On Deneen’s Argument, or the Lack Thereof

This was to be a discussion about Leo Strauss and neoconservatism, and from Patrick Deneen we get neither. Douglas Rasmussen and Damon Linker took their responsibilities seriously and addressed the topic in smart and thoughtful ways. By contrast, Deneen says virtually nothing about the assigned topic. How, then, does one respond to a zero?

What readers get from Deneen is neither an analysis of my book and essay, nor even a serious discussion of neoconservatism, but rather 1) a discussion of the nature of Americanism (his own version and that of the neocons); 2) a wildly contradictory discussion of Strauss and the neocons on the Enlightenment, the American Founding, and capitalism; and, 3) the truly bizarre suggestion that I’m actually an unwitting underlaborer for the neocons and the “imperialistic impulse” of their Enlightenment philosophy! Let me take up each of these three major points in turn.

1. Americanism: Deneen spends the majority of his essay discussing the nature of Americanism. (Not exactly the subject of my book!) This is a case of the tail wagging the dog. Yes, I argue that the neoconservatives are the “false prophets of Americanism,” but I do so only after spending more than 200 pages providing the evidence and making the arguments for this conclusion. Deneen begins with my conclusion while neglecting the proof, and then tries to build a counter narrative. He does get one thing right: this is ultimately a “contest over who can lay legitimate claim to a true form of Americanism.” (In a separate post, I shall establish the criteria by which to define the concept “Americanism.”)

Deneen wants an Americanism broad enough to include his own version, which he calls “robust localism” and that of the neocons, which “supports vigorous nationalism,” but not one that includes the rugged individualism of Jeffersonian liberalism. Deneen then accuses me of believing that such positions “are outside the bounds of legitimate American belief.” Let me make my position clear: I oppose these ideas, think them dangerous, and I do not think they capture the essence of Americanism. Indeed, I think them in conflict with a proper view of Americanism. And the moment that individuals acting on behalf of these ideas use the coercive power of government or mobs to initiate force against other individuals (which they must eventually), then, yes, I regard such ideologies to be illegitimate. Majority tyranny in Hooterville is fundamentally the same as tyranny of the majority at the national level. The difference is one of degree and not one of kind.

Let’s consider Deneen’s own political philosophy. Deneen’s “robust localism” or “front porch republicanism”—as he calls it elsewhere—is grounded, he says, in the “Puritan tradition and its definition of liberty as ordered and moral liberty under God.” This is, of course, the same ordered liberty that recognized capital punishment for crimes such as idolatry, witchcraft, blasphemy, bestiality, sodomy, adultery, and rebelliousness by adult children. Is this the kind of robust localism that Deneen craves? And of course there is the localism supported by the KKK. Is that the kind of robust localism that Deneen supports? It turns out that Deneen’s “front porch republicanism” is simpatico with what we might call “Bull Connor republicanism.” Why not? The fact that cracker-barrel conservatives have lived in America and existed throughout our history does not mean that they define the meaning of Americanism.

And then there’s Deneen’s understanding of neoconservatism in relationship to the American tradition and the Enlightenment. His major point is this: the “neoconservative defense of robust and active central government, its belief in the need for a particularly talented and wise set of political leaders who have a concern for the common good, and its recognition of the need for a citizenry that is at least informally schooled in certain civic moral virtues are beliefs” are principles all firmly rooted in the Enlightenment and supported by the founding generation. Ergo, the neocons’ Americanism is at the heart of any true conception of Americanism. (Deneen then cherry picks through Federalist essays nos. 17, 10 and 55 to support these claims.)

It is a very curious thing to suggest that these are the defining principles of the American Enlightenment, or that they are Enlightenment principles at all. Were there people—including some Founders—who held these views during the period of the Enlightenment? Yes, of course. Are they typically Enlightenment ideas? Absolutely not, and there’s the rub. To these misguided claims, I offer two responses: first, to the extent that someone like Alexander Hamilton held such views, their provenance was not in the Enlightenment but rather in the classical tradition; second, Deneen has ripped the Founders’ views out of their historical context in order to justify anachronistically their perversion today. Deneen employs a non sequitur in suggesting that because the founding generation wrote and spoke of the “general welfare” that they meant by it something similar to the neocons’ use of the term. The fact of the matter is that the founding generation had an entirely different understanding of the concept. No founding father, including Alexander Hamilton, could have imagined that twenty-first century neocons, Bull Connor conservatives, and various liberals would use their views to justify our Leviathan-like, redistributive-regulatory government. (Whoops, I take that back. Ironically, the very same Anti-Federalists that Deneen likes so much understood very well how the “general welfare” clause might be corrupted in the decades ahead to support the kinds of principles and policies advocated by people like Deneen.)

Surely Deneen knows that the founding generation’s understanding of concepts such as the “general welfare” was entirely different from his and from the way it is used today by the neocons and other welfare statists. The founders’ understanding of the general welfare was connected directly to the principle of individual rights, whereas for Deneen and the neocons the concept is tied to collective political entities (e.g., to Deneen’s localist republics or the neocons’ nation-state). The founders’ view of the common good was summed up best by Tom Paine: “Public good is not a term opposed to the good of individuals. On the contrary, it is the good of every individual collected. It is the good of all, because it is the good of every one; for as the public body is every individual collected, so the public good is the collected good of those individuals.” For the founding generation, the general welfare meant that state or condition in which the individual rights of all were protected, while for Deneen and the neocons the general welfare is whatever democratic majorities or wise men say it is.

The same mode of non sequitur reasoning is also true of Deneen’s understanding of republican virtue. Deneen wants to defend the neocons’ call for self-sacrifice as a primary virtue in order to defend his and the neocons’ advocacy of a communitarian welfare-warfare State (they differ only over whether the primary unit of political value is the village or the nation), so he rips the founders out of their context and turns them into modern-day blackshirts. According to Deneen, American Revolutionaries “pledged their ‘lives, fortunes, and sacred honor’ in defense of a higher ideal of service to the nation.” This is simply preposterous. They did no such thing. The fact of the matter is they dedicated their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” in defense of certain truths, including if not most especially the protection of their “inalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Finally, I must say that Deneen’s attempt to school me on the ideas and actions of John Adams did bring a smile to my face. Some chutzpah! No response necessary on that one.

As should be now clear, Deneen simply does not know what he is talking about, and he has entered a debate for which he is unprepared.

2. Capitalism: Because Deneen is fundamentally a collectivist (of the “it takes a village variety”), he is not surprisingly a fan of the neoconservatives’ analysis of the “corrosive tendencies of market capitalism upon the healthy cultural preconditions of a republican society.” And whereas Irving Kristol gave two cheers for capitalism, we suspect that Deneen would give fewer. He then accuses me of confusing “genuinely thoughtful and reflective efforts to redress some of those corrosive and inegalitarian tendencies with ‘socialism.’” The confusion is all Deneen’s. As I show conclusively in my book, the neocons are critics of capitalism’s moral foundations (that’s why Kristol only gives two cheers). In fact, Irving Kristol judged the moral foundations of socialism to be superior to those of capitalism. He regarded the “socialist ideal” not only as “admirable,” but also as a “necessary ideal, offering elements that were wanting in capitalist society—elements indispensable for the preservation, not to say perfection, of our humanity.”[1] Kristol praised utopian socialism because it is “community-oriented” rather than “individual-oriented.” Or, as Nathan Glazer once wrote on the differences between the neoconservatives and socialists: “It is very hard for us to define what it is that divides us, in any centrally principled way. We might, depending on which socialists, and which neoconservatives are arguing, disagree about the details or the scope of health insurance plans; or about the level of taxation that should be imposed upon corporations; or how much should be going into social security. But where are the principles that separate us?”[2] And to the extent that some younger neocons came to defend America’s liberal-capitalist society, they do so only as the best practical regime given the alternatives in the modern world. Straussianized neocons today still share all the concerns about capitalism first offered by Leo Strauss and Irving Kristol.

3. Double Agent Man: Finally, Deneen accuses me of seeking to “create a socialist straw man to soften” my “audience into a willingness to accept” my “eventual accusations of neoconservative fascistic nationalism.” To accuse the neocons of sharing certain principles in common with fascism is a serious charge and one not to be made without a great deal of supporting evidence. Since Deneen merely asserts this claim against me with no evidence, I simply recommend to Cato Unbound readers that they examine my book to determine for themselves the truth of the matter. As Deneen well knows, I go out of my way to say that the neocons are not fascists. In lawyer-like fashion, though, I build a case with concrete evidence suggesting with appropriate scholarly tentativeness that neoconservative political thought shares certain basic principles with Mussolini’s “Doctrine of Fascism” (ghost written by Giovanni Gentile). My deepest fear is, however, that they are preparing this nation philosophically for a soft, American-style fascism—a fascism purged of its ugliest features and gussied up for an American audience. They make us feel comfortable with certain fascist principles by Americanizing them—by draping them in traditional American manners and mores and in the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln. To make this kind of serious charge requires, however, that evidence be produced. Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea does just that. (My argument here is not, by the way, dissimilar to Strauss’s assessment of Nietzsche’s relationship to Nazism. Strauss knew that Nietzsche was no Nazi, but he did think the philosopher bore some responsibility for the rise of Nazism.)

More absurdly, though, Deneen concludes by accusing me of seeking “to create this fictive enemy in order to obscure what are the true wellsprings of the imperialistic impulse of the neoconservatives—neither fascism nor socialism, but the very philosophy of the European and American Enlightenment.” Wow! It turns out that I’m a double agent for the neocons! Worse, by covering up the Enlightenment philosophy of the neocons, I’m actually working (whether I know it or not) to advance their “imperialistic impulse.” Imagine my surprise to learn such a thing! Should I thank Deneen for this bit of self-knowledge, or should I just state the truth: this is so jaw-droppingly inane that it’s probably best to just leave it standing as a part of Patrick Deneen’s permanent record.

In sum, Deneen’s essay is written in bad faith. Cato Unbound readers will rightly think that Deneen has not fulfilled his responsibility to respond to the argument of my essay and to the content of my book. That was the obligation he accepted in agreeing to be a part of this forum, and it’s an obligation to which he’s failed to live up.


[1] Irving Kristol, Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead (New York: Basic books, 1983), 116.

[2] Nathan Glazer, contribution to “Neoconservatism: Pro and Con,” Partisan Review 4 (1980), 499.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Neoconservatism Unmasked by C. Bradley Thompson

    Neoconservative intellectuals often describe themselves as having a particular mode of thinking — maybe even just a “mood.” C. Bradley Thompson argues that neoconservatism is much more than that. Its key philosophical inspiration of comes from Irving Kristol, and particularly from Kristol’s engagement with the philosopher Leo Strauss. Thompson argues that, under Straussian influence, neoconservatives champion the rule of a philosophically cunning elite over a population that will never be able to understand their intellectual masters. Instead, the populace is steered toward self-sacrifice, war, and nationalism — as well as a set of religious and moral beliefs that the elites in no way share. Such a doctrine, Thompson charges, points disturbingly toward fascism.

Response Essays

  • Neoconservatism, Leo Strauss, and the Foundations for Liberty by Douglas B. Rasmussen

    Douglas Rasmussen argues that post-Lockean natural rights theory does not entail nihilism, as Strauss seems to have feared. A further error of Straussian neoconservatism, Rasmussen argues, is that it often conflates society with the state. Although the members of a civil society may rightly desire that society’s continuance, it does not follow that the state must coerce people into being good. Statecraft is not soulcraft; governing consists of setting ground rules that leave individuals free to seek the good.

  • The American Roots of Neoconservatism by Patrick J. Deneen

    Patrick Deneen disagrees that neoconservatism is alien to the American political tradition. In particular, founders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton envisioned politics as a realm where men of extraordinary wisdom and talent would shape the course of the new nation. The idea that commerce may corrode the morals is certainly present at the founding, as are civic virtue, self-sacrifice, and concern for the public good, the latter to be divined by wise statesmen. The neoconservative claim to Americanism is as strong, if not stronger, than Thompson’s preferred libertarian ideology.

  • Strauss and National Greatness by Damon Linker

    Damon Linker argues that, although Thompson’s treatment of neoconservatism has considerable value, he errs in his characterization of Leo Strauss and his followers’ political theory. Strauss was an Aristotelian, Linker argues, and Aristotelian political thought is comparatively benign. Linker also argues that national greatness conservatism—a staple of today’s neoconservatives—is a 1990s addendum to the philosophy with little relation to Strauss, Irving Kristol, or the other early lights of neoconservatism.

The Conversation