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How Do You Replace an Elite?

A thought provoking piece from the NYT. Granted some of his references went over my head, but even then I found his commentary insightful. I've added emphasis to those passages I found most useful.

Personally, I believe moderate liberals and conservatives could come to some agreement on policies that are important to the future of America. Both sides would give a bit in order to reach compromises most of us could live with.

However, the extremes of both sides hold too much sway. The result is we (CRINGE) are racing toward another Trump versus Biden. Really? Is that the best we can do? We need an inspirational leader and statesman who is not beholden to either extreme and ... gulp ... can maybe even unite some of us.

Mister Douthat's opinion:

June 28, 2023, 11:10 a.m. ET

Opinion Columnist

In January of 2018, just a year after Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, the political theorist Patrick Deneen published “Why Liberalism Failed,” an ideally timed argument about how the inner logic of modern liberalism had led to social decay and political misrule.

The book earned praise and respectful engagement from many different corners (no less a modern liberal than Barack Obama urged people to read it).

Where it did generate criticism, the complaint was often about its prescriptive diffidence: Having diagnosed so damningly, Deneen was a bit hesitant on the “what is to be done?” question, proposing a kind of localist renewal that seemed incommensurate with his dystopian portrait of our age.

Now Deneen has answered those critics by producing a boldly prescriptive sequel, “Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future — and naturally this time the reviews are mostly hostile, because who really wants a prescription anyway?

Interestingly, though, his critics are hostile in extremely different ways. One set of reviewers regards Deneen’s prescription as dangerously authoritarian, casting him as a revolutionary willing to unleash “America’s right-populist furies,” with an “ambitious political project” that potentially “authorizes subterfuge, lawlessness and brutality.

But then the other set of reviews, from critics to Deneen’s left and further to his right, arguesthat the new book significantly underdelivers, promising a radical agenda and delivering something more tame and even timorous — some modest constitutional tweaks, the old communitarian chestnut of a national service program, a post-neoliberal turn toward industrial and family policy that’s happening to some extent already.

The big alteration the book imagines is the rise of a new elite, meaning more people who agree with Patrick Deneen in government and industry and academia, and more integration and circulation between the elite and the ordinary citizenry than our stratifying meritocracy allows. But this succession would be accomplished relatively peacefully, without the extreme ructions a real change of regime normally entails.

The gap between these responses reflects a real line of tension in the book. Deneen’s critique of liberal misrule, in which the word “tyranny” is freely deployed, can sound as if it belongs to the reactionary tradition in Western politics, the thoroughgoing critique of liberal democracy that runs from Joseph de Maistre through Carl Schmitt to their present-day admirers.

But neither Maistre nor Schmitt appears in the index of “Regime Change.” Deneen turns instead to Aristotle and Machiavelli, both decidedly pre-liberal, and to various critics and dissidents within the American experiment, from the anti-Federalists to Christopher Lasch. But the key forerunners of the new regime he has in mind seem to be Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, and Alexis de Tocqueville — all figures who fit within the modern mainstream rather than standing well outside, and who arguably embody a conservative liberalism or a liberal conservatism rather than a politics of right-wing revolution.

This tendency to promise liberation from the entire post-1789 political landscape and then deliver a practical politics that seems less radical and more familiar runs through the entire post-liberal project, not just Deneen’s book. I have expressed frustration with it elsewhere, but since now everyone is piling on with criticisms, it seems worth trying to think through the reasons for the gap.

In a sense, what Deneen wants is no more than what most American conservatives since at least William F. Buckley Jr. have desired — the replacement of America’s present elite caste, its post-Protestant Ivy League-educated liberal mandarins, with a ruling class that’s religious rather than secular, oriented toward conservation and tradition rather than a dream of constant progress, connected to the common good of ordinary Americans rather than imagining itself as a cosmopolitan and post-American elite.

And like many conservatives over the years, from Buckleyites to neoconservatives to Trumpian nationalists, Deneen imagines this “great elite replacement” (if you will) being effectuated by mobilizing the wisdom of the demos, the common sense of the democratic public, against the sins, failures and arrogance of the present upper class.

On first description, this project is entirely compatible with the American constitutional order — or at least that order properly understood, as a structure that’s liberal in the limited proceduralist sense of the world, into which various more comprehensive worldviews get infused. Thus depending on where you slice epochs and ideologies, we’ve had a deist or Unitarian elite (the Founding era), then an evangelical Protestant elite (the 19th century), then a liberal Protestant elite (the early 20th century), then an “expressive-individualist” elite (the post-1960s era), and now perhaps an “awokened” elite — each operating through the same constitutional mechanisms, but each interpreting its rules and rights differently depending on their distinctive commitments and beliefs.

So for Deneen to recoil from both the Boomer and woke versions of elite power and imagine what he terms common-good conservatism in their place is by no means un-American. There are versions of post-liberalism that seem to envision a truly different American regime — a confessional state or a monarchy or an administration of Platonic guardians. But Deneen usually talks more like a small-d democrat, trying to revive his own country’s buried sub-traditions. Even the gestures that critics have highlighted as crypto-theocratic, like a call for “politics as a place of prayer,” seem to me largely compatible with America’s history of religious reform breaking into merely secular arrangements.

Crucially, though, Deneen comes to the scene after seven decades in which conservatism’s attempted elite-replacement project has repeatedly and conspicuously failed. The mandarin class has moved either gradually or sharply left more often than it has been pulled back rightward, and the demos that conservatives hoped to mobilize has itself become less religious and traditional.

So the right of 2023 needs a theory for why, up till now, its elite-replacement effort has been so disappointing. And post-liberalism tends to offers two answers, both connected to the baleful influence of libertarianism. First, a failure of political economy: Conservatives have been too naïve about corporate power, too in thrall to to market fundamentalism and the romance of the wealthy, unable to defend the economic interests of ordinary Americans or build necessary alliances with the communitarians on the economic left. (The reader will note that Deneen’s book is blurbed by Cornel West.)

Second, a failure of vision: Conservatives have won elections but never grasped the importance of cultural power, the necessity of using statecraft for soulcraft, the importance of acting as arbiters of the good, the beautiful and true rather than just relying on a “marketplace of ideas” to sort things out for the best.

If you accept this (debatable) analysis, the dramatic claim to be overthrowing all of modern liberalism can serve two important purposes, even if the actual agenda doesn’t seem to match the rhetoric: It’s an ideological anathema against libertarianism and a device for establishing a binding commitment to the project. The anathema establishes that we are conservative and not libertarian — so conservative that we’re willing to question John Locke and John Stuart Mill and even James Madison, not just Ayn Rand or the Cato Institute. The binding device establishes that we are conservative and we really mean it — so conservative that we’re willing to refuse the respectability that a liberal elite offers to its tamed right-wingers, so conservative that you can count on us to really overthrow and replace the liberals when the opportunity presents itself.

But how does the opportunity present itself? What does it actually look like when one ruling class succeeds another, and is that transition something that can be planned, devised and executed?

These are the key questions that go unanswered in “Regime Change." Deneen is a political theorist, and so it makes sense that his analysis comes down to theory. The right’s attempted takeover has failed again and again, in his telling, because it hasn’t had the correct pre-commitments, the correct intellectual enemies, and the correct philosophical understanding of how the ruling class and the mass public should relate to one another — a relationship to which he devotes much of his Aristotelian analysis.

So by rejecting contemporary liberalism more fully at the level of theory, conservatism’s quest for elite dominance can yield better practical results.

But at some point you have to explain the practical side of things, and by the end of Deneen’s book I wanted not so much more policy detail as more sociology — meaning, a convincing narrative of exactly how a peaceful “regime change” usually happens, how ideas prosper or fail inside networks and institutions and with what political support, how worldviews rise and fall through conversion or replacement, how long or shorter marches through institutions are usually accomplished.

Above all I wanted more attention to how elite turnovers have happened before in America itself. Why didn’t Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment Unitarianism carry all before it, as Jefferson once predicted? How was the 19th- century Protestant establishment built, how did it harness the popular energy of the Great Awakenings, why did it begin to unravel after the Civil War? Why did liberal Protestantism and the WASP elite enjoy a sunset glow in 1950 — a period Deneen cites as a model for his vision of an upper class in true service to the country — and seemingly collapse completely a generation after that? What were the strategic decisions, the blunders by its rivals, the catalysts that transformed academic progressivism from an ivory-tower fashion circa 1980 into an overbearing elite consensus by 2021?

I don’t expect a polemical book like “Regime Change” to treat any of these questions with the depth of, say, the essay collection “The Secular Revolution,” edited by Deneen’s Notre Dame colleague Christian Smith, which I would recommend to anyone interested in the late-19th-century decline of America’s Protestant elite. But I do think Deneen’s argument, and others like it, would benefit from a clearer statement of the kind of timetable envisioned for the great upper-class reset.

In the historical examples above, the work of elite replacement was a multigenerational affair, from ideological beginnings to final culmination. Take a stark legal-political moment like the mid-20th-century Supreme Court school prayer decisions, which finally unmade the soft establishment of Protestantism: Those decisions weren’t just imposed by a small cabal; they were downstream of decades of cultural transformation within the legal-political elite.

So where do the post-liberals think we sit on that kind of timeline? Is the shift they’re urging on American conservatism just the beginning of a slow multigenerational endeavor? Is the work of pre-Deneenian conservatism, disappointing as it may be, adequate to build on for an accelerated timeline? Or is there some kind of sharp political shortcut, some “effective application of political power” (to quote Deneen) that remakes “current cultural as well as economic institutions,” where just a few election victories and Machiavellian stratagems make a new conservative elite spring forth, like Athena from the brain of Zeus?

Deneen’s book aims to ground post-liberalism in American traditions and realities. But the question is still what kind of American movement it aims to be: the kind whose patient advance comes to feel like an inevitability, or the kind that can’t imagine victory without some kind of intervening crisis.

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Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author, most recently, of “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.”

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