Has Liberalism Failed? Patrick Deneen Debates Jonah Goldberg | Opinion

Ever since the twin 2016 earthquakes of President Donald Trump's election and the United Kingdom's vote to implement Brexit, the world of political theory has been in flux. While the ongoing debate between nationalism and globalism continues unabated, that debate has a cousin: liberalism versus post-liberalism. Just as traditionalist nationalists and new-age neoliberals publicly duke it out over the best way to organize global affairs, so too is there an ongoing intellectual battle between those who defend the achievements of the broader post-Enlightenment tradition and those who claim we are now living through its traumatic unraveling.

This week, Patrick J. Deneen, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and author of Why Liberalism Failed, debates Jonah Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Dispatch, an American Enterprise Institute fellow and author of Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy. We are exceedingly proud to present a Debate between two such prominent spokesmen for their respective positions.

Josh Hammer, Newsweek opinion editor, is also a syndicated columnist and of counsel at First Liberty Institute.

Liberalism Has Failed

Most people agree that a defining feature of America is that it is a liberal nation. In a way, that is not true of any other country—most of which have known different forms of political governance and political self-understanding. From its political inception, America has oftentimes been defined by its adherence to liberal philosophy. Conservatives such as George Will and Jonah Goldberg, and liberals such as Yascha Mounk and Barack Obama—for all their differences—believe that America is liberal, and that the way out of our current political brokenness is to restore its liberal foundations.

While people differ about how to define American liberalism, there is a broad consensus to begin with the Declaration of Independence. Human beings are endowed with rights—or certain spheres of liberty that can be neither "alienated" nor abridged. These include "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Governments are founded to "secure" these rights. Echoing the Enlightenment-era arguments of the Englishman John Locke, humans are by nature "free and independent"; think of them in a "state of nature," able to do and choose what they wish. According to such a view of the social contract, we create governments that limit some rights so that we may fully enjoy others. It is a philosophy that stresses our individual freedom, and it defines the purpose of any public life as advancing our individuality.

Liberalism Has Not Failed

Let me start with a concession: Things are not going great right now in America. I feel this needs little elaboration, so I will just assert it. I do so to grant that this is not the ideal time for a conservative like me to disagree with a conservative like Patrick Deneen on the comparative merits and successes of Liberalism.

Now, of course, what we mean by Liberalism here is not progressivism, woke-ism, or anything else your typical right-wing radio host—or left-wing MSNBC host—means by liberalism. That's why, for clarity's sake, I'll use a capital "L" for the Liberalism we associate with John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume and aspects of the various social transformations that fall under the all-too-capacious catchall label, "the Enlightenment." (There were many Enlightenments—English, Scottish, French, American and even German—and not all of their contributions were equal or necessarily positive. But I'll use the catchall term regardless, for the sake of simplicity.)

National Mall during coronavirus
National Mall during coronavirus Drew Angerer/Getty Images