Political books abound. Political books by conservative authors and publishers abound. I steadfastly avoid at least ninety-nine point nine (99.9) percent of them. I avoid the books that are written in the heat and issues of the moment. The only point of interest for me is wondering how they get written so fast.
I avoid, reject, and almost abhor political books that feature pictures of the author on the cover. In fact, the books where the author’s picture is the cover are effectively “Keep Out” signs for me. If I want such a book, it is easy enough to find it a year or so later in the bargain or used book bins. But usually, a year later, such books are no more relevant than last week’s newspaper.
To a large degree, I also avoid the people who are considered the media representatives of conservatism today. Sad to say, most of those who have radio and television spots as conservatives are devoted to ranting endlessly, to defending President Trump shamelessly, and beating dead horses furiously. Yes, such voices often say true things and things with which I agree. But I find little of interest in tide of cultural or social or media conservatism.
The hype of the day, the popular cries of the moment, and the trending internet stories can easily obscure real political thought. Magazines such as National Review are a welcome relief to such trendiness and trite fluff.
We have been cursed with living in interesting times. I have yet to figure out what happened in the 2016 election. The political successes and failures of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump all astound me. Everything I predicted was wrong. But I am in good company there. Everything just about anyone predicted was wrong.
The greatest consolation in this political climate can be found in going back to the roots and sources of our world. Many times I am reminded of the wisdom of the Roman historian Livy:
“The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see: and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.”
But the study of history, roots, and original sources is never to be done as a way of escape from the current age or as an excuse for pining away for the good old days. We live in an age where the cracks in the foundation are showing badly. The structures of our world cannot stand. “The centre cannot hold,” as Yeats said in “The Second Coming.”
For these reasons, reading Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen is both a relief and a source of hope. Dr. Deneen is a professor of political science at Notre Dame University. This book, published by Yale University Press, has been subject to many book reviews and discussions. Dr. Albert Mohler, a leading evangelical intellectual, interviewed Dr. Deneen in an enjoyable discussion found HERE.
With all the commentary (both favorable and critical) and buzz about this book, I could easily say: “Read the book while I start my second reading of it.” If all my ________________ (millions, thousands, hundreds, dozens, or 5) followers did that, we would all gain from the process. And I am going to read the book again (after having finished it today).
The first key point to take note of is that the words Liberal and Liberalism are not just descriptions of the Left Wing of the Democrat Party (yes, I know that the right wing of that party died years ago). Why Liberalism Failed is not a boast-filled celebration of the defeat of Madame Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and company. It is not an attack on the media, the education system, the Washington establishment, or any of the usual targets of the political news.
The words “Liberal” and “Conservative” are best seen as relative terms, like tall and short. Directly stated, both the Democrat and Republican parties, both our modern day liberal and conservative spokespersons, both the left and the right are part of the greater tradition of Liberal Thought in the West. Remember that the word “Liberal” was often used in Europe to describe those who wanted more political freedoms and less governmental interference.
Anyone wanting to see Democrats and the media bleed need to look elsewhere for a book to read. That is not to say that there is not a lot of bloodshed in this book. But it is the West, the American system, the Founding Fathers, and the core values of what many of us hold that are shown to have gaping wounds in this book.
Second, there were three great ideologies in the twentieth century: Fascism, Communism, and Liberalism. Fascism failed when the combination of Allied armies (made up of a coalition of Liberal Democracies and a Communist regime) crushed Mussolini’s Italian Empire and Hitler’s Third Reich. Victor Davis Hanson’s remarkable book The Second World Wars retells the story of the fall of Fascist regimes. (Franco’s Fascist regime lived on until his death and the transition of Spain back to a more constitutional monarchy.) Communism died or continues to die more slowly as a result of its own internal failings as well as the success of the West both militarily and economically.
Liberalism survives, but as Deneen notes, it has failed. It is not outward armies and empires at the gates that threaten Liberalism. It is its own successes. Liberalism has created a people and a mindset that believes certain premises about life and government and society that have long-term detrimental consequences. It has created a view of government and actual governments that have become all reaching, all encompassing, and all promising.
I was made more aware of one of the saddest facts I know: Changes in political parties do not change our overall culture and government. That being said, I will still hope for and vote for a dozen future Ronald Reagan-types over the alternatives, but the problems are not skin deep or Washington-centered. We have installed a government of consent that consistently and naturally overflows its boundaries. We can vote ourselves the largess of government-controlled money and controls.
Years ago, I read Herbert Schlossberg’s book Idols for Destruction. That influential book still resonates with me. One of the idols of our age is our own combination of government, society, and culture.
Third, the book is not without hope. Deneen cites several authors who have probed these issues. Wendell Berry of Kentucky has written both essays and fiction that provide a glimpse of a better way of life. With all its limitations, The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher also has some really helpful guidelines.
There is no big meta-solution issuing from the bowels of a centralized order to solve our problems. That is the problem. It will take a large degree of self-control, self-government, family life, church life, and local focus to start the long march back. Wait, I meant the long march forward. Deneen strongly asserts that no one can sensibly try to move us back in time or back to some pristine age. There is wisdom in the past, but the movement is forward.
Christians, read this book. Your family and local church, the education of your children, and the culture you create in small societies is vital to the future. Yes, read this book while I get started back on my second reading.
I received this fine book as a review copy from the publisher. As such, I am not bound to review it glowingly, but I have by personal conviction. I recommend you buying a copy because it is both a great read and is affordably priced.