One of the central themes of Tocqueville’s thought is that a political movement, or (at a later stage) a political regime, may be undone by its very success.1 University of Notre Dame professor Patrick J. Deneen shows himself to be a worthy successor of Tocqueville by updating his teacher’s theme, applying it neither to democratic revolution nor to steady-state democracy, but to liberalism. In a cutting style that sustains its momentum throughout, Deneen addresses the widespread sense that liberalism is visibly teetering, and demonstrates with great power that the very successes of liberalism have undermined its own foundations.
By itself this would be enough to make the book a triumph. It is therefore churlish to wish for more, yet, I will play the churl. At the stage of diagnosis, Deneen is masterful; at the stage of prescription, he relapses into liberalism (or more accurately, as I will explain, into liberalism’s false image of itself). At the stage of diagnosis, Deneen proves beyond a reasonable doubt that liberalism claims to eschew comprehensive substantive theories of the good, yet inevitably embeds and enforces just such a comprehensive substantive theory, based on a particular and erroneous anthropology. At the stage of prescription, puzzlingly, Deneen tries to eschew any competing comprehensive theory and plumps for a vague communitarian localism, which can finally exist only at the sufferance of the aggressive liberal state. In that sense the diagnosis itself undercuts the prescription, suggesting that the retreat into local communities is at best a precarious maneuver.
Given this complaint, I will undertake a kind of Deneen fan fiction, offering an alternative ending to the book—one that is, I believe, more consistent with Deneen’s own argument. In the alternate ending, rather than retreating to a nostalgic localism, nonliberal actors strategically locate themselves within liberal institutions and work to undo the liberalism of the state from within. These actors possess a substantive comprehensive theory of the good, and seize opportunities to bring about its fulfillment through and by means of the very institutional machinery that the liberal state has providentially created. Then and only then will the liberal state, reintegrated from within, finally and truly become a victim of its own success.