphs over the reason of the scholar. What was a flaw in the teacher has become a motif in the student.

Image by Jakub Krechowicz and licensed via Adobe Stock.